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Thornton Wilder’s Ojai: Is ‘Our Town’ Our Town?

By Mark Lewis

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opened on Broadway in February 1938, and in a sense, it has never closed.
Every night of the year, it is said, a theater audience somewhere in America is introduced to the residents of Grover’s Corners, the fictional New England village where Wilder set his play. He modeled it on Peterborough, N.H., where he was a frequent summer resident, and where he wrote much of the play. But a case can be made that the original Grover’s Corners was not Peterborough but Ojai – or rather Nordhoff, as this town was originally known, in the years before its Mission Revival makeover.
“Our Town” is set in small-town America at the turn of the twentieth century. Wilder’s only first-hand knowledge of that milieu was acquired right here in the Ojai Valley during the 1912-1913 school year, as a boarding student at The Thacher School. Inevitably, he must have drawn upon those memories when he created Grover’s Corners.
Wilder’s year in the valley was significant for another reason. That spring, he co-authored a satire called “The Russian Princess, An Extravaganza in Two Acts,” which played for one performance at Thacher’s Outdoor Theater – the first-ever production of a Thornton Wilder play.
No copies of this play survive, so it could not be revived this past spring to mark its centennial. That’s no great loss to literature –  “The Russian Princess” was just a hastily written schoolboy farce. Nevertheless, we at the Ojai Quarterly see this centennial as an appropriate moment to retrace Wilder’s steps in the Ojai Valley, and to make clear the historic connection between our town and “Our Town.”
In homage to “The Russian Princess,” we present our story as “an extravaganza in three acts.” Since every drama needs a leading lady, we have cast Helen Baker in the role.

A Nordhoff High School sophomore in 1912-13, Helen spent a lot of time in the company of Amos Wilder, Thornton’s older brother, who was a Thacher senior that year. Helen later wrote a charming memoir of her childhood days in turn-of-the-century Nordhoff, which lets us see the town through her eyes.
Act 1 sets the scene as Thornton Wilder arrives in the valley in the fall of 1912 and adjusts to life in a small, rural community. In Act 2, Wilder tries out for the annual Thacher play and is bitterly disappointed, but ends up making his triumphant theatrical debut anyway. Meanwhile, Helen Baker scores a theatrical triumph of her own. In Act 3, Wilder returns to the Thacher campus in 1930, trailing clouds of glory. Now a famous author, he regales the students with reminiscences about his year in the Ojai. Then he goes home and starts writing the play that eventually would evolve into “Our Town.”
Well, we may as well get started. Act 1, Scene 1: The curtain rises to reveal a crowded parlor at The Thacher School, way out in the East End. The date is Oct. 24, 1912 — a Thursday, as it happens. The time is a little before 3 in the afternoon. The occasion: the school’s annual reception, to which everyone in the valley is invited. The weather is clement and the mood is festive. Off to one side, among the Thacher students serving ice cream and cakes to their guests, is a slightly built sophomore named Thornton Wilder.

Act 1
Elizabeth Sherman Thacher presided, as always, from her place of honor in the parlor. The school matriarch had just returned from an extended visit back East, and her friends, the respectable matrons of Nordhoff, were lining up to welcome her home. The very respectable Sarah Baker likely was among them, with her daughters in tow. In the Ojai Valley, the annual Thacher School reception was the most anticipated social event of the fall. The Bakers always turned out for this party en masse, in all their finery.
“In the era of taffeta petticoats there would be a great deal of rustling, and white kid gloves were everywhere in evidence,” Helen Baker wrote in her memoir. “Children attending with their parents would be starched and scrubbed and on such good behavior as to be almost unrecognizable.”
Helen was Sarah’s youngest daughter, but she was no longer a child. At 16, she was a young lady, with a taffeta petticoat of her own. As such, she was an object of fascination to Thacher’s all-male student body, for whom she was a Gibson girl come to life: lovely, lively, stylishly dressed. The boys could not see her petticoat, but they could hear it.
“To be really grand,” she recalled, “one had to rustle.”
For Helen, the reception was the equivalent of a debutante ball in a Fifth Avenue mansion, with Lizzie Thacher in the role of Mrs. Astor.
“Madame Thacher, as she was always called (the mother of the headmaster) presided at all such affairs with the utmost charm and dignity,” Helen recalled. “Whenever I would be led up to greet her I would have the dazzled sensation of being presented at court.”
While the matrons and their daughters crowded around Madame Thacher, their husbands were congratulating her son Sherman D. Thacher on the school’s impressive new buildings, which had replaced those lost in the fire of 1910. The new Main Building, in particular, generated comment: It was the first structure in the valley to be designed in the trendy Mission Revival style. The burghers of Nordhoff inspected the exotic-looking architecture and pronounced themselves impressed.
Meanwhile, the Thacher boys were plying Helen and her fellow Nordhoff High School co-eds with ice cream, and offering to conduct them on tours of the new buildings. The interest was very much mutual. Nordhoff boys were all right, but Thacher boys had more cachet.
“The school and the Thacher family contributed distinction to our simple community life, and to Very Young Ladies the proximity of the ‘Thacher Boys’ contributed heartthrobs galore,” Helen wrote.
Thacher’s heartthrob contingent that fall included a handsome senior named Amos Wilder, a popular athlete and all-around big man on campus. During the course of the 1912-13 school year, Helen and Amos would often socialize together, and possibly become something more than friends. It follows that she must have known Amos’s younger brother as well, although it’s highly doubtful that she considered the younger brother a heartthrob. Thornton was not exactly the heartthrob type.

THORNTON Wilder was born in 1897 in Madison, Wis., and raised there and in Berkeley, Calif. — two sophisticated college towns with sizable populations and numerous cultural amenities. Nordhoff was something else again. Fewer than 300 people lived in the village in 1912 (the population of the entire valley totaled around 1,200), and its cultural amenities consisted mostly of the fourth-rate vaudeville acts that occasionally condescended to play the Nordhoff Grammar School Assembly Hall.
Thornton was new at Thacher that year, having transferred from a boarding school in China, where his father was serving as U.S. consul general in Shanghai. At 15, Thornton had a high-pitched voice, a somewhat effeminate manner and an unseemly enthusiasm (as his father saw it) for anything connected with the theater. Papa Wilder hoped that Thacher, with its emphasis on horseback riding and the strenuous life, would toughen Thornton up and make a man of him.
Thornton had arrived in the Ojai Valley in mid-September, presumably by train. The Oct. 4 edition of The Ojai, the community’s weekly newspaper, lists Thornton Wilder on the masthead as a temporary editor of the paper’s “Thacher School Notes” section, which ran in every issue. He only lasted two weeks in that position, possibly due to illness. In a letter to his father written soon after his arrival, Thornton reported that he was being quarantined in the school infirmary. “This is the old situation of being sick after I leave you,” he wrote. There was nothing to do there but read or play chess with himself, “because no one else was allowed in the room for fear of catching appendicitis or gout.”
He soon recovered, and began to adjust to his new surroundings. Penelope Niven, in her recently published Wilder biography, wrote that Thacher gave Thornton much more latitude than he had enjoyed at his previous school in China.
“At Thacher he was free,” Niven wrote. “Nature was his classroom. His brother was already deeply at home at Thacher, with accomplishments greater than Thornton could aspire to equal. He wouldn’t excel, as Amos did, in the classroom, on the tennis courts, in the student government or on the baseball field. Thornton’s interests lay beyond sports, and at Thacher he could indulge them freely. He could play in the orchestra  and study piano and violin. … He spent hours in the library reading and writing.”
He could also plunge into the social whirl. The big Oct. 24 reception was the major event of the fall, but it was hardly the only one on the Thacher calendar. There was, for instance, an informal dance at the school on Nov. 30, with Mrs. Lord, the music teacher, providing the tunes. This event drew many Thacher boys but only four girls, an imbalance Thornton hastened to rectify.
“Quite an innovation was introduced when ‘Miss’ Thornton (pronounced as in ‘bon-bon’) Wilder appeared, dressed in her Grecian dancer’s costume,” The Ojai’s “Thacher Notes” section reported. “The effect was startling and original. ‘She’ danced in a new and, we might say, weird manner, and showed us several new steps, such as the tripping-and-falling glide and the pardon-me-but-you’re-stepping-on-my-toes waltz. Oh but she made a great hit we assure you!”
This was not the sort of thing Papa Wilder had in mind. But at least Thornton was dutifully learning how to ride his assigned horse, an amiable white gelding well into his teens.
“I can ride a horse pretty well now,” he told his father in a letter.
On Sunday mornings the Thacher student body rode into town en masse to attend services at the Presbyterian Church. They sat together in a front section to the right of the pulpit, where their fidgety antics amused Helen Baker.
Sarah Baker was a pillar of the church, so Helen’s presence was required there every Sunday morning. The sermons did not especially engage her interest, but at least the Thacher boys provided some entertainment. Well, not so much the boys as their horses.
“Tied to the hitching racks outside, the Thacher boys’ horses would annoy one another, and violence would occur,” Helen wrote. “In the midst of our solemn worship the air would be rent by the thud of hoof-on-rump, followed by ear-splitting squeals. These absurd sounds would cause pleasant diversion for children in the congregation.”
Thornton, too, was amused by the disruptive sounds coming from the hitching racks. But he cannot have been much impressed by what he saw of dusty little Nordhoff on these Sunday morning excursions into town. To Helen, however, Nordhoff was a veritable metropolis. It was, after all, the only world she knew.

HELEN Baker was born and raised in a big white house her father had bought from Nordhoff pioneer John Montgomery in 1886. It stood near the northwest corner of Ojai Avenue and North Montgomery Street, at the epicenter of village life.
On the other side of Montgomery stood Nordhoff Grammar School, on the site currently occupied by Chaparral High School. The school’s Assembly Hall functioned as an unofficial city hall for the not-yet-incorporated village. It served the community as a dance hall, a theater, a concert hall and a place to hold meetings. On Election Day, everyone came here to vote; on Dec. 23, they came to light the communal Christmas tree and watch Santa Claus pass out presents to the children.
Across Ojai Avenue stood the Presbyterian Church, in what is now the Il Giardino parking lot. Around the corner at the end of Fox Street lay the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, which handled far more oranges than people.
Walking west from the church, a pedestrian soon would pass the Jack Boyd Club, to which a new gym recently had been added; the Ojai State Bank; and the venerable Ojai Inn, nestled in its grove of oak trees. The Inn had been the subject of much recent speculation. A wealthy Ohio glass manufacturer who wintered in the valley had purchased the property, prompting talk that he must have made some ambitious plans to improve it. But this magnate, whose name was Edward Libbey, was keeping his cards close to his vest. All he would say was that the hotel would remain open while he decided what to do with it.
Not far from the Inn, a lion’s head fountain fed water into a horse trough: engine coolant for an obsolescent mode of transportation. To the south lay the Ojai Valley Tennis Club complex: Four courts, some grandstands, and a clubhouse. Here the famous Ojai Tennis Tournament was played every April, drawing contestants and spectators from near and far.
Further west, at Signal Street, lay the blacksmith shop. The print shop, which doubled as the newspaper office, stood on the other side of Signal.
Nordhoff boasted some impressive structures, including the new bank building (a stately brick pile with neoclassical pillars out front); the new Craftsman-style clubhouse built for the King’s Daughters, a women’s service group; the new high school, also designed in the Craftsman style; the well-known Foothills Hotel, where many rich Easterners passed their winters in comfort; and a steadily lengthening list of bungalow-style homes, many of them designed by actual architects. But no architect would claim the Ojai Inn, now almost 40 years old and something of an eyesore. The nearby businesses which crowded the north side of the avenue were, if anything, even less attractive.
“On the opposite side of the street {from the Inn}, a boardwalk ran past a straggling row of establishments – general merchandise, grocery and hardware stores, a blacksmith shop and a drug store,” Helen recalled. “At one end of the block stood Schroff’s Harness Shop; at the other end, Tom Clark’s Livery Stable. There was also a pool hall, which we were taught not to glance into, it being not quite ‘nice.’ ”
To Helen’s mother, that pool hall represented trouble with a capital T. Nordhoff was a lot like the fictional town of River City, Iowa, where “The Music Man” is set — in 1912, as it happens. Nordhoff even had a brass band like River City’s, as loud as it was tuneless. When its members convened in the Assembly Hall to practice, Helen wrote, they “were wont to rend the night air with horrendous blasts.”
Soon they would have something to really blow their horns about. The big news in the fall of 1912 was that work crews were wiring the town for electricity. Nordhoff already had telephone service; soon it would have electric lights as well, including streetlights. The town’s boosters swelled with pride to think that residents would no longer have to lug kerosene lamps around to see where they were going after dark.
Automobiles were now a common sight on village streets, so much so that The Ojai had recently investigated the matter and reported that 83 different horseless carriages had been observed passing through the business district on a given day between sunup and sunset. This was considered an appalling amount of automobile traffic. But the trend was clear. Even Helen Baker’s father, famous for resisting every innovation as long as he could, had finally broken down and bought a dark-blue 1908 Franklin touring car. Even that noted horse-lover Sherman Thacher took delivery of a spiffy new Buick in November 1912, a sure sign that cars were here to stay.
On the other hand, none of Nordhoff’s streets had yet been paved, and most people still got around in horse-drawn wagons and buggies.
“Essentially, our main street could have been duplicated in hundreds of small Western towns – boxlike buildings with false fronts, a few loungers in front of the pool hall, buggies and wagons raising dust or scattering mud, depending on the season,” Helen recalled.
“But somehow the main street of Ojai was not altogether ugly. The ancient oaks spreading their branches over the drab little buildings, the backdrop of foothills and mountains, entered competition with man and easily won the contest. In spite of human ineptitude, our village was attractive.”

HELEN was the youngest of seven children born to Edwin Franklin Baker and his wife, Sarah. Frank was a well-to-do banker from Walla Walla, Wash., who had moved to town with his family in 1886 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After breathing the valley’s hot, dry air for several years, Frank pronounced himself as good as cured. “The Ojai Valley is the best place in the world,” he often said.
Sarah did not agree. She would have preferred to live in a bigger city with superior schools for the children, and more intellectual stimulation for herself. Frank would not be budged, so Sarah made the best of things. An inveterate do-gooder, she belonged to the Missionary Society, the King’s Daughters and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also co-founded the Ojai Valley Shakespeare Club, whose members convened once a month to read the Bard together. Occasionally these ladies would make themselves costumes and perform a play, but only in private homes and for all-female audiences.
“Mother, herself, in the role of Lady Macbeth, attained a degree of local acclaim,” Helen wrote. “She was troubled by the necessity of saying ‘Out, damned spot’ – but salved her conscience by saying ‘damned’ very quickly and almost inaudibly.”
Sarah faced a domestic crisis that fall, thanks to the looming presidential election. California had just granted women the franchise, so Sarah was about to cast a ballot for the first time in her life. But for whom? Her husband expected her to vote for the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft. Frank could not abide the other two candidates, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He considered Roosevelt a dangerous radical, and Wilson an impractical idealist. If Taft must go down to defeat, Frank would at least rally his own family to the banner of righteousness.
Frank was an old-school patriarch, accustomed to absolute obedience from his family. But as Election Day approached, he began to suspect that he was harboring a nest of Wilson supporters under his roof. Sarah had expressed concern about Taft’s reported fondness for waltzing. Her mother, Mary French, who lived with the family, said she had read in The Christian Herald that Taft was known to serve wine at state dinners. As for the three Baker daughters who were old enough to vote, Alice was unreliably emotional, Sara was notoriously independent and Edna was an out-and-out suffragette. Frank brooded darkly over the situation. He was reluctant to simply tell his family how to vote, since he had no way of enforcing such an order. Instead, he made a point of reading aloud every article he found in The Los Angeles Times that cast Taft in a positive light.
For business reasons, Frank maintained his legal address in Walla Walla, and thus was ineligible to vote in California. On Nov. 5, he stayed home as his womenfolk departed for the Assembly Hall. When they returned, he welcomed them with a question: “You all voted the Republican ticket, of course?”
Sarah tactfully noted that the ballot was supposed to be secret. Then she kissed him reassuringly on the check.
“I can’t speak for the girls,” she said, “but as for me, you can rest assured I voted right.”
Frank accepted this ambiguous answer, and pressed her no further. Wilson won the election with a plurality of the popular vote, a majority in the Electoral College and a clean sweep of the Baker household.

Helen was savoring a triumph of her own. She had just won the title role in Nordhoff High School’s upcoming production of “The Lady of Lyons.” This play, a five-act melodrama by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was not exactly “Macbeth.” Nevertheless its selection was applauded by The Ojai, which hailed “Lady” as “the most pretentious (play) that the high school has yet attempted to put on stage.”
People in the community looked forward to these school plays, and not merely for the opportunity to see their own sons and daughters on stage. The valley lacked a legitimate theater, so people who wanted to take in a show had to travel to Ventura, or even all the way to Los Angeles. It made for a nice change to be able to see a show without first boarding a train.
Occasionally, professional actors would come to Nordhoff to perform, but the results usually were disappointing. The most recent debacle had occurred earlier in 1912, when an itinerant impresario named Willard had rented the Assembly Hall and advertised a evening of first-class entertainment: “Up-to-date vaudeville, Negro comedy and a Western drama entitled ‘The Guilty Man.’ ” A capacity crowd showed up and plunked down 25 cents apiece (35 cents for premium seats), hoping to enjoy a professional-quality show. But the performers were so amateurish that The Ojai’s editor threatened to run Willard out of town on a rail if he ever showed his face in Nordhoff again:
“It is reported that Mr. Willard expressed himself, the next day, as being highly pleased with their undertaking, and that they would return soon and present ‘The Hole in the Wall.’ When they do they had better crawl into the hole and keep out of sight.”
Fortunately for local theater enthusiasts, there was an alternative on the horizon: “The Lady of Lyons.” Only one performance was scheduled, on Dec. 20. Helen played Pauline Deschappelles, the haughty daughter of a wealthy merchant, who has to be tricked into marrying her true love, a gardener’s son. The producers went all out on sets and costumes, to the evident satisfaction of the audience, which completely filled the school’s impressive new auditorium. The show was a smash.
“Helen Baker as leading lady acted her part becomingly and with charming success,” The Ojai reported. The high school’s 1913 yearbook concurred: Helen, “with her simple, earnest acting, devoid of self-consciousness, won repeated bursts of applause from the admiring audience.” Clearly, Helen and her cast mates had made a lasting impression that night. Almost three decades later, Nordhoff School Superintendent Walter Bristol would still be describing this “Lady of Lyons” production as “a memorable show.”
Now it was Thacher’s turn. Thacher and Nordhoff were friendly rivals in every field of endeavor, including the dramatic arts. Thacher’s thespians put on a play every spring, and they hoped to make their 1913 production as least as big a hit as “The Lady of Lyons.” And Thornton Wilder was determined to have a hand in the proceedings.
Thornton had missed “The Lady of Lyons” because he and Amos had left town a day or two earlier to visit their sister Charlotte in Claremont over the Christmas break. When they returned, Thornton planned to try out for the spring play. He had always been stage struck, but had never had an opportunity to tread the boards before a real audience. This was his big chance.
Thornton was only a sophomore, and well down in the Thacher pecking order. At a co-ed school, his chances of winning a major part in the play would have been minimal. But when Thacher put on a play, boys played all the parts, male and female — and Thornton, with his “Grecian Dancer” routine, already had demonstrated his ability to get laughs while wearing a dress.
He was well aware that the play would be performed during the annual Ojai Tennis Tournament, during which Amos, a star player, would contend for the men’s singles championship. Doing the play would give Thornton a chance to share the spotlight.
Helen Baker, meanwhile, was basking in the mellow afterglow of  her star turn in “The Lady of Lyons.” She too was looking forward to April, when she hoped to win applause from yet another audience – the one that would fill the Tennis Club grandstands to watch her compete in the big tournament. Whether she was rustling in a parlor, emoting on a stage or volleying on a tennis court, Helen usually was the star of the show.
Act 2
At 5:08 p.m. on New Year’s Day, someone flipped a switch and the Foothills Hotel blazed with electric light. So did the Mallory & Dennison dry goods store. The next day, the Ojai Inn was added to the list. Nordhoff boosters exulted at the sight, as though the town’s new 100-horsepower generator had somehow transformed Ojai Avenue into the Great White Way.
“Throw Away Your Old Kerosene Lamps!” crowed The Ojai.
Thornton Wilder was compelled to ignore that advice. The gaslight era lingered on at The Thacher School, to which he and Amos returned in early January. But for Thornton, the new year of 1913 was indeed bright with promise. The spring play had been selected, and it was one in which he knew he could shine.
“It was with some hesitation that our troupe of amateur Edwin Booths took up the rehearsing of Oscar Wilde’s three-act comedy ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ ” reported El Archivero, the Thacher yearbook. “It is a piece which requires a considerable amount of skillful acting to bring out all the clever situations and witty remarks which characterize it, without making them mere clownish drolleries.”
Thornton tried out and won a plum part: Lady Bracknell, a formidable aristocrat. In a letter to his mother, he described the play as “a very funny frivolous farce,” and his character as “a very sharp, lorgnette-carrying old lady.”
“I began learning my part right off and fell to work trying not to laugh at the clever epigrams I had to say,” he wrote. “I was never so happy in my life … until that evening I was in the parlor looking at some magazines and Mr. Sherman T. came in.”
Thornton’s father evidently had heard about the splash his younger son had made as a cross-dressing Grecian dancer. Papa Wilder wrote to his old friend Sherman Thacher to express his concern. The headmaster took the hint, and went to the parlor to deliver the bad news.
“He stood against the mantle and put his back to the fire, then he coughed and called me up to him,” the letter continued. “ ‘Oh, Thornton,’ he said, ‘Your father said in a letter that he would rather not have you in the plays taking female parts, so although he didn’t absolutely order you, I think we had better do as he says.’ ”
Thornton was crushed.
“I was terribly disappointed,” he told his mother. “Now another boy has the part. It’ll be very unfunny to watch the part I might be taking. The worst part of it all comes in explaining to other boys all about how my puritanical pater disapproves, etc.”
For Thornton, this was a major setback. He already had thought that the headmaster despised him as unmanly; now it seemed as though his classmates felt the same way. His schoolmate Wilmarth “Lefty” Lewis, who had been cast as Lady Bracknell’s daughter, later recalled that Thornton was something of a pariah.
“We left him alone, just left him alone,” Lewis wrote. “And he would retire at the library, his hideaway, learning to distance himself from humiliation and indifference.”
Unfortunately for Thornton, he could not spend all his time in the library. That was not the way things worked at Thacher, where boys were propelled, willingly or unwillingly, into the great outdoors. The erstwhile Lady Bracknell soon found himself cast in a much less suitable role: cavalry trooper. Military drill was another of the school’s equestrian traditions, and one that Thornton clearly could have done without, to judge from this sardonic note in El Archivero: “March 4: Cavalry practice begins, much to the joy of T. Wilder.”
So Thornton drilled with the cavalry and practiced his violin and amused himself by reading “Jane Eyre,” as winter passed into spring.
“I have one piece of news which perhaps will please you,” he wrote to his father on March 13. “Altogether now I have ridden into Nordhoff and back (10 miles) five times. … I like riding all right but the only thing is it hurts. It made some huge blisters on me. I’ll probably get used to it some day.”
On April 12, the cast of “Earnest” staged a dress rehearsal before a non-paying audience in the school’s Outdoor Theater, a rock-strewn natural amphitheater in a ravine near the stables. The performance went very well, with an envious Thornton presumably joining in the applause. The play’s formal premiere was scheduled for April 24, the first day of the annual tennis tournament. Thornton’s only hope of participating was that someone in the cast might fall ill, forcing the director to press Thornton into service as an understudy. But the cast exuded ruddy-cheeked good health.
Then the cavalry came to his rescue. Or so it must have seemed to Thornton. On April 17, the student who played Miss Prism in the play was thrown from his horse during drill, and hit his head on a rock. He did not regain consciousness for three days. For Thornton, who turned 16 that day, this was an unexpected gift. The injured boy, Lockwood de Forest III, would make a full recovery (and go on to a notable career as a Santa Barbara landscape architect). But at this point, the bedridden de Forest was in no shape to go on as Miss Prism. He was out of the play, and Thornton was in.

HELEN Baker gazed across the net at Amos Wilder, and evidently liked what she saw. Or perhaps it was the other way around. It was April 19, 1913 — a Saturday — and they were practicing at the Ojai Valley Tennis Club courts in downtown Nordhoff.
Helen was on the Nordhoff High School team; Amos played for Thacher. The two teams regularly battled one another for Ojai Valley tennis supremacy, but the best players among them would compete as individuals during the tennis club’s annual all-comers tournament. Helen and her doubles partner would contend for the ladies’ doubles title; Amos was favored to win the men’s singles crown. With the tournament only five days away, Helen had organized a party with a dual purpose: to get in some much-needed practice, and to socialize with the Thacher heartthrobs.
“Miss Helen Baker was hostess for a very pleasant tea on the Nordhoff courts last Saturday,” The Ojai reported. “After a number of sets had been played the party adjourned to the club house where the school fellows were able to show their prowess at draining the punch bowl.”
Parties were always a big part of the three-day tournament bacchanal, and the 1913 line-up was especially enticing. Thursday, the first day of the tournament, would conclude with the much-anticipated performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Outdoor Theater. Friday evening would feature a dance at the posh (and well-lit) Foothills Hotel. And on Saturday evening, after all the tennis champions had been crowned, The Thacher School would host its annual dance. This was the social event of the spring in the Ojai Valley, just as the Thacher reception was the social event of the fall. But the Bakers never attended it, because Helen’s mother disapproved of dancing.
Helen’s six older siblings all had accepted this prohibition and stayed home on dance night. Not Helen. She aimed to win that doubles title and be the belle of the ball. Tearfully, she confronted her mother. What was wrong with dancing?
“Mother was sympathetic,” Helen wrote in her memoir. “She was not forbidding me to dance, she explained; I might dance if I thought it was right. But she felt it her duty to tell me (here she showed a good deal of embarrassment) that modern dances such as the waltz, and now others she heard spoken of as the one-step and two-step and fox-trot, were likely to ‘rouse the baser impulses in men and boys.’ ”
Helen adored her mother, but even at 16 she was very much her own woman, and her memoir implies that she decided to go to the dance.
On Thursday, Helen and her partner won their first match, but lost their second and were eliminated. Amos won all his matches, as expected; but he was not the only Wilder to distinguish himself. That night, Thornton made his theatrical debut — in drag, as Miss Prism — before 150 people in the Outdoor Theater.
Another boy in the cast had come down with chicken pox, so another understudy took the part of the Rev. Chasuble, who ends up with Miss Prism. The Ojai complimented both the substitutes “for learning their parts so quickly,” and El Archivero praised them too: “Both fellows worked up their parts well in the short space of time left them, and the second performance of the play was in no way inferior to the first.”
Thornton would earn many rave reviews in his future career as a playwright and an occasional actor, and he would win three Pulitzer prizes, too. But it may be that none of these honors would thrill him more than the recognition he received for playing Miss Prism at the Outdoor Theater in April 1913. This is where he began. He was onstage at last and winning applause, and good notices too. The lonely misfit had emerged from his library cocoon and spread his wings.
On Saturday, it was Amos’s turn. He won the men’s singles championship, establishing himself as the best tennis player in the West.
That night, when Amos took his bow at the Thacher dance, the Ojai Valley applauded its homegrown champion. Or so we can surmise. All that can be gleaned from The Ojai about the dance is that it was “the best ever,” and that it featured a one-step waltz called the Boston which surely would have scandalized Sarah Baker, had she been there to see her youngest daughter twirl around the floor, probably in the arms of Amos Wilder. And Thornton? He must have been there, too, and not merely basking in his brother’s reflected glory. The entire “Earnest” cast was among the weekend’s celebrities, and Thornton had earned a place in that company.
He had tasted applause. He wanted more. He and a friend named Jack Drummond wrote a farce called “The Russian Princess,” evidently a satirical mash-up of “The Lady of Lyons” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Thornton directed it and played Grand Duke Alexis, the villain of the piece. Wearing a heavy fur coat, he made a spectacle of himself, “darting about the stage while his fellow-actors looked on helplessly,” Lefty Lewis recalled.
According to El Archivero, the play was set in Paris, and the convoluted plot “concerned the attempted abduction of the coy Princess Sonia by Prince Vasili, and its frustration by the Grand Duke Alexis in a dramatic scene in the cabaret.” It debuted in the Outdoor Theater on May 21.
“Thornton Wilder as the villain and Jack Drummond as the heroine made tremendous hits, and in addition wrote the play,” The Ojai reported.
The play “was Thornton’s big moment at The Thacher School,” Lewis wrote. That moment had arrived just in time, because Thornton’s days at the school were numbered.
His mother, who had been living in Europe, was moving back to Berkeley, and Thornton’s parents had decided that he would live with her and transfer to Berkeley High School. “The Russian Princess” would therefore be Thornton’s first and last hurrah at Thacher. It was only performed once, and it was only a schoolboy farce, yet it rates a footnote in the history of American theater: The first production of a play by Thornton Wilder, performed in a time and a place that would provide the backdrop for “Our Town.”

NINE days later, on Memorial Day, a big crowd gathered outside the Assembly Hall to form itself into a procession and march to Nordhoff Cemetery. The Thacher School provided a cavalry escort, and Thornton may have been among the troopers assigned to this detail. Or perhaps he was among the group of Thacher boys who tagged along in a bunting-draped wagon, to pay their respects to the dead. But among the living, it was Helen Baker who was the star of the show. According to The Ojai, she stood on a temporary stage in the cemetery and read “an interesting paper entitled ‘Gettysburg Fifty Years Ago.’ ” Then another Nordhoff student read the Gettysburg Address, someone else played taps, and people began decorating the graves of Civil War veterans.
The setting suggests the last act of “Our Town,” which takes place in the Grover’s Corners graveyard. But it was Helen, not Thornton, who could visualize the Nordhoff Cemetery’s ghosts, and imagine their thoughts.
There in the Baker family plot lay her oldest sister, Edith, carried away by illness seven years earlier at the age of 29, leaving behind a grieving fiancé. Nearby lay Helen’s maternal grandmother, Mary French, that anxious and disapproving old woman who six months earlier had defied her son-in-law to vote for Woodrow Wilson. Mary had died on May 2, fretful to the last. There was room for other graves in the Baker plot, and over the years they would fill up one by one, until only Helen was left to recognize the names on the headstones. One day she would sit down to write their stories. But on this day she was still young and full of herself, and thinking more about the future than the past.
She might also have been thinking about Amos Wilder. She definitely was spending a lot of time in his company. On June 1, for example, they both attended a party hosted by Sherman Thacher and his wife, as was noted in The Ojai’s “Thacher Notes” section. The next day, they teamed up again at the tennis club. El Archivero recorded the results for posterity: “Miss Helen Baker and Wilder win Mixed Doubles tournament.” The frequency with which their names are linked in print during the spring of 1913 suggests that they may have been something more than friends, although it is impossible to know for sure. In any case, Amos graduated in mid June and left for Berkeley with Thornton. In the fall, he started his college career at Oberlin, later moving on to Yale. There is nothing in the historical record to indicate that Amos and Helen ever crossed paths again.
As for Helen, she went from strength to strength. During her senior year at Nordhoff, she edited the yearbook, served as student-body president, starred (yet again) in the school play and was named class valedictorian. She and Ruth Garland teamed up to win a Southern California High School Chemistry Society competition, and they also won the 1915 doubles title at The Ojai Tennis Tournament. Then Helen left town to attend Mills College, later transferring to UC Berkeley. She married a man named Reynolds, became a noted artist and conservationist, raised a family, and passed the rest of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area. After her parents moved to Pasadena in 1921, she rarely returned to her old hometown, except for funerals.

Act 3
RAIN had fallen in torrents for days, but the weather improved on Sunday morning, when the Thacher boys saddled up as usual to ride into town. Their distinguished visitor joined them in the pews at the Presbyterian Church, and smiled when he heard their horses fussing during the service. He knew that sound of old.
The date was Jan. 12, 1930. Thornton Wilder was now 32, and a famous author; his second novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” had been the bestselling book of 1928, and had won him a Pulitzer. He was on a lecture tour that had brought him to Los Angeles, and thus enabled him to accept a longstanding invitation from Sherman Thacher to give a talk to the boys at his old school. He had not set foot in the Ojai Valley since June 1913.
“Sixteen years may seem to be a long time, but a student who returns to [Thacher] after an absence of 16 years suddenly feels as though a few months, at the most, have passed,” Wilder told the school newspaper. “Every moment has some happy rediscovery, from the meeting with the headmasters and Mrs. Thacher down to the neighing of the horses during the sermon at Ojai.”
Since Wilder had last seen Nordhoff, the town had changed its name to Ojai and made itself over in the Mission Revival style. Even the Presbyterians were now jumping on the bandwagon — they were planning to sell their downtown church and move to a new Mission-style building to be erected on Foothill Road. But they were still using the old church when Wilder visited in January 1930, so he sat there in familiar surroundings on Sunday morning, listened to the horses neighing, and was carried back to the Nordhoff of 1913.
After leaving the Ojai Valley, Wilder had graduated from Berkeley High School and followed Amos’s path to Oberlin and then to Yale. After finishing college, he taught French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey — a boarding school, like Thacher, but minus the horses. During his summer vacation in 1923, while visiting friends in New Haven, Conn., he encountered a face from the past.
“Guess whom I at last met in New Haven? Sherman D. Thacher,” he wrote to his mother. “I had a long talk with him. He had the idea that I hated his school, and he was even a little ready to apologize for its inflexibility in regard to me and I hurried to reply that the school had been perfectly right and that (especially with my sharpened professional eye) I looked back upon it with increasing admiration and affection.”
As they parted, Thacher asked Thornton to consider coming back to his old school as a teacher for a year.
“You can’t estimate all that’s implied here — though he hardly meant it and I wouldn’t considerate [sic] it — the very fact that he could commit himself so far must mean that I’ve thrown off and fought off and outgrown so much,” Wilder wrote. “He used to despise me and shudder at the very sound of my high voice.”
Wilder never took Thacher up on that job offer. But in 1929, he agreed to write a reminiscence for the school’s magazine, in which he waxed nostalgic about riding trips to the Sespe and sleeping out under the stars. And now here he was back on campus, to be celebrated rather than ostracized. The reconciliation process was complete.
This visit may also have helped Wilder make an important decision. A few days earlier, in a hotel room in Los Angeles, he had finished writing his third novel, “The Woman From Andros.” Now he decided to put novels aside, at least for a while, and try his hand at writing plays again.
Wilder was at heart a dramatist. He had written several plays over the years, one of which had even been produced in New York, although not on Broadway. It had not been a hit. As a mature playwright, Wilder had not yet duplicated the popular success he had scored as a schoolboy in the Outdoor Theater with “The Russian Princess.” Perhaps, after revisiting the scene of that early triumph, he was inspired to try again. In any case, after his lecture tour ended, his next writing project would be a series of one-act plays. One of them, “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” eventually would evolve into “Our Town.”
Wilder’s visit also seems to have stirred up some theater-related memories for Sherman Thacher. The next issue of the school paper announced that “The Importance of Being Earnest” was now being considered for the spring play, which (as usual) would be performed in April during The Ojai Tennis Tournament. No word about who might play Lady Bracknell.

“OUR Town” won Wilder his second Pulitzer in 1938, and immediately passed into the national repertory. It is often said to be the most frequently performed play in American history. Certainly it has been performed many times in the Ojai Valley over the years — at Nordhoff High School, at Thacher, and at the Art Center, most recently in 2004. An especially memorable production was mounted in Libbey Bowl in October 2006, featuring Peter Strauss as the Stage Manager, along with an all-star cast of local actors. (Six of them are pictured on pages 112 and 113, posing in Nordhoff Cemetery in a tableau suggestive of the graveyard scene in Act 3.)
That 2006 production was an 11th hour substitute for “Ojai Rising,” a historical pageant about the events that led up to the first Ojai Day in 1917. “Ojai Rising” was not ready to go, so the producers substituted “Our Town,” which played to a packed house of delighted theatergoers. There is irony here, for “Ojai Rising” was supposed to celebrate the events that led to the town’s Mission Revival makeover, whereas “Our Town” celebrates the virtues of a small town that more closely resembles Nordhoff, pre-makeover. In a sense, the town that vanished in 1917 lives on in Wilder’s play.
Wilder’s Grover’s Corners is not Nordhoff, precisely — its main model was Peterborough, N.H. But he set his play in the years before World War I, when most Americans still lived in small towns or on farms. The 10 months Wilder spent in the Ojai Valley constitute his only personal experience of that world, which clearly informed the writing of “Our Town.” Consider the beginning of Act 3, when the Stage Manager tells the audience how the town is changing: “Horses getting rarer now. Farmers coming into town in Fords.” This reflects the Nordhoff that Thornton Wilder remembered; and those memories helped him shape the play.
“Our Town” ends in June 1913, the same month that Wilder left the valley. Less than a year later, Edward Libbey finally revealed his plans for the Ojai Inn, and for the entire town. He tore down the inn and gave the land to the community as a park; he erected the Post Office Tower over the former site of the blacksmith shop; he prodded local merchants to accept the Arcade in place of their ramshackle boardwalk. When he handed the park deed to Sherman Thacher on that first Ojai Day in 1917, the entire town turned out to cheer him — and almost a century later, the community still celebrates what Libbey wrought. But the community also cherishes those few relics of old Nordhoff that survive. They are visual links to the lost world of “Our Town” — small-town America during the age of innocence, before the Great War destroyed so many illusions, and before urbanization blighted much of the landscape.
Wilder died in 1975 and was buried in the cemetery in Mount Carmel, Conn. (His brother Amos, an ordained minister, spoke at the service.) If Wilder’s ghost were to return to the earth for a day and visit the Ojai Valley, he would still encounter some familiar sights. At The Thacher School, the new buildings of 1912 are still there, as is the venerable Outdoor Theater, little changed from Wilder’s time. In downtown Ojai, the former Presbyterian Church can now be found at the corner of East Aliso and North Montgomery streets, where it houses Byron Katie’s business office. The lion’s head fountain still gurgles, although it no longer is connected to a horse trough. The Jack Boyd Club has moved to Sarzotti Park and the George Thacher Memorial Library building has moved to Lion Street, but they still exist.
The same cannot be said of the Nordhoff Grammar School and Assembly Hall: All that is left is the old school bell, mounted on a pedestal in front of the Ojai Unified School District offices. Across the street from the bell, the King’s Daughters’ clubhouse remains on its original site; these days it’s called the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club. The Ojai Valley Tennis Club courts are still there in Libbey Park, and they still host the club’s annual tournament each April.
Many houses survive from the pre-1917 era, some of them designed by famous architects in the Craftsman or California Bungalow styles. Others have less distinguished pedigrees, but remain valued heirlooms all the same. Among the latter group is the old Baker place, which still stands at 310 East Matilija Street. After Sarah and Frank Baker sold it and moved to Pasadena, it became a rooming house, and later the original site of the Clausen Funeral Home. Now it houses offices and an art gallery, and perhaps a few ghosts.

IN 1963, Helen Baker Reynolds returned to Ojai to give a speech about the state’s scenic highways law. A well-known conservation expert, she had been brought in by local activist Ed Wenig to advise valley residents how to use the law to fend off the threat of a proposed freeway.
Reynolds delivered her speech in what is now known as Matilija Auditorium. In 1963, before the high school and the middle school switched campuses, it was still called Nordhoff Auditorium. So Reynolds, like Thornton Wilder in 1930, was returning to the scene of her former triumphs.
The original Nordhoff High School building, dating from 1911, had not yet been demolished, so Reynolds could, if she wished, visit the place where she had won so much applause in “The Lady of Lyons” and other plays. Whether she did so is unknown, but Wenig did prevail upon her to write some newspaper pieces about her Nordhoff childhood. These pieces were serialized in the Ojai Valley News, and later were collected in her privately published “Family Album” memoir, a copy of which now reposes in the Ojai Valley Museum. Helen herself reposes in the Nordhoff Cemetery, along with her husband, her parents, her grandmother, a brother and two sisters. (That’s Helen’s headstone pictured in the Baker family plot on page 113, to the right of the frame.)
There are times in her memoir when Helen comes across a bit like Wilder’s Stage Manager, introducing the audience to the foibles of Grover’s Corners. Actually, if she were a character in the play it would be Emily, the smartest girl in school. Emily died young, whereas Helen lived to be 91, but they both ended up in the town cemetery, to be forgotten along with the rest. That’s the message of “Our Town.” There is something eternal in human beings, Wilder says, but it is not our conscious identities, which burn away in the obscurity of the grave. The point is to realize life while you live it. Few ever do. But, to judge from her memoir, Helen Baker Reynolds may have been one of them.
Curiously, Helen did not mention either Wilder brother in “Family Album.” Yet she must have known Thornton, because she certainly knew Amos. And in later years she must have heard the name of Thornton Wilder, the celebrated author and playwright. Is it possible that she never realized that the famous Thornton Wilder was the same callow youth of that name she had known back in 1913?
If so, then it was merely a coincidence that when she sat down to write her memoirs, she gave her Nordhoff chapter such an appropriate title: “Our Town.”

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