Ramona Merwin - Vetter Lookout 1955-1981

Ramona Merwin

USFS Fire Lookout - Mount Vetter

Vetter Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was built in 1935, and in 2006 the tower is now 71 years old.  For 31 of those years, from 1955 to 1981, Ramona Merwin, her daughter Joyce and son Jerry lived in the lookout and worked as the last paid Fire Lookouts of Vetter Mountain.

On January 14th, 2006, my wife Susan and I spent an enjoyable afternoon with Ramona as she entertained us in her home.  At 87 years young, she brought out her scrap books, photo albums, and told us numerous stories of life in the lookout.  Presented here is her story and a brief glimpse into the life of being a fire lookout at Vetter Mountain.

Photo: Ramona sitting on the Vetter Lookout south rail during 1961.

Vetter Mountain Fire Lookout - The Merwin Family Experience

1937-1938

Arthur Merwin, USFS Fire Lookout sits at the Osborne Fire Finder at the Warm Springs Lookout where he lived with his new bride Ramona Merwin.

Ramona and Arthur was married on May 18, 1937 but Arthur had to report to the Lookout on May 19 which was the first day of the Fire Season for that year.

Ramona said, "When I first met Art, I didn't know anything about the forest, and he would tell me we have to get up to the tower.  It was all new to me.  I lived in Long Beach and had no idea about what he did.  While we were moving in to the tower, Art spotted a smoke down in Charley Canyon. I know this picture is 1938, because the small gold lamp on the right reminds me about the time.  It was given to us as a wedding present. Joyce was born in 1938 and we took her up there when she was 10 days old."

Ramona told us how Art was a "by-the-book" Fire Lookout and although Ramona would help look for fire, Art would not allow her to touch the equipment like the Osborne.

"He had the equipment set just-so and wouldn't allow me to touch it."

 
Left: Warm Springs Lookout

Right: Sierra Paloma Lookout

The Merwin family was assigned to the Sierra Paloma Fire Lookout Tower for part of 1939 to 1941, when Arthur became qualified as a Fire Patrol Officer.

1939-1952

Arthur was very patriotic, and in 1941 when the USA went to war, Art told Ramona that he wanted to enlist in the Army.  Arthur was turned down due to lung damage he sustained when in his youth he fought a major fire near Tujunga.  His lungs and eyes was burnt by the fire.  Still wanting to serve in some capacity, Ramona suggested that he do his part by taking a job at one of the aircraft factories.   Art resigned from the Forest Service in 1941 and took a job as a Fireman with the Lookheed Aircraft Plant.

Their son Jerry was born in 1943.

After the war was over in 1945, Art got a job as a Fireman for the Olive View Sanitarium.

On December 28, 1952 just after Christmas, Arthur passed away at a hospital in Newhall due to lung cancer from his days of fighting fires.  Ramona, aged 34, a widowed mother with two children worked as a housekeeper to make ends meet.

Photo 1945: Arthur Merwin with his wife Ramona and their children Joyce and Jerry.

1955

During the spring of 1955, Ramona got a call from Mr. Masterson, a Fire Lookout at Whittaker Tower during the time when the Merwins were at Warm Springs, was now the Fire Control Officer for the Angeles and he asked Ramona if she could work Vetter Mountain Lookout.

Ramona was worried about the high winds as that bothered her on Warm Springs and she was also worried if Joyce and Jerry at 17 years old and 12 years old respectively, would have enough to occupy them, but she accepted.  In May of 1955 Ramona took the job.

"It was better than I thought, because the tower was on the ground, and the winds were not as bad.  However... I had an awful time.  I was expecting him, Art to be there.  I hadn't quite got over his passing and being in the tower brought back memories.  I kept expecting him to show up and do the work.  It was a struggle.  I told myself to snap out of it... that this was my job now and I had to get about doing it."

1955

The tower had an old Army Radio Set and no one told her how to use it.  She had to figure it out herself along with other tasks that Art would do in the tower.  Later, they brought her a Forest Service Radio.

She was then trained how to spot airplanes as part of the Lookout Service.  Notice the aircraft silhouettes chart on the high East wall of the tower.

"We acted as ground observers for the Air Force, and we had a guy come up to the tower and train us how to watch for aircraft.  We would report all four-motor or a jet aircraft when they flew over the tower, or if they didn't fly over the tower we would report a delay time of heading from the tower.  I got my silver wings for 750 hours of service, and the kids got their wings too for 350 hours of service too.  We did this up until 1960."

1956

Ramona was worried that her children would not be occupied on the mountain, but today she also feels that being exposed to the outdoors gave them strength and independence.

"They would go down to Charlton Flats and I would expect them back at a certain time and they would return responsibly.  Also, when the film companies would go down to Charlton Flats where they would film episodes of Lassie, the kids would go down and watch them."

Photo: Joyce sitting on the northeast railing.

1957

Haunted by the memory of Pearl Harbor, horrified by the possibility of nuclear devastation, the American military feared a surprise bomber attack on the United States.  The Russians had developed nuclear weapons in 1949, and during 1957 they launched Sputnik.  Moreover, newer high-flying aircraft were now beyond the range of antiaircraft guns. The Army had begun surface-to-air missile development and had also begun building Nike air defense systems around 40 U.S. cities and military/industrial installations. At its peak ten years later, the Nike defense system included approximately 300 batteries in the United States.  Dozens of sites circled the Los Angeles area.

A radar corner reflector was put on the top of Vetter Mountain lookout that would be used for signals to the new Nike Missile Site "LA-09" Mt. Disappointment/Barley Flats and also "LA-04" known as Mt. Gleason / Palmdale.

External link: The Nike Missile System

Ramona told this story...

"There was an airplane that was trying to fly below the radars.  I first spotted him flying towards the tower from the east, through the Upper Big-T canyon.  As he headed for the tower, he was aiming right at the walkway of the tower.  I was standing with one foot in the door, and the other outside the tower and I froze in place.  At the last minute he tried to pull up but his wing  tip clipped the flag pole.  Didn't do much damage to the pole, but he and I was very lucky because had he hit the tower he would have taken me with it.  I reported him as he flew down the West Fork."

"Later, a crew came up to fix the flag pole during a thunderstorm.  I told them them they were crazy and to get away from the pole.  It was a good thing they did because not long after the pole was hit by lightning."

Life in the tower was more than just a job, it was a permanent stay with only 2 days off a month.  During those 2 days she would get what ever hardware supplies, cleaning, or groceries before going back up the hill.  Whenever Ramona needed supplies during her stay, the patrol unit would take her shopping list and bring her the supplies.

During those 2 days off, they had a "relief lookout" take over.  Ramona tells the following story:

"Times are different now.  It was a different time then so... how do I put this?  It was a time when they didn't want Blacks.  They would pick on the black crew members because some thought they were afraid of snakes and wildlife so they would tease them more or less so they would leave.  Well they sent this one black relief lookout to the tower and they told me I would be sorry.  

I trained him, but they kept saying to me I would be sorry.  

I said no I don't think so, because he picked up on the job real easy and was very capable of doing what he was doing.  

They kept telling me I'll be sorry.  Well when I got off the mountain I got to thinking about what they said and that I would be sorry.  

I went back up there after two days and that young fellow was still there, and he said that he hopes everything is all right.  And do you know... that tower was spic and span.  The windows were so clean you could walk through them if you didn't know they were there.  He mopped and waxed and did everything he had to do.  He did a good job.  But I come to find out that he left the camp.  

Many years later I got a call from him that he was in the Forest Service Regional Office.  He had gone to school and studied and gone up the chain as a high 'mucky-dee-muck'.  I gave those boys that told me I would be sorry such a hard time.

To me, that meant a lot when he called.  He was a class act lookout.

Photo: Ramona sitting on the northeast railing.

The Merwins would host other members of their family when they would come visit or spend some summer months out of school.  Pictured here Jerry stands with his cousins Bob and Larry.

Photo: Bob, Jerry and Larry.  Bob and Larry are Jerry's cousins.

1960

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii was admitted into the Union by Executive Order 10834 by President Eisenhower a brand new 50 star flag was authorized on July 4, 1960.  

More than 1,900 designs or suggestions were received from 1,700 different sources--school children, individuals, associations, flag manufacturers. Many, of course, were duplicates, but even so more than 600 different designs were submitted for a 49 star flag (for Alaska), about 400 for a 50 star flag, and some even for 51 or more stars (just in case).  

1961

Changes.

A wind speed indicator is placed on the tower.  The storage boxes located under the west side of the lookout are gone, and the wooden railing is replaced by an all metal hand rail.  Some of the cans underneath the lookout would hold wash-water for laundry.

The Los Angeles Examiner Newspaper  - Mon, May 1, 1961

Jerry makes the paper.  The caption reads:

ON GUARD - Lookout Jerry Merwin, 18, keeps his binoculars trained on Angeles National Forest landscape from Vetter Mountain station.  Scant winter rain gives promise of early, rugged fire season.

Also pictured is the ANF Supervisor, Sim Jarvi.

Photo: Dramatization

I asked Ramona about the visitors to the tower and she told this story:

"Once, there was this group from the nearby universities come up very early in the morning.  They all found a favorite rock to pick, and there they sat.  They sat around for a long time, longer then most.  They wouldn't leave.  I talked to them and I was wondering why these people wouldn't leave.

Well one of the patrol units come up to the tower and he asked if I was wondering about all these people.  I told him yes I was wondering why they were staying so long.  The patrol unit said that someone put a sign on the Lookout Gate down below that said, 'free coffee and doughnuts'.

I went out there and announced that I was sorry, but there was no coffee or doughnuts.  I did have coffee but there were no doughnuts."

Photo: File photo from Internet of typical coffee & doughnuts

When I asked Ramona about any "problem" visitors, she said she had one event that was also her most embarrassing moment.  An incident that was a "double whammy."  Whenever Ramona had any type of trouble, she would call the local fire camp, and the Forest Service crew would be up there in minutes.  They took care of Ramona as she looked out for them.  They convinced her that she should keep a gun.  She didn't want one, but she gave in and got a small .22 pistol that she kept bird shot, or mostly kept unloaded in the tower.

"It was late one night when I heard a noise around the base of the lookout.  I didn't know what it was and I couldn't see anything or anyone so I thought maybe it was a Raccoon getting into the supplies.

Then suddenly, this man appeared and he ran straight for the tower.  He came up to the door and tried to get in.  He was trying to force the door open and I told him to back off, and go away but he just kept trying to get in.  I went over and got that gun, it wasn't loaded but he didn't know that and as soon as he saw it, he stopped and just sat down on the railing. He looked really sad. 

I asked him what he wanted and he told me that he is in need of help.  He is a Boy Scout leader and his troop was lost in the woods someplace on the Silver Moccasin Trail between Clear Creek and Vetter Mountain.  I felt as small as a nickle.  I told him to come inside but try no funny stuff.  I had my dog Cricket just near by.  He came in and gave me the details of his problem.

I called dispatch and they sent out patrols from Barley Flats.  We shined lights down the mountain side and the Boy Scouts shined their lights back so it was easy to find them.  But just then, the man went outside and he vomited.  He was really sick and getting worse.  I asked him what was wrong and he told me he found some water under the lookout and he was so thirsty that he drank it.

I told him to never drink water around a living lookout because that water was used for my laundry!  I told him, but it was too late for that advice, he just got sick.  I felt about as big as a dime.  Poor fellow."

After a good laugh from the story above, I asked Ramona about "other" wildlife and Ramona told this very interesting... and scary incident:

"There was an elderly couple coming up the road, and there is a small spot where you can see people coming up the road from far away.  This couple had come up to the tower before, a man and his wife.  They would come up about two or three times a year to see me, but for some reason it was a long time since their last visit.

 So I saw this animal behind them and I thought, oh... they are bringing their dog with them this time.  I looked in the binoculars and it wasn't a dog.  It was a Mountain Lion and he was tracking them very close from behind.  

When he got up to the fire break area, he turned off and didn't bother them.  At the time, I didn't realize they attack from behind, but I kept my eye on the couple.  As the Mountain Lion went up to the fire break, and as he came out of the fire break, two more lions came out of the bushes.  They had a den there and there was a mama, baby and him.

When the couple got to the tower, they said that she had been ill.  We were talking and I was wondering, do I say something to them about the Lions or not.  Well they were over 80 years old and I decided not, they would have dropped in their tracks, and I know they would have both dropped in their tracks had they turned around and saw that Lion stalking them.

  The Lions went down into the canyon, but I watched the couple go down as far as I could.  Had I thought they were in more danger, I would have taken them down in my car."

Photo: A fabrication by me for drama based on the story

Ramona also told me and Susan about two creatures that she said she saw all the time, but today these creatures are VERY rare in the San Gabriel Mountains.

"At night, we had ringtale cats.  They were real slender and real small but their tails were so wonderful.  They almost look like raccoons, but they don't have the 'bandit' face, but that tail is just something to behold."

Ramona also told us of a SUPER RARE creature that I have tried to research on the internet and have found nothing, so I'm sure this creature would be very rare.  So if you know of what she saw, please send me an email.

"At night, we once had tarantula, but this was no ordinary tarantula spider.  This one an albino tarantula... he was pure white and bigger than my hand.  He would go around the outside windows of the lookout and eat all the bugs.  I enjoyed watching him."

Photo: File photo from the Animal Photo Archive

Here is another story Ramona told us that was very interesting:

"This one morning I got up could hear a woman screaming.  It was strange but it was a woman and her screams were getting louder.  I went outside and thought that maybe it was a car accident down Upper Big-T, or maybe off the Crest.

I called it in and told them I can hear these screams and they sounded bad, so dispatch sent out patrols.  I scanned the highways and bushes for a glint or glare from the car.  I kept checking the area and the screams were still getting louder.  

I was scanning with my binoculars when I happened to look down at that big rock on the South hill of Vetter Mountain, and there was a red fox on the top of the rock.  At the bottom of the rock was a mountain lion circling and it was the lion that was screaming after that fox.  

I called the dispatcher and let them know what I found.  That fox stayed on top of that rock, and the Lion was making all those noises."

Photo: File photo from the Animal Photo Archive

We talked about the wildlife and I showed her a picture of the young bear that George Morey took when he was at the tower.  Ramona told us her bear cub story:

"There was a bear cub come up the walkway at 4 in the morning.  He walked completely around the walkway of the lookout.  He was the cutest thing.

I watched him go all the way around, and then I saw mama bear at the bottom of the walkway, near the base waiting for him.  Had I had gone out, you know mama bear would have come to protect her cub."

Photo: File photo from SierraWildBear.gov

Ramona had a dog named "Cricket" from the 1950s through the 1960s.  Pictured here he is about 15 years old.

"Cricket was a good dog and he was once bitten by two baby rattlesnakes but he lived.  Those baby rattlesnakes were very dangerous.  Jerry got this dog for me.  I think he got it to keep me company after he was to leave."

1977

Ramona Merwin at the Osborne.  The table in front of the Osborne is our little closet that is now located on the southeast corner.  Here you can see that the icebox was located near the south center window.  The lookout by this time also had electricity and you can see one of the lights on the ceiling.  There were also lights outside and in the new restroom.

Photo: September 1977

Robert "Bob" Nelsion was the patrol officer for the Chilao area during the late 70's and here he is doing some modifications to the Tower.  Notice that the "unit" as Ramona calls it was an all-in-one oven/stove, sink and refriderator located on the southeast wall of the lookout.

The logo on Bob's hat is below:

Jim Beard designed the logo of a gorilla with a shovel in one hand and a chainsaw in the other while carrying a hosepack on its back.. Chilao hotshots were established in 1949 and disbanded in at the end of 1984.  They were famous for the development of Helitack procedures.

External link: History of the Chilao Hotshots

1977 MIDDLE FIRE

From Craig Baker, "The 1977 fire West of Vetter Mtn. Lookout is the “Middle Fire” which burned most of the Middle Fork of Mill Creek drainage on Angeles Forest Highway.   A flash flood the following February came out of the burned canyon and killed George Scribner who was the engine foreman at Monte Cristo station while he was on a night time fire call to a church camp on Mill Creek near the Hidden Springs cafe."

Thanks Craig!

Because Ramona lived in the tower for so long, she was able to get the Forest Service to make a new restroom that included a shower, and new water supply.  A new concrete tank was built and water was piped to the shower and the lookout.

"Ed Hensly would come up to the summit and he would fill the tank with his large water truck.  When Ed was not around the Forest Service Fire Engines would come up and fill it too.  It would take them about three trips to fill it enough."

After "Cricket" I got this dog named "Tiny".  That was the name that was given him by the office.  Bob Suiter said he had this dog and he was the runt of the litter."

1977 Vetter Mountain Lookout

New steps and a railing was installed.

1981

(Date unknown but around late 70s to early 80s)

Here is the tower in before it was to be closed in 1981.  Notice the second railing is installed and a loud speaker for the radio.  The sign on the front post was also changed out.

1985

The Vetter Mountain Lookout was closed in 1981 and at one time there was a plan to move the entire Lookout building to Chilao Visitor Center.  

"It was a good thing they did not move the lookout.  That old wood would not have made the trip.  They were going to pick it up by helicopter and it would not have made it.  I'm glad the lookout stays on its mountain."

From 1981 to 1984, Ramona continued to work at the Los Angeles River District office as a receptionist.  She continued there until she retired.

This picture is from November 1998 when Ramona was presented the original and restored sign from the Vetter Mountain tower.

1998

Seventeen years after the tower was closed... the tower was about to return the tower to duty.

It was felt that the first call, "Dispatch... Vetter Mountain in service" should be made by Ramona.  Ramona and her family was invited to the opening ceremony on May 30, 1998.

I hope to add information about how the tower was restored in a future feature.
Ramona made the call, and was presented with a hat, and uniform shirt as an honorary member of the Lookout Organization.  The "Grand Reopening" was well attended on a nice day that included speeches, refreshments, and a flag raising.

The Vetter Lookout tower has been open ever since during the fire season from May to November.

2006

For my wife Susan and I, we are honored that Ramona has shared her experiences and that she has invited us back.  Her spirit is strong and I know she enjoys telling us her stories as much as we enjoyed listening to them.

Although we spent six hours with Ramona, Susan and I know that there is no way to capture the entire lookout life that Ramona lived.  So too is it that Joyce and Jerry have their stories, but it is our hope that we convey the joy of spirit that Ramona had for her work, and what it meant to be a part of the Forest Service.

When I asked if Ramona if she would like to be taken up to Vetter Mountain for a field trip, she simply said:

"I am glad that people are now interested in my stories, but as for going back... well the Merwin era is over.  I said my goodbye when I was last there."

Our sincerest Thanks to Ramona and her family!

This page is under construction and there is a lot more information to come.  I wanted to "get this up" as soon as I can so rather than keeping it all to myself then posting the page, I decided to share it as I am working on it.


The Merwin Family at Vetter Mountain Lookout - May 30, 1998

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