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A family, a fire, and how Malibu came to be what it is today

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Malibu beach shore with some people

Malibu is known around the world as one of the most prestigious seaside communities today. But before this place became synonymous with surf culture and home to Hollywood’s brightest stars, it also went through some very rough times of its own.

Let’s take a closer look at the rich and colorful story behind the slice of paradise on Earth we know as Malibu:

The humblest of beginnings

Malibu used to be a virtually untouched corner of nature. In the earliest days of the sea-faring Chumash people, it was little more than a sparsely populated coastal village.

Even upon the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500s, the Chumash territory was mostly ignored in favor of more accessible places along the Pacific Coast.

Back then, the harsh terrain effectively deterred outsiders from venturing further. For one, the Santa Monica Mountains and the steep valleys between them separated Malibu from the rest of Southern California.

The bravest explorers had to deal with bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes that roamed wild, free, and abundant in the area. Bandits lurking in the dense wilderness presented an even greater danger.

With the beach being littered with large boulders, access by way of water was no better option. Explorers on horseback had to wait until the tide was right as the slightest miscalculation would leave them marooned and isolated on an empty coast.

It was only in the early 1800s when the area was claimed by the Spanish colonizers. Ownership of Malibu transferred from Spaniard Bartolo Tapia, then to Frenchman Leon Victor Prudhomme, and then to Irishman Matthew Keller.

The great fire of 1903

American businessman Frederick Rindge learned about Malibu soon after his family moved to Los Angeles. Drawn to the uniquely secluded nature of the place, he immediately purchased a property stretching 20 miles long and two miles wide from the Kellers.

The Rindges fashioned Malibu as their very own private paradise, building a gorgeous Victorian mansion for their home, tending orange groves and flower gardens, and herding livestock throughout the property. They could swim, hike, and ride their horses wherever and whenever they pleased.

Curious outsiders and travelers from Santa Monica Mountain settlements demanded access to the place. But instead, the Ridges built gates to keep them off their property.

On December 4, 1903, a massive fire consumed 30 miles of the coast, destroying much of the rancho. May Rindge, Frederick’s wife, was convinced that the settlers from the surrounding mountains started the destructive blaze.

Frederick died two years later, leaving May to continue the fight for exclusive ownership and use of the property.

The hidden gem discovered

Word began to spread about the irresistible beauty of Malibu after Los Angeles resident W.H. Seely and his friends trespassed into the Rindge property.

Rindge took offense and brought Seely to court. A lengthy legal battle ensued, disputing the Rindge family’s exclusive access to Malibu. While the court ruled in the Rindges’ favor, intruders and curious sightseers persisted now that the legend of Malibu had spread far and wide.

Rindge’s defense of their Malibu rancho started to take a violent turn when she took it upon herself to destroy the mountain settlers’ trails using dynamite. Gunfighting and even attempts to kidnap May became involved, as well.

In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to build a major highway through the Rindge property. This decision marked the beginning of the end for the Rindge family’s exclusive control over Malibu.

Village of the stars

Real estate developer Harold Ferguson approached May Rindge in 1926, proposing that the eastern end of the rancho be developed into an exclusive getaway for the Hollywood elite.

Despite Rindge’s reluctant agreement and stringent demands, the “Malibu Movie Colony” quickly grew into its own little, exclusive enclave. It even boasted its own police force, courthouse, post office, and other essential community amenities.

The completion of the Pacific Coast Highway (then known as Roosevelt Highway) in 1929 fast-tracked the growth of the area as a popular vacation destination. By the early 1930s, Malibu also began to develop a reputation as an excellent surfing destination.

Meanwhile, reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, May Rindge fell behind on unpaid taxes, forcing her to relinquish control of the property by 1938.

Two years later, the Marblehead Land Company was created to sell parcels of the Rindge property. More than 80% of the land sold within six years after May’s death in 1941.

The dawn of Malibu as we know it today

Toward the late 1940s more high-profile developers arrived to put their stamp on the area, creating highly coveted beachfront retreats that attracted Hollywood’s brightest stars.

More of the Rindge land continued to sell in the 1950s, leading to the construction of schools and commercial buildings.

In the 1960s, Rindge grandson Merritt Huntley Adamson, Jr. took an aggressive approach to the development of the area. Among his most prominent projects were the Horizon Hills subdivision, the Zuma Bay Villa condos, and the Point Dume Club mobile home park.

One of his most controversial plans was to turn Malibu into a dramatically urbanized city, where beachfront condominiums, apartments, and business establishments catered to a population of 400,000.

Even if this plan was ultimately shot down, Malibu at this point was a mere shadow of its former self, but in an encouraging way. As the 1970s approached, Malibu became known for its hip and vibrant character, drawing both surfing aficionados and high-profile celebrities to its pristine beachfronts.

By 1991, Malibu was officially incorporated as a city.

Today, Malibu’s most tumultuous days are certainly far behind it, and its selection of luxury homes for sale is some of the finest you can find anywhere on the Southern California Coast.

Find the best luxury homes to suit your needs and tastes with help from Malibu’s top real estate agent. Call me at 310.401.0901 or email James(at)JamesWeekley(dotted)com today.