Discovering the forgotten history of OPHS land
How one teenager would change this place forever
September 25, 2020
If not for the faint murmur of a car’s engine, the sounds of Oak Park would have whisked me into another era entirely. The chirping of crickets trickled into my ears; the fluttering of a duck’s wings looped endlessly through my mind. As I gazed into our high school’s empty parking lot, I couldn’t help but feel as if history was closer than ever.
A few months earlier, this school was brimming with trumpets and chattering students, but with COVID-19 regulations that now seemed like ages ago. All that remained were echoes of the past.
Before high schoolers wandered this campus hillside, hordes of pigs, sheep and cattle did. Before it was a school, it was a ranch spanning the length of 15,000 football fields. The individual who would take the helm of this mighty ranch was an adventurous teenage boy by the name of Pierre Agoure.
It was 1867 in the French Pyrenees, and 14-year-old Agoure was presented with two life-altering choices. The first was to surrender to society’s beliefs, which insisted that all second-born sons become priests. The second option was equally as monumental: risking his entire livelihood to start anew in California.
Agoure chose the second, stowing away on a ship for a voyage to Southern California.
“It was very brave,” Agoure’s great-granddaughter Denise Nolan Delurgio said. “I’m a mother of boys. If they ran away from home, I wouldn’t so easily accept that they moved to another continent.”
Agoure was taken in by men aboard the ship, who offered him paid work herding sheep and cattle on their land. Agoure accepted and became a reliable and dedicated employee. As he grew in confidence in his craft, Agoure began his own herding venture by amassing property. This includes the current Oak Park area, which was originally a hunting destination for the Chumash and later became part of a Spanish land grant called Rancho Simi. His ranch also reportedly contained sections of neighboring Agoura and Agoura Hills, which are named after him and his family.
According to the California Recorder, Agoure’s ranch house (and place of residence) was “in Ventura County, two miles [north] from the land” of Rancho Las Virgenes. Oak Park High School roughly fits this description and as such, speculations have emerged that this house was near the school.
As time passed, Agoure slowly became one of the richest men in California with the Los Angeles Times proclaiming him as a top “Los Angeles capitalist.”
“His sheep outnumber every other herder in the state,” a subsequent article by the Los Angeles Times stated. “The Agoure cattle roam over a thousand hills.”
Agoure’s right-hand on the ranch was his daughter Bijou, commonly known simply as “Bob.” In a time in which men were expected to do hard labor, Bob broke the mold by manning the property with her father.
“Grandma Bob carried that ‘can-do’ attitude throughout her very productive life,” Nolan Delurgio said.
At 60 years old, Agoure died after swallowing formaldehyde, which he accidentally consumed in his flask of liquor, according to Lysa ErkenBrack, another great-granddaughter of Agoure. He passed away at his ranch house shortly after the family gathered there for Thanksgiving. At the time of his death, Agoure’s estate was worth roughly $500,000, which translates to upwards $10 million in 2020.
The circumstances of his death were contested, resulting in a state trial where “self described ‘best friend’ and ‘partner’” John Lapique accused Agoure’s widow and children of misconduct, according to the Los Angeles Herald. Lapique claimed that Agoure was “imprisoned” and “held in his bed for four days.”
On account of this claim, Walter Brinkop — Agoure’s son-in-law and a burly football player — jumped out of his seat in the courtroom and pummeled Lapique five times in the face. Brinkop was fined $100 (almost $3,000 in today’s money) but told Los Angeles Times reporters that “at $20 a punch, it was worth it.”
The case was eventually dismissed, with Lapique spending time in prison for criminal libel and the Agoure family being acquitted.
“Life moved on,” ErkenBrack said. “Whether [the relatives] really did do it and got off or somebody else did it, I have no clue.”
Six years after Agoure’s death, another member of the Agoure family perished on the same property. Florence Agoure, wife of Lester (the senior Agoure’s only son), consumed poison at the ranch house days after Christmas. Before her death, Florence had the Spanish flu and reportedly attempted to shoot her husband inside the ranch house after learning he wished to annul their marriage. She was disarmed, but in the middle of the night, Florence allegedly awoke Lester by claiming she had poisoned herself with mercury bichloride. She died shortly after on the way to a Los Angeles hospital.
According to great-grandson Pat Nolan, the family would sell off pieces of the ranch a couple of years later, with the territory changing hands several times after. In 1927, publishing titan William Randoplh Hearst bought a huge swath of the land and rented it out to local movie studios; in the 1950s radio stars Jim and Marian Jordan turned a smaller portion of the territory into a weekend getaway spot. Finally, in 1966, this area would become the community of Oak Park, with the high school opening fifteen years later.
Virtually nothing remains of the ranch today, yet the legacy of Pierre Agoure still echoes. Nolan believes his ancestor was a true pioneer of the area.
“Pierre exhibited the American spirit. He came with nothing, only the clothes on his back … and ended up owning 35,000 acres [across three ranches],” Nolan said. “He helped build a community out here from open land.”
When I stood in the high school parking lot, the voices of the past seemed to call out to me. As they told their stories, I listened.