If you’ve ever been in a restaurant or business with photographs depicting open spaces and ranch life before development in Thousand Oaks or Westlake Village, chances are Ed Lawrence is the photographer. Originally from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, Ed first visited California during Army basic training before being shipped off to Germany. After completing his tour, Ed had no interest in returning to the cold. Once he learned about the Mediterranean climate, he didn’t hesitate to settle in the Conejo Valley.
Intrigued with the raw beauty of the area, he started to take pictures of his surroundings. Ed says the best part of his life was being a photographer. He just loved it. Over the next few decades he documented the transition from ranches to residences in the area.
Ed and his wife, Marge, had a house at Gainsborough and Moorpark Road. They never had a car in the garage because it housed a big darkroom studio with three enlargers and a big commercial dryer. In 1959 Ed and Marge opened a photo shop with 24-hour film processing. It was a big deal—get it back in 24 hours or it was free! He still remembers the phone number as Hudson: (HU)-5-5310.
Photographing horse shows and races became a specialty for Ed. With his favorite Rolleiflex camera, he photographed horse shows from Mexico to Canada. He delighted participants by shooting them in action as he ran from one jump to another or stood on a wood platform on the roof of his VW van to take group action shots. In the 1980s, he was able to offer on-site photo development, as his trailer housed a darkroom. After an event he would stay up all night developing pictures. Contestants loved being able to purchase a keepsake on the spot. His expertise led to a position capturing shots of horse jumping trials at the 1984 Olympics. With no replay at the time, Ed’s photos were used for reviewing any protests of a jump.
Ed became friends with many of the cowboys and sheepherders while taking candid shots of their world on the ranches. A ranch owned by the Janss family and another ranch owned by actor Joel McCrea were two favorite spots for documenting the area.
The Janss family owned a majority of the Conejo Valley land from California Lutheran University down the other side of Highway 101. In 1958, realizing the potential for growth, brothers William and Edwin Janss started to sell off acres near what is now the west end of Thousand Oaks to developers. They are credited with starting the change that took off with housing, new businesses and jobs. Edwin’s son Larry is the only family member to still reside in the area. He is a former student of Ansel Adams and continues to stay involved with community arts.
In 1933, Joel McCrea purchased property in the Conejo Valley as a fallback in case acting didn’t work out. Herd owner Nick Costa brought his sheep in from the San Fernando Valley to graze on the McCrea Ranch. A photo of Costa watching the sheep walk under the Highway 101 overpass on Moorpark Road is one of Ed’s most requested photographs. One of Costa’s shepherds found himself with a spunky lamb who preferred life as a dog to that of a sheep. As Ed developed pictures of the flock, he noticed what looked like a happy smile on the lamb’s face as he took on the role of sheep dog. His personal favorite is a photograph of the flock being herded through the streets by the dogs and this little lamb who thought he was a dog. Inspired, Ed used his photos and partnered with his friend Gerald Halweg to create the children’s book, The Lamb That Wanted To Be a Dog. As things started to change in the valley McCrea sold many acres that were then used to build new homes. An active supporter of the community and someone who was passionate about preserving the land, he donated several hundred acres to the Park and Recreation Department. The portion that the family kept is now under the McCrea Foundation and the buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Listening to Ed talk about Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village before development while sifting through his photographs was a special, unforgettable experience. Several of Ed’s photographs are featured in the book, Images of America Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village, published by Arcadia Publishing.
Tricia O'Brien is the author of Images of America Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village, published by Arcadia Publishing. She lives in the Conejo Valley.