True grit survives 81 years of ranching


Millie Decker is my hero.

In the land of movie stars, millionaires, beautiful people who have purchased their looks on plastic surgeon’s gurneys, Millie Decker is Malibu, California’s rare gem: the real thing.

Millie Decker, at age 81, has held staunchly on to her ranch in Decker Canyon in spite of skyrocketing property taxes, nasty neighbors, real estate brokers with outlandish offers to buy her out, and blazing fires.

She is the most seasoned of all firefighters, and works hard to save the homestead that she has spent years cultivating.

A lifetime of skills. “She’s been dealing with wildfires ever since the Pacific Coast Highway was just a wagon trail,” her daughter Bonnie told author Jake Halpern.

It was this conversation that convinced Halpern he had to meet this woman.

A recent photograph of Millie in Halpern’s book, Braving Home, shows a woman dressed in full rodeo regalia, demonstrating how to lasso cattle.

She spent her childhood winning rodeo bull-riding competitions, and by age 16 she was racing horses at fairs throughout southern California

“It took an enormous amount of wrist strength to work the reins of a racehorse, and Millie conditioned herself by milking the cows as much as she could.

“Within a few years she was jockeying professionally, riding against men who jealously guarded the sport as a bastion of masculinity,” Halpern writes.

Being brave. These experiences toughened her up, making her brave enough to hang on to her home while others try to push her out.

Now widowed, Millie and Jimmy had carved, quite literally, their horse ranch on four levels of rocky canyon.

Daughter Bonnie lives on one tier, son Chip yet another, a renter on the top tier.

“They all lived on the same ranch, but most of the time you would hardly know it, for the rise was so steep that no matter where you were it was almost impossible to see the tier above or below you,” Halpern explains.

Their ranch is worth millions, yet they have no fire insurance.

In Malibu, fire insurance is horribly expensive. The Deckers rely on brush-clearing, a constant supply of wet gunnysacks and experience as their fire insurance.

A dynamiter. Jimmy had been famous as a dynamiter, blasting holes for swimming pools or splitting a massive boulder that was on the verge of crushing a mansion.

He often worked on movie sets. He made lots of friends in his work, and visitors to Decker Canyon had included Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Orson Welles.

Many early Westerns were shot not far from Decker Canyon, and over the years Millie and her father, Perc, came to know Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and John Wayne.

Bill Boyd, known as Hopalong Cassidy, lives just across the canyon and was a good family friend.

It seems ironic that Donna Douglas, who played Elly May Clampett for television’s Beverly Hillbillies, is a cousin.

The Deckers are sort of the opposite of the Beverly Hillbillies, for they are accused of being the hillbillies who stayed on their Malibu farm, while mansions spring up all around them.

Talking about fires. “So, I guess you want to talk about fires,” Millie finally said to the author.

She described her first fire in 1928, at age 8, watching her parents furiously beat the ground with wet gunnysacks in an attempt to smother the flames.

She still remembers the incredibly intense heat.

A few years later, she and her sister were ushered in to the principal’s office for dreadful news: another wildfire had swept through their canyon and both of their parents were dead.

Millie and her sister left the school and were sobbing by the side of the road when her two parents drove around the bend in their automobile. Millie’s parents were survivors.

Lacking water. The howling canyon winds and dry brush is only part of the problem.

“We never had much water up here in the canyon,” Millie explains.

“We rely on spring water. And we still fight fires with the gunnysacks and barrels.”

Millie Decker has never lost a house or a horse to fire, an incredible point of pride.

She still likes to ride her palomino in her corral and hike the remote corners of her ranch. She can’t picture herself any place else.

In a land where youth, beauty and wealth seem to prevail, Millie Decker has proven that it takes more true grit to survive 81 years ranching in wildfire canyon than any actor could ever pretend to possess.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.