Elwin Mussell came to Santa Maria from North Dakota in 1921. Without much in the way of education, but loaded with determination, he took a correspondence course and learned the printing trade. Later, when he became a successful businessman, his efforts earned him bragging rights as a “self-made man.”
Mussell’s Santa Maria Advertiser, a free newspaper “Independent as a Hog on Ice,” was published every Thursday, and though it was clear that the newspaper was supported by advertising, it also contained editorials. Mussell later sold his weekly newspaper to the Santa Maria Times.
Around 1944, Mussell purchased 10 acres of land in Ruiz Canyon from attorney Fred Gobel. Additional land purchases adjoining this property increased Mussell’s total ownership considerably.
An avid Democrat, Mussell served on Santa Maria’s City Council for eight years, and also as mayor from 1974 to 1980. During his term in office, plans were formulated to build the Town Center mall, the first mall in town.
Mussell began building Mussell Fort (a replica of an Old Western town) on his 574-acre parcel of property in the early 1950s, and from that point on, his “Fort” became his own personal showcase. His “town” consisted of seven buildings, two of which came from Santa Maria, the rest were built piece by piece by Mussell and his two sons, Doug and Jimmie).
Audrey’s Alcove, the tallest of the buildings, formerly sat on a used car lot on West Main Street. Before the building could be moved, it was cut into many sections, and then reassembled when it reached its destination.
The Room and Board House, the saloon (complete with swinging doors), the sheriff’s office and even the general merchandise store, where visitors were free to purchase carved wooden Indians, made this little fort in the mountains one of California’s best kept secrets.
Always looking for something that would fit into his “fort,” Mussell traveled to 47 states, picking up such items as branding irons, brass knuckles, hand cuffs, a whaling kettle, buckboards, a six-sided poker table, as well as items from the first grocery store in Morro Bay.
The electric generator from the late 1800s had been used for gold plating by Alfred Lutnesky, a Santa Maria jeweler.
On May 11, 1980, on his way home from his fort, Elwin Mussell died in a car accident. His wife, Barbara, who suffered from an extended illness, died 11 days later.
When his father died, his son, Douglas, took over the family’s printing company.
Doug, who inherited his father’s love of collecting, was a noted player-piano collector.
In addition to his many pianos and player pianos, a few of which were manufactured over a 100 years ago, Doug had one of the most extensive collections of music rolls in the county (and possibly the country). Nearly 90 percent were classical tunes “played by the greatest artists, right at the turn of the century.” Doug’s favorite was Arthur Schnabel playing Schubert.
Doug was a quiet man, and rarely had much to say. However, if the subject of pianos and player pianos came up, he came alive with enthusiasm. There was nothing that the man didn’t know about them.
In 2002, three years after selling Mussell Fort, Doug and Audrey Mussell converted the old print shop into the beautiful Doug’s Piano Parlor. All of Doug’s musical paraphernalia was then moved from the couple’s home and tastefully placed in the new building, thereby creating a piano museum.
Doug boasted that his 104-year-old music box, which delicately serenaded the room with “Dixie,” required constant attention in order to maintain the working parts and sound quality. To Doug, though, it was a labor of love.
In addition to his grand and upright player pianos, he had a piano that played the violin and an “orchestrian” that played the piano, drums and snare.
When not restoring pianos, Doug also played baritone horn with the Allan Hancock Band.
Time has a way of taking its toll. Doug’s Piano Parlor has since closed, and both Doug and Jimmie, the last of the Mussells, have died.
Audrey Mussell, Doug’s widow, is scheduled to tell the fascinating story of Mussell Fort at the March 8 Valley Speaks event at 11 a.m. in Shepard Hall of the public library. Since seating is limited, I suggest that you arrive early.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 934-3514 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.