Herman Keene poses with mountain lion
Herman Balden Keene (1879-1965) was born in Ventura, to Josiah Keene and Lucy Monroe. Both sides of his family had East Coast roots predating the American Revolution, but in 1872 his parents voyaged west, settling on a small plot of land outside San Buenaventura. The elder Keene, a Civil War veteran and former Treasury Department clerk, planted walnut and orange orchards, and his holdings expanded two years later through the Homestead Act, when he acquired 160 acres in the Rancho Sespe. Josiah Keene almost doubled his estate soon afterward, through the Timber Culture Act, and developed a substantial array of vineyards, olive orchards, and beehives.
Herman, the third of five Keene children, was raised in a large home on Ventura Avenue and attended Ventura public schools until 1889, when the family built a new home on its Santa Paula farmland. He attended Santa Paula High School, enrolled in business courses, and worked on the Keene ranch until his father's death in 1900. He took over his father's role as manager of the family's agricultural business, adding more acreage to the sizable Keene estate, and developing new apricot and lemon orchards. In 1907, he married another newcomer to the Santa Clara River Valley, Vesta Leah Fansler (1876-1959).
Herman Keene cultivated an outdoorsman's lifestyle and persona. He trapped and hunted local animals for farmers protective of their livestock and collectors eager for rare predators. As a result, he developed a reputation around Santa Paula and Ventura as a grizzled bounty hunter and naturalist, rather than an heir to one of the area's wealthier landowners. Keene's wealth did separate him from the local hunters and trappers who preceded him, though, in one key way––he was able to document the Ventura County backcountry he explored in fine detail, as a photographer and filmmaker.
Keene's footage captures traces of Santa Paula that may be familiar to some viewers, but it also provides rare glimpses of a less accessible wilderness than Ventura County residents know today. Lone hunters, natural disasters, and the search for gold collide with theme parks, expanding campsites, and the exciting, unsteady mobility of a budding car culture. In doing so, Keene captures––sometimes self-consciously, other times accidentally––a unique moment in the evolution of his home region and the American West.