Editor’s Note: Millie Decker died peacefully in her sleep on Christmas Eve 2018. She was 98 years old. This story was originally published in 2016.
“Riding horses was like bread and milk for us, just an everyday common thing,” remarks Millie Decker, one of Malibu’s oldest and most treasuredresidents. Arriving in 1925, she remembers a Malibu inhabited solely by the original ranching/homesteader families. Pacific Coast Highway was just a dirt track with gates at both ends, guarded by the often-terrifying gure of Mary Rindge, the “Queen of Malibu.”
“As a child,” Millie smiles, “I was scared to death of Mrs Rindge. She used to go around in these long dresses, wearing a great big old western gun belt with guns on both sides!” Millie, herself is a force to be reckoned with, a wild haired woman with steely blue eyes. She’s tucked her western shirt neatly into her leather gaucho pants that show off a huge turquoise belt buckle. Married three times to men from the original ranch families of thearea, Harold Lewis, Warner Mandeville, and Jimmy Decker, this mother of three is still lithe, and walks with a cane only when she is calling to herhorses or taking her blue heeler dog out on a walk.
To say she is tough is an understatement.
Mille was the youngest daughter of Percy and Rose Meek. Her father was meek in name only; he was a rancher, a bronc rider, a hunting-dog trainer and a lion tamer. He was even called to hunt down criminals for Ventura County with his thirty blood hounds. Percy moved his family to Malibu and settled at the Mesa Ranch, now known as Circle X Ranch in Decker Canyon. He needed space to train his lion hunting blood hounds. He’d planned a trip to Manchuria to hunt Mongolian tigers.
“My father was the bravest man I ever knew. We had a mountain lion staked out between the house and the barn that Daddy used for training his dogs. I remember the time the mountain lion got loose, knocked me over, killed a few chickens and ran up a tree.” Millie laughs. As the story goes, her father climbed the tree, put a choke collar on the mountain lion and headed home. At rst the family was meant to spend only the summerin the small cabin at the Mesa Ranch, but they never left. Those early days of family square dances at Yerba Buena school, hunting on horseback, running horses and cattle, living off the land now exist only in the Malibu of Millie’s memory.
There were always plenty of animals. “Mama had a pet skunk who hated other skunks and would spray whenever it met one. Mama would end up retching.” Millie laughs. “I even had a pet coyote pup my father gave me.” In Millie’s case, that old saying,“I could ride before I could walk,” is actuallytrue. “When I was a year old my father put me on a mare to babysit me. A year later I had a horse of my own and I’ve owned horses ever since.” Inthe pasture behind her house she keeps two retired horses, with bloodlines that run back to her father’s original stock.
“I keep asking my horse trainer son, Chip Mandeville, to buy me a nice gentle horse.” Millie says with a raised eyebrow. “Every time I ask, he tells mehe hasn’t found one yet. I don’t think he is really looking that hard.”
“Anyway, I’m over the hill now,” she laughs. “I do love that expression. I think it’s a Western sort of expression.”
With no sons, and being the Meeks’ youngest, Millie was raised by her father as the son he never had. She and her sisters rode rodeo with their father. “We were put on the bulls in the bucking shoots and we would just hang on until Daddy would ride up and pick us up off the bulls. I think we were just too scared to fall off!”
When she was older, Millie began team roping with her father. Her son Chip explains: “My mother could hold her own with the guys whether she wasroping or trading goods out of the trade bag at the end of the day at the rodeo.
“When the cattle gathers happened at the local ranches, the ranch men would show up to help rope and brand the cattle. Millie was the only woman at those old gathers. It was a test of skill – only the top horsemen were allowed to do the roping and drag the calves to the re, and that was pretty muchall my mother did. “They had to respect her because she was the best.”
At age twelve Millie was one of the rst female jockeys to get her jockey card. She rode her father’s race horses at the Los Alamitos Race Course. “In the 1930’s it was most de nitely a man’s world. Initially there was a lot of animosity from the owners and other jockeys. Millie earned their respect by winning, and they soon gured they better pay her some attention.” Millie Decker laughs: “Well, I can’t say how much of a lady I am.” A self-proclaimed tomboy, thisfascinating woman has walked a long ways in her cowboy boots, (she boasts of owning a pair in every color). These days Millie spends her time with herfamily at her ranch in Decker Canyon. Millie says of her years spent in Malibu, “I was very lucky to live the life I have lived out here like this. Being outsidein the sun seems to do more good than anything else.”
Amelia Fleetwood, email@example.com