By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Debra DiPaolo
The wind was blowing through Malibu’s Decker Canyon on the day Millie Decker stepped out onto her back porch and heard the distant clatter of helicopters. Moments later, several wide-bellied prop planes roared overhead. Millie could not yet smell the smoke or see the flames, because the wind was at her back, but she knew that a fire was coming, and she was determined to fight it. She moved quickly across her property, checking the shovels and gunnysacks and barrels of water with which she would save her ranch, just as her extended family has been doing it since the 1880s.
At 83, Millie Decker is Malibu’s dust-strewn memory. She remembers when Point Dume was just a grassy mesa, the Pacific Coast Highway just a rutted trail, and Malibu was home to more cowboys than people who played them in the movies. Millie has known her share of danger — taming wild horses, riding crazed bulls, detonating dynamite — but nothing has tested her nerve like the wildfires that periodically ravage the area. Like the one that was burning its way up Decker Canyon that day last January. But this time, something unusual happened: Millie’s son, Chip, called to say that she would have to evacuate; minutes later, a family friend named Kim Tipper arrived to escort her to safety. “I know you’re going to give me hell,” she told her, “but I have to do this.” Of course, Millie objected, said she wasn’t going, reminded Kim that she had never once fled from a fire. But when it was clear that Kim would not back down, she gathered up her two dogs, climbed into her 1969 powder-blue Chevy pickup truck and headed up the canyon to a neighbor’s ranch, where she waited out the fire.
“That was the first time I ever left for a fire,” Millie told me, “and it gave me a bad feeling. I guess my kids think I am getting too old, but I would have liked to stay and fight. I am not as fast as I used to be, but I think I could have handled myself — the way I always have.”
Millie Decker is the last of a kind. She is known by many as the last of the Malibu hillbillies. She is also the last of the Decker clan, though only by marriage — her husband Jimmy, who died in 1991, was the last of the bloodline Deckers to live in the canyon. At one time, Decker Canyon was inhabited almost entirely by the Decker family. The original family members were homesteaders — most likely a mix of war veterans, tenant farmers and disgruntled Midwesterners looking for a better life and a bit of free land. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, they were entitled to as much as 160 acres, and they found it in the dusty canyons above Malibu. The children attended the Decker Schoolhouse, where they allegedly referred to one another as “cousin.” Like the Scottish clans of old, the Deckers melded family and place until both had just one name. No one in the family spoke of “Decker Canyon,” or “Decker Road,” just “Decker.” Yet as wealthy industry types began migrating to Malibu in increasing numbers, property taxes went through the roof, and the Deckers slowly moved away. All that remains now is Millie’s ranch.Horse whisperer: Chip Decker
The property itself is a near-vertical piece of land, a multitiered horse ranch carved out of the steep walls of Decker Canyon. The first tier contains the horses, the second tier houses Millie and her chickens, the third tier belongs to Millie’s son, Chip, the fourth to her daughter, Bonnie, and the fifth to a renter named Dave. In general, the ranch is built so steeply that it is impossible to see the tier above or below you; Millie says the landscaping exemplifies the old homesteader spirit — making something out of nothing.
A slight woman not much more than 5 feet tall, Millie has a full head of curled white hair and fierce blue eyes. When I paid her a visit not long ago, for a book I was writing on people who live in bizarre, disaster-prone areas, she was wearing a pair of reddish cowboy boots, green denim work pants and a turquoise shirt with a wide butterfly collar. These were just her work clothes, she explained. At her feet were several sheepdogs dashing about frantically, guarding her every step and barking at me in unison. Without saying a word, Millie reached down and began to stroke the largest of the dogs, patting his head and rubbing his fur. At that, all of the dogs quieted down.
I followed Millie down a small dirt road that ran along the length of the second tier. As a young girl, Millie told me, she attended the Decker Schoolhouse. She first met Jimmy at the age of 5 when her father — a renowned hunter named Perc Meek — saved his dog from a hungry mountain lion. After that they became friends, yet they didn’t actually marry until their 40s. By then Millie had two young children from a previous marriage — Bonnie and Chip. Jimmy Decker never had children himself, but he raised Millie’s as his own. Bonnie even changed her last name to Decker.