Two towns in eastern Ventura County recall earlier times when the railroad brought life to the pastoral Santa Clara Valley.
Far-flung ranchos had the rich river valley to themselves until the 1880s when the Southern Pacific laid an east-west line between Ventura and Newhall. A midway freight stop was named after the train company's division chief, J. P. Fillmore.
Today, visitors to Fillmore learn about the town's past at the local museum, fittingly housed in the 1887 Southern Pacific depot and an old boxcar.
Mansion Is Landmark
Down the road is a smaller town, Piru, with a grand Victorian mansion that's a county landmark. Also in the valley you'll find a vintage one-room schoolhouse that students have attended since 1895.
Other treats in store are just-picked oranges for sale at roadside stands, outdoor recreation including fishing and golf, and an intimate French-style country inn with gourmet fare.
Get to the Santa Clara Valley from Los Angeles by heading north on the Golden State Freeway to the Castaic Junction beyond Magic Mountain and exiting west on California 126.
Drive cautiously because traffic is heavy on this two-lane artery to Santa Paula, where the road becomes a freeway to Ventura. You'll parallel the railroad tracks and Santa Clara River through verdant citrus orchards before a side road diverts right to Piru.
A wealthy publisher of Sunday school literature in Illinois, David C. Cook, came west for his health and founded the town a century ago. The son of a Methodist minister, he first built a church and then a magnificent home called the Piru Mansion.
Burned Home Rebuilt
Cook's ornate home burned down a few years ago, but it has been rebuilt to the original Victorian design. Continue on Center Street and turn right on Park Street for a glimpse of the mansion at the road's end. The driveway is private, so do not enter.
Cook's Gothic clapboard church that dates to 1890 can be seen on Center Street just beyond Park. Go back on Center to Main Street and turn left for a pretty drive to the Lake Piru Recreation Area.
This reservoir collects rainfall from Los Padres National Forest for the valley's water supply, and also makes a pleasant place to picnic, boat, fish and camp. Day-use entry is $2.50 per vehicle, camping $7 to $10 per night.
When you're back in Piru, continue south on Main Street to rejoin California 126, Telegraph Road, and turn right (west) toward Fillmore. Along the way, stop at one of the roadside stands to stock up on fresh oranges and other fruit.
Near town you may want to detour left over the railroad tracks at a sign to the Fillmore State Fish Hatchery.
Daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., thousands of rainbow trout can be viewed in outdoor ponds where they are raised from eggs to year-old fish before being planted in Southland streams. A display board explains the fish-hatching story, and the children can buy fish food from a 5-cent machine.
In Fillmore, turn right from the highway on Central Avenue and cross the train track to Main Street. Turn right again and look left for the depot and boxcar, the Fillmore Museum. It's open every day from 1 to 5 p.m. except major holidays.
Railroad memorabilia is displayed in the boxcar, while mementos from the town's early days are spotlighted in the depot. A 1900 music box with two-foot tin records played in Fillmore's first theater. There's also a good collection of citrus labels.
A special exhibit is a model of a cave used as a nest by the condor, North America's largest land bird. The national forest north of Fillmore is a former sanctuary of this endangered species.
A drive around town reveals the Midwestern flavor of Fillmore. Among its interesting architecture is the Trinity Episcopal Church that was built 85 years ago in Port Hueneme and later dismantled and reassembled at the corner of 2nd and Saratoga streets.
If you're hungry, Scott's Shrimp Basket recently opened at 329 Central Ave. around the corner from the museum. At 454 Santa Clara St. opposite the museum and city park, you can choose from an impressive menu of continental dishes at Le Provencal.
Chef Nick Orban opens the dining room from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations: (805) 524-4315.
Before heading home, continue west on California 126 about five miles and look left for the bright-red Victorian schoolhouse that's been in session for 90 years. It's a favorite of photographers.
You can continue west on California 126 to join U.S. 101 at Ventura for the return trip to Los Angeles.
Or go back to Fillmore and turn south on California 23 that climbs over the Oak Ridge mountains to Moorpark and Thousand Oaks to join U.S. 101.
A Round of Golf
As you start up the curvy road, golfers should plan a pause at the Elkins Ranch Golf Course to challenge its par-71 layout amid the orchard-covered foothills. Call (805) 524-1440 for greens fees and a tee-off time. The 18-hole course boasts a scenic snack bar, too.
You may want to time your trip to Fillmore during one its annual community events. Coming up March 16, an arts-and-crafts fair will be in the Memorial Building, 511 2nd St. Or mark your calendar May 17 for the town's annual May Festival with a parade, barbecue and carnival.
If you decide to spend the night in Fillmore, the only lodging is the Best Western La Posada Motel on California 126 (827 Ventura St.). Phone: (805) 524-0440.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Fillmore and the Santa Clara Valley is 115 miles.