The bedroom community of Simi Valley began as one of the largest Spanish land grants in the Southland. Rancho Jose de Gracia de Simi was awarded to the Pico family in 1795 and covered 100,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Much of the land originally used for grazing cattle and sheep is now smothered with subdivisions, but reminders of the early era are still around. In Strathearn Historical Park you can go into the Simi Adobe, a ranch home of the Spanish period.
Travelers often stopped there on their way between Missions San Fernando Rey and San Buenaventura. Although damaged by fire during an Indian uprising in the 1820s, the adobe has survived through the years.
Near the turn of the century it was incorporated into the modest Victorian home built by Robert P. Strathearn, a cattle rancher who bought 14,000 acres of the former rancho. The house still contains furnishings the family brought from Scotland.
Donated as Museum
In 1969 the Strathearns gave the building and six acres to serve as a museum for Simi Valley. Other historic structures have been moved there and visitors are welcome Sunday afternoons.
Elsewhere in Simi Valley you can view a remarkable folk art creation, Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village. Single-handedly Tressa Prisbrey constructed 13 buildings, using more than 1 million bottles and other items scavenged from a dump.
Simi Valley visitors also can see the restored railroad station that served passengers on the Southern Pacific line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The route was opened in 1904 after a train tunnel was cut through the Simi Hills.
The railroad spurred development of the pastoral valley that previously had been accessible from Los Angeles only by Indian trails or by a stagecoach road that was blasted out of the bedrock in the 1860s. On Sunday mornings you can join half-day hikes that follow the old stage route.
Some Familiar Scenes
Nowadays motorists from Los Angeles quickly reach Simi Valley via California 118, the Simi Valley-San Fernando Valley Freeway. The more scenic approach is along the narrow Santa Susana Pass Road that winds past huge sandstone boulders that have served as backdrops for many Western movies and TV shows.
Begin your trip by heading north on Interstate 5 to join California 118 west toward Simi Valley. Exit south at Chatsworth on California 27, Topanga Canyon Road. Get in the right-hand lane and at the bottom of the hill make the first right turn onto Santa Susana Pass Road.
Drive carefully on this mountainous route that opened in 1915 to replace the stagecoach and wagon roads. It served Simi Valley as the main highway to Los Angeles for more than half a century until the freeway was built in 1970. Before turning onto Santa Susana Pass Road you can explore this Old West area on foot.
Just continue a mile south on Topanga Canyon Road in Chatsworth and turn right (west) on Devonshire Street. It dead ends in the parking lot of Chatsworth Park South, starting point for hikes led by members of the Santa Susana Mountain Park Assn.
The citizens group hopes to establish a 430-acre state park and organizes 3 1/2-hour outings that begin Sundays at 9 a.m. Wear comfortable shoes and carry drinking water for the free hikes that take you back to earlier times along the old stage trail (except August and September). Details: (818) 885-8479.
As Santa Susana Pass Road descends into Simi Valley, continue straight on Katherine Road to the Santa Susana railroad depot. When the turn-of-the-century station was closed after 74 years of service, it was moved three miles from its original site to Santa Susana Park.
Vandals set fire to the second story and the exterior has only recently been refurbished. The building remains closed while funds are being sought to restore the interior for use as a railroad museum or playhouse.
Turn left from the park on Kuehner Drive, and bear left (west) on the City of Simi Valley's main street, Los Angeles Avenue. Go 1.7 miles, turn right on Stearns Street, then left on Cochran Street to No. 4595. Behind the fence you'll see a city, county and state landmark, Grandma Prisbrey's bottle houses.
She erected the first one in 1955 to hold her collection of 17,000 pencils. Bottles caught her eye when she decided that concrete blocks were too expensive and went to the dump in search of free building materials. The determined woman spent more than two decades creating a fantasy village out of discarded items.
Grandma always welcomed visitors to tour her property but now she's 90 years old and in a San Francisco nursing home. Despite a developer's intention to bulldoze the land, her works of contemporary folk art still stand.
They've been saved by the Preserve Bottle Village Committee, but city approvals and renovation are needed before the site is reopened to the public on a regular basis. Meanwhile you can view grandma's work from the front and left-side fences. Or call ((805) 583-1627 to arrange a brief tour.