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Legendary Waters : With Matilija Spa Up for Auction, Patrons Hope Indian Magic Will Hold

December 24, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

On a sheer cliff high above Matilija Hot Springs in the Ojai Valley, a lone white cross stands silhouetted against the evening sky.

Some say that the Chumash Indian chief Matilija is buried here and that his spirit wanders the vale at night, searching for a lost daughter and protecting the sulfur hot asprings that bear his name.

"When the Spanish came to Ventura and built the mission, they kept exploring here and became convinced that the Indians were guarding gold. But perhaps they were just guarding these life-saving waters," said 66-year-old Bill Olivas, a former wrestler and gentle Buddha of a man who, with his wife, Martha, has managed Matilija since 1965.

As Olivas recounts the legend of Matilija from a massage room inside the cabin-like spa, the slow, solemn drip of water onto rock punctuates his words. From cloistered rooms, unseen, gurgling pipes carry a mantra to those who seek the spring's soothing warmth.

$300,000 Minimum Bid

Patrons hope that the spirit of Matilija will continue to protect the hot springs in February, when Ventura County puts the 9.5-acre property on the auction block at a minimum bid of $300,000. The county has owned the natural spa since 1947, when it purchased the land for the Matilija Dam project.

But the dam's waters failed to inundate the site, so the county, which maintains that it never intended to enter the mineral-bath business, eventually leased the property to Olivas. Today, flagging business has put Olivas $50,000 behind on his rent, and the county has opted out, saying that it wants to sell its small parcels of open space and concentrate on developing large regional parks.

Olivas, in turn, says he is ready to retire after years of managing a relaxing but less-than-lucrative venture. He traces his financial woes to the steep cost of liability insurance and a 1985 forest fire that closed the springs and caused extensive damage.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday formally decided to sell the hot springs. However, because zoning prevents new development at the site, the next owner will probably spruce up Matilija and continue operating it as a spa.

Ted Nauman, a Ventura marketing consultant interested in buying the business for a group of investors he declined to name, calls it "an under-utilized wilderness attraction." County officials say they have had almost 20 inquiries.

Like many spots where hot water bubbles up from the earth, Matilija has long been considered by many to be a magical place.

The past doubles back on itself here in strange and mysterious ways. How else to explain the fact that Olivas, whose Mexican great-grandfather may have battled Chumash Indians near this spot, now tends the waters and stokes the legend of the dead Indian chief Matilija?

Centuries before the Spanish stumbled upon the Ojai Valley, the Chumash built lodges here and immersed themselves in the mineral springs for religious ritual and purification.

Ojai historical records show that the Chumash did not live at Matilija proper but camped near Meiners Oaks, three miles to the south, and posted guards along the trails that led to the sacred waters. Alternating between steam baths and icy plunges in nearby streams, Chumash males underwent rites of passage and prowess here. Women remained at home.

Then came the Spanish, who established the San Buenaventura Mission in 1782 under Father Junipero Serra and whose soldiers soon began exploring as far inland as Ojai. Olivas' great-grandfather, Raimundo Olivas, was one of the garrison soldiers who served the Mexican government and was rewarded with a land grant for a 4,700-acre rancho near the Santa Clara River, according to Ventura historian Judith Triem.

In the 1840s, the former soldier built the Olivas Adobe, now a state historic landmark.

Ventura historian E. M. Sheridan has written that, in 1824, the Chumash Indians attacked Spanish soldiers at San Buenaventura Mission. One tale has it that the Indians were avenging the Spanish extermination of an Indian settlement in the Sulfur Mountains near Ojai, but historians have been unable to document that.

By legend, Chief Matilija led the attack, in part to rescue his daughter Amatil, who was being held at the mission against her will. The chief wrested his daughter from Spanish hands, but soldiers pursued the Indians to the mouth of Matilija Canyon, where Amatil's lover, Olana, was mortally wounded.

Crazed with grief, Amatil broke into tears and eventually also died--of a broken heart. According to the story, everywhere her tears fell, there bloomed a pure white poppy that has become known as the Matilija poppy.

In another version, Chief Matilija--in loneliness and despair at finding his daughter dead--jumped to his own death from the rock just below Matilija Springs. His remains are said to be buried at the white cross, and Olivas says that, each spring, the star-shaped Matilija poppy blooms on his grave.

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