Preserving 19th-Century New England in modern Southern California isn't always easy. But along the winding 2-mile road that passes through storybook Oak Glen, people are doing their best.
In an effort to attract more visitors in the springtime, farmers and merchants are holding Oak Glen's first Apple Blossom Festival. The event began Monday and continues through next weekend in the San Bernardino Mountain community 6 miles north of Yucaipa.
"In October, it's wall to wall here with people who come for the apple harvest," said Bill Palluth, one of the festival's organizers. "But in the spring you have it all to yourself."
The owner of a curio shop, Palluth is president of the Oak Glen Apple Growers Assn., but even he has just one apple tree. The growers concede that the debut apple blossom festival is a little short on blossoms, because a warm winter forced a bloom that has come and gone for most varieties.
And there are other twists as well. The 16 local high school girls vying for the Miss Apple Blossom title were taken aback to learn that pie baking is among the contest events. None had ever baked a pie.
Part of the Attraction
But that is part of Oak Glen's attraction. Entertainment comes via unpredictable Mother Nature and the unpackaged charms of country life.
"City people come here and say they get their sanity back," said Lucille Broaders, granddaughter of one of the area's pioneer farmers. "They feel healthy. The sky is blue and clear. You get recharged."
Broaders is curator of the stonework Old School House built in 1927. It is now a museum.
Robbie Robertson, co-owner of 320-acre Los Rios Rancho, also hails from a pioneer family.
"The ones who really love it are people from the East," he said. "They take one look at the orchards and the mountains, and they feel like they're home again."
Los Rios is the largest of the 13 farms that line twisting Oak Glen Road. Many allow visitors to roam without charge through the apple orchards, as long as a farm hand knows they are there. Los Rios and several others also provide free picnic areas.
Events this weekend at various locations include bird watching, hiking, cider pressing, a clogging exhibit, a Maypole dance and dulcimer recitals. Many of the same events will be offered next weekend, along with a farmers parade, a barbecue, hayrides, the crowning of the Apple Blossom queen and a square dance and hoedown.
Shops along the road sell such locally made crafts as blown glass and wood carvings, plus items imported from Appalachia and other rural areas. Although apples are not in season, hungry visitors may choose from five restaurants and several roadside produce stands.
Palluth has an art gallery in his curio shop. There is a homemade candy store next door, a petting zoo up the road and a low-key, folksy feel to the whole area.
"What we're trying to do at our farm is keep everything in the 1800s' style," said Shelli Riley of Riley's Log Cabin Farm and Orchard, where the square dance and hoedown will be held next Saturday.
"We call the idea 'entertainment farming,' where people can come and press apple cider and see farm animals and dance country dances."
Several Oak Glen residents said the community, population 480, faces an uncertain future. Apples--about 60 varieties of them--grow well at the mile-high elevation, and orchards have been producing since the late 1860s.
Harvest season has become a tradition for tourists. Between Labor Day and New Year's, the area is perhaps the largest direct-sale apple market in the country. Visitors flock there to buy fresh apples, often picking the fruit themselves.
"But it seems like the crops are less dependable now," Robertson said. "The weather seems to be warming. We'll get a warm winter and then a late frost and lose some apples."
Because different varieties mature at different times--only Romes are still in bloom--the entire harvest is never lost. But farmers must sometimes import missing varieties from other areas of California to satisfy visitors, many of whom come to Oak Glen specifically to choose from a wide range of apples.
Farmers see two alternatives to their single-season economy. One is to diversify--grow additional crops and attract tourists at other times of the year with events that showcase farming methods and rural culture. This is the route favored by most, and new stands of pears, berries and other fruit have been planted.
'Always Be Apples'
"There will always be apples at Oak Glen," grower Devon Riley said. "But we want to offer people more than that. We want to be known for a range of family activities."
The farmers' second alternative is to sell their land to developers.
"There are plenty of people in the county who look at this land and see homes on lots," Palluth said. "When a farmer is struggling, selling out to a developer can be an attractive way to go."
But for the near future, at least, Oak Glen will remain a rural enclave.
Travelers will not find the community on many maps. The tiny village has no post office, and residents' mail is addressed to Yucaipa. There is, however, a Yucaipa-Oak Glen off-ramp from Interstate 10, and the road is well-marked with signs leading to Oak Glen.
The drive from Los Angeles takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Overnight visitors may be surprised to learn that the town has no motels. San Bernardino County offers motor home spaces at Yucaipa Regional Park a few miles away, and motels can be found in Yucaipa and Beaumont.
Other attractions in the area are nearby Cherry Valley, where cherries may be picked in summer, and Palm Springs, about a 45-minute drive from Oak Glen. Information: (714) 797-1005.