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Trip of the Week

City Lassos Old West on Ranch Day

May 08, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

Few Angelenos know anything about ranching, but next month you can mingle with cowboys, blacksmiths and farm animals without leaving the megalopolis.

The Old West returns June 5 when California Ranch Day is celebrated at historic Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach. You can watch branding, horseshoeing, sheep shearing and saddle making.

The farmyard will be filled with everything from huge Shire draft horses to rabbits and chickens. Children will find their favorite animals in the petting corral.

Youngsters also will get to make their own bandannas and coils of hemp rope. Parents may be surprised by the favorite hands-on activity of their offspring--washing clothes the old-fashioned way, scrubbing them on a washboard with homemade soap, cranking them through a wringer and hanging them out to dry.

Rancho visitors that Sunday may see such other long-forgotten domestic arts as butter churning and soap making. You can watch wool being carded, dyed, spun and woven.

Chair caning, rug braiding and other handcrafts of yesteryear will be demonstrated during the event, which runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Entertainment throughout the day will include dulcimer music and clog dancing.

Most of the year Rancho Los Alamitos is a quiet place. With a history that goes back to 1784, it's dedicated to preserving the agricultural heritage of Southern California. The remodeled adobe ranch house is one of the few still standing since Spanish colonial days.

Visitors are welcome to tour the ranch house, barns and extensive gardens Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.; closed today, Mother's Day. Admission is free, except during California Ranch Day, when entry costs $1; children younger than 12, 50 cents.

Thick Adobe Walls

The ranch was part of a 156,000-acre land grant awarded to Manuel Nieto, a corporal in the Spanish army contingent that made the first overland expedition up the California coast. In 1806 his son built an adobe with walls four-feet thick that still exist within the structure of the ranch house.

Cattle, horses and sheep were raised on the property, followed by such field crops of barley and sugar beets before Los Alamitos ceased to be a working ranch in 1952. Children of the rancho's last owners, Florence and Fred Bixby, gave it to the city 20 years ago.

By that time the ranch land had dwindled to 7.5 acres, but it still included the rambling 19-room ranch house and horse and dairy barns. Nowadays the house is furnished with heirlooms of the Bixby family, and the outbuildings feature antique farm implements and ranching exhibits.

Two years ago the nonprofit Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over operation of the site. Visitors are welcomed by volunteer docents who give one-hour guided tours of the house and barns; you're invited to tour the gardens on your own.

To get to this historic rancho, take the San Diego Freeway to the Palo Verde Avenue exit. Continue south on Palo Verde to the guard gate and ask for a pass. Then go up the hill to Bixby Hill Road and turn left. Look right for the ranch entrance and parking lot.

Register at the ranch office and join a docent tour that begins every half an hour. The day's last complete tour begins at 4 p.m.; the 4:30 p.m. tour is only to the house or the barns.

Even on hot days the ranch house is cool because of its thick adobe walls; a section of the original mud-and-straw structure is displayed behind glass. The Bixby family made several renovations, including the addition of fireplaces to every room.

You'll walk over Oriental rugs in the library to reach the music room, where there's a grand piano and a vintage Edison Graphophone. Also look for Mrs. Bixby's 500-piece collection of American glassware.

Bixby's collection of smoking pipes is displayed in the billiards room, but the centerpiece is a pool table that was shipped around Cape Horn. Notice the Mexican serapes that could be pulled over the doorways.

The Dinner Bell

You can also tour the bedrooms with their unusual wardrobes, and bathrooms that have old-time remedies in the medicine chests. Near the huge wood-cooking stove in the kitchen is a rope to the dinner bell that could be heard by ranch hands a mile away.

Tours continue to the big barns where cows were milked and enormous Shire horses were stalled. You'll see a contraption to hold those one-ton horses while the ranch blacksmith was hammering on new horseshoes. His fully equipped shop is close by.

Ribbons awarded to the Bixby's prize-winning Shires are on display, along with a variety of saddles and branding irons used by the cowboys. An exhibit describes the hide and tallow trade that made cattle ranching popular in the Southland's early days.

Ask a docent for the garden map that will guide you to the rancho's trees and plants that cover nearly five acres. The front lawn is dominated by a splendid pair of Moreton Bay figs planted in the 1890s. Don't miss the restored cactus garden.

No refreshments are available at the rancho and picnicking is not permitted. An exception is California Ranch Day when food booths will be set up.

Also that Sunday, parking will be provided just off Palo Verde Avenue in Lot C at Cal State Long Beach. Free shuttle buses will take visitors on a five-minute ride from the campus to the rancho.

For more information about the June 5 event or Rancho Los Alamitos tours, call (213) 431-3541.

Round trip from the Los Angeles Civic Center to the rancho is 58 miles.

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