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Exhibit Offers Look at Pastoral Heritage of Santa Cruz Island : History: So self-contained it once had its own money, the retreat boasted a winery, ranching and famous guests. But one had to have an invitation to visit.

November 09, 1989|SHANNON FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a private man living on a private Mediterranean-like paradise, who preserved its closely held charms for 30 years.

Now those carefully protected island charms will be disclosed in an exhibit, "Santa Cruz: Island of the Holy Cross--the Private Years," at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art in downtown Ventura.

The exhibit, drawn from the private collection of the island's late owner, Dr. Carey Stanton, is being shown by the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, an organization set up by Stanton to preserve the area's heritage and history.

Stanton, who owned nine-tenths of the island from 1957 until his death in 1987, delighted in the era of Santa Cruz's ranchos, vaqueros and wineries, said Marla Daily, president of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and Stanton's personal assistant for 15 years. He tracked down art, books and artifacts pertaining to Santa Cruz, which is described by Daily as "the largest privately owned island in the world."

In 1869, Frenchman Justinian Caire and nine other investors formed the Santa Cruz Island Co., but Caire soon became the island's sole owner. He erected most of the structures that remain today, built a winery and began the island's extensive sheep and cattle ranching.

An Italian life style pervaded the place. Caire's wife, Albina, was homesick for her native Italy, so he imported Italian cowboys, Italian foods and even Italian evergreen trees. Hanging in the exhibit is a wooden sign, in Italian, that lists such mess hall rules as "Don't complain about the soup. Don't throw food on the floor. Don't fool around at the table. Don't waste bread and don't feed the dog."

Caire built and operated the Santa Cruz Island Winery in the late 1800s, importing grapes from France. Several items from the winery are displayed, including a record book that lists the winery's production and the destination of every cask of wine. Caire made nine varieties of Santa Cruz Island wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel, until the winery was closed with the advent of Prohibition. No bottles are known to exist.

Santa Cruz Island even had its own money--small brass coins called "fischas," which Caire used to pay sheep shearers. The coins, which were stamped from sheets of brass and engraved with the island logo--a cross on a hill and SCIC, the abbreviation for the Santa Cruz Island Co.--came in two sizes: dime-sized for docile or smaller sheep and quarter-sized for larger, unruly sheep. The vaqueros used the coins, which are featured in the exhibit, in the island's commissary and traded them for dollars when they traveled to the mainland.

In 1937, Los Angeles businessman Edwin Stanton bought the western nine-tenths of the island for approximately $1 million after Caire's grandchildren put the 56,000 acres on the market. The remaining one-tenth of the 62,000-acre island is still owned by Caire's grandchildren, the Gherini family. The bulk of the island was willed by Carey Stanton to the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to land preservation.

In 1957, six years before his father's death, Carey Stanton returned to the island after earning a medical degree from Stanford and practicing medicine in the New York area for 10 years. Surrounded by the island's striking beauty, Stanton began his role as steward, historian and affable host to a legion of interesting visitors, from John Barrymore to Jane Fonda to the Eagles' singer Joe Walsh. Others, however, were out of luck. Without an invitation they could not visit.

A re-creation of a portion of Stanton's office, complete with a window opening onto a photographed view of the ranch, is in one corner of the exhibit. It looks as if Stanton is expected to return any moment. His Mexican serape hangs on the back of the chair, a cigar cutter sits on a shelf, and a sign on the desk reads: "A clean office is the sign of a sick mind." Books from Stanton's 5,000-volume library on the Channel Islands and ranch records line shelves above the desk.

The records, meticulously updated by Stanton, date to 1884. The name of all workers, what they did, whether they were to be rehired and personality traits such as "good worker," "tramp," "lazy" or "good man" were listed. The most mundane ranch events--the docking of boats, the current price of wool, even daily weather reports--also are included.

Replicas of pigs dominate the far corner showcase, adding a whimsical touch to the exhibit. Pigs in jade, crystal, porcelain and brass, pigs in leather, straw, wood, fur and clay are taken from Stanton's pig collection, which numbers in the hundreds. Daily said pig cups, soup tureens, pitchers, door stops and piggy banks were stuck in every nook and cranny of the ranch. The ironic part, she said, is that Stanton never bought a pig for himself; all were gifts.

Filling out the display are farming and ranching tools, island silverware, the island chain of title from the King of Spain, Stanton's book of memoirs, photographs of island life and paintings from the late 19th Century to contemporary times.

Santa Cruz's unspoiled scenery drew many well-known California artists, such as Alexander Harmer, Carl Oscar Borg, Ludmilla Welch and Richard Diebenkorn. Stanton's 48-piece Diebenkorn collection is one of the largest of the artist's works. Diebenkorn, who was Stanton's roommate at Stanford, also designed the Santa Cruz Island flag, which shows a white cross on a hill bounded by a blue field for the sea and sky and a green field for the island pastures.

The exhibit, which opened Saturday, runs through Feb. 3. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge, but donations are requested.

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