Walking into the Mill feed store in Santa Paula is like going back to grandpa's childhood. Caged birds twitter in the corner, stacks of feed cover the ground and a long string of raccoon tails swings overhead.
At the counter, down-home clerks talk about what matters: "How'd ya bowl last night?" one asks another.
This store and other reminders of a vanishing era--from the quaint Main Street shops to shady, tree-lined avenues--are what attract visitors and residents to this town of 26,000, which local people like to think of as the citrus capital of the world.
Surrounded by miles of agricultural land in the verdant Santa Clara Valley and tucked between South Mountain and Sulphur Mountain, Santa Paula is the geographic center of Ventura County.
This setting is what attracted Cynthia and Fred Davis when they relocated from Santa Barbara to be closer to Fred's banking job in Simi Valley.
"We looked all over the county," said Cynthia, a sewing instructor. "We checked out everything between Ventura and the Conejo Grade. We didn't want to live in Thousand Oaks or Simi Valley because of the heat."
Finally deciding on Santa Paula, the couple are now delighted with the town, their vintage home and oak-tree-filled neighborhood.
"We love it," Cynthia said. "It's quiet. We feel like we're in seventh heaven. It's like drop-out time."
Of course, the couple didn't drop out, but got right to work improving the two-bedroom, two-bathroom 1920s home they recently bought for $275,000. They spruced up the home's endearing qualities--the hardwood floors, architectural detail and French doors--and added on a master suite.
Another couple who relocated to Santa Paula came from Woodland Hills. Dana and Marriann Elcar had often passed through Santa Paula en route to their boat in Oxnard. Eventually the town snagged their hearts.
"We began to realize that it was a lovely, lovely town," recalled Dana Elcar, who plays Pete Thornton on the television show "MacGyver."
Even though the couple and their two young children weren't anxious to leave their woodsy Valley home, they did buy in Santa Paula six years ago and learned a lesson in the process.
"We made a discovery," he said. "Just because you have a good thing doesn't mean it can't get better."
He doesn't mind the 70-minute drive to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, claiming that some actors living in Malibu have a longer commute time because of traffic. His children ride horses and his daughter is on the swim team.
"This is and has the feel of a small town," he said. "When we first moved here a woman actually came over with some pies. It's a delightful change when you work in Hollywood all week."
Actually, the actor brought a bit of Hollywood--or Broadway--to Santa Paula. Along with another local actor who wanted to stay active in live theater, Elcar founded the Santa Paula Theater Center, for which he serves as artistic director and Marriann serves as general manager. The theater puts on four to five plays a year, along with hosting dance troups, children's theater and fund-raising talent shows.
The Elcars are also happy with their home. The adobe-style home has 16-inch-thick stucco walls, an office/guest room over the garage, is surrounded by oak trees and cost $100,000 less than a comparable home in the Valley.
Home prices in Santa Paula range from $150,000 for a modest two-bedroom home to $700,000 for a 3,500-square-foot home on a coveted hillside lot. Condos range from $100,000 to $170,000. Most of the homes in Santa Paula are not new, with 50% of the housing stock being more than 50 years old.
Some claim Santa Paula will always remain a small town because it is completely surrounded by county-zoned agricultural land that can't be built upon. But that situation changes when farmland is annexed to the city, which happened recently to 16 acres of an 80-acre walnut farm that had been bought by the great-grandfather of Allan Atmore.
Now known as a farmer-turned-developer, Atmore built 88 homes in a development known as Las Pasadas. The homes were originally priced at $249,000 to $289,000 but those prices were lowered about $20,000 to sell out the project.
Other Santa Paula building projects include 50 hillside homes--priced at $400,000 and up--built by McKevitt/Jones. Also, a project for low-income senior citizens is under construction near downtown. It's a joint project between a private developer, Prairie Pacific & Investments of Santa Paula, and a nonprofit developer, the Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. of Saticoy, which will eventually own and manage the project.
Even with these new projects, "the prevailing desire is to limit growth," said Kay Wilson-Bolton, a real estate broker in town for 16 years who has served as mayor and on the City Council.