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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | JAUNTS

Dinner to Be Served With History in Mind

'Evening on the Conejo--1876' will offer vignettes along with a meal during a four-night fund-raiser at the Stagecoach Inn Museum.

September 26, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The year is 1876. The saloon at the Stagecoach Inn Museum is buzzing with election-year politics--that is, when all eyes aren't riveted on the poker game that four ranch hands are playing.

The aroma of roasted chicken wafts through the inn as guests gossip about one another and the new teacher who has come to the Conejo Valley to teach pioneer children their ABCs.

Nex month the museum will step back into the last century when the Conejo Valley Historical Society puts on its "Evening on the Conejo--1876." It's a chance to witness living history.

For the price of a ticket ($40), participants tour the inn and its grounds, stopping here and there for short dramatic vignettes by volunteers from the historical group. Even the dinner--ala 1876 style--is served by volunteers who play along with the historical spirit of the evening.

"We turn the clock back to 1876," said Jo Ann Goff, chairwoman of the event, which takes place on four weekend evenings, Oct. 4, 5, 11 and 12. "No one knows anything beyond 1876."

It's the seventh year the group has done this, and it's no simple feat. It takes a cast and crew of 100 to pull it off, with some guests eating while others are being led around the grounds by guides.

The vignettes are all in keeping with the history of the inn, originally built in 1876--opening with a patriotic flourish on July 4. Back then it was the Grand Union Hotel, and it was a stop for the Butterfield Stage, which carried passengers through the Conejo Valley from Los Angeles to Ventura.

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The hotel cost Santa Barbara businessman James Hammell $7,200 to build. Its rooms offered guests no closet or heating. On the plus side, they could indulge in "shooting, fishing, and bathing," according to newspaper accounts.

A drought two years later soured Hammell's venture, and the hotel went through a series of owners and various uses over the years. The two-story hotel was moved to its present location on Ventu Park Road in 1964 to clear a path for the Ventura Freeway.

The original hotel burned to the ground in 1970, but it was rebuilt as it originally appeared and opened again as a museum in 1976. On its grounds are some other replicas: an adobe home, a Chumash hut and the pioneer home of Egbert Starr Newbury, the area's first postmaster.

During "An Evening on the Conejo--1876," guests will stop at the Newbury house where a volunteer playing the character of Newbury will be at his desk writing about news of the area for his newspaper column. His wife will be baking cookies.

Led by a guide, they will move on to the adobe house of Jose Loranzana and his wife, who is preparing dinner. To keep his two small daughters out of the way, he tells them a ghost story.

The scenes move into the inn. The poker game comes alive in the saloon. In the parlor, the teacher plays a tune on the piano. Land barons talk about deals they can forge on the frontier. Arguments flare up over cattle versus sheep grazing. A sleazy traveling salesman goes through his shtick. In the kitchen, the cook is having a tantrum.

"An awful lot of it is ad-libbed," Goff said. "We're all amateurs, many retired, but people have told us we seem professional." The scenes, with everyone in period costumes, are loosely woven together. Eventually it's clear why the cook has erupted.

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The event usually sells out, she said, with accommodations for 72 people on each of the four nights. Groups of 12 are led through the vignettes, with staggered starts beginning at 6:30 p.m.

For the evening, the museum looks nothing like it usually does, Goff said. The basement is turned into a Victorian dining room. The servers, dressed as farm wives, serve an old-fashioned catered dinner with apple walnut cake prepared by the volunteers. A singer performs songs from the period.

The servers are so in keeping with the 1870s theme that they play dumb if they hear 20th century talk.

"Most of the people really get into it," Goff said.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "An Evening on the Conejo--1876."

* WHERE: Stagecoach Inn Museum, 51 S. Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park.

* WHEN: Oct. 4, 11, 5, 12. Staggered starts beginning at 6:30 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: $40. Children must be 12 or over. Event benefits the museum.

* CALL: For reservations, 446-8547.

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