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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Tunes and Trails : Music series joins picturesque hiking trails of Peter Strauss Ranch as lure for visitors.

June 11, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The word is out, though it was never really a secret. The Peter Strauss Ranch, an estate-turned-tourist attraction-turned-park tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains near Agoura Hills, is getting a lot more foot traffic these days.

Free concerts and regular guided walks have boosted awareness of this out-of-the-way spot. And a new summer music series opens Sunday in the park's intimate stone-terraced amphitheater.

If you've never explored the grounds of this historic estate, come out Sunday and you can hike, picnic and listen to music under sprawling oaks. The blues duo of Jon Butcher and Kelly Rucker will perform from 2 to 4 p.m.

The park is loaded with history, and periodically the Topanga Canyon Docents and Sierra Club sponsor two-hour walks over the 64-acre park. All that has opened up this refuge to more visitors.

Though some might disagree, Daphne Elliott, who often leads outings, is pleased the word has spread.

"There used to be very little participation here," Elliott said. "But the last couple of years, it's doubled, even quadrupled. The public now enjoys it like never before."

Well, not quite. In its heyday some 50 years ago, the spot--then called Lake Enchanto--was a recreational haven that drew as many as 5,000 Southlanders on a weekend. The small lake was packed with fishermen, boats and swimmers. The giant swimming pool, the largest on the West Coast when it was built in 1940, could hold 3,000 people.

The lake is gone, but the vast, empty circular pool with its island is still there. Gone too are the amusement rides, the overnight cabanas, the big band music of the 1940s.

But what remains is idyllic. A one-mile trail along a hillside overlooks the ranch. It's an easy, tree-shaded stretch for kids, who may be lucky enough to spot one of the peacocks that roam the ranch grounds.

Wild animals were a passion of auto designer Harry Miller, who built the white-trimmed stone ranch house in 1923. Famous for patenting the carburetor, Miller also put up an aviary and collected a menagerie of animals--a bear, mountain lion, deer, parrots and monkeys.

Miller and his wife used the place, nestled next to Triunfo Creek, for a weekend retreat. But the Depression hit the auto developer hard and he lost the ranch. The next owners, Warren Shobert and Arthur Edeson, opened it to the public, billing it as "a fairyland of charm and a paradise for children and adults."

Charles Hinman bought it in the late 1930s and carried the idea further. The wealthy real estate speculator and lawyer created a small lake by damming Triunfo Creek and marketed it as Lake Enchanto. By the 1950s the spot was jammed with amusement rides, children's summer camps and dances on the ritzy patio with its imported Italian terrazzo tile.

As other amusement parks and resorts popped up in Southern California, El Enchanto lost its appeal. Hinman's plans to revive it fizzled. It fell into disrepair, and the lake was washed away by floods.

Then, in 1976, actor Peter Strauss saw it when he was filming the TV miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" near Malibu Lake. He bought the property and fixed it up. Busy with film and television projects, he sold it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in 1983, and the National Park Service took it over in 1987.

Here is the schedule for free summer Sunday concerts at Peter Strauss Ranch. All performances run from 2-4 p.m.

July 12: A group of 25 musicians from the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club will provide music representing the club's 20 years.

Aug. 9: The Lobo Rangers, a five-person band, will play traditional western music. Ken Graydon will sing and tell stories about "real cowboys."

Sept. 13: The Laurel Canyon Ramblers, a five-piece bluegrass group, will perform.

Sept. 20: Toni Jannotta's quintet will play jazz.

BE THERE

Peter Strauss Ranch is near Agoura Hills in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. From the Ventura Freeway, take the Kanan Road exit and proceed south 2.8 miles to Troutdale Drive to the gate entrance. For information, call the National Park Service, (805) 370-2301. For information on docent-led walks, call (818) 707-8540.

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