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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Building to a Finale

After 17 years of volunteer efforts, historic Dudley House is open to public.

October 01, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Benjamin Dudley built his 2 1/2-story Queen Anne-style farmhouse a century ago, he couldn't have had a clue that visitors would one day traipse through it, hankering for a glimpse of the past.

Dudley embraced progress: the arrival of electricity, telephone services--he pushed for it all. At his family's 200-acre spread near the site of Ventura College, he experimented with growing soft-shelled walnuts before finally finding the crop best suited to the climate--lima beans.

Since May, his 1892 home has been open for free guided tours the first Sunday of the month. Visitors can wander through the Victorian farmhouse's 10 rooms, freshly painted during the summer. In the background they'll hear music recorded just after the turn-of-the-century--chestnuts such as "Shine on Harvest Moon" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Opening the house to the public has been a long, tortuous process, one that Dudley couldn't have fathomed. He was a public-spirited guy who got things done--he pushed for the bridge that was built across the Santa Clara River.

It took 17 years for a determined group of volunteers to renovate the house, and finally open it for special events in 1994. Then it took more grit and money to get the monthly tours underway. And the overhaul isn't complete.

"People would say, 'What's going on with that project. Why aren't you finished by now?' " said Jan Hunter, a member of San Buenaventura Heritage Inc., the group behind the project.

Hunter, with another member, Steve Cummings, was wrapping up the job of painting the 3,000-square-foot house last week in preparation for the Sunday open house.

"It's unbelievable the work that goes into restoring something," Cumming said. Using old photos and wall scrapings, they tried to match the paint to the original wallpaper in each room.

And that's nothing compared to the painstaking labor it took, using dental tools, to restore the ornately hand-carved redwood fireplace in the living room.

Since the project began 20 years ago, the group has spent more than $400,000 to restore it and turn it into a museum, Cummings said. Just over a century ago, Dudley and his wife, Caroline, paid $2,100 for its construction. At the time, Ventura had 3,000 residents and the city limits were still miles to the west.

The house was made of redwood, not an uncommon practice at the time. Back then, wood was shipped down the coast from Northern California and unloaded at Ventura pier. Born in New Hampshire, Dudley and his brother, Frank, came to California after the Civil War, lured like many other farmers by the sale--at $10 an acre--of 17,700 acres of rich farmland comprising Rancho Santa Paula y Saticoy.

Dudley originally built his house on Telegraph Road near Ashwood Avenue, where a Carrow's restaurant sits. Its salt-box look was designed by architect Selwyn Shaw.

Dudley raised livestock, grew barley and wheat, and dabbled in walnuts, eventually settling on lima beans and then lemons. But he was better known as a civic leader, a member of the school board, clerk of the Board of Supervisors, and a justice of the peace. "He actually held court in the parlor," Cummings said, dispensing justice to cattle thieves and trespassers.

A teetotaler, Dudley commanded the Anti-Saloon League. He led a successful drive to hike saloon license fees from $64 to $600 per year, a move that garnered him the nickname "Daddy of High License." Despite all that, he was pals with saloonkeeper John Lagomarsino.

Five generations of Dudleys lived in the stately house, including Johanna Dudley Overby, Dudley's now-elderly granddaughter who still lives in Ventura.

She recalls rummaging as a child through family belongings in the attic where she could see the Channel Islands on a clear day. She and her mother, Miriam Knox Dudley, moved out in 1977, giving the property to the city. By then surrounded by development, the house was moved a block to its present location at Loma Vista Road and Ashwood Avenue, where the city had hoped to turn it into a historical park. But Proposition 13 dried up the funding. That's when San Buenaventura Heritage came to the rescue and leased it.

For the next 17 years, the group struggled to raise the money it took to build a new foundation, add meeting rooms and a kitchen to the basement, upgrade wiring, pour concrete for a parking lot, and erect quaint turn-of-the-century street lights. The floors have yet to be refinished, and the group's next project is to solicit plants for landscaping.

The house, on the National Register of Historic Places, is painted off-white with light blue trim, and has been restored and decorated to reflect the life of a middle-class farming family from the 1890s to the 1930s.

The ceilings are high, with the walls set off by wood molding for pictures, many of them of Dudley family members and old Ventura. The redwood staircase and all the doorways have been refinished.

There are intriguing features, like the "pocket" door between the living room and parlor that slides neatly into the wall, and the secret passageway linking two bedrooms via a closet.

The tour serves up a slice of Dudley family history with tidbits, like the early outhouse a family member described as a "four-holed settee," and the chamber pots another called "thunder mugs."

Today, a donated massive 1910 wood-burning stove sits in the kitchen, where the family bathtub was once located for the Saturday night ritual, until the arrival of indoor plumbing.

BE THERE

Dudley House, at Loma Vista Road and Ashwood Avenue, Ventura, will be open Sunday. It is open for free tours the first Sunday of the month from 1 to 4 p.m.; (805) 642-3345.

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