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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Old-Timers' Tenacity, Newcomers' Innovations Preserve Apple Country

Land: Oak Glen staves off development with a new approach to tourism and help from a conservation group.

October 01, 2000|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OAK GLEN — Usually when you hear about places like this--where neighbors have been neighbors for generations, where orchards roll across hills and apple pie is an art form--it's because a way of life is threatened.

The forces of change push hard. But this hamlet in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains pushed back.

Now, thanks to the tenacity of the old-time growers, the ingenuity of a new family and an unexpected rescue by a conservation group, Oak Glen is going into the first apple season of the 21st century looking a lot like the way it did 100 years ago.

Apple-picking started in August and will peak this month. Old rivalries about who makes the best cider are heating up as hand-operated presses churn out gallons of the cinnamon-scented amber brew.

Of course there are some changes that no one can stop. Up at the Law ranch there's a poignancy in the air as tangible as the change of seasons. Alex Law Jr. died in April at 82. This will be the first apple season in 70 years when he won't be in these orchards.

But one of Alex Jr.'s sons, Alex III, is sitting at the lunch counter of Law's Coffee Shop with his son, 21-year-old Alex IV. The youngest Alex, a fireman, had to move away for his job, but plans to come back someday to take his place in the orchards.

If people want to learn about apples, they can't find a better spot than one of these cafe stools. In the winter months, growers line up along the counter like blackbirds on telephone wires. They drink coffee, eat pie and talk business.

For a long time the talk was grim. Big-time growers made it hard for small orchards to compete. Countries such as China and Brazil are growing more and more apples, causing the world market price to drop. Most of all, the habits of Oak Glen customers have changed.

The Sunday drivers who used to make their way here came ready to load their wood-paneled station wagons with bushels of apples: Pippins to make apple sauce, Winesaps for apple butter, Rome Beauties for pies.

Now folks who don't know the difference between the sweetness of a Mutsu and the tang of a Granny Smith climb out of their SUVs and buy one little, cute bag of apples, just enough to munch on during the drive back home.

In other picturesque rural areas, similar declines in agriculture have tempted--or forced--farmers to sell their land to housing-tract developers. But in Oak Glen, many residents weren't looking to make a killing--they just wanted to hang on to a lifestyle.

One family here stumbled upon an idea that many residents think will protect the community. The Rileys, practically newcomers, with just 21 years in Oak Glen, turned their 240-acre farm into a tourist attraction.

Others followed their lead, and now Oak Glen isn't just selling apples. Now it's selling itself.

"Call it ecotourism," said Alison Law-Mathisen, spokeswoman for the Oak Glen Applegrowers Assn. "As it gets more crowded down the hill, Oak Glen gains value, just as a place of serenity."

Dennis Riley, 55, came to the glen in 1979, following the sound of a fiddle. An insurance underwriter, he'd discovered a love for bluegrass and folk music in an Arcadia coffeehouse.

"After years of calling square dances, singing songs about harvest, home and the life of a yeoman farmer, I wanted that kind of life," he said. "But apples can be a tough way to make a living."

What happened next was mostly unplanned. Soon after arriving, the Rileys let visitors buy apples they picked themselves to discourage theft. But the orchards filled with families making it a day trip.

Son Devon, then a teen, figured out that he could make money letting people shuck corn and dip caramel apples. Dennis Riley remembered a blue lamp his mother had that was made out of an antique apple press. He stripped the paint, restored it and let people press their own cider.

About 10 years ago, a visitor said their meadow looked like Gettysburg. Soon the blue and the gray were battling it out near the Riley orchards, with hundreds of Civil War buffs from around the nation reenacting famous battles twice a year.

Twenty-six Rileys--dressed in calico, suspender and flannels--now live and work at Riley farm. Visitors can pick their own apples and raspberries. They can also churn butter, make candles, spin, weave and feed farm animals. If chores aren't enough to keep folks dropping by, there are hoe-downs and square dances.

At first their neighbors shook their heads. Oak Glen, after all, is a place where the country kitsch is real--mason jars of home-made jam, baskets of apples--not a re-creation of another era.

"Everybody was apprehensive. Everybody had just been doing their apples for so long," said Kent Colby, a member of the Law family. "But pretty soon everybody started getting customers that had been up at the Rileys' asking questions about the apples and the families."

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