It took only a single afternoon at Rancho Camulos more than a century ago for novelist Helen Hunt Jackson to be inspired enough to make it the setting of her epic romance "Ramona."
And the location's allure was enough to spark the interest of historians and local politicians, who succeeded in having the aging ranch designated Ventura County's first national historic landmark last year.
Supporters have since secured nearly $1 million in grants to begin preserving one of the few remaining ranchos in the county reminiscent of the early California lifestyle. It is centered in the middle of an 1,800-acre working citrus ranch near the Ventura-Los Angeles county line in the Santa Clara Valley east of Piru.
Following a formal dedication today to recognize the national historic landmark designation, held by fewer than 2,500 places in the U.S., the hacienda-style adobe and its surrounding 40 acres of rose gardens and orange groves will be open for public tours.
"With the national designation, we will have a clearer place on the map," Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said. "It will be in everyone's history book as a place to go and visit the past."
The site, named for the Spanish word for juniper tree, has long been a draw for out-of-towners, based on the success of Jackson's novel, which was first published in 1884 and remains in print.
The tragic love story of a young Spanish girl and her Indian lover sparked a frenzy of tourism to Southern California. The Southern Pacific Railroad created a stop across the road from the rancho, which brought thousands of people, or "Ramona seekers" as they were called, to the adobe and its orchards at the turn of the 20th century.
"Because 'Ramona' became such a phenomenon and was such a popular book in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rancho is really considered the birth of California tourism in this area as people came in search of the paradise described in the novel," said Karen Roswell, executive director of the nonprofit museum.
The museum, which was created by the owners after the 1994 Northridge earthquake made the rancho uninhabitable, includes an 11,000-square-foot hacienda-style adobe. It also features a private family chapel, a circular brick fountain, a private schoolhouse, a winery and a second adobe that become a visitor's center. The historical area is nestled in the center of row upon row of sweet-scented groves.
"We carved out 40 acres so in the future at least we won't have a strip mall across the street. It will always be rural," said Shirley Lorenz, 74, whose family purchased the site in 1924 from the original owners and lived there until the quake severely damaged the property.
The quake sparked community support that led to a six-year struggle by local politicians and preservationists to salvage the rancho as a symbol of old California.
"We have been appreciative of its history, but until the earthquake we weren't able to identify funds to restore it," Long said.
Museum officials recently completed $500,000 in structural repairs to the adobe's exterior, making the home safe enough for visitors for the first time in years, Roswell said.
While private tours have been granted on a limited basis since the quake, the expanded museum is now open for public visits from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Group tours will continue to be booked by appointment. Admission is $5 per person.
The national landmark designation, given to sites that were significant in shaping the heritage of America, makes the rancho more likely to receive the additional federal funding needed to complete the restoration, museum officials said.
"Over the next three to five years, there are going to be many changes here that will enhance the site as an educational and cultural experience," Roswell said.
The museum is expecting a $500,000 federal grant to transform the smaller adobe into a visitors center and restore the winery, which lost several walls in the earthquake.
Additional funds are needed to refurbish the interior of the main house, which will be furnished with period artifacts from both families that have owned the property.
The original owner, Antonio del Valle, received 48,000 acres in a land grant from Mexican Gov. Juan Alvarado in 1839, and his son, Ygnacio del Valle, built the rancho in 1853.
For Lorenz, today's celebration is a long time coming. Arranging the event to coincide with Cinco de Mayo was designed as a way to celebrate the rancho's Mexican heritage. More than 200 people, including 145 descendants of the Del Valle family, are expected to attend the invitation-only event.
"It's taken all these years to get to this point," she said. "But it's well on the way to completing a promise to my father, who brought us up believing this was a special place."
For years Lorenz's father, August Rubel, worked to preserve the history and charm of the rancho.
Today, much of Rancho Camulos looks as it did a century ago. The rose gardens continue to flourish and the branches of a walnut tree planted next to the house as a seedling in the 1860s now span approximately half an acre.
"It was fantastic to grow up here," said Lorenz, who was born at the adobe and was married--in a double ceremony with younger sister Nathalie Trefzger--in the small family chapel on the site. "We played Tarzan in the tree and swung from the branches. Some of the bigger ones we could even walk and run on, not just inch along."