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LOS ANGELES | L. A. THEN AND NOW

Del Valle Family Played a Starring Role in Early California

November 11, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California history is ornamented with romantic tales, real and mythic, but perhaps no place has been home to more such romances than Rancho Camulos.

In 1884, writer Helen Hunt Jackson became enchanted by the tree-shaded Ventura County ranch during a visit there. She used it as the setting for the fictional Moreno Rancho in her quintessential California romance, "Ramona," a fanciful novel that shaped the nation's idea of California for decades.

Because of the book's instant and enduring popularity--enhanced by sketches of the setting--the rancho created a small tourist and film industry boomlet all by itself.

The place soon became known as the "Home of Ramona" and a physical incarnation of the vanished californio pioneer lifestyle and of its version of Romeo and Juliet: the tragic Ramona and her dashing Indian lover, the doomed Alessandro.

But in real life, Rancho Camulos is where three generations of Del Valle pioneers built their families and political careers over almost a century, with love stories of their own and California's first gold strike.

Most of the ancestral Del Valle spread has long since been sold. But from the last years of Mexican rule through the first 74 years of California statehood--1839 to 1924--the Del Valles were among the most prominent families in Southern California.

In 1839, Gov. Juan B. Alvarado awarded soldier Antonio Seferino del Valle 48,612 acres of Rancho San Francisco, a swath running 22 miles from what is now Valencia to Piru, not far from where Piru Creek empties into the Santa Clara River.

When Del Valle died two years later, the property was divided among his second wife, Jacoba, and the children from his two marriages. Ygnacio, the oldest son, carved out 1,800 acres on the western edge surrounding the former Indian village of Camulos, which means juniper tree. He built corrals and stocked them with cattle.

His ranch foreman, Francisco Lopez, was out searching for stray cattle in 1842 when he yanked a few wild onions out of the ground and found flakes of gold among the roots--half a dozen years before the gold strike up north.

It was nowhere near as spectacular as Sutter's Mill, but it spurred a minor gold rush that drained workers from ranches throughout the region. The Del Valles mined too, and family members fashioned rosary beads and jewelry from the takings. Mining came to a stop during the Mexican War, when Ygnacio Del Valle blew up the mine's entrance, fearing that Yankee troops would steal the gold.

But it was the green gold of agriculture that eventually brought the rancho prosperity. Thousands of cattle and a cornucopia of fruits, including acres of orange groves and vineyards, soon supported close to 200 residents.

As Rancho Camulos prospered, however, hunger and exhaustion were taking a toll on the '49ers who found their way there, straggling in from the hellish place they named Death Valley.

The rancho, 10 miles west of what is now Magic Mountain, was becoming a turnstile for Easterners heading north to the Gold Rush.

In 1850, when skeleton-thin survivors of the Jayhawker party crawled out of the cactus-studded terrain after a nightmare journey, the Del Valles offered them refuge. Revived, the travelers returned to that desert sink to rescue their companions with two horses and a one-eyed mule loaded with food and supplies, courtesy of the Del Valles.

The horses died, but the hardy mule, bearing the entire load, made it in time to save the dying, who lay on the scorched sand under their wagons. (The mule lived several years more, hauling gold for a '49er.) For the dead, Senor Del Valle generously opened his family cemetery.

Throughout a long political career, Ygnacio Del Valle was one of the Los Angeles Rangers, a vigilante committee formed to deal with "Mexican bandits." Under Mexican and American rule, he served as a mayor, treasurer, councilman, recorder and state legislator.

In 1852, a few years after his first wife died in childbirth, the 44-year-old Del Valle married 15-year-old Ysabel Varela. Living near where Union Station now stands, Ysabel helped to feed and care for the city's sick and poor, while her husband attended to his civic duties. Up at Rancho Camulos, they soon built the first four rooms of what would become the grand, legendary 20-room hacienda.

The old mission system had been dismantled, but a generous host and an ample number of local Indians to convert drew Franciscan priests monthly to the tiny Chapel del Valle, built for his wife.

Near the chapel Del Valle built a brick fountain. One of his sons planted a black walnut tree, under whose branches generations of family and friends would gather. The rancho was soon hailed as the "lost mission," a spot for worship in the miles between the San Fernando and San Buenaventura missions.

By 1871, the rancho was producing 15,000 gallons of wine and brandy per year. It would later capitalize on its ties to Jackson's novel, bottling the wine and crating oranges under the Home of Ramona label.

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