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Ventura County

Quest Reaps a Glimpse of 1870s

Agriculture: Ventura resident's search for information on his great-grandfather leads to a publication that chronicles the county's fertile farming heritage.

July 14, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Earl Hampton set out to do some genealogical research on his great-grandfather a few years ago, he got a bit sidetracked.

That is how he came to spend two years squinting at a microfilm reader and transcribing half a New Testament's worth of old newspaper articles that set out to chronicle every farm and every farmer in Ventura County during the late 1870s.

The result is a rare glimpse of day-to-day life at a time when the county's population had exploded to 7,500, with settlers drawn from far and wide by fertile land selling for a few dollars an acre. The articles, written by unnamed reporters from Ventura's two weekly newspapers of the era, have just been published in "Garden of the World," a book-sized edition of the Ventura County Historical Society quarterly.

"It was such a spectacular effort," said Charles Johnson, the publication's editor and the research librarian at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. "We're bringing to light a resource that was completely forgotten."

An 80-year-old retired petroleum engineer from Ventura, Hampton was looking for clues as to why his great-grandfather, Charles G. Finney Jr., had uprooted his family from Oshkosh, Wis., where he practiced law and owned the local newspaper. What he found amounted to an informal Ventura County census done a couple of years before the first government census-takers set foot in the area.

However, the reporters for the Ventura Signal and the Ventura Free Press offered far more detail than any official tally, noting the number of hogs slaughtered and sacks of barley shipped, the kinds of grape on the vine, the "one special beauty of a Sicilian lemon tree" on Abner Haines' place in Saticoy, the smell of the honeysuckle at Mrs. C. Wooley's farmhouse off Hueneme Road.

In 1878 and 1879, the reporters went by horseback or buggy into the hinterlands. Each came back stuffed with chicken dinners and laden with chest-thumping superlatives about the productive people and beneficent climate of Ventura County, which had just been established in 1873. The county's population had soared from less than 1,000 in the 1860s, and progress meant attracting even more people.

The newspapers obliged. Claiming that it had avoided the temptation to rhapsodize about the county's beauty, the Signal boasted: "We firmly believe that if the truth can be told, just the plain simple truth without any embellishment, we can offer to the home seekers better inducements than any part of the whole country."

Hunched over the microfilm reader in the cramped museum library, Hampton was riveted. He volunteered to type the articles, word for misspelled word, so they could be compiled for publication. The project ultimately required seven proofreaders and $23,000 in donations.

"I put a lot of sweat into it," Hampton said, "but it was worth it."

Illustrated with period lithographs of Ventura County's finer homes, the work delivers more than the vital statistics of roughly 500 farmers. The values of the day come through loud and clear.

"If people only use the same thrift and economy they were obliged to practice in the Atlantic states, their success is certain," the Signal opined. "But if they fall into the loose, California style of doing things, the consequences are doubtful."

Jacob Maulhardt was a case in point. He had landed in Ventura County a few years before "with a wife and three children and not a cent in his pocket," the Signal said.

However, the application of "a little pluck and well-directed energy" soon brought him 450 acres, a barn with stalls for 38 horses and a fine new $3,000 home--complete with dance floor and running water.

"A gentleman from the east sat down in the parlor the other day and said, 'Maulhardt, this beats anything I ever expected to see in California,' " the Signal reported.

In the late 1870s, Ventura County was undergoing its first great land boom. Old forty-niners came down from played-out gold mines to give farming a try. Immigrants from Great Britain, Germany, Ireland and Italy, adventurers from New England and the Midwest, made their way across the United States, riding into Ventura County in wagons. Old-timers were the Mexican families from the era of the great ranchos.

At the time, citrus trees were a daring new crop. Fields of barley and wheat rippled for miles. Hogs were a big moneymaker, along with honey. The Schiappa Pietra brothers raised sheep, grew "every variety of fruit known to this clime," and made what the Signal said was the state's best wine--a vintage that sold for 50 cents a gallon.

In the fashion of the day, the Signal reporter waxed lyrical. A wooded farm in the Upper Ojai was positively mythic: "Here nature revels in all her sweetest charms and might easily fancy the genie of the forest playing with fauns and satyrs from the rippling streams

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