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Heritage Valley's play for the past

A historic ranch, inn and railway keep the family chugging along in Ventura County.

May 11, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Piru — Less than an hour northwest of Los Angeles are the towns of Fillmore, Piru and Santa Paula, which have taken to promoting themselves as Heritage Valley.

Heritage has been used to sell California tourism for so long that we now have a long heritage of heritage tourism. Take Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel, "Ramona," which has deep roots in the Heritage Valley.

Meant as a social commentary to expose the injustice suffered by Indians, the book instead became an enormous success as a romantic tragedy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trainloads of tourists from across the continent flocked to locations thought to be the real-life setting for "Ramona." A chief destination was Rancho Camulos near Piru, one of the sites identified as the ranch in the story. Visitors looked for idyllic ranch life filled with regal Spaniards and docile Indians, a sunny fantasy escape from dreary Eastern winters.

The property is now a museum staffed by volunteers and open two days a week to a respectful audience of history buffs. It makes for a fine day trip, but, as I found out a couple of weeks ago, Camulos and the valley's other attractions are enough for a whole weekend too.

My wife, Shiru, 4-year-old daughter, Elly, and I made the recently renovated Heritage Valley Inn the anchor of our trip. The inn opened in 1890 and has been splendidly restored, looking today much as it does in the early photographs displayed in guest rooms. Both stories of the elegant wood building are bound by shady verandas.

When we arrived in the late morning, Wendy, the concierge, told us about a farm festival at the Hansen Agricultural Learning Center in Santa Paula.

The center is a University of California education and research facility that holds public programs year-round. Elly had a ball with the bunnies and goats at the petting zoo and got a good workout running through a maze plowed into an oat field. Displays and demonstrations covered quilting, spinning and butter churning. Local 4-H kids taught us the nutritional benefits of chevre.

The event captured the essence of the area: It's not so much a rural outpost as it is a blurring of the lines dividing suburbs and farmland, similar to parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys decades ago.

Our lunch from the vendors included a tri-tip sandwich, fresh corn on the cob and organic vegetable tamales and quesadillas. Though no escape from civilization, it was still a civilized break from city life.

After lunch we headed back to the inn, where Elly and Shiru relaxed in the room while I headed off to Rancho Camulos, a few minutes down the road. The site is open free from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Saturdays, though guided tours are $5.

Our tour leader was dressed in a black outfit she fashioned based on early photographs of the ranch's first owners, the Del Valles, who held the 1,800-acre property from 1839 to 1924.

The museum's literature notes the first oranges grown and shipped from what is now Ventura County came from Camulos in 1876. Trees from the original rootstock still grow on the grounds, as does El Rey Nogal (the king of walnut trees), 150 years old with a trunk 27 feet in circumference and branches that span nearly half an acre.

Descendants of August and Mary Rubel, who bought the ranch from the Del Valles, established the museum in 1994. National Historic Landmark status was granted in 2000.

The original buildings are intact and give visitors a feel for the 19th century. Drawings and photographs of the main adobe, built in 1853, were used to illustrate early editions of "Ramona." The inviting, broad south veranda was the basis for many "Ramona" adaptations, and one can walk through the spot where Mary Pickford was filmed in the 1910 motion-picture version. Pickford and the cast of that production stayed in our hotel.

Jackson died 10 months after "Ramona" was published and left few details about the places that might have been inspirations for the book. Rancho Guajome near Oceanside also claimed to be the setting.

On track in Fillmore

I picked up Shiru and Elly at the inn, and we headed toward more history in Fillmore, where on weekends the Fillmore & Western Railway Co. runs restored cars on a 2 1/2-hour round trip to Santa Paula. We happened to visit on Thomas the Tank Engine day, one of the company's "special train" days.

On Thomas day, the train was something of a side attraction. Fillmore's Central Park, which abuts the train tracks and the town's attractive Greek Revival City Hall, was turned over to kiddie diversions: inflatable tents for bouncing, a petting zoo and a pavilion filled with pricey Thomas products.

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