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Mock Battles Bring End to Peace in Bucolic Town

Supervisors will decide fate of the farm that has upset a San Bernardino County area with crowds, Revolutionary War reenactments.

July 25, 2006|Melissa Pamer | Times Staff Writer

On most school days, Jim Riley's apple farm in Oak Glen, Calif., is alive with the sound of black-powder muskets and shouts of hundreds of students who come to experience a Colonial-style farm and Revolutionary War reenactments.

One of Riley's neighbors got so fed up with living in what sounded like a war zone that he fired off a complaint to San Bernardino County. The neighbor is Riley's older brother, Dennis.

As county inspectors sorted through the family tiff, they also started cracking down on many of the small, family businesses in the picturesque town -- famous for its "u pick 'em" apple orchards -- for operating without the proper permits.

Terse warning letters went out to apple stands, antique stores and other shops -- creating a stir that has split the town and even led to a recall campaign against Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whom critics view as a supporter of Jim Riley.

Today, the supervisors are scheduled to decide the fate of Jim Riley's business when they review his application for a massive expansion of the attraction. Riley wants to add 30 buildings, including overnight lodging and camping facilities, and be allowed to host up to 1,224 daytime visitors, about three times the population of Oak Glen.

"Until the Rileys came along, everyone seemed to be very compatible," said Jim Wood, 83, a longtime Oak Glen rancher whose 20 acres are on the opposite side of Pisgah Peak from the Rileys' orchards. "I stay about as far away as I can get."

Many in Oak Glen, see the goings-on at Riley's Farm as a threat to the calm, country pace of the area, which traditionally is busy only during apple season -- usually September through Thanksgiving.

"The Glen," as locals refer to it, had long been a seasonal destination for those escaping the cities below to buy fall fruit directly from apple growers in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, not far from Yucaipa.

Dennis Riley added a twist after he and his family took over a 12-acre orchard along Oak Glen Road in 1978 -- he invited visitors to harvest their own apples.

"U-pick" eventually became common in the Glen, but at the time it was a controversial move by Riley, a newcomer whose extended family also began buying orchards in the area. Riley, with his son Devon, also introduced old-fashioned hoedowns, farm tours and even twice-yearly Civil War battle reenactments, and local anxiety faded over the years.

But it flared up again when his brother, Jim Riley, who owns an adjacent farm, began offering living history tours that involved up to 12 busloads of schoolchildren participating in daily mock Revolutionary War battles.

The scale and frequency of the battles at his brother's operation, and the disruption they caused, are what frustrated Dennis Riley and led him to file a complaint with the county.

"We're all for farming and gardening and teaching kids, but we don't want to abuse that by having too many people in at any one time," said Dennis Riley. "He took it too far.... It sounds like a bloody war over there."

In 2002, just as Jim Riley's reenactment business was starting to heat up, Cheryl Swanson moved with her husband and three sons to a 2.5-acre farm a quarter of a mile from Riley's Farm.

"We thought we were moving to this idyllic, beautiful, quiet little place where apple season would be crazy but the rest of the year would be heaven on earth," she said.

Instead, Swanson said her family has been plagued by noise from battle re-enactments and Riley's overnight guests. Nonetheless, she seeks to be open-minded because she supports the educational value offered by the living history farm.

"The program he runs is great," Swanson said. "He could adjust things so he could still do business and not make everyone in Oak Glen hate him."

On a sweltering day last week, under the towering 8,680-foot point of Wilshire Peak, Jim Riley hosted around 20 community college students from Joshua Tree, Calif. The group rotated among various stations around the farm, learning about the Colonial legal system, blacksmithing, nine-pin bowling and other period activities.

Then, under the bright sun in triple-digit heat, with sweat pouring down his temples under a three-corner hat, Riley stood in full period costume preparing his contingent of Colonials (nine students) against the invading British (nine other students).

"Will you give up your liberty?" Riley bellowed. "No!" came the enthusiastic reply. The British advanced, three musket shots were fired and the Americans successfully defended their homeland.

"That was part of the grand old American tradition," Riley told the students, tears welling in his eyes as he expounded on the values of the Revolution. "They were willing to fight for freedom."

And fight Riley has.

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