Changing San Jacinto to Mark 100th Birthday

The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

Every springtime this little-known town is in the spotlight when its citizens and those in neighboring Hemet stage their famed outdoor play, the Ramona Pageant.

However, this April there will be more to celebrate than the 61st season of that Southland spectacular. It's the 100th birthday of San Jacinto, Riverside County's oldest incorporated city.

Plans are under way for a weeklong party April 4-10 that will climax with an old-fashioned fair.

The look of this pioneer settlement, which began in the 1870s, has been rapidly changing. Because the town has been caught up in Riverside County's building boom, local folks are working to preserve some of its past. Recently, San Jacinto was selected one of 10 cities in a state program to help revitalize vintage Main Streets.

Mexican Land Grant

Founded on a Mexican land grant called Rancho San Jacinto, the town suffered from earthquakes in 1899 and 1918. Most of its taller buildings along the wide Main Street were flattened and rebuilt only one story high.

A pair of double-story hostelries that survived the tremblers are still operating. Most historic is the Virginia Lee Hotel, which was known as the Lockwood House when it opened in 1884 and which offered room and board for $6 a week.

Nowadays you can bed down there in rooms that go for $35/$45 per night, Continental breakfast included. Earlier guests knew it as the Pioneer Hotel until a Los Angeles baker and his wife renovated the redwood building as a 10-room B&B; in 1957.

Two years ago, three sisters of the Risteau family of Wyoming took over the hotel and redecorated it. Each room has its own antique decor with double or twin beds and a sink; the bath is down the hall. (Two rooms have shower baths attached.)

For reservations at the Virginia Lee Bed 'n' Breakfast Hotel, 248 E. Main St., San Jacinto, call (714) 654-2270.

Queen Anne-Style House

Two blocks east on Main Street at Alessandro Avenue is an 1885 home that was opened a year ago by Gerald Johannsen as a three-room B&B.;

The Hyacinth Inn, 410 E. Main St., has two rooms upstairs that share a hallway bath in the Queen Anne-style house; the porch room downstairs includes its own shower. A spa is in the patio.

Nightly rates: $50 single, $60 double on weekends, $10 less on weekdays. Guests are treated to a full breakfast with entrees such as quiche and cottage cheese pancakes. Call (714) 654-8102 to make reservations.

West on Main Street at the five-points corner you'll spot Hotel Vosburg, a V-shaped building that opened as a boarding house in 1885. Then known as the Farmer House, it became San Jacinto's social center and was expanded into a hotel run by the Farmer and Vosburg families until 1971.

New owners took over in September. These days the Vosburg caters to retired residents, but sometimes a few of its 60 rooms (with private bath) are available and rented on a nightly basis for $37.50, including breakfast.

The hotel's major attraction for visitors is its dining room, where home-style meals are served daily to residents and the public. Complete dinners are $3.95 to $5.55. On Friday and weekends the special is prime rib or New York steak for $6.25.

Call (714) 654-9333 for meal reservations (recommended on Sundays) or to check room availability.

Past on Display

Much of San Jacinto's past is on display at 151 E. Main St. in the San Jacinto Valley Museum, a potpourri of pioneer and natural history exhibits. Items from Indian baskets to a circa 1900 marble soda fountain and a 1 million-year-old mammoth bone.

Look for the memorabilia of a 1937 Russian flight over the North Pole that ended in a San Jacinto pasture when the plane ran out of fuel. Other items recall exchange visits by Russians and San Jacinto citizens in 1984 and 1987.

The museum is open daily, except Monday, from noon to 4 p.m. Admission free but donations are welcome.

Historic-minded visitors also will enjoy browsing in Main Street Antiques, which opened four months ago in a former hardware store at 130 E. Main St. Ten dealers have brought in their treasures in this large building that's open everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You'll find other collectibles at Homestead Antiques, 684 West 7th St. Drive west on Main Street until it curves and dead ends at 7th Street, then turn right and cross the railroad tracks to a pair of run-down buildings crammed with mementos from earlier times. Open daily.

For more antiques, return east on 7th Street to San Jacinto Street (California 79) and turn right (south) to Menlo Avenue. On the corner, in old Army barracks, is Second Time Around, an antique mart that features the collections of a dozen dealers.

Farmer's Corner

Other antique shops are across the street in a barn-like shopping center called Farmer's Corner. Also look for the Acapulco restaurant, a popular spot for Mexican fare; all items on its Peso Little Sunday brunch are under $5.

North on San Jacinto Street toward Main Street are two other favorites for food: the Quarterhorse, with American fare, and the House of Kabob, which features Mediterranean cuisine.

Going south on San Jacinto Street brings you to Hemet and the Ramona Bowl, home of the annual outdoor play. Turn left on Stetson Avenue and right on Girard Street to reach the 6,000-seat hillside amphitheater.

On the grounds is a free museum devoted to the history of the pageant that began in 1923 and is based on a century-old romantic novel by Helen Hunt Jackson. Hours until mid-May are 1 to 4:30 p.m. weekends, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

You can buy tickets for any of the six performances of the Ramona play that are set for April 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 and May 1. The 2 1/2-hour performance begins at 3 p.m. and involves a cast of nearly 400 volunteers. Tickets are $7 to $15. Call (714) 658-3111 for more information.

To start your visit in San Jacinto, drive east from Los Angeles on California 60 to the Hemet/San Jacinto turnoff, Gilman Springs Road. Then join California 79 south to Main Street.

Round trip from Los Angeles to San Jacinto is 180 miles.

FO Virginia Lee Hotel opened in 1884 as the Lockwood House, charging $6 a week for room and board.

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