Conejo Grade's Great Divide Growing Smaller

Times Staff Writer

Some people look at the Conejo Grade and see an "Iron Curtain" that separates east Ventura County from the west.

Others see a 700-foot hump that they ascend daily with little problem and less pondering.

Still others say the hill once divided cowboys from suburban slickers, but its psychological importance is crumbling as residents on both sides grapple with countywide problems such as traffic, smog and crime.

Like a gigantic Rorschach test inkblot, the Conejo Grade is perceived differently--depending on whether you're a retailer, housewife or Camarillo teen-ager with an unreliable car and a girlfriend in Newbury Park.

But most folks do agree that when you cross the Conejo Grade, you've really gone somewhere.

"It's truly an event," said Dick Faussett, vice president of TOLD Corp., a developer based in Oxnard.

"It's a point of departure," said Dave Robertson, an administrative analyst for Ventura County who lives in Thousand Oaks. "You crest the grade on a clear day, and you see the whole Oxnard Plain dropping off into the ocean. Then it literally disappears from sight and from mind somewhat."

Retailers, politicians, developers and others with their eye on the county say that east county residents identify more with Los Angeles than coastal Ventura. Many still work in the greater metropolitan area and have moved to the affluent, master-planned communities of eastern Ventura County within the past 20 years.

Likewise, they say many residents of Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo are proud of their coastal or rural roots and share a distaste for the urban jungle of Los Angeles.

"We stay out of there as much as we can," said Edwin Jewett, a 79-year-old from a longtime Ventura farming family who recalls driving his Model T Ford into Los Angeles for occasional sporting events.

Back then, "when you came back over the grade into Camarillo at night, you could only see two or three lights shining." Today, Jewett said, "the whole valley is lit up with lights, lights everywhere."

Stereotypes Miss Point

But though there are still plenty of west-end ranchers tooling along in pickup trucks and east-end yuppies zipping around in BMWs, longtime observers caution against stereotyping.

"Those differences are being erased quickly," says Richard Wittenberg, the county's chief administrative officer. "There's more of a homogeneity, more of a community feeling countywide."

And longtime perceptions of sophistication on the east end and homespun simplicity on the west are false, many say.

"You go to a charity party in Ventura, and the men are wearing their own tuxes and the women are elegantly dressed," said one person who attends many such functions.

"It's the difference between old money and new money," she said. "One is pretty flashy and the other one isn't."

Most people agree that west Ventura County has pockets of wealth in Ojai, Channel Islands Harbor and Ventura, as well as pockets of poverty. In the east end, by contrast, the wealth is distributed more evenly.

Such demographics are why an upscale mall probably won't open in Ventura County for another five years or more, according to Barbara Teuscher, general manager of the Thousand Oaks shopping center known as the Oaks.

A study commissioned by the Oaks found that the average household income in the Thousand Oaks area was $49,251; the Ventura area lagged with $38,170. About 64% of the east-end population worked as professionals, compared to 36% in the west.

"Your white-collar executive or middle manager, who is the dominant force in the Conejo Valley, buys more suits and dressy clothing, which is what shopping centers thrive on. . . . The white-collar worker may own a house with a swimming pool, even a boat, but he certainly isn't towing it around--he's mooring it somewhere," Teuscher said.

By contrast, "your blue-collar worker is going to buy more jeans and casual apparel. He's going to be driving a four-wheel-drive and towing a boat or a camper shell."

One progressive business that flopped in Ventura was a natural food supermarket. Owner Jim Hagen, who still runs a Santa Barbara store called Hope & Hagen, says he sold his Ventura store in 1987 because it was a "marginal operation."

The Ventura clientele "is very much your meat-and-potatoes crowd," Hagen said. By contrast, a Los Angeles-based health-food market called Mrs. Gooch's is moving into Thousand Oaks in October, and Hagen said he would also consider opening a store there.

But others bridle at such glib characterizations.

'We Have the Base'

"I don't think it's accurate to say we don't have high demographics. We have the base here, but nobody knows it yet," said Wendy Wallace, a leasing administrator for Oxnard Financial Plaza, which does not include high-end department stores such as Nordstrom's.

Such distinctions were unknown 200 years ago, when the Conejo Grade was a trade route favored by coastal and inland Indian tribes.

Already, the hills were rife with Conejo buckwheat, whose yellowish-green blossom is the official flower of Thousand Oaks. There were also prickly pears and beaver tail cacti poking up from the layer of dirt that covered the granite hills, formed more than 15 million years ago by uprisings of volcanic rock.

The Indians knew every promontory on those hills, every granite cranny.

They even drew a pictograph on a cave wall along the grade depicting an ancient boating accident. The painting showed a canoe hitting a rock, Indians flying out of the craft, and various ocean symbols, according to Thomas Maxwell, an author and expert on the Conejo Grade who lives in Thousand Oaks.

But the painting is now buried under 30 tons of rocks, a victim of 20th-Century road improvements.

In his historical novel "The Temescals of Arroyo Conejo," Maxwell chose the Conejo Grade as the place where the Chumash Indians first meet Spanish explorers.

Whether that really happened is conjecture, Maxwell says.

And unlike such natural wonders as the Pacific Ocean, the Conejo Grade rarely causes poets to wax lyrical or folk singers to break into song.

But the Conejo Grade has its chroniclers nonetheless.

The first recorded sighting of the grade comes from Father Pedro Font, a member of the Anza Expedition, which brought mule-trains of settlers from Mexico. Font and his party trekked over the Conejo Grade on their way north to San Francisco on Feb. 23, 1776, says Ventura County historian Judith Triem.

Detailed Chronicle

According to Font's diary entry that day:

"The road in parts is level, and in parts one goes up and down the ridges until one reaches the long grade, from which one sees the sea and the first islands of the channel of Santa Barbara. Descending this ridge . . . one finishes crossing the range which extends from the Sierra Madre and ends at the sea.

"Then one enters a plain extending more than five leagues to the (Santa Clara) river and beyond. The range has many . . . live oaks and other trees, and likewise some watering places. . . . In it, we saw four small (Indian) villages."

Pat Allen continues the Font saga in her history of the Conejo Valley:

"Most of the women, frightened at the severe grade, dismounted and made their way down the rugged mountain on foot.

"Font complained bitterly about the California fleas, which were plentiful everywhere but especially on the Conejo mountain. Here, 'they were so bad that whenever we halted everything was alive with them, and very hungry ones. No country is without its plague, and that one has the plague of fleas,' " Allen quoted Font as writing.

Folklore holds that if you look at the mountains on the north side of the Conejo Grade, you can make out a face resembling Abraham Lincoln's. The face is also said to depict a legendary Chumash Indian called Running Antelope, according to Maxwell.

During the Mission period, Spanish soldiers, padres and settlers passed over the grade on their way north or south. Later, farmers drove teams of 10 horses over the grade, hauling surplus grain to the wharf at Port Hueneme for boat shipment to San Francisco.

The road was very narrow and rutted then, full of hairpin turns--49 by one historical account--and quite steep. Wagons were emptied of as much weight as possible on the way up, and stagecoach passengers were required to walk up the grade to spare the horses.

Grand Union Hotel

In 1876, James Hammell built the two-story Grand Union Hotel at the grade's eastern foot to serve as a stagecoach stop and health resort.

Later renamed the Stagecoach Inn, it was the midway point between Ventura and Los Angeles and favored by travelers spending the night. Today it has been renovated as the Stagecoach Inn Museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the last part of the 19th Century, would-be county politicians seized on the winding dirt road and made paving and widening it part of their election platforms.

At one time, many thought U.S. 101 would be routed through Simi Valley, according to Crane S. Miller's account in the Ventura County Historical Society archives.

Money was appropriated for improvements to the Conejo Grade in the early 20th Century, but the contractor went broke before he finished. Eventually, Joe Russell, who owned what is now Westlake, raised $1,800 from his farmer friends, and the two-lane road was completed in the 1920s, Triem said.

The road has undergone several expansions since then--most recently in 1987, when it was widened from five lanes to six. But despite its sleek appearance, old-timers still talk about it with trepidation.

"It used to scare me going over it. There was always a lot of fog. . . . With the hairpin turns, you had to slow down to 15 miles per hour," recalled David Hill, now a docent at the Ventura County Historical Museum.

Dick Faussett grew up in Thousand Oaks and remembers that his 1941 Ford hot rod would overheat on the long climb.

"During the summer, I couldn't date anyone from Thousand Oaks," Faussett said.

For many, the differences on either side still stand.

Two Markets

Tom Schlender, who owns stores in Newbury Park and Oxnard that sell major appliances, maintains that he must market his wares differently in the two locations.

His Warehouse Discount Center in Newbury Park has high-tech stock; the Oxnard appliances come with fewer gadgets.

"In Newbury Park, we'd sell a stove with a microwave and self-cleaning oven, where in Oxnard it would be your basic range. We've tried a higher end in Oxnard and it wasn't as successful," Schlender said.

But distinctions are blurring.

Faussett, who serves on the board of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. and speaks to groups throughout the county, said civic leaders from Simi Valley to Oxnard are concerned about problems such as smog, traffic and crime.

"Both sides share the same concerns. We have fairly common problems."

One reason for the growing awareness is that more and more people commute over the grade--an increasing number of them from Moorpark and Thousand Oaks into the growing industrial and commercial office base of western Ventura County.

And an entire new community has sprung up in the past several years on the grade's Camarillo flank. About 700 homes and apartments are in various stages of construction, plus two retail or office parks and an 18-hole golf course, according to a spokesman for the city planner's office in Camarillo.

Perhaps Ventura County Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer, who represents cities on both sides of the grade, best sums up the dichotomy of this enigmatic 15 miles of highway.

On one hand, she said, "I find they're very similar both politically and philosophically. I know some very urbane folks in both neighborhoods."

But in the same breath, she only underscored the different perceptions on both sides when she added: "If each side crossed the grade, they'd be absolutely amazed at the similarity."

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