Pioneer Family Walking Away From Success : Growth: A prosperous farm couple's decision to sell landmark property reflects their discontent with the change that has come to Ventura County.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why would Allan and Linda Ayers, a couple of farm kids who married 20 years ago, want to sell Ventura County's Landmark No. 1, shut down their flourishing pumpkin business and leave town?

"It's a mystery to us all," a friend said recently as she watched Allan Ayers coax his team of Clydesdales around the playground of a school where he was giving free hayrides.

The couple would seem to have it all: the deep roots of a pioneer farm family, cash flow from the booming Ayers Pumpkin Patch and Christmas Tree Farm and a homestead so picturesque that TV and motion picture companies have rented it nearly 100 times.

"Everything is going great guns," Linda Ayers said in an interview at Faulkner House, a classic 18-room Victorian built by Allan's great-grandfather and restored by the couple since they bought it in 1982. "It's just faster than we want to go anymore."

"I think of it as walking away from success," Allan Ayers said.

Their decision to sell and move to the vast, empty high plains of northeastern New Mexico also reflects a general discontent with the change that has come to Ventura County over the last decade.

"We're rural people. It's not rural here anymore," Allan Ayers said. "It's nice to be somewhere where the only sounds are the birds and the insects and the wind."

That's the way it was in Ventura County when George Washington Faulkner, an immigrant from Ohio, bought his 150-acre farm near Santa Paula in 1879 and when he built his splendid 8,000-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian home in 1894.

It was still that way when Allan Ayers was growing up on a farm next door in the 1950s, before the nearby Santa Paula Freeway cut a swath through the peaceful Santa Clara River Valley.

"There was just nothing here. This was a farm road," Ayers said, motioning toward Telegraph Road, on which his farm fronts.

"I romanticize about the way it used to be," he said. "People here were farmers. Now people buy small blocks and live out in the country and that's fine. But we get kind of lonely" for other farmers.

Newcomers might not see the changes, since the old Faulkner farm--an ornate house and two red barns on 27 acres--is flanked by open fields and orchards and blessed with a mountain backdrop.

But the ceaseless shift from farm to city life was enough to prompt Allan, 46, and Linda, 45, to list the homestead for sale in late 1989. Their price is now $2.35 million. They say that even if the property sold soon it would take another two years for them to find a new home and relocate with their 10-year-old daughter, Alison, to New Mexico.

As the couple sat on a love seat in their homey living room, surrounded by the warm floral patterns and rich woodwork of another era, they didn't seem eager to go just yet.

ey talked of family history--the love letters of great-grandparents, an Ayers ancestor who was among this country's first Methodist ministers--and the wanderlust that led great-grandfather Faulkner to buy ranches in Mexico.

Even before they move, life is slowing down and getting better, they said.

Allan, who at 6 feet, 10 inches towers over even his outsized Clydesdale draft team, said he is happier than he has been for years because farm operations--pared from 200 acres to 27--are so manageable.

The streamlined business has also allowed Ayers to return to teaching after an eight-year absence. The fourth- and fifth-graders in his class at Poinsettia Elementary School in Ventura bring out the best in him, he said. Some of the students refer to him as the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG, after the character in children's literature.

The couple are also making arrangements for next year's pumpkin patch, the business whose success has made it financially possible for them to walk away. A kind of country fair, it features huge pumpkins, hayrides, farm animals and a Dixieland band while drawing more than 40,000 people each October. Dozens of old friends work there during the season, adding to the atmosphere.

"It's nice to give a party and have 40,000 people come to it," Allan said. "People sometimes talk down their nose at what we do here. Then they come out and see it, and they change their minds."

People he hardly knows have told Ayers that they hope he can't sell the farm, so the pumpkin patch will not die, he said.

But the success of that 17-year-old business, along with the recent completion of an eight-year restoration of Faulkner House, helped convince the couple that it is time to make a change.

"I wanted to leave with no regrets, with nothing left unfinished," said Linda Ayers, who has helped manage the farm and has overseen restoration of the house.

At times during the 1980s, five craftsmen labored simultaneously to fix up the landmark at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the couple said.

The home came to the couple in 1982 like an old, distinguished relative they had never really known but who needed care in old age.

The house had deteriorated while Allan's great-uncle, George S. Faulkner, lived there until he died in 1981 at age 95.

The Ayerses needed the farmland and barns, which they had leased as part of their business, so they bought the estate from the rest of their relatives. And the house--then a faded mustard color on the outside and green on the inside--came with the deal.

"It was strictly business," said Allan, who had visited his great-uncle's house on holidays as a child but had no sentimental attachment to it. "But we didn't feel right having it and not doing right by it. It's a wonderful house and deserves the care we've given it."

Even before it was restored, Faulkner House had been honored as the county's first designated landmark in 1968. Recently, it was nominated by the state for national landmark status.

The house is also comfortable--so spacious that when they first moved there, toddler Alison would crawl away and get lost in it, and convenient for Allan because he doesn't have to bend to get through its seven-foot doorways.

But the restoration is done, and "we've seen the pumpkin patch through," Linda Ayers said. "So this move comes at a very good time for us."

"You do something and you enjoy it," Allan said. "Then you move on to something else."

They will do that in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, south of the Colorado border in northeastern New Mexico, where the Great Plains meet the rocky spine of the nation.

That new life may not include farming. "People who've never farmed get nostalgic about farming," Allan said.

The landscape of ranches and farms hard against the mountains reminds him of Faulkner Farm, Allan said. But there are very few people there.

"That's the beauty of it," he said.

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