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Family at Crossroads : Camarillo Clan Holds to Its Ranching Traditions but Estate Is Shrinking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are only 5,000 acres left of the family’s land, half of the original estate. It takes “an act of God” and the help of a few attorneys to reach a decision. And no one holds the huge fiestas any more at the grand old house.

Although the members of one of Ventura County’s oldest clans--the Camarillo family--are still ranching and farming in the tradition of their ancestors, they are at a crossroads.

Family members say it is difficult to make a living off the land that stretches from the Conejo Grade to the middle of the city of Camarillo and east into the Santa Rosa Valley.

The old Camarillo ranch has been sliced into so many pieces among heirs that the parcels are scarcely profitable to farm. And younger family members are losing interest in agriculture.

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The family must now decide whether to keep or sell the remaining 800 acres--nearly all farmland--that belonged to Carmen Camarillo Jones, patriarch Adolfo Camarillo’s youngest daughter who died several years ago at 85.

Sometimes the family’s presence goes without notice in the area, since none of Adolfo’s grandchildren bear the Camarillo name. (They are the FitzGeralds and the Lambs, the Nicholsons and the Longos, the Parkers and the Marvels.)

But when this family has made the painful decision of selling off land to developers in the past, residents in the surrounding area have felt the effects.

The family recently sold 29 acres of the Jones estate to Pardee Construction Co. to pay about $4 million in inheritance taxes. The developer chopped down two dozen eucalyptus trees on the land to widen Mission Oaks Boulevard, causing an uproar among residents who said a beautiful “tunnel of trees” had been destroyed.

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After the death of Adolfo Camarillo in 1958, the family for the first time was forced to sell 1,150 acres to pay taxes on the estate.

“It suddenly became necessary for the family to do something it never had done before--sell land,” said Gerald FitzGerald, one of Adolfo’s eight grandchildren. “Because of that we had massive development in this area.”

A large portion of the land, he said, was used for Leisure Village and Pardee Construction Co.'s developments along Santa Rosa Road. The Camarillo Springs Golf Course at the Conejo Grade, Camarillo Springs Mobile Home Park, Lamplighter Mobile Home Park and the 3M plant also occupy part of the old ranch.

“People think it must be fantastic to be a Camarillo,” FitzGerald said. “But there are many problems with it. You just can’t sell a piece of land without an act of God. All the family has to agree.”

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About 20 family members and their attorneys met recently to discuss the Jones estate. FitzGerald, the executor of the estate, said at least 100 more acres will have to be sold to pay inheritance taxes. So far the family has not decided which land to place on the market.

No matter what the family decides, much of the estate would be required to remain farmland because it lies in the county’s greenbelt, FitzGerald said.

The idea of selling the family land leaves FitzGerald’s sister, Geraldine, uneasy.

“My grandfather always said that God isn’t making any more land, so we should hang on to it,” she said.

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“True,” FitzGerald said. “But the old days are over. We’ve got to face reality. It’s hard to survive in agriculture.”

There was a time when the family’s ranch was among the most profitable in the county.

Juan Camarillo, who had joined an expedition from Mexico City to participate in the Mexican colonization of California, purchased the 10,000-acre Rancho Calleguas for $3,000 in gold in 1876.

He died four years later, at age 68, and left the ranch to his widow, Martina. Adolfo, their son, assumed responsibility for the ranch when he was 16.

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When Martina died in 1898, she left the ranch to Adolfo and another son, Juan.

The brothers built one of the most profitable ranching and farming operations in the county.

Initially, the family grew barley and corn as their chief crops on the ranch that cut a large swath through the fertile Oxnard plain. Then they became pioneers in growing lima beans. Later, they raised walnuts and citrus. Today, the family’s agriculture operations grow strawberries and other row crops, along with citrus and avocadoes.

In 1916, Juan--who never married--purchased a ranch near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Adolfo and his wife, Isabella Menchaca, remained behind to manage the Camarillo ranch, where they had built a beautiful, white Victorian-style residence.

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The couple had seven children, but only five grew to adulthood--Carmen, Frank, Isabella, Rosa and Ave Maria.

Now the grandchildren of Adolfo Camarillo, who range in age from 55 to 68, have 26 children and 38 grandchildren of their own.

Rosita Marvel, the daughter of Rosa Camarillo Petit, said some of her fondest childhood memories come from the times she spent at the family’s ranch house, which now fronts Mission Oaks Boulevard.

“Anything was an excuse for a party,” Marvel said. “There was always lots of singing and music. We were a family that had a lot of fun.”

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After Adolfo died, the family continued to get together at the ranch house. But that stopped when Carmen died in 1987.

The old house, which Carmen willed to the Catholic Church, is badly in need of a paint job and other repairs. Bert Lamb, the grandson of Isabella Camarillo Burket, and his family are renting the house from the church until the Jones estate is settled.

Whomever develops the land around the house will be required by the city of Camarillo to refurbish the mansion and build a public park around it, FitzGerald said. Until then, the house is off-limits to the public.

Although Marvel said she is sorry to see the family split in different directions, she added it is understandable given the growing size and diversity of the Camarillo clan.

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“We’ve lost all the old members of the family. . . . All that’s left are cousins,” she said.

Francisca Parker, daughter of Isabella Camarillo Burket, agreed.

“Now we are the grandparents,” Parker said. “We have our children and grandchildren over at our home for Christmas. Now we do our own things.”

Most of the cousins live on ranches willed to them by their parents.

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“We all have a bundle of children and that presents a problem,” Parker said. “The more people you have, the more opinions you have, and it’s hard to run something with that many people involved. Also, the parcels are becoming too small. It’s not economically feasible to farm.”

Although keeping the farmland for generation after generation is a “nice dream,” it’s no longer practical, Parker said.

“Nothing stands still,” she said. “I suppose you’d call it progress.”

THE CAMARILLO FAMILY TREE * Adolfo and Isabella Camarillo married 1888 Children: Rosa, Frank, Ave Maria, Isabella, Carmen

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* Rosa: married Alfred Petit Children: * Gloria married George Longo (2 children, 2 grandchildren) * Rosita married Thomas Marvel (7 children, 17 grandchildren)

* Frank married Edith “Tweedy” Haran

* Ave Maria married George Fitzgerald Children: * Carmelita married James Nicholson (6 children, 8 grandchildren) * Geraldine unmarried * Gerald married Larraine Petty (1 child) * James married Shirley Willimas (3 children, 3 grandchildren)

* Isabella married Harold Burket Children: * Francisca married Harold Parker (4 children, 3 grandchildren) * Susanna married Robert Lamb (3 children, 5 grandchildren)

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* Carmen married Roy Jones


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