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Valley’s Eclectic Devotees : Farmers, Indians, Even a Snazzy Club Call It Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a mysterious lady hiding behind a veil, Pauma Valley’s charm lies in what most people never get to see.

The motorist heading along two-lane California 76 between Interstate 15 and Borrego Springs cannot see the crew of Indian workers making authentic adobe bricks to enlarge the library at the tribal hall.

And, at first blush, you might not notice the gated country club community where evangelist Billy Graham and infamous auto entrepreneur John DeLorean once lived.

You probably won’t stop at the Pauma Store, where migrant farm workers, ranchers and Indians belly up to the small bar with its jukebox menu boards, and, elbow-to-elbow, tip cold bottles of beer pulled from the old refrigerator case--and then buy a six-pack to take home.

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What you’ll probably notice most about this place are the hundreds of acres of citrus and avocado groves on the valley floor, the green foliage changing tint like crushed velvet as the sun lowers to the west. Or the hillsides on both sides of the valley--especially the ones on the east that slope upwards to Palomar Mountain, that have burned from wildfires in past years and are now being replanted.

This valley, secluded and steeped in agriculture, is home to strange bedfellows indeed--from the Pauma Indian Reservation, many of its 250 residents wracked by poverty, to the affluent Pauma Valley Country Club, home to several hundred mostly retired professionals and corporate captains. In the middle of the spectrum come the Latino families who have worked the land for generations, and the gentleman farmers on their own 4- and 8-acre estate lots.

These are people who, by and large, don’t mind driving 40 minutes to Escondido for major shopping. People whose only exposure to neon is the gas station sign, or the beer logos in the local watering holes. People who don’t mind passing the farm tractors and mechanized sprayers that lumber down the highway like it’s reserved mostly for them.

Big news here was when animal control busted the cockfighting ring a couple years back. There’s the occasional raid on marijuana farms, watered by growers who tap into the irrigation lines of legitimate farmers.

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A few weeks ago, a postal truck was stolen from the Pauma Valley post office and found in Los Angeles. Now, that was news.

Consider this item in the police blotter column of the Valley Roadrunner, lead story in the newsletter’s “Pauma Valley Emergencies” column:

“Dec. 17, 7:53 a.m., report of vehicle fire 2 1/2 miles east of Pala on Hwy 76. Car had frost covering it and the heat from the sun was causing steam to rise, appearing as smoke.”

One of the most noteworthy events in Pauma Valley this past year was Genie Miller’s retirement.

Miller turned 80, and decided to sell her Pauma Store, a business she ran for 59 years, a little box of a place 15 feet off the highway.

She sold it to two Indians, Lee Dixon and Ron Glidon, “because I knew they’d treat it like I would have, keeping it on the simple side as it is.”

Genie Miller still lives in the valley, in a hillside home marked by a sign that says “Grandma.” She and her family once ran 100 head of sheep. The sheared wool would be shipped to a textile plant and be returned to her own store, in the form of jackets, blankets and shirts.

She remembers when her store got the first telephone in the valley--and how she or her kids would shag messages out to John Wayne, who, back in the ‘50s, lived in a sprawling ranch house where the country club is now situated.

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The Duke, she said, would escape to his Pauma Valley ranch for rest and horseback riding training, “and he’d ride horseback into the store all the time for a beer.”

“When we got our phone, we were taking calls for everybody out here, including him,” she said. “The telephone company would pay us 25 cents to take a message to someone living on this side of the (San Luis Rey) river, and 50 cents on the far side of the river. John Wayne lived on the far side.

“His wife would call down here, and we’d have to lie for him. I’d know that he was at some party, but he had me tell her, ‘Oh, he’s tied up at the ranch right now.’ ”

John Wayne supposedly said that one of his biggest regrets in life was selling the ranch house in Pauma Valley. It has since been razed, to make room for a sprawling new estate being built by a man moving here from Bel-Air.

When it comes to conspicuously guarding one’s mystique, the award surely goes to the Pauma Valley Country Club: the community behind guarded gates that’s anchored by a 71-par Robert Trent Jones golf course.

Its restaurant is open only to members and guests, and coat-and-tie is the evening dress. Its 40-room hotel is open to sponsored guests or members who don’t have a home in the complex.

Membership is reserved only for those who are sponsored by an existing member, and who must first pass a screening process to show they have the right social chemistry to bond. Past members have included corporate scions from Walt Disney, Von’s, Allstate, Sears, Arco and Hilton Hotels, among other major American corporations.

The club reportedly has no Jews and no blacks. At least, that was a prominent member’s admission in a 1981 Times story, and when the question is asked again now, the response is, “No comment.”

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The general manager of the country club, John Worsley, is paid to keep the name of the club out of the newspapers.

Privacy at the club is so protected, said one employee, that Worsley “can’t even tell you how great the country club is. The people here don’t want any publicity, even if it’s good, because that draws attraction to them. This club is like an extension of the (members’) family, and they don’t want any of it publicized for public consumption.”

With a polite “no comment,” Worsley won’t discuss what it costs to join. (Others say it takes $30,000.) He won’t say how many members there are. (Estimates range from 380 to 550.) He won’t even discuss the length of the golf course. “No comment,” he says, ever so politely.

About 250 elegant ranch homes surround the golf course, as well as several dozen condominiums. Not every homeowner belongs to the club, but they still relish the exclusivity and privacy. There’s a private 2,800-foot airstrip, used mostly by those executives who still have business to tend in Los Angeles or Orange County.

The Rev. Billy Graham owned a home here for several years in the 1960s, old-timers say--a place that served more as an occasional get-away retreat than a residence. “He liked being able to walk down the street by himself, with nobody bothering him,” said one club employee. Eventually, though, Graham donated the house to a Christian college which, in turn, sold it.

Probably the most infamous resident was John DeLorean, the auto maker Wunderkind who was arrested--and then acquitted--on federal drug charges, fraud, racketeering and income tax evasion.

He owned a 48-acre estate--La Cuesta de Camellia--that he first tried to sell for $4 million, and then $5.2 million, then $3.7 million and finally for $2.7 million. Ultimately, in 1986, DeLorean turned over the property, with its 5,720-square-foot adobe main house, two guest houses and five-room ranch manager house--to his attorney, in exchange for $2.5 million in outstanding legal fees.

The club members weathered the media attention that DeLorean thrust on them, and hope life is returning to a quiet normalcy.

“We have a lot of top-name people out here, but we don’t think of them in terms of being top lawyers or national affairs people. We think of them as family,” said one club worker who, like others, asked to remain unnamed. “We’re all family. We know everybody’s grandkids. We’re tight.”

Although the members generally stick to themselves, they sponsor an annual golf tournament, the Avocado Invitational, for the Boy Scouts of America, and a men’s club, called The Farmers, raises money for local charities.

The club was started in the late 1960s--and enlisted so many members who were in their mid- to late-60s that membership ranks began to thin dramatically within years because of deaths, said one employee. Membership initiation fees reportedly dipped to just $7,000 as the club regrouped, and today, there again is a waiting list, even with a higher fee.

One member, Rosemary Billips, a transplant from Santa Monica with her attorney husband, Dale--calls Pauma Valley “paradise.” Her husband was smitten by the golf course, and the couple was sponsored for membership by a friend who already lived there. They established a second home at the country club development 17 years ago and moved there full-time in 1986.

“With all the Indian reservations around here,” she said, “we know this place will never get that crowded. Now, when I go back to Santa Monica, I shudder.”

Flip side to the country club: the Pauma Store, Genie Miller’s old place and still the popular hangout for the valley’s grove workers and old-time residents.

The place sells underwear and frozen food, stamps and sewing needles, and fuses and eggs and motor oil.

“My parents use to come in here for two or three beers, and us kids would tag along and play outside and listen to music,” said Lee Dixon, 37, the new co-owner. “There would be coloring books around in those days. Today we have video games.”

Dixon was, to use his words, “born and raised on the rez,” but left to get his masters degree in business administration at UC Santa Barbara. Now he runs an economic consulting business for Indian tribes--and runs the store.

It is one of only two in the state, he said, that is licensed by the Alcoholic Beverage Commission to sell both beer on site and packaged beer to go.

“Years ago, we were the single biggest seller of beer in North County,” Dixon said. “But not any more. We close at 8.”

That’s not the only change to come upon Pauma Valley.

There are more property-line fences these days--making it tougher for locals to ride horseback or hike from here to there.

Some of the old hangouts have disappeared--like Casablanca, an old beer and dance hall that is now a private residence, and Rincon Springs, the old dinner house that burned down.

And Alan Bartkowski says he’s going to have to shut down his Pauma Valley service station next year because he can’t afford the $1 million in liability insurance that the bureaucrats are requiring for underground gasoline storage tanks.

“When we close,” he said, “I don’t know where people will be able to buy gas.”

Not that the country club members will have to worry. Prompted by the Arab oil embargo and the gas crisis nearly 10 years ago, they built their own gas station at the club, for members only.

Several thousand acres of the valley are planted in citrus and avocado groves. The climate is favorable and, more importantly, the water is cheap. Farmers pull the water out of the ground, in wells owned by a handful of small, private water companies.

The Agua Tibia Ranch features among its 1,500 acres the state’s oldest living orange tree, still producing fruit 123 years after having been transplanted in 1868 from the first commercial grove in California near what is now downtown Los Angeles. Seeds from the Agua Tibia tree were used for the first extensive citrus groves on the valley floor in 1924.

Typical of the local growers today is Bill Hutchings, who has 15 acres planted in navel and Valencia oranges, as well as avocados.

Some of the big acreage groves are owned by out-of-towners, including one man who is a fruit broker at the produce market in Los Angeles.

One of the larger businesses in the valley is T-Y Nursery, a Japanese-owned wholesale grower specializing in juniper, pine and oleander.

The nursery owns 350 acres, 150 of them planted, he said. Between 50 and 70 people work there, depending on the season.

How many trees and shrubs are being grown for retail outlets? “Millions,” he said. Really, how many? “Millions,” he said.

A half-mile off California 76, Sam Powvall oversees four Pauma Indians as they form adobe bricks--first, by mining the clay soil, adding water and pouring it into 4-inch-deep forms that are 18 inches by 12 inches. A week or more later, they’ll be cured by the sun, and then stacked in piles.

So far, about 3,000 bricks have been made; by next June, he said, 10,000 should be done--enough to expand the library at the Pauma Indian Reservation Hall.

Powvall, 69, used to be the tribal chairman. He retired a few years ago as a missile mechanic at the naval weapons station at Fallbrook.

Powvall was born in Pauma Valley. He has hunted its quail, its rabbits, the deer and ducks. He’s got no use for anyplace else.

“There aren’t any subdivisions here,” he says. “Just lots of real nice people.”

Bud Pecaro moved to Pauma Valley from Connecticut when he was 30, following the lead of his parents, who described the area as “Shangri-La.” Now 55, Pecaro has written for the past 17 years his column on local news and events for the Valley Roadrunner.

A main staple of his reporting: the monthly meetings of the local women’s auxiliary for the Children’s Home Society. The other day he reported the purchase of a new fire truck at a little fire station operated by the Pala band of Indians, on the west side of the valley. And, oh yeah, they’re going to buy an ambulance next. Another story was how the local elementary school collected 45 baskets of food and other goodies for local, needy families for the holidays.

“This is a nice, quiet, good place to live and retire,” he said. “But you won’t move here for excitement. There aren’t any shoot-outs at the local saloon. Oh, once in a while a dog gets killed on the highway.”

Even Pecaro, writing for a community weekly, has trouble tapping the Pauma Valley Country Club for news or features. “They’re all worried that they’ll say something that sounds wrong and, besides, they just don’t want any publicity at all.”

So Pecaro looks for other news--and thought he got his big break the other day.

“I got this real humdinger story, about how a body of a Mexican gentleman had been found sitting, huddled in front of a local store. The word was that, after the body had been discovered, mourners came and strewed sweet-smelling flowers over the sad remains.

“As soon as I heard it, I thought, here’s my chance for a Pulitzer Prize. I checked it out with everyone I could. I turned over all kinds of rocks, called everybody I could think of, including the fire department and local businessmen who might have discovered the man sitting in front of their establishment. It turned out it wasn’t true.”

But, for a while, it was news in Pauma Valley.

Staff writer Dave Smollar contributed to this report.


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