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McGraths Everywhere : Founders: In 1876, the first one arrived, setting up a family dynasty on a patchwork of farms. There are now 500 descendants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although they have a state beach named after them, Ventura County’s McGrath family couldn’t hold a reunion there this year because there wasn’t enough space to accommodate them all.

At more routine family gatherings throughout the year, so many McGraths come together that they have taken to wearing name tags to identify themselves.

And at the Ventura County Courthouse, Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath sometimes has to ask prospective jurors named McGrath if they are related because he simply can’t keep track of all his distant relatives.

Such are the problems of being a member of the McGrath clan--one of Ventura County’s oldest and most influential families. And maybe its biggest.

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More than a hundred years ago, the first McGrath came to Ventura County and set up a family dynasty on a patchwork of farms that extended from the coast through the fertile Oxnard Plain.

Now the county boasts an estimated 500 descendants of the original McGrath family, although not all of them carry the name. Over the years, they have also become the Laubachers, the Douds, the Leonards and the Johansings, to name a few.

With farmers, businessmen, lawyers, priests and politicians among them, perhaps no other family in the area has become as diverse as this group.

Their decision to sell pieces of their family land has greatly changed the face of the Oxnard Plain and the shore. At one point they owned all the beachfront property from Ventura to Port Hueneme, including the area that is now the Channel Islands Harbor, the prestigious Mandalay Beach Resort and the surrounding homes.

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And while some family members have opted to cash in their slice of the original family holdings, others have refused to sell to developers--thus preserving some of the finest agricultural land in the area.

Some of the family members have struck it rich, others struggle to make a living on their farms.

All have watched Ventura County grow and change--for better or worse--much like their own family. With about a quarter of the land left in the original 5,000-acre estate, members of the clan have found themselves at a crossroads.

In a trailer on the edge of his family’s 300-acre farm on the Ventura Freeway near Camarillo, Phil McGrath is silent for a moment, listening to the traffic whirl by outside.

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Phil McGrath, 38, remembers the days when the freeway was a two-lane road. As a boy, he would set up his lemonade stand by the roadway after he finished his chores on the farm, which is owned by his father, William.

The growth of the county, and the traffic and congestion that have come with it, have been hard for Phil McGrath to take.

“I go nuts listening to those cars,” Phil McGrath said. “Sometimes I catch myself getting used to it. Then I say, no I don’t want to get used to it. I know it’s not right to be farming next to a freeway. It’s not natural.”

Phil McGrath said he often wonders why his family bothers to farm the land. The crops get damaged by the exhaust from the passing cars. People steal tools and take from the crops.

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Developers constantly court the family for the land, and Phil McGrath anticipates that someday the farm will be sold, choked out by growth.

But so far the family has held on, for the sake of tradition.

“I remember telling myself, I’m never going to be a farmer, I don’t want to be a farmer,” Phil McGrath said. “But the truth is, I don’t know what else I would do. It’s in the blood.”

The McGraths’ farming legacy dates back to February, 1876.

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Dominick McGrath--of Derry Shanogue, Ireland--came to Oxnard with his wife, Bridget. Impressed by the abundance and the size of the wild mustard growing in the fields of Ventura County, Dominick McGrath figured the land must be fertile.

He purchased the 5,000-acre ranch for as little as 75 cents an acre and built a little clapboard house on the knoll near what is now Harbor Boulevard and Gonzales Road, where the couple raised six daughters and four sons.

In the beginning, Dominick grew mostly grain and hay on the farm, but soon he began to experiment. Along with neighboring rancher and friend Adolfo Camarillo, Dominick became one of the first in the area to grow lima beans, which became the mainstay of agriculture on the Oxnard Plain.

When Dominick died in 1908, his four sons--Robert, Frank, Joe and Hugo--took over the estate. The land was later split among the sons and their families.

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The family stayed out of local politics at first. But in 1931, Joseph McGrath was appointed to the Board of Supervisors. With strong ties to the Republican Party, family members have held fund-raisers for various candidates over the years.

Charles McGrath, a great-grandchild of Dominick McGrath, worked on the Nixon reelection campaign and was a delegate to a Republican convention.

In 1974, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to a Ventura County Municipal Court judgeship.

Five years later Charles McGrath was elected to a Superior Court judgeship, a position he has held ever since.

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“I got into law by mistake,” Charles McGrath said, relaxing in his office at the Ventura County Courthouse. “My father said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going into farming or not, but you ought to have a profession to fall back on.’ ”

Although Charles McGrath is not a farmer, he and his family live on a 225-acre ranch on Gonzales Road near Ventura, part of an estate once owned by his grandfather, Robert McGrath.

“My own idea is to hang onto the land for as long as I can for my children’s sake,” the judge said. “It’s security and it’s a valuable asset. It will always return income.”

Charles McGrath’s wife, Beverlee, a former Las Vegas nightclub singer, has devoted much of her time to restoring the old, historic house. Outside, she keeps an aviary filled with birds and has four peacocks that wander freely on the premises.

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Like their father, Charles McGrath’s four children--ages 18 through 28--have no interest in farming the land.

“Farming bores me,” said Danny McGrath, 24, who wants to be a police officer. “It’s too tedious; it’s too aggravating.”

But one tradition Charles McGrath has held onto, along with other members of the McGrath clan, is the Catholic religion.

Charles McGrath’s uncle, the late Robert Edward McGrath, was ordained a priest in 1936 and became the procurator of Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai. Another family member, Harold Laubacher, became pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

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The family helped build St. John’s Regional Medical Center, where several generations of McGraths have been born, and recently donated 48 acres for a new facility for the Catholic hospital.

Although the clan has stayed active in the community, some family members say they increasingly feel like strangers in Ventura County--and among themselves.

Recently the clan tried to reserve McGrath State Beach--which the family sold to the state of California in the 1960s--for a big family reunion this summer. Normally in the old days, there would not have been a problem.

But the family was turned away because there was not enough room. The clan now plans to hold the reunion at Villanova Preparatory, where many of them attended school.

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“For years I wanted people to accept me for myself,” said David McGrath, who runs a pumpkin patch on Valentine Road at Halloween. “There was a time before I was married that I would not tell women my last name. I didn’t want them to assume I owned everything in the county.”

Now, David McGrath said, Ventura County is growing so quickly that newcomers are unaware of the roots of the area.

“Things have really changed here,” David McGrath said. “Sometimes I miss the way it was.”

And since the family has grown to be so big, it hardly knows itself anymore.

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“I don’t think there’s anyone in the family that knows everyone,” said Judge McGrath.

Phil McGrath calls Ventura County the jungle:

“There are relatives hanging from the trees. I see cousins driving past me on the freeway all the time.”

While some McGraths have opted to keep farming their land, others have made a lot of money selling or developing the inherited soil.

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Family members point to Dominick McGrath’s son Frank, who owned the Oxnard areas that extended to the Mandalay Beach, as the savvy businessman of the family. That trait has been handed down to the younger generations, family members say.

Perhaps the most successful of Frank McGrath’s descendants include his grandchildren, Tom and Sean, ages 45 and 40.

Together, the brothers own millions of dollars worth of property, with the most lucrative parcel--the McGrath business park--located on the Ventura Freeway near Rose Avenue. The development was the vision of the brothers’ father, the late Frank Jr.

“My dad always liked a challenge and he never believed in putting all his eggs in one basket,” Tom McGrath said. “As far as the park is concerned, we are extremely fortunate it ended up next to the freeway.”

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But the two brothers still are farming 500 acres in Oxnard.

“We still consider ourselves farmers first,” Tom McGrath said. “That’s the way it has always been.”


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