Walking into the Mill feed store in Santa Paula is like going back to grandpa's childhood. Caged birds twitter in the corner, stacks of feed cover the ground and a long string of raccoon tails swings overhead.
At the counter, down-home clerks talk about what matters: "How'd ya bowl last night?" one asks another.
This store and other reminders of a vanishing era--from the quaint Main Street shops to shady, tree-lined avenues--are what attract visitors and residents to this town of 26,000, which local people like to think of as the citrus capital of the world.
Surrounded by miles of agricultural land in the verdant Santa Clara Valley and tucked between South Mountain and Sulphur Mountain, Santa Paula is the geographic center of Ventura County.
This setting is what attracted Cynthia and Fred Davis when they relocated from Santa Barbara to be closer to Fred's banking job in Simi Valley.
"We looked all over the county," said Cynthia, a sewing instructor. "We checked out everything between Ventura and the Conejo Grade. We didn't want to live in Thousand Oaks or Simi Valley because of the heat."
Finally deciding on Santa Paula, the couple are now delighted with the town, their vintage home and oak-tree-filled neighborhood.
"We love it," Cynthia said. "It's quiet. We feel like we're in seventh heaven. It's like drop-out time."
Of course, the couple didn't drop out, but got right to work improving the two-bedroom, two-bathroom 1920s home they recently bought for $275,000. They spruced up the home's endearing qualities--the hardwood floors, architectural detail and French doors--and added on a master suite.
Another couple who relocated to Santa Paula came from Woodland Hills. Dana and Marriann Elcar had often passed through Santa Paula en route to their boat in Oxnard. Eventually the town snagged their hearts.
"We began to realize that it was a lovely, lovely town," recalled Dana Elcar, who plays Pete Thornton on the television show "MacGyver."
Even though the couple and their two young children weren't anxious to leave their woodsy Valley home, they did buy in Santa Paula six years ago and learned a lesson in the process.
"We made a discovery," he said. "Just because you have a good thing doesn't mean it can't get better."
He doesn't mind the 70-minute drive to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, claiming that some actors living in Malibu have a longer commute time because of traffic. His children ride horses and his daughter is on the swim team.
"This is and has the feel of a small town," he said. "When we first moved here a woman actually came over with some pies. It's a delightful change when you work in Hollywood all week."
Actually, the actor brought a bit of Hollywood--or Broadway--to Santa Paula. Along with another local actor who wanted to stay active in live theater, Elcar founded the Santa Paula Theater Center, for which he serves as artistic director and Marriann serves as general manager. The theater puts on four to five plays a year, along with hosting dance troups, children's theater and fund-raising talent shows.
The Elcars are also happy with their home. The adobe-style home has 16-inch-thick stucco walls, an office/guest room over the garage, is surrounded by oak trees and cost $100,000 less than a comparable home in the Valley.
Home prices in Santa Paula range from $150,000 for a modest two-bedroom home to $700,000 for a 3,500-square-foot home on a coveted hillside lot. Condos range from $100,000 to $170,000. Most of the homes in Santa Paula are not new, with 50% of the housing stock being more than 50 years old.
Some claim Santa Paula will always remain a small town because it is completely surrounded by county-zoned agricultural land that can't be built upon. But that situation changes when farmland is annexed to the city, which happened recently to 16 acres of an 80-acre walnut farm that had been bought by the great-grandfather of Allan Atmore.
Now known as a farmer-turned-developer, Atmore built 88 homes in a development known as Las Pasadas. The homes were originally priced at $249,000 to $289,000 but those prices were lowered about $20,000 to sell out the project.
Other Santa Paula building projects include 50 hillside homes--priced at $400,000 and up--built by McKevitt/Jones. Also, a project for low-income senior citizens is under construction near downtown. It's a joint project between a private developer, Prairie Pacific & Investments of Santa Paula, and a nonprofit developer, the Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. of Saticoy, which will eventually own and manage the project.
Even with these new projects, "the prevailing desire is to limit growth," said Kay Wilson-Bolton, a real estate broker in town for 16 years who has served as mayor and on the City Council.
"But how much growth is good?" she asked. "We have many financial problems because of the decision not to grow." She cited a recent survey that found that 87% of the $600 million in disposable income is spent out of town. Often described as a bedroom community, Santa Paula's non-farming residents work in Ventura, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Agoura and stop on their way home to shop. "We have tremendous leakage," Wilson-Bolton said.
A Chamber of Commerce committee is searching for ways to get fat-walleted tourists to spend money in town, especially those who cruise through on their way to Ojai to the north. Attractions include a Main Street right out of the '20s and '30s, the theater center, the county's oldest airport with a collection of antique airplanes, the Unocal Oil Museum, a few bed-and-breakfast inns and the historic Glen Tavern Inn.
An attraction Santa Paula doesn't want is a county jail project, for which a 200-acre site was selected in the green belt between Santa Paula and Fillmore, which lies to the east. The city of Santa Paula objects to the plan and agreed to spend up to $100,000 suing the county.
Long before lawsuits and lemon trees dotted the land, Chumash Indians enjoyed life in Santa Paula, then known as the village of Mupu. Life was made easier by an abundance of acorns and water from the Santa Paula River.
Later, after the land was controlled by mission fathers from San Buenaventura Mission, the secretary of state of Mexico and several luckless ranchers, much of the land that is Santa Paula was bought in 1872 by Nathan W. Blanchard, who founded the town along with Elisha L. Bradley.
When the pair planted 6,000 orange seedlings in 1874, they laid the foundation for Santa Paula's fame in the citrus world. The area eventually spawned the Sunkist Cooperative and the many jobs that drew to the area Latino workers looking for a better life.
Besides citrus, Santa Paula and its environs are the cradle to a major oil industry. In 1893, three companies merged to form Union Oil. Recently, Unocal has spent $1 million on its museum on Main Street, in the brick building of the company's first offices.
Today, one group working to improve life for the town's many Latino residents is the Mexican/American Chamber of Commerce. According to board member Victor Salas, almost 70% of the town's population is Latino. (Others put the figure at 50%.) The 60-member chamber was formed in 1985 after Salas and others found the regular chamber unresponsive to their needs.
Chamber events include a career fair "to educate our children that there are better things in this world than being a common laborer," said Salas, who was born in Santa Paula. He is an engineer/technician at Santa Paula Water Works and owns a manufacturing company. His son is a lawyer with offices in Santa Paula and Ventura.
Salas' influence to help Latinos will increase next year when he becomes president of the board of trustees of his alma mater, Santa Paula High School.
"I'm putting a lot of pressure on administrators to help these kids," he said. "There's a lot of poverty. It's sad."
One resident who is trying to improve her lot in life is Julia Castillo, who came to Santa Paula when she got married in 1974 at age 16, just one year after she came to the States from Jalisco, Mexico.
Today, Castillo cares for her four children, works part-time in a school cafeteria, works part time at K-Mart, cleans other people's houses in her "spare time" and studies through the library's literacy program.
Ten years ago, Castillo and her husband, a self-employed truck driver, bought their two-bedroom, one-bathroom house for $30,000. The house was recently appraised at more than $90,000.
But Castillo isn't satisfied with life in Santa Paula.
"Santa Paula is still the same as when I came here," she said. "It hasn't grown. I just see taxes going up every year. I don't see any changes. I'm not really too happy about how they're running things here."
One reason Castillo stays in her part-time jobs instead of commuting to Oxnard for a full-time job is so she can be available to drive her 5-year-old daughter home from school. She fears for her daughter's safety because of gang activity.
Indeed, gangs are a large concern in Santa Paula and throughout Ventura County, according to Police Chief Walt Adair, who was born in Santa Paula and whose paternal great-grandparents are buried there.
"We do have a problem with (gangs)," he said, "It's partly our demographics and partly the times we live in.".
Still, state statistics put Santa Paula's crime rate in the middle of the county and put the town in the top third in the state for safety.
Santa Paula is seen in a brighter light by real estate agent Floyd Hair, who has loved Santa Paula since he and his wife, Pauline, moved here from St. Louis in 1954.
"I've seen some changes," he said. "I was a part of a few of them." As an agent, he was involved with a shopping center and he helped save the historic Southern Pacific train depot from demolition. Today, the building houses the Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Paula Art Assn.
Through it all, Hair remains committed to Santa Paula, which he said "doesn't have a bad part of town."
"Everything changes and it seems to change for the better," he said. "It's been good to us and I hope we've been good to it. We're here to stay."
At a GlancePopulation
1991 estimate 24,927
1980-91 change +21.3%
Median age 31.4 years
Per capita 11,515
Median household 31,524
Less than $15,000 25.0%
$15,000 - $30,000 25.6%
$30,000 - $50,000 27.9%
$50,000 - $75,000 15.7%
$75,000 + 8.8%