If ever there were a real house for a fictitious character, then a University of Redlands historian says Rancho Camulos is it. And he hopes his findings will earn the Piru hacienda the respect--and preservation funding--he thinks it deserves.
In an article to appear in the December issue of "California History," James Sandos argues that the more than 140-year-old Camulos is the true setting of Helen Hunt Jackson's epic romance "Ramona," the story of an ill-fated affair between a young Spanish girl and her Indian lover. A social reformer, Jackson hoped her novel would do for Indians what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did for slaves.
Sandos' research may be enough to finally get Camulos national landmark status. In the past, it has been turned down because two historic sites in San Diego County have received the designation for their purported connection with the book.
"The queen is in exile and the pretenders are on the throne," Sandos said.
Those "pretenders" are Casa de Estudillo in San Diego's Old Town, which once called itself Ramona's marriage place, and Rancho Guajome in northwest San Diego County, which once challenged Camulos as Ramona's home.
Aside from bragging rights, money is at stake. National historic landmark status would attract more grants and donations to the Piru rancho in its effort to rebuild and become a museum.
Rancho Camulos was severely damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
"The ultimate issue is how does one clear up the confusion so that Camulos can receive its deserved recognition as a national historic landmark," Sandos said.
The enormously popular 1897 novel "Ramona" triggered Southern California's tourism industry, with thousands from across the country flocking here for a glimpse of the rancho lifestyle. Many of those visitors settled in the area.
A hundred years later, the legend of Ramona maintains its appeal. The book remains in print and continues to sell, and an annual dramatization of the story has drawn thousands to Hemet for 76 years. Ramona remains a popular name for California streets and businesses.
At Rancho Guajome and Casa de Estudillo, the Ramona claims--which staff members admit were exaggerated--emerged early in the century at the peak of the Ramona craze. Today, that fabricated connection to the novel is mentioned only as a footnote to the sites' larger historical significance.
"The house stands alone in its interpretation," said Diane Kennedy, the senior ranger at Rancho Guajome. "We don't need a label like 'The Home of Ramona.' "
Jackson did visit Guajome twice, while she spent only two hours at Camulos in 1882. On her second visit to Guajome, the rancho's owner locked her in her room for three days, worried she was inciting an uprising among Guajome's Indian servants. Ysidora Bandini Couts later sued the author for libel, charging she, her son and her rancho were unflatteringly portrayed in "Ramona."
Though the only sign of Ramona at Casa de Estudillo in San Diego's Old Town is the book for sale in the gift shop, museum coordinator Jeanne Kelly said that if it weren't for the novel and efforts to capitalize on it, Estudillo and other California sites tied to Ramona might not be standing today.
"That legend or story did preserve a lot of buildings," Kelly said.
Edna Kimbro, a historic preservation consultant who is working with the owners of Rancho Camulos, said a 1996 application for national historic landmark status for the rancho was turned down because the two other Ramona-related sites had received the designation in 1970.
Instead, Camulos received a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a less valuable designation than "landmark."
"You either are one or you aren't, and second place doesn't count," Kimbro said.
To support his theory that Camulos is the most deserving of landmark status, Sandos used several editions of the novel and Jackson's diary and letters to conclude that Camulos played the biggest part in "Ramona."
Among other evidence for Camulos' place in "Ramona," Sandos cites Jackson's sending an artist there for sketches she translated into descriptions in her book.
"If you look at the photographs, if you look at the illustrations done by Helen Hunt Jackson's illustrator, they're uncontestably of Camulos," said Anne Reinders, whose family owns Camulos. "But I guess that's just been buried over time."
Reinders said evidence also comes from a 1914 book called "The True Story of Ramona" that turned up recently in a library at the rancho.
"I haven't read the prose, but I've gone through and looked at the pictures and they're all of Camulos," she said.
Kimbro and Reinders hope that by reapplying for landmark status next year, Camulos can achieve its rightful place in history and at the same time secure its own preservation.
"Our motive in pursuing this is because we need the money," Reinders said. "I don't want to detract from anybody else's tourist attraction."