Romancing the Past


When it comes to street names, school names, even bank names, Ramona is an oddly common one in Southern California.

It's not common knowledge that a wildly popular romance novel, "Ramona," penned by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1884, sparked this name craze while increasing California tourism and priming interest in the state's Latino past.

Just as intriguing is the strong likelihood that Jackson placed the setting for her novel at the sprawling Rancho Camulos near Piru--after a visit in 1882 that lasted less than two hours.

The historic adobe rancho and its ties to the book--so popular that it spawned at least three films, including a silent version starring Mary Pickford in 1910--come together in a new exhibit opening Friday at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

The show, with its historic photos and artifacts, is intended to serve as a template for future displays at Rancho Camulos, which was nearly destroyed in the Northridge earthquake. Once the costly and massive restoration is closer to completion, the 11,000-square-foot adobe, schoolhouse, chapel and winery will open as a museum.

"I'd like to see it open in a year," said Anne Reinders whose grandparents bought the rancho from the aristocratic del Valle family in 1924. Her mother, Shirley Lorenz, grew up there, swinging from the gigantic black walnut tree that now covers three-quarters of an acre.

Reinders, who spent summers there as a girl, and her mother remember the tourists who would get off the train at the rancho, dubbed the "Home of Ramona," for a look at where the fictional girl, raised by an old California family, supposedly fell in love with Alessandro, a Temecula Indian. "We called them Ramona hunters," Reinders said.

Jackson hadn't intended to write a novel about an ill-fated romance. A poet and friend of Emily Dickinson, the Massachusetts native took up the Indian cause after hearing a lecture. But her subsequent writings about their plight went largely ignored.

So she tried a different tact. A novel about an ill-fated love affair would do for the Indians what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did for the anti-slavery movement, she surmised.

Jackson spent six months touring Southern California missions and Indian reservations, and at the suggestion of a friend she spent a morning at Rancho Camulos with the del Valle family.

The book came out two years later, and the resemblance between the rancho and the book's "Moreno Ranch" was striking--the chapel, winery, grape arbor, layout of the adobe, the cross on the hill that served as a beacon for travelers.

The novel didn't reverse the discrimination against the Indians, and Jackson died of cancer a year later, never realizing its impact: the creation of a romantic, even mythical, image of Hispanic California that coincided with the arrival of the railroad and a thriving tourist industry.

Rancho Camulos became known as the "Home of Ramona." Even the crates of oranges the ranch sold bore the label, "Home of Ramona." Movies followed, starring Pickford, Dolores del Rio and Loretta Young. Since 1923, Hemet, southeast of Riverside, has put on a lavish outdoor dramatization called the Ramona Pageant. Its most famous Ramona character was Hollywood newcomer Raquel Welch in 1959.

The museum exhibit has early posters from the Hemet pageant and the old movies. Visitors also can watch the 10-minute Pickford silent movie, filmed at Rancho Camulos.

One of the most intriguing pieces in the exhibit is a lace altar cloth, with a mended tear, that belonged to the deeply religious del Valle family. In the book, Ramona mends a torn altar cloth.

"Probably when Jackson went there she saw things and drew on her memory for details," said Tim Schiffer, museum curator. The rawhide cot on display also came from rancho, and it figures into the book too.

Most of the exhibit items from the del Valle days are on loan from the rancho and the Los Angeles History Museum--serape, ornate clothing, crucifixes, and a collection of old photos of Rancho Camulos that have been blown up.

Jackson's handwritten first page of "Ramona" is also there. The exhibit runs through Nov. 29, and during that time the museum store will carry a few first editions of the book and rare copies of Jackson's sonnets.


The Ventura County Museum of History and Art exhibit, "Rancho Camulos and the Home of Ramona" opens Friday and runs through Nov. 29. The museum, open daily except Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is at 100 E. Main St., Ventura; (805) 653-0323.

On Saturday, State Librarian Kevin Starr will present a free symposium on Rancho Camulos and its connection to the book, "Ramona." The event is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St.

"Ramona Comes to Camulos" is a fund-raising event scheduled Oct. 17 at Rancho Camulos, just east of Piru on Highway 126. Principal actors from Hemet's Ramona Pageant will perform scenes, and traditional food will be served. Tickets are $125. The benefit will help fund the restoration of the adobe as a museum. For reservations, call (805) 521-1561.

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