Heritage Valley’s play for the past

Family fun zone
Passengers in one of the Thomas the Tank Engine train cars overlook festivities by Fillmore’s Central Park.
(Bob Carey / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

Less than an hour northwest of Los Angeles are the towns of Fillmore, Piru and Santa Paula, which have taken to promoting themselves as Heritage Valley.

Heritage has been used to sell California tourism for so long that we now have a long heritage of heritage tourism. Take Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel, “Ramona,” which has deep roots in the Heritage Valley.

Meant as a social commentary to expose the injustice suffered by Indians, the book instead became an enormous success as a romantic tragedy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trainloads of tourists from across the continent flocked to locations thought to be the real-life setting for “Ramona.” A chief destination was Rancho Camulos near Piru, one of the sites identified as the ranch in the story. Visitors looked for idyllic ranch life filled with regal Spaniards and docile Indians, a sunny fantasy escape from dreary Eastern winters.

The property is now a museum staffed by volunteers and open two days a week to a respectful audience of history buffs. It makes for a fine day trip, but, as I found out a couple of weeks ago, Camulos and the valley’s other attractions are enough for a whole weekend too.

My wife, Shiru, 4-year-old daughter, Elly, and I made the recently renovated Heritage Valley Inn the anchor of our trip. The inn opened in 1890 and has been splendidly restored, looking today much as it does in the early photographs displayed in guest rooms. Both stories of the elegant wood building are bound by shady verandas.

When we arrived in the late morning, Wendy, the concierge, told us about a farm festival at the Hansen Agricultural Learning Center in Santa Paula.

The center is a University of California education and research facility that holds public programs year-round. Elly had a ball with the bunnies and goats at the petting zoo and got a good workout running through a maze plowed into an oat field. Displays and demonstrations covered quilting, spinning and butter churning. Local 4-H kids taught us the nutritional benefits of chèvre.

The event captured the essence of the area: It’s not so much a rural outpost as it is a blurring of the lines dividing suburbs and farmland, similar to parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys decades ago.

Our lunch from the vendors included a tri-tip sandwich, fresh corn on the cob and organic vegetable tamales and quesadillas. Though no escape from civilization, it was still a civilized break from city life.

After lunch we headed back to the inn, where Elly and Shiru relaxed in the room while I headed off to Rancho Camulos, a few minutes down the road. The site is open free from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Saturdays, though guided tours are $5.

Our tour leader was dressed in a black outfit she fashioned based on early photographs of the ranch’s first owners, the Del Valles, who held the 1,800-acre property from 1839 to 1924.

The museum’s literature notes the first oranges grown and shipped from what is now Ventura County came from Camulos in 1876. Trees from the original rootstock still grow on the grounds, as does El Rey Nogal (the king of walnut trees), 150 years old with a trunk 27 feet in circumference and branches that span nearly half an acre.

Descendants of August and Mary Rübel, who bought the ranch from the Del Valles, established the museum in 1994. National Historic Landmark status was granted in 2000.

The original buildings are intact and give visitors a feel for the 19th century. Drawings and photographs of the main adobe, built in 1853, were used to illustrate early editions of “Ramona.” The inviting, broad south veranda was the basis for many “Ramona” adaptations, and one can walk through the spot where Mary Pickford was filmed in the 1910 motion-picture version. Pickford and the cast of that production stayed in our hotel.

Jackson died 10 months after “Ramona” was published and left few details about the places that might have been inspirations for the book. Rancho Guajome near Oceanside also claimed to be the setting.

On track in Fillmore

I picked up Shiru and Elly at the inn, and we headed toward more history in Fillmore, where on weekends the Fillmore & Western Railway Co. runs restored cars on a 2 1/2-hour round trip to Santa Paula. We happened to visit on Thomas the Tank Engine day, one of the company’s “special train” days.

On Thomas day, the train was something of a side attraction. Fillmore’s Central Park, which abuts the train tracks and the town’s attractive Greek Revival City Hall, was turned over to kiddie diversions: inflatable tents for bouncing, a petting zoo and a pavilion filled with pricey Thomas products.

The train ride, abbreviated to 25 minutes, featured the engine from the children’s TV series pulling the railway’s usual rail cars. I thought the $16 tickets were steep for the trip, which takes in the grungiest parts of the usual route. Views are of residential backyards and lots of broken-down rail cars, shipping containers and old tires. We even saw a real hobo, I think.

On the way back, a mural on an abandoned car depicts “Dr. Phreak’s Travelling Phreak Show,” featuring aptly phreaky characters and some frontal nudity. It’s impressive in a Robert Crumb sort of way, and you’d hate to see it covered up by civic do-gooders, but it’s hardly appropriate for preschoolers. One solution: Distract the kids by pointing out something in the opposite direction.

We returned to the inn for dinner and in the lobby were surprised to run into moms we knew from home. They had been camping at Lake Piru with their Cub Scout den and had left the dads and boys at the campsite while they enjoyed drinks by the fireplace. “We were cramping the boys’ style,” one explained.

The inn’s dining room has an adequate menu of steaks, pastas, salads and kids’ items. Elly had fried chicken fingers, Shiru ordered pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and I had a spinach and strawberry salad. Piru didn’t have much going on at night, but with our preschool bedtime, that didn’t matter.

We had purchased a bed-and-breakfast package ($135 plus tax) that allowed us some choices the next morning at the inn: cornflakes for Elly, fruit and oatmeal for Shiru. I tried the menudo, which was a pleasant surprise, if a bit underheated.

Then we drove two miles to Rancho Temescal, under the same ownership as the inn. The ranch’s activities are for well-heeled would-be cowboys and cowgirls. Trail rides start at $100 for two hours.

Elly adores horses but is too young for anything but slow pony rides, so we just sat on a grassy hill between the ranch’s two arenas and took in the gorgeous setting. Two people practiced team penning, an event in which riders separate three designated cows from a herd and lead them to a pen, all while racing the clock. Elly reenacted their efforts with her toy horses.

We returned to Fillmore to meet friends who had come for a Sunday morning train ride. We joined them for lunch at Ron’s BBQ and Grill, across the street from City Hall, where we filled up on pork ribs, fish and chips, calamari and hamburgers.

Our last stop was the Fillmore Hatchery, a state-run trout breeding facility where concrete ponds were packed with fish. Elly and her pal Anneka loved watching the trout thrash around for food pellets.

We were home in less than an hour, ending a visit to a place where our region’s agricultural heritage lives on, at least for now.

Peter Y. Hong writes for the Metro section of The Times.