Photos by: Scott Alan Mount
Not many cities in Southern California can claim that their entire City Council went to high school together 45 years ago. Not many have an economy based on agriculture either. Many, however, can say that their population is predominantly Latino. Santa Paula, the city that oil, citrus and movies built, and a devastating flood fell short of destroying, can say all three.
This 4.6-square-mile “diamond in the rough” is home to 30,000 people, 14 miles east of Ventura along Highway 126. Its historic downtown with diagonal parking, small businesses and street festivals reflects a simpler time. But it may be about to encounter a significant growth spurt that will stir the winds of change.
Farmer, citrus pioneer and State Assemblyman Nathan Blachard founded Santa Paula in the 1870s.
Back in the day
Mexican Secretary of State Manuel Casarin owned Rancho Santa Paula y Saticoy during the Spanish Mission period. He sold it to sheep and cattle rancher Thomas More in the 1850s. Then horticulturist George Briggs bought it in 1861, and sold it to Nathan Blanchard in 1872. Blanchard, a native of Maine, a member of the California State Assembly, a miner, miller, sheep farmer and citrus pioneer bought 2,700 acres of it and founded the town shortly after.
“They used to call Santa Paula ‘Little Bolivar,’ ” said Mayor Rick Cook. He was born locally in 1950. Bolivar is the seat of Polk County, Mo. Many farmers and laborers from there came west during the Great Depression, including Cook’s maternal grandparents. His grandmother worked in the Limoneira orange packing houses of Santa Paula and Fillmore from 1929 to 1969 after bringing his mom here as a baby.
The mayor’s dad came from Oklahoma to Bakersfield during the era of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. He moved to Santa Paula in 1948 after serving in the military at Port Hueneme. For him, it was the lure of employment with the Union Oil Company.
The Depot train station at the corner of 10th and Santa Barbara streets was built in 1887.
“This town had Midwestern values,” Cook recalled from his childhood. “There were lots of Baptist churches, liquor stores and bars. The population was about 10,000 and the town was infused with oil money.”
East Coast oil men Lyman Stewart and Wallace Hardison fell on hard times while drilling in Newhall, Calif. They headed to Santa Paula on a hunch in 1883. Their initial success came in Adams Canyon at Sulphur Mountain. Thomas R. Bard of Port Hueneme owned a lot of stock in the Mission Transfer Company with lots of acreage. It had tanks, pipelines, and a refinery in town. The two men partnered with Bard, upgraded the old refinery, and formed a few small oil companies.
After striking a gusher called “Wild Bill” in 1888, they expanded operations. In October 1890, they unified multiple companies to form Union Oil Company of California (Unocal). From the 1920s onward, many companies drilled in the area, including the South Mountain Oil Field.
Although Unocal moved to L.A., a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum called Vintage Production still drills and employs many locals. By the time the mayor’s family arrived, the petroleum industry had been thriving in the area for 50 years.
For the love of lemons
It was Limoneira (“lemon lands” in Portuguese) that drew the relatives of City Councilman and former Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales from the Southwest in the early 1900s. Gonzalez’s mom was born on Limoneira property in the 1920s. He was born in Santa Paula Hospital in 1950. “I’m American first. My ethnicity is Mexican,” he said from his private security job in Santa Monica to which he commutes from Santa Paula.
His mom worked in the packing houses and his dad was a gardener who built their house in 1960, where his mom still lives. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it,” he recalled. Growing up bilingual in a Mexican part of town, he didn’t feel any tension between the races. “I was comfortable with who I was. There were people who were adamant about not integrating, but by junior high we were fully integrated.”
Across from the Depot, bronze sculptures depict the daring ride of two motorcycle cops, warning Santa Paula residents of the impending flood rushing their way from the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928.
Wallace Hardison of Union Oil and town founder Nathan Blanchard purchased 413 acres of land in 1893 and started Limoneira. Their original crops were lemons, oranges and walnuts. By the 1920s, the company expanded and become a leader in the California citrus industry. Today Limoneira owns approximately 11,000 acres grow lemons, avocados, oranges, pistachios and cherries are grown.
According to Director of Marketing John Chamberlain, “We are the largest vertically integrated lemon grower in the U.S. and the largest grower of avocados.” It employs 274 full-time employees, 119 temporaries and 379 contract harvest employees.
Almost washed away
William Mulholland built a reservoir and dam in San Francisquito Canyon, just north of Santa Clarita, in the spring of 1926. Two years later the St. Francis Dam collapsed. More than 12 billion gallons of water blasted through the canyon heading toward the bed of the Santa Clara River. Along its furious 54-mile trek from the dam to the Pacific Ocean, it slammed the lower portion of Santa Paula.
At least 61 people were killed with 50 more in Saticoy and more than 450 along its path. Santa Paula suffered more than $1 million in damages. At the corner of 10th and Santa Barbara streets are bronze sculptures of the two motorcycle cops who drove through the night warning residents before the flood. Santa Paula is filled with historical monuments like this.
Across the street is “The Depot” train station built on this corner in 1887. The other corner features the magnificent Moreton Bay fig tree. Ebenezer Orne of Wisconsin planted it on his property on the Fourth of July in 1879. He came west to find gold, but found his true calling as a Methodist preacher.
Art and fame
The Santa Paula Murals Project began in 1997. Locals wanted to revitalize downtown by telling the town’s story through art. There are nine completed murals by artists from around the country. Themes include: Latino Culture, Artists and Architects, Citrus, Oil, Chumash Indians, Farms, and Airport Founders and Pilots.
Santa Paula profited from its uncanny resemblance to a classic Middle American small town. Filmmakers like its physical proximity to Hollywood and cultural proximity to a Norman Rockwell painting. The Star Film Company came to town in 1911 and made more than a dozen silent films like The Ghost of Sulphur Mountain. The popular 1970s television miniseries The Thornbirds was also filmed there.
The Glen Tavern Inn was the place to stay during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The 35-room hotel and restaurant is still operating. The majestic hallways are lined with endless rows of classic movie posters. Magician Harry Houdini stayed there, as did actor John Wayne. Before that, it doubled as a speak easy hangout and brothel during Prohibition.
“In the ’60s we parked our cars in back of the Foster’s Freeze to socialize. Guys would cruise in and out to show off their cars,” said Bob Gonzales. “Then we’d cruise Main Street. It would take about an hour to make the 3-mile-round trip on Saturday nights. I drove it as a kid and then as a cop with different frames of mind. It was like the movie American Graffiti.”
City Councilman and former Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales played football at Santa Paula High School in 1968, pictured with Coach Joe Zeno.
Although the tradition faded out in the ’70s, in 1999 the Santa Paula Police Officers Association and the Chamber of Commerce created a new Cruise Night on the first Friday of every month. Now thousands attend the event.
For Cook and Gonzales, life revolved around Boy Scouts, Little League, fishing at the Santa Clara River, drive-in movies and excursions to the beach in Ventura. Both remember a close rivalry with Fillmore. They played Fillmore in sports, worked in packing houses in both cities, and dated girls from both places.
Gonzales was a football star at Santa Paula High School. He went away for college but not for long. “I always knew I wanted to raise a family here,” he said. The mayor married a Hispanic woman and Gonzales married a white woman. Two of Bob’s three kids stayed in town. The mayor estimates that the population was about 60 percent Caucasian and 40 percent Latino during their early childhood. Now it is 80 percent Latino.
Gonzales had a 30-year career in the Santa Paula Police Department, from which he retired in 2005. He saw firsthand the changing tide of his town, with the rise of gangs. They have been active in Santa Paula since the 1980s.The Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia are the key players with prison origins. But it’s hard to remain anonymous in a gang in a small town. The local police publish a Facebook page to keep residents informed.
Santa Paula Police Department Facebook page:
2/27/14: “SPPD is currently on scene of an ongoing incident south of the freeway and east of Peck Rd. We’re asking for residents of the area to stay inside and lock their doors.”
3/16/14: “Police were dispatched to a home with an unresponsive Hispanic female with fatal neck wounds. She was pronounced deceased by the fire department.” (It has since been reported that she was the victim of gang crossfire.)
The list goes on, but it doesn’t scare transplant Tracy Lippert. “Every city has its problems,” she remarked while running a shift at her small business. Lippert opened Rabalais Bistro and Bakery at 861 E. Main St. two years ago.
She’s a Cajun from New Orleans who went to college in San Diego and married a man from Camarillo. They moved here 16 years ago to give their two kids a small-town rural upbringing. They do so on their working avocado farm. The cafe has ceiling fans, two stories, a long coffee bar and wall photos of her grandmother’s Rabalais family.
“God gave us a heart for the city of Santa Paula. I practiced hospitality in my home, and my business is an extension of that. People in this city like to walk, and our patio is reminiscent of the South.” She employs about 30 people. “Locals are vested in the mission of Rabalais,” she said.
Jeanne Orcutt’s family has been in Santa Paula since the late 1800s. She’s the director of the California Oil Museum in the original Union Oil Headquarters building downtown, and graduated from Santa Paula High in the ’80s. Jeanne lives on the family’s avocado and lemon ranch. “Most of my friends are Hispanic,” she said when asked about demographics. She also mentioned the dynamics of Main Street culture. Street festivals tend to be centered on the arts which attract a non-Hispanic crowd. Meanwhile many of the businesses cater to Hispanic trends.
And into the future
Last year the city annexed 25 acres of land known as “East Area 2,” to add to its previous annexation of Limoneira’s “East Area 1.” A plan for commercial and residential development has been in the works for the past 10 years. The 550 acres will include 1,500 residential units, 560,000 square feet of commercial space and 150,000 square feet of light industrial space. “It’s going to change the economics of the city and bring new people,” said Bob Gonzales. “I think it will be a shot in the arm. With the tax base, we will be able to provide more services to the community.”
Eighty-three percent of local voters approved the plan in a 2008 initiative. According to city Deputy Planning Director Stratis Perros, the character of downtown will be preserved. He said it’s going to improve infrastructure with new sewer and water lines. Actual construction will occur in phases depending on demand, and will begin within the next couple of years. Most of the housing will be single-family homes, but the plan includes affordable housing, parks, ball fields and an elementary school.
The project will border Jeanne Orcutt’s property. “It’s always a little sad that it’s getting close to your backyard, but we need the development,” she told the VCReporter. She remembered how she was desperate to get out of town as a teen but couldn’t wait to get back after college. She hopes the new development will encourage her kids and the new generation to do the same.
Read an online exclusive about a Santa Paula musician who’s being honored at the California Oil Museum.