As author Dydia DeLyser states in the introduction to her book Ramona Memories, “The most important woman in the history of southern California never lived. Nor has she yet died.”
Ramona was the name of the woman, and she was the subject of an enormously popular 1884 fictional novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona is a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.
Hunt intended the novel to be something of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans, dramatizing the harsh oppression of California’s mission Indians at the hands of white Californians. It gave birth to the “Ramona myth,” in which Ramona, who was a fictional character, took on a life of her own.
Hunt used real locations for the basis of her story, and soon thousands of readers began arriving in California from back East hoping to see where Ramona “lived.” Various California cities cashed in on the travel boom claiming to be Ramona’s birthplace, home, marriage location, and even grave site.
Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home. Camulos is a 40-acre National Historic Landmark situated within an 1800-acre working ranch. According to its website, it is “the only Mexican land grant rancho in California that is open to the public and still preserved in its original rural environment.” It was originally part of the huge 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant awarded to Antonio Del Valle in 1839. The house was built in 1853 by Antonio’s son Ygnacio and got its name from a Tataviam Indian settlement on the site called Kamulus.
“When the book came out, it was so popular that many ranchos vied for the title of “home of Ramona,” says Camulos docent Maria Christopher. “In reality, Helen Hunt Jackson had visited several ranchos but never identified the inspiration for the home of Ramona. A few years after the book came out, Charles Lummis published a book of photos based on his knowledge of California ranchos, illustrating how Camulos fit the description in the book. Also, in an appendix to one of the early editions, a journalist documented his visit to Rancho Camulos, identifying it as the true home of Ramona.”
The rancho quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and for years the Southern Pacific railroad made stops at Camulos’s own train station to accommodate all the tourists wishing to visit Ramona’s house. This did not sit well with the Del Valle’s who complained about tourists who took souvenirs, trampled the gardens, and entered the home uninvited – often asking to see a torn altar cloth that Ramona mended – forgetting that the young senorita had never actually lived.
The phenomenon continued long after Hunt’s death in 1885. The novel spawned “The Ramona Pageant” in Hemet in 1923, which is still held annually outdoors in April and May. A few years later, showman Robert E. Callahan penned a sequel to Ramona and founded one of California’s first theme parks in Culver City, known as Ramona Village. After going bankrupt, the park stood for many years on Sierra Highway near Canyon Country under the name “Callahan’s Wild West.” Many of the items from the park are now found at Heritage Junction in Newhall, including “Ramona’s Chapel,” a replica of the one found at Rancho Camulos.
The Ramona Myth was still powerful enough in 1910 for legendary director D.W. Griffith to make a movie based on the book starring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. The film, which was shot at Camulos and in surrounding canyons, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.
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