Tag Archives: camulos

“Ramona Days,” Part Two

It takes a special kind of crazy to make a man wake up early on a Sunday morning to climb hills in a remote canyon in search of hundred-year-old filming locations, but that’s what I did over the weekend. I happen to share this particular form of insanity with Hugh Munro Neely, the curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education in Los Angeles. That’s how the two of us found ourselves climbing a mountain near Piru, California, where just over 100 years ago, legendary director D.W. Griffith came to film budding superstar Mary Pickford in a silent one-reeler called Ramona.

Ramona was based on the enormously popular 1884 novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s 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.

Director D.W. Griffith, one of early cinema’s true titans, was a big fan of Ramona and had even acted out the part of Alessandro on stage. By 1910, he had been directing movies for two years and was five years away from making his controversial silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford, who was born in Canada, was well on her way to becoming “America’s Sweetheart,” with nearly 70 films under her belt. Griffith secured the Ramona filming rights for only $100, and boiled the 350-page novel down to a 17-minute one-reeler.   

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, and for many years the rancho even marketed fruits grown there under the “Home of Ramona” label.

Hugh Munro Neely.

Camulos became so associated with the Ramona story that Griffith decided to make what was then a rare decision by filming on location at the rancho. In May, 1910 he did exterior shooting over a few days in the hills surrounding Piru and at Camulos. In fact, Camulos is noted for being the first location to ever be given a screen credit when the following banner appeared at the beginning of the film: “The production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.”    

 

Henry B. Walthall and Mary Pickford in "Ramona."

I met Hugh on Saturday at Camulos, where he was presenting the film in the schoolhouse to guests of the annual “Ramona Days” festival which was taking place at the rancho. Hugh was in charge of the film’s recent remastering, which he completed in time for its 100th anniversary this past May. That same month I wrote an article for The Signal in Valencia where I matched up scenes from the film with current sites to show how much had changed in a century. The thing I was surprised to discover was that many of the sites looked remarkably similar today.

The same location today.

Hugh had some doubts about some of the canyon sites I identified in my article as filming locations (rightly so, as it turns out). He wanted to get a look at the sites for himself, and that’s how we ended up rising early on Sunday to straddle fences and climb mountains like a pair of bipedal mountain goats. I had to head out early, but Hugh was able to find five sites and possibly a couple more.

It may sound insane, but when you are able to match up a site like this …

 

… it makes it all worthwhile for a a couple of movie crazy guys like me and Hugh. 

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“Ramona Days,” Part One

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.