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History and melodrama on a tour through 'Ramona-land'

She is, by at least one historian's reckoning, "the most important woman in the history of Southern California."

She boosted D.W. Griffith's film career, offered gainful employment to Loretta Young and Dolores del Rio, gave Raquel Welch a big break, inspired countless architects and helped write the map for this region's tourism industry.

Apart from the three historic houses and one hillside on today's itinerary, her name endures on shops, streets, fruit labels, an expressway, an American Indian reservation, a city in San Diego County, a shelf full of silly and scholarly books and enough vintage postcards to give your mail carrier angina.

And she won all this attention without ever drawing a breath.

The woman in question is California's first leading lady, the beautiful, embattled heroine of "Ramona," a best-selling and myth-making novel by Helen Hunt Jackson published in 1884.

If you want to peek at the strange and shallow roots of tourist culture in Southern California, then follow along on a tour of "Ramona-land."

It's an easy road trip, with stops in Ventura, Riverside and San Diego counties. But we need to hurry, while the name still opens doors.

One hundred and fifty years ago, this was just about the busiest place you could find between the San Fernando and Ventura missions.

In those days, Antonio del Valle and his family were in the early stages of settling the thousands of acres granted him in 1839.

By 1853, they had built a ranch house with 2-foot-thick adobe walls. By 1882, there was a winery, a chapel, a grapevine arbor, a calm courtyard and an inviting veranda on the southern side of the house. The del Valles' fields were thick with oranges, almonds, walnuts, apricots, wheat, corn, barley and grapes.

And the house hummed with visitors, including, on Jan. 23, 1882, a middle-age writer named Helen Hunt Jackson. As it happened, the lady of the house wasn't home when Jackson arrived, but she stayed about two hours anyway.

Even today, it's easy to see why: Besides the courtyard, veranda and chapel, you get a broad view of the cradling hills, and if you can find your way to the enormous California black walnut tree that was planted in 1870 or so, you can marvel at the gnarled branches reaching skyward.

Travel writers love that stuff. And Jackson, a Massachusetts native who later moved to Colorado, had spent most of her life as a travel writer and poet.

But she had a second agenda. In the late 1870s — when many Americans were still mourning Custer — Jackson had embraced the cause of the American Indians whose homelands were fast being grabbed. She wrote an expose, "A Century of Dishonor," and wanted to do more.

So, as she raced around Southern California in horse-drawn carriages for several months in 1882 and 1883, she was working two angles — as a magazine rhapsodist thirsty for evocative scenery and as a crusader gathering evidence. After she'd returned to the East Coast, Jackson decided on a new strategy for her Indian-rights campaign: She would take a page from the book of New England friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

For months, Jackson holed up in a New York hotel, rewriting her California research as fiction. She emerged with "Ramona," the first Southern California novel, full of doomed romance, rearranged historic events and a fetching heroine, the orphan daughter of an Anglo father and an American Indian mother.

Ramona's home? Jackson calls it Moreno Ranch, a rambling house with a courtyard, adobe walls, chapel, grapevine arbor and southward-facing veranda.

That ranch house, Jackson wrote, stood for "the half barbaric, half elegant, wholly generous and free-handed life led there by Mexican men and women of degree in the early part of this century." It was "a picturesque life," she continued, and although the advancing Americans would change it all, "it can never be quite lost, so long as there is left standing one such house as the Senora Moreno's."

Stroll the grounds at Rancho Camulos and you get the idea.

Having sprinkled her plot with sugar, Jackson then sneaks in the medicine. As Ramona falls for Alessandro, an Indian sheep shearer, and the two struggle to make a life together, Jackson leads readers through revelations of how white settlers were forcing Indians into deeper hardships than they had suffered under the Franciscan missions or the Mexican rancho system.

If "Ramona" worked 1 percent as well as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in rousing readers, Jackson told a friend, she would be happy.

And Americans did embrace "Ramona." Serialized and then published between hard covers, the book sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months.

Before the book was a year old, its author lay dying of cancer, bitterly aware that the public had grabbed hold of the romance, not the reality beneath.

Instead of writing their congressmen, readers dreamed of sheep shearing and three-day fiestas. And then they booked train tickets west to see it all for themselves.

Some fixated on Ramona, others upon the old Franciscan missions, which were soon to rise again with whitewashed walls and repaired red-tile roofs. And with Jackson dead, Southern California's boosters could have their way with her heroine.

Emphasizing the "Ramona" connection, the Southern Pacific Railroad set up a Camulos stop, the del Valles were besieged, and their ranch became, as author Dydia DeLyser writes in "Ramona Memories," the "focal point for the Ramona myth."

Before long, the del Valles were selling their citrus under the "Home of Ramona" brand; you can see some old labels at the ranch. In 1910, director D.W. Griffith used Camulos as the set for a silent-film version of "Ramona," starring Mary Pickford in the title role. But the fame didn't translate into fortune for the del Valles. They sold the ranch in 1924.

Remarkably, although the core of the property is down to 1,800 acres, it's still a working ranch. Cultivation of Ramona memories continues as well. The current owners are descended from August Rubel, who bought the land from the del Valles, and they accept visitors, maintain a small museum and gift shop, rent out space for weddings and fight a faltering battle against time.

Helen Hunt Jackson got around.

On that same series of trips that took her to Rancho Camulos, Jackson also apparently spent several days as a guest at Rancho Guajome (pronounced Wah-home-ay), experts say. Like the ranch house in Camulos, the Guajome adobe was built, probably with American Indian labor, on a Mexican land-grant rancho in 1853. And like the house in "Ramona," it features thick walls, a central courtyard, an inviting veranda and a free-standing chapel.

By the early 1880s, widow Ysidora Couts and her eldest son, Cave Jr., were running the place. As the son later told the story, Jackson was invited to leave after she complained about the way Ysidora was treating her American Indian servants. When "Ramona" first came out, the family complained that the Moreno mother and son in the book were twisted versions of the Couts themselves.

But a revenue opportunity is a revenue opportunity. The family soon started pitching its book connection, wooing tourists in cooperation with the nearby Santa Fe Railway.

For years, Guajome ran a distant second in the Ramona race. Eventually the house fell into disrepair.

San Diego County acquired it through condemnation in 1973, restored it in the '90s, and now opens it for weekend tours and special occasions.

The day I visited, the volunteer docent didn't show up. So with the ranger's blessing, I walked the house alone, floorboards groaning beneath me.

As you advance from room to room — there are about two dozen — the furnishings hint at distant days. The displays include an 1854 branding iron, an old schoolroom and supply inventory (ax handles, coal, castor oil, calico, vast amounts of whiskey). In the guest bedroom, an old copy of "Ramona" lies at the bedside. But unless you're looking for it, you'd never guess the house's role in California myth-making.

"We try not to get into that too much," says Hector Live, a senior park ranger who supervises the site. Of the perhaps 6,000 yearly visitors who pass through, says Live, "I would say 95 percent of them haven't heard about Ramona."

In some ways, it's easier to grasp the strange power of the Ramona myth when you get a little distance from her alleged homes. One prime spot is 40 miles south of Guajome, in Old Town San Diego.

Under Mexican rule in the 1820s, a little grid of streets grew around the old Spanish presidio building, including the Estudillo family house, completed about 1830. It was the grandest in town and survived through the decades as a family home, even though downtown San Diego moved south. Its site on a plaza gave it the feel of a public building.

Then came Ramonamania, and the idea that the Casa de Estudillo matched Jackson's description of the long, low Old Town building where Ramona and Alessandro are married in the book.

By 1890, a "caretaker" was selling bits of the building to tourists. And in 1906, businessman John Spreckels, recognizing the house's strategic location at the end of a streetcar line he owned, bought the place and assigned an architect to make it look more like the building described in "Ramona." A sign went up and remained for years: "Ramona's Marriage Place."

Postcards. Snapshots. Ringing cash registers.

Old Town grew into a tourism dynamo so strong that when the state took over Casa de Estudillo and took down the "Marriage Place" sign in the late 1960s, the visiting hordes scarcely noticed. Thousands of tourists materialize every week to browse the historic buildings, watch the fountain burble, hear mariachis, sip margaritas and eat enchiladas in a festive courtyard setting. Most of them, guides say, have never heard of "Ramona." (But those who have can buy Kate Phillips' 2003 biography of Jackson in the gift shop.)

Hemet sits in the foothills of Riverside County, the heart of the country where much of the cruelty and violence of "Ramona" takes place. Several reservations lie nearby. But those weren't exactly tourist attractions in the early 20th century, so in 1922, somebody at the local chamber of commerce proposed that the town capitalize by other means. So, local boosters hired a playwright.

His name was Garnet Holme, and he not only adapted the novel into a script but also strode into the brush and chose a site for an open-air stage production. In 1923, the first "Ramona" live production made its debut, with audiences of thousands clambering up the hillside to watch scenes enacted on the facing slope.

The spectacle grew into a three-act annual event, with actors dodging real cactus thorns and scrambling up real boulders. Behind the false facade of the set's ranch house, a bathtub holds water for horses.

Although they missed one year during the Depression and four during World War II, Hemet's boosters have kept that romance alive. In 1952, they added a modest museum, where visitors can find old photos from past productions, and early editions of "Ramona."

In 1959, the producers chose a new "Ramona" named Raquel Tejada, soon to become known as Raquel Welch. In 1969, the role went to Anne Archer, who has gone on to dozens of television and film roles, including an Oscar-nominated supporting role in the 1987 film "Fatal Attraction."

Audience members now take their places in a 5,000-seat amphitheater instead of climbing into the hills. The show (which opens April 18) features about 300 cast members, all but two of them volunteers — musicians, cowboys on horseback and American Indian dancers.

But here, too, Ramona's name has lost some magic. Total attendance, which surpassed 40,000 as recently as the late 1980s, has dipped to about 7,000. To make ends meet and maintain the 160-acre site, says Ramona Bowl's executive director, Janine Reitenbach, the organization now stages other plays, concerts and special events throughout the year. It also relies more heavily on donations.

Here's the part Jackson would love: With casino revenue growing steadily, four tribal governments near Hemet have come aboard as "Ramona" donors. Although Riverside County and the James Irvine Foundation still top the list of contributors, gifts from once-destitute native communities now amount to more than 20 percent of the Ramona Bowl's donation income, and that figure is likely to grow.

"We want to preserve the story," says Rose Salgado, a Soboba tribal council member and treasurer on the Ramona Bowl's board. "It depicts all of the injustices, and it makes people realize what has happened."

After 125 years, with her fame faded and fortunes dwindling, could it be the resurgent Indians who will rescue Ramona?