Ventura County celebrates history, looks toward future on 150th anniversary
The courtyard of the Museum of Ventura County was filled with dignitaries reflecting on Ventura County’s rich history and bright future as Matt LaVere, chairperson of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, took the stage. LaVere addressed a multicultural crowd whose roots run deep in Ventura County during a kickoff celebration on Friday, June 23, marking the 150th anniversary of the county’s official founding and separation from Santa Barbara County. Guests in attendance included ranching families whose ancestors lived in Ventura County during 1873, as well as Chumash elders who trace their culture’s history back many thousands of years.
LaVere said Ventura County was just a small farming community of about 3,500 people at the time of its founding, while the population is now approaching 850,000.
“A lot has changed. We now have a thriving port, a naval base which is tasked with our national defense, a thriving biotech sector,” LaVere said. “A lot has changed, but some things have also stayed the same. At the core, we’re still an agricultural community.”
LaVere noted that Ventura County’s natural beauty is one of the things that sets it apart from other parts of the nation and world. He pointed towards Channel Islands National Park on the ocean’s blue horizon and pine-covered mountains of Los Padres National Forest to the north, surrounding the county’s vibrant cities and bountiful farmland.
“It’s the space that really makes us love living here, it’s the reason we’re all here . . . This gives us a chance to really dig into our history to celebrate that,” said LaVere, explaining that it’s also important to look to the future while reflecting on the past. “I think it’s also a chance for all of us to recognize what we can do for the next 150 years, what we could be doing today that hopefully they’ll be talking about in 150 years. So that’s my intention these next four months is to celebrate the history, but think about what we are doing every day to make sure Ventura County remains the place that our grandkids and their kids want to be at and live at and thrive in.”
150 days of celebration
The kickoff party at the museum was just one of many social gatherings scheduled through November that are being hailed as “150 Days of Celebration.” The events involve a partnership between Ventura County government and the Museum of Ventura County with help from sponsors including the Ventura County Community Foundation, the Economic Development Collaborative and the Port of Hueneme.
An online festival is planned during July through the museum’s website that will include historical games and puzzles. Pop-up celebrations are scheduled for Aug. 4 during the Ventura County Fair, Sept. 16 at a ragtime revival concert at Strathearn Historical Park in Simi Valley and Oct. 7 at Moorpark Country Days. The Oxnard Historic Farm Park hosts a 150th anniversary weekend Sept. 9 and 10.
One of the biggest events promises to be the Oct. 21 “Mountain to Sea Jubilee: Celebrating 150 Years of VC,” at the Museum of Ventura County’s Agriculture Museum in Santa Paula. The jubilee will include a parade, the unveiling of new museum exhibits and live music by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a local band that made history themselves when they performed at the halftime show of the Super Bowl in 1999.
On Nov. 2, there will be a celebratory gala and dinner at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum that will also feature a State of the County address.
Museum of Ventura County Executive Director Elena Brokaw said she wants residents to learn about Ventura County history in the coming months, but also realize that history is shaped by everybody all the time.
“I hope that they recognize that they are part of something larger than themselves, recognize that we all have a role in creating the future, that we’re not just objects that are subject to somebody else’s direction, that we can create the world we want to live in,” Brokaw said. “I hope people come to understand that by working together we can achieve much more than we can alone. And I hope that people are curious and inspired about what got us here.”
The arts plays major role in observance
Art, music, literature and other creative expressions will feature prominently in the celebrations unfolding over the next few months.
Donna Granata is founder of Focus on the Masters (FOTM) Archive and Library, a nonprofit that maintains archives of prominent Ventura County artists including oral histories, videotaped interviews, photographic portraits, and examples of artists’ work. Granata has contributed to the anniversary celebration with an exhibition that includes 150 large-scale photographic portraits she made of artists at work in their creative environments. A small selection of portraits was on display at the kickoff celebration, and the entire show titled History is Now, 2023, will be installed in the Atrium Gallery at the Ventura County Government Center July 10 through Sept. 5. A reception is planned for July 13.
Granata said it was back in 1989 that she took the first portrait of Ojai artist Beatrice Wood, who died in 1998 at age 105 and was known worldwide for her beautiful glazed pottery, humorous drawings and association with avant-garde art movements about a century ago.
Other portraits include artists based elsewhere who made major contributions to the local arts scene, including Pierre Boulez, the late conductor who served as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival, and Dennis Oppenheim, who created the “Bus Home” sculpture (loved by some but not all residents) at the bus stop at the north end of Ventura’s Pacific View Mall.
“It’s important to document the artists that come into our community and influence our artists because not only are they historic, but they’re also contributing to the music scene or, in the case of Dennis Oppenheim, the ‘Bus Home’ sculpture is such a huge, monumental piece,” Granata said. “He was a New York-based artist that we documented as well. So they all had ties to Ventura County.”
Granata said art and music help people better understand history and one another, so it’s appropriate that so much of the celebration relates to creative pursuits.
“It takes imagination. It takes that spirit to bring our society forward. And art is a great vehicle to do that. And the great thing about artists is no two artists are the same,” Granata said. “That’s a lesson in and of itself, is to celebrate each other, celebrate each other’s differences, celebrate who this individual is. And if we can share that mindset and foster more understanding of each other, we can live in a more peaceful world. I know that sounds very grandiose but it’s true.”
After the History is Now, 2023 exhibition is displayed at the government center in Ventura it will be moved to Thousand Oaks’ Bank of America Performing Arts Center where it will be on display between Sept. 11 and Nov. 6. A talk featuring FOTM directors will be held on Sunday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m. and will be followed by an exhibit reception 3-5 p.m.
Celebrating agricultural history
Museum of Ventura County Board Member Leslie Leavens is from a fourth–generation Ventura County farming family that continues to grow lemons and avocados east of Santa Paula. She attended the museum event with her partner, John Krist, an author and journalist who’s written about Ventura County agriculture since the 1980s. Leavens said the history of Ventura County and agriculture will be forever intertwined.
“I mean, this is an unbelievable place to grow things. We can have as many as three crops on a piece of ground in a year if we have the water,” she said. “This is the best place to grow lemons in the United States and avocados do pretty doggone well here, too.”
Leavens added that she’s looking forward to new exhibits at the Agriculture Museum that will be unveiled as part of the 150th anniversary celebration. “It’s just really exciting to be part of this. There are so many opportunities for people to learn about their county.”
Krist said his familiarity with Ventura County history and agriculture started in 1983 when he was a newspaper intern at what was once known as the Star-Free Press. One of his first assignments was digging through the museum’s archives to put together a “Today in History” column for the Sunday newspaper that looked back on events from exactly five, 20 or even 100 years ago. Many years later, Krist spent a year documenting the local agriculture industry. His efforts led to a coffee table book called Living Legacy: The History of Ventura County Agriculture published in 2007.
After so many years writing about the local ag industry — and also traveling around the western U.S. for other farming-related stories — Krist can say with authority that there’s something special about Ventura County’s farming industry.
“You know, the first people to settle here who weren’t the Chumash or Spanish missionaries and soldiers were the farmers and ranchers. And that legacy holds with us today,” Krist said. “Ventura County is unique among coastal Southern California counties in having a remarkably robust agricultural economy, the irrigated acre for every paved acre. And one of the wonderful things about studying history . . . is watching how community decisions made that happen. It wasn’t an accident. It was land use planning, it was innovation, adaptation on the part of the growers, lots of creativity.”
Chumash community included in the celebrations
Three cousins who are descendants of Chumash ancestors — KC Rodriguez, Julie Tumamait-Stenslie and Brenda “Cookie” Guzman — gave a traditional welcome and blessing at the kickoff event.
“I’m really appreciative that people in the communities are asking us to be present and to be acknowledging that we are still here,” said Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash elder who has been associated with the museum since the 1980s. “In the days of my father, Vincent Tumamait, everybody labeled us extinct because of oppression and people were afraid to say they were native, because there was so much stigma attached to it.”
Rodriguez said her relatives are still in the process of healing from the traumas that have happened over hundreds of years and hopes people will learn more about her culture during this year of reflection, even though 150 years is a blip in time compared to how long her ancestors have been here.
“It’s our home. We don’t see it as Ventura County. We don’t see it in county lines. The whole area was many different villages and it’s just a sacred place,” Rodriguez said. “But we’re opening arms and inviting people to work with us, learn how to take care of the land better, and invite us into spaces so we can tell our story for them to learn and we can collaborate together in a better future.”
For more information on the 150th Anniversary of Ventura County, including upcoming events, visit venturacounty150.com.
This article was written by the VC Reporter.