The Last Great American Small Town: Fillmore, CA

I’m anything but a Fillmore expert, so forgive me if I get some details wrong.  Ever since I was teaching in Moorpark and hiking around the Sespe, I had an interest in a small town in eastern Ventura county called Fillmore.

I believe that Fillmore, population about 13,000, advertises itself as “the last, best small town.”  It is the home of the unique Fillmore & Western Railway, which is a recreational, tourist railway that uses well-preserved trains of the past to provide many different types of dinner, dancing, murder mystery and other festive day and weekend trips.  I haven’t taken any of these trips – yet!  Now that I know they’re available, they are definitely on my list.

Fillmoretrain This is a great picture of one of the trains, and it gives an idea of the sky color most of the year, and the type of hill country in which Fillmore is situated, very near the Sespe Wilderness backcountry in Ventura County – which is a place I adore, and would love to know better. 

Fillmore is accessible from the 23 Freeway going past Moorpark (east off the 101) and highway 126, either driving east from Ojai (another AWESOME place) or west from the 5 freeway, shortly past the landmark of 6 Flags Magic Mountain.  It’s almost impossible to believe, if one travels only on Southern California’s large freeways, seeing only smog and slurbia, that such an enclave of “the way things were” really exists.

What caught my eye most about Fillmore, driving back and forth to various backcountry destinations, was how much the place felt like the Redlands in which I grew up.  I still remember my early childhood address – 1107 E. Lugonia Ave.  This was a ten-acre orange grove which is now a large mobilehome park.  Two palm trees casually situated on the strip of brown grass between the sidewalk and Lugonia Ave. (also known as Highway 38) used to sit on each side of the narrow driveway that went to the grove house that was located right in the middle of the grove, the place where I grew up, played with my dog – a Basset hound named Rebel – and rode my pony.


Here is another view of Fillmore, taken from, I believe, a hilly vantage point to the south of the town, looking north. 

You can see the acres of dark green citrus, and the palm trees.  The hills in the background are the Sespe backcountry, and the whole layout is, to me, magical.  Fillmore’s downtown is a mini-version of what once existed in my hometown of Redlands.  That, too, I have magical childhood memories of.  When we are young, everything seems so special, new and wonderful.  I remember that, where the unbelievably hideous “Redlands Mall” now sits, which would have been an additional two blocks of State Street between Redlands Blvd. and Brookside Ave., there was a large, grand old Spanish-style hotel called the La Posada.  There was also a car dealership.  It *might* have been Hatfield Buick (now located in a different, newer building farther east on Redlands Blvd., but I was really pretty little.  I remember a round, circular window on the corner, in which the brightly-colored cars were displayed.  Next to that was a lunch counter that just went back in a single row of seats from the sidewalk.  The floor and the wall were covered with Spanish tiles, mostly green and black, but also with some flowered or orange/orange blossom ones.  I remember being fed a half-sandwich there now and again.  I always wondered if this was the “He say he no here now,” bar/restaurant.

When my grandfather was the Constable in the 1940’s, he would have lunch or let’s say – an after-work beer – at this place (which might not have been THAT place), and if somebody would call for him there, like, say, my grandmother, the owner/bartender would put his hand over the phone, ask about him knowing perfectly well he was there, and then say, “He say he no here now.”  These were the days of the Joe Rivera tooled gunbelt, the brass star just like a real Sheriff’s star (I guess – he was the real Sheriff), and Redlands’ motorcycle force – one guy, and one motorbike – my grandfather’s friend Dale Pence.  I want to say that the bike was an Indian, and I’m pretty sure that it was.  But you know when you are a really little kid, it’s hard to tell the difference of what bike it would be from an old black and white picture.

All of this I am describing was torn down when I was between the ages of 3 and 5.  The entire history, all of the graciousness, and nearly all of the beauty and pride of what really was one of the great American small towns, was bulldozed or stuccoed-over in 1960’s modernization and development.  The horror continued all the way through the 1970’s and even into the 80’s, when people suddenly woke up and realized what they had done.  Many things have been restored, and those things not torn down, are now lovingly preserved.

But the Redlands I knew, of regular people, many of whom lived “north of the tracks,” or later – the 10 Freeway (also built when I was extremely small) – they were the ones who got really hit.  It was their homes torn down for the freeway, their legacy that is utterly ignored and forgotten.  My grandfather was remembered by those who knew him, as well as myself, the last child he ever raised, and one who remembers to this day, every good word, lesson and value he taught me (and the lessons and attitudes toward nature and the outdoors, too) – he was always remembered as the best man anybody ever knew.

So when I would drive by Fillmore, as I did recently, I would always see the California I once knew.  It was a different place then, almost a different country.  The pace was much slower, with every day in spring and fall bringing an impossibly brilliant orange and cerise sunset casting its soft, long light across the flatland and shadowing the ragged mountains, the velvety dark green groves measured and bounded as if by a careful hand sewing long stitches of tall palms jutting skyward.

There is no smell but the smell of an orange grove in flower, its sweetness a drug telling you all is well with the world, all is beautiful.  The earth is loam and red clay, crumbling in your fingers.  It is a dry, hot place, but in surprising places and surprising moments, there is cool shade, with layer upon layer of soft green moss and feathery fern.  This is as I was raised.  And a part of it still remains in Fillmore.


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