A dolfo Camarillo stood 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and even when he wore his trademark fedora he was usually the shortest man in the room. But in terms of the impact he made on his namesake city and Ventura County, he was nothing short of a giant.
When he died in 1958 at the age of 94, more than 800 people paid homage at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Camarillo. The Archbishop of Los Angeles presided over the ceremony. Flags were flown at half-staff at the Ventura County Courthouse and the newly opened Adolfo Camarillo High School, and every store in Camarillo was closed during the funeral Mass.
At the time, a young editor of the weekly Camarillo News named Gerry Olsen wrote in the newspaper’s front-page obituary: “The history of Adolfo Camarillo is, in many ways, the history of Camarillo, Ventura County and California.”
That story starts long before Adolfo was born. Patriarch Juan Camarillo arrived in the area in 1834 with an expedition of about 250 colonists from Mexico. Juan first settled in Santa Barbara, then moved to Ventura and opened a general store.
Juan was an astute businessman and earned enough money to purchase Rancho Ojai, a nearly 18,000-acre Mexican land grant in 1856. Juan sold the land in 1864—the year Adolfo was born—and by 1875 had purchased Rancho Calleguas, a 10,000-acre Mexican land grant that encompasses what is now the city of Camarillo. In all, he paid $36,950 for the property, including $3,000 in gold coin.
By the time Adolfo was born, the ways of the California ranchos were fading into history. Many landowners were forced to sell their property to pay for legal fees when they were required to prove ownership of the land after the United States won the Mexican-American War in 1848.
Adolfo was ushered in as Camarillo family patriarch when his father died in 1880. Adolfo was just 16 years old but by all accounts ran the ranch as efficiently and effectively as his father. Adolfo
was 23 when he married Isabella Menchaca, the daughter of a Ventura merchant.
Their first child, Minerva, was born the following September and died seven months later. Adolfo and Isabella had seven children, including another daughter who died within her first year. Frank Jr. was the only son and, though he married, he had no children to carry on the family name. Rosita Petit Marvel, born in 1925 and living in Nevada, is Adolfo and Isabella’s only surviving grandchild.
Adolfo and Isabella originally lived in an adobe. After that home burned down, Adolfo started construction on what is now the Camarillo Ranch House. The family moved into the Queen Anne Victorian home in 1892. Visitors can tour the house and grounds on Camarillo Ranch Road today.
A modern city’s birth
It is impossible to look at Camarillo today without seeing the impact of the Camarillo family, primarily Adolfo but also his younger brother, Juan Jr.
Juan donated the land for St. Mary Magdalen Chapel and helped fund construction of the building,
Adolfo was often called “the last Spanish Don.” Although he embraced the vast changes that California was undergoing during his lifetime, he also reflected his Spanish ranchero heritage.
Granddaughter Carmelita Nicholson described in her 1944 Stanford University master’s thesis the festival Adolfo held in 1924 when his brother, Juan, returned from Argentina on a visit:
“Seven hundred and fifty guests celebrated his arrival in the old Californian style. In keeping with the Californian tradition of hospitality, everything the host had was at the disposal of his guests, who came early and stayed late. Several steers and lambs were killed for the barbecue. . . . Tortillas, frijoles, Spanish salsa, Spanish rice, enchiladas, tamales, empañaditas and assorted salads were served by waitresses in Spanish and Mexican costumes, and a Spanish orchestra played during the barbecue and the dance which followed in an outdoor pavilion.”
Although he loved fiestas and could be counted on to attend most celebrations, Adolfo was not one to live in the past. He
Adolfo donated 50 acres to Oxnard Union High School District for the building of a school, aptly named Adolfo Camarillo High School. He also donated land to the state for the widening of the road that jutted its way up the Conejo Grade.
His civic contributions were many and included serving 56 years as a trustee for Pleasant Valley School District and eight years as a member of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
Adolfo was even more influential in business, helping the West County to grow and transition from cattle ranching to agriculture. When he was 43, he helped found Peoples Lumber Company. While his company supplied materials, his banking efforts provided the capital, especially as the county turned toward agriculture.
In 1903, he joined with Achille Levy to form Bank of A. Levy, serving as a director until his death and also serving on the boards of five other banks.
Olsen relates a popular story about Adolfo and Achille: They would get up well before dawn and ride a buggy or horses around county farms. If they saw a light on that early, they figured the owner would probably be able to repay a loan. If the house was dark, however, they’d likely pass on granting the loan.
As a leader in agriculture, Adolfo was among the first to plant lima beans, the No. 1 Of Don Adolfo
Their story began in 1921, when Adolfo purchased a Spanish white stallion named Sultan for $500 at the California State Fair in Sacramento. He bred Sultan with Morgan horses and, occasionally, the foals would be pure white.
Eventually the white horses became a breed all their own.
When white horses were studied to determine what caused the color variation, it was found that Camarillo White Horses have a unique gene mutation responsible for not only the color but other characteristics. It’s now possible to determine if a horse is simply white or if it is a Camarillo White Horse.
The unusual and striking vision of the Camarillo White Horses made them popular at parades and festivals. Adolfo first rode Sultan at the 1924 Santa Barbara Fiesta
Several people who knew the historical significance of the breed purchased horses at the auction and then created the Camarillo White Horse Association in 1992. At that time there were 11 Camarillo White Horses.
Today more than 20 Camarillo White Horses exist, according to Sherry Reynolds of the Camarillo Ranch Foundation docents. Three mares currently in foal could add to the total.
“We never know until they hit the ground what color they’ll be,” she says.