Ventura County has a rich history and has gone through many changes, spanning hundreds of years — from Spanish occupation to Mexican ownership to when it was once part of the Santa Barbara County. Today, many of the descendants of the first families that settled in Ventura County maintain their extensive roots here and are well-connected to their communities, giving back to the area that their ancestors helped develop.
Jeff Maulhardt, a fifth-generation pioneer descendant whose family originally came from Germany to escape a war, has written 11 local history books and is working to develop a history museum in Oxnard. He explained that the first group of Maulhardts met up with the Borchards in the late 1800s and “all began working for each other, growing barley, corn; they also had some sheep.”
“The family stayed in farming up until the present,” he says. Maulhardt noted that the family still owns about 110 acres. “That’s the last bit of farming land that they own.” With each new generation, Maulhardt said, some of the land gets sold, and not many of his relatives stayed in farming. Jeff, himself, was involved with farming at one point.
“I worked my grandfather’s ranch when I was in high school and college. Then I went off to become a teacher, and by the time I came back, he sold the ranch and moved into town and retired. At this point, I have a small acre and a half. The first thing I did, when I moved on the property 10 years ago, was plant 15 avocados and 15 lemons and bought a small tractor.”
Maulhardt is also passionate about living in Ventura County and being part of a tight-knit community.
“I think the fact that I know so many people, so many good people … and when you move out of the area, like when I was in Chico, it was an eye-opener. I remember going to a store and buying something, and the lady asked me how to spell my last name. When I was in Oxnard, every time I’d buy something using a check, they’d say they know somebody who knew somebody in the family. So, to go from where everyone knew who you were to where nobody knew you, made me realize that home-sweet-home was a nice place.”
Roots, a sense of community — they are a big part of what make the county an attractive place to live, even for newcomers or for those who do not have the benefit of having such extensive roots and a history with the land.
“It seems like you can always find somebody who knows somebody that you know,” Maulhardt said. “There’s definitely a lot of connections. I live in Camarillo now and my roots are in the Oxnard and Hueneme area, so even though I feel more connected to the area I grew up in, I know people – just as many people – in Camarillo, in Ventura, and now I’m meeting more people in Conejo Valley because of my books. You find out that even though the county has grown it still seems like it’s a small world.”
Maulhardt noted that the ease with which people are able to build connections in Ventura County makes it a great place to be.
Gary Blum — another fifth-generation pioneer descendant — also chooses to maintain his roots in Ventura County.
“My great grandparents are where it all started, but my great grandmother’s parents were the Kaufman family, and they were actually the very first family that bought a farm or a ranch when this rancho was subdivided,” Blum said.
“My great-grandmother was their daughter, and she met my great-grandfather — Justin Petit — here, and they married and started their family here on the Oxnard plain, so my roots go back almost to the beginning of when things began to be subdivided.”
Blum explained that although his parents met and lived in Los Angeles, they came back to their roots in Oxnard.
“I always had my roots in Oxnard. I really like the weather,” Blum said, smiling. “I like it because I think there’s a sense of place here. You know, in California, everyone comes from somewhere else. I think it’s the weather. I enjoy living in the community that my family helped develop.”
“I’ve had people ask me if I’d ever consider moving out of Oxnard, and I keep thinking I’d have to find a lot of motivation, I’d have to find a community that really spoke to me in many ways, because it isn’t just the money that you make here, it’s the friends that you have here, the people that live in the community,” Blum said.
Though the county is by no means small (more than 800,000 people live here), the fact that it does not have the disconnected feeling of a big city is a quality that sets it apart from other nearby counties.
“We have a lot of tourists that come here to Heritage Square, so I deal a lot with the visiting public, and it’s interesting how many people like that aspect — the small townness of it, but it’s also a safe community.”
Blum explained that Oxnard, in particular, is a dynamic city that is often misperceived by others.
“A lot of people just think of Oxnard in one or two ways, and they don’t know the huge variety that’s here and the passion that a lot of people have for the community — the retirees that retire here, the new families that get to start here,” Blum said.
Maulhardt also believes that Oxnard is rich with cultural diversity.
“I think it varies throughout the county, but there’s probably more diversity in Oxnard because it is still connected to the agricultural livelihood. You’re going to have a lot more importation of people,” Maulhardt said. He noted that such diversity has increased over the years and that there have been attempts to bring different groups together. “A lot of people have always banded together to create the schools and churches of the area. I think that’s why Oxnard has an important history, because they’ve always given back to the community.”
Phil McGrath, who is a descendant of a pioneer family, also resides in the county and appreciates his roots here.
“My great-grandfather came from Ireland in 1867 and went to a little town in East San Francisco, where he met his wife. She was born here; that’s what makes me a fifth-generation Californian. He farmed on the hills of Berkeley University until they built that institution, but somehow his wife had connections in Southern California,” McGrath said.
“The largest mustard [field] that he found was here in the Oxnard plains. That wild mustard was what my great-grandfather first saw in the 1860s. His first purchase of property down here was in 1871.”
For McGrath, farming is still central to his life and part of why he maintains his roots in Ventura.
“Obviously, this is some of the deepest top soil in the world,” McGrath said. “This is the smallest agricultural region in California, but it has deeper top soil and better weather than any other, and it’s just phenomenal. Perfect weather, perfect soil. There’s good soil all over the world, but I know this weather can’t be beat. We just have such a temperate, perfect climate.”
According to McGrath, most family farms in the United States are rarely passed on and the percentage of farms that are passed on decreases with each generation.
“Twenty percent of all family farms are passed on,” McGrath said. “For third generations, it’s less than 2 percent, and we’re going on five generations and we’re still doing it. We are truly an anomaly.”
McGrath’s stepsons are also involved in the family business, working full time on the farm.
“It’s real cool that my kids are getting involved,” he said. “I’m lucky, and hopefully they’ll stick around and learn what they learn and maybe take over. We’ll see.”
McGrath noted that the area has changed a lot, both for the good and the bad.
“The freeways got bigger, there are more cars, more cell phones, and there are definitely more people,” McGrath said. “I remember when Ventura and Oxnard were at 15,000. This community has changed a lot. Every house I see, every building I see, I know it was farm land first.”
Despite the changes in Ventura County’s landscape, McGrath explained, the people of the community have a lot to offer.
“There are some incredible visionaries in this area that want to do the right thing for the county, for the world, environmentally,” McGrath said. “I just think this county excels in every group that it offers. It’s amazing. I think we have incredible potential.”
“Ventura was mainly an agricultural county, but now it’s turned into definitely more business. Agriculture is still big, but some incredible companies have come out of this county, too. I’m impressed,” McGrath said. “It has changed, but it’s still a pretty tight community. The one thing that is consistent in my life is change, and I don’t want to hear anyone say that they don’t want something to change. Change will come.”
Ventura County continues to grow, but many of the descendants of the pioneer families that settled here during its infancy remain part of its present and future, maintaining old connections and forming new ones with those who migrate and settle down in the county. Although a lot has changed over time — from increases in population to the development of farm land — it remains an area that has a strong sense of community, which many cherish and strengthen, whether they have deep roots that stretch across hundreds of years or they have only begun integrating themselves into the area.