Monday, February 28, 2011

Walkin' Ojai

The Ojai Valley from Meditation Mount

Originally called Nordhoff, Ojai was mapped out in 1874, though the Chumash Indians had lived here for thousands of years prior to that. Originally part of a Spanish Land Grant the area went through a series of land owners until, after some failed oil exploration, many of the settlers decided to form an actual town and Nordhoff was born. You’ll still see the old name around town. In the early 20th century a businessman named Edward Libbey, from Toledo, Ohio came to Nordhoff and immediately fell in love with the place. In 1914 he unveiled grand plans to create a viable community, a cohesive town rather than the ramshackle stores and buildings that were congregated on the main street. In 1917 he got his chance. A fire decimated much of the town and Libbey was handed a clean slate so he financed much of the civic development to realize his dream. His work gives downtown Ojai its distinctive charm: a Spanish Colonial-style arcade along the main street, a post office tower designed after Havana’s Campanile and a pergola facing the arcade, the entrance to a civic park named, not surprisingly, Libbey Park.

Ojai Avenue and the tower of the Post Office

The name Ojai (correctly pronounced “o-hi”) is derived from the Chumash Indian word “awhai.” The word might mean “nest” or it might mean “moon” depending on whom you ask. Much of the literature about Ojai claims one meaning over the other, but frankly there is no definite proof of either. The Ojai Valley is ten miles long and three miles wide and is home to transverse mountains, meaning they lie in an east and west configuration, whereas most of California’s mountains run north and south. The surrounding mountains are capped by Topa Topa, the highest peak, which soars from near sea level to a height of 6,244 feet and occasionally gets a dusting of snow.

Ojai Avenue with the snow capped Top Topa's in the background

Ojai Avenue is the main street and the life blood of Ojai, the defining central point which allows residents and tourists alike a sense of cohesion and an introduction to what Ojai is all about. Easy to walk, here are some of the places you might want to check out. Art galleries like Primavera Gallery (214 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-7133, and Trowbridge Gallery (307 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-0967, will give you an idea of the visuals that local artists can produce. Stop in the wine tasting room of Casa Barranca (208 E. Ojai Ave., 805/640-1255, which is an organic winery. Their tasting room echoes Craftsmen-styled architecture with lots of wood and Mission Stickley patterns on the furnishings and bar. There are a few gift items as well and a few tables and chairs in which to sit and relax and sample organic wines like chardonnay, pinot noir and various blends. Then there is The Hub (256 E. Ojai Ave., 805/646-9182) an old school bar from 1948. You don’t get fancy drinks here, you get beer in a can, and there’s no pretension to the Hub at all. It’s comfortable and neighborly and the last of a vanishing breed of bars. Every Sunday morning they offer a Bloody Mary bar along with biscuits and gravy.
Bart's Books

Just a block off Ojai Avenue is Bart’s Book’s (302 W. Matilija, 805/646-3755) famous for being a mostly outdoor bookstore, with 35-cent specials on a shelf outside, sold on the honor system since 1964, when the original Bart first put out a coffee can to collect his earnings when he wasn't around. A 420 year-old oak tree shades the property.

No matter how you choose to spend your time in Ojai, you’ll end up coming back. There’s much more to see and do in this little village.

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