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Picture of old Carlsbad train station

Carlsbad is 56km north of downtown San Diego along Interstate 5, in the middle of of Southern California’s coastal suburban sprawl. Most visitors come to Carlsbad for the Legoland® theme park, the Premium Outlets® mall, or (occasionally) the caverns they somehow didn’t realize are actually in New Mexico. As neither family-oriented theme parks nor designer fashions particularly appeal to me, I’ll focus on three other good reasons to get off the freeway in Carlsbad: The “Village,” the Flower Fields, and the Leo Carrillo Ranch. Picture of John A. Frazier statue Alt Karlsbad spa and kiosk

Picture of Alt Karlsbad water vending kiosk Picture of decorative gate at Alt Karlsbad
Flowers and bright yellow sign in Carlsbad Village Picture of a colorful planter on State Street in Carlsbad

Carlsbad got its start in 1882, when the former sea captain John Frazier dug a well on his homestead farm. The water had a distinctive taste; and depending on the version of the story you read, Frazier found that drinking it helped either a longstanding unspecified digestive problem or rheumatism. A chemical analysis supposedly found the water to be a dead-ringer for what was on offer at the renowned spa in Karlsbad, Bohemia. (Karlsbad is now called Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. Both names mean “Charles’ Bath,” referring to the city’s 14th-century founder, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.)

At a time when the medical profession could provide few effective treatments, mineral water— for bathing as well as drinking— was a popular prescription for a variety of ills. (Balneotherapy remains a recognized medical treatment in Europe. And Karlovy Vary is still a popular place to receive it, mainly for “digestive and locomotor system diseases and metabolic disorders.”) Frazier thus decided that exploiting his water would be more lucrative than farming.

Frazier renamed his homestead Carlsbad, took on additional partners, launched a successful promotional campaign for “(The American) Carlsbad Mineral Water,” and built a hotel and spa to accommodate the many visitors who came to “take the water.” Frazier’s successors pumped water from the well until the 1930s, when the Depression dried up the demand for it. The decommissioned “Frazier’s Well” became a California historic site in 1955.

In the 1990s, new owners (including an émigré from Karlovy Vary) decided they could cash in on the “alkaline water” craze. They restored the well; and in 1996 opened a new spa in “Alt Karlsbad,” a faux-German half-timbered building left over from an attempt to revive the historic site in the 1960s. They also installed vending machines that sell the water by the gallon. Informative signs proclaim “pH 8.4 = ALKALINE.” The vending machines, on the outside of the Alt Karlsbad building and in an adjacent kiosk, attract a steady stream of visitors lugging large water containers in their SUVs to fill with the Carlsbad Alkaline Water™. You can also buy half-liter bottles of the water inside the spa. Picture of historic hair salon at 2956 State St. Picture of surfboard rental shop in Carlsbad Twin Inns Detail of Twin Inns Picture of Twin Inns

Given its history and all the hype about alkaline pH, I expected the water to taste unpleasant— recalling the vile-tasting water from a Roman-era spring that I sampled in Aix-en-Provence, France— or at least unusual. I was thus disappointed to find that it has no particular taste at all. If someone had served it to me in a glass without identifying it, I would have assumed it was filtered tap water. Oh well.

The Alt Karlsbad spa is in the heart of Carlsbad’s beachside tourist district called “the Village.” Strolling around the collection if shops and restaurants is a pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon. Presumably because the theme park and mall provide sufficient tax revenue, City officials do not (yet?) need to harass visitors with the voracious parking meters and predatory meter maids that so many of California’s beach towns rely on to fill their coffers.

You can find remnants of Carlsbad’s early years scattered around the Village. The most prominent historic building is the Twin Inns, a Victorian mansion originally built in 1887 for one of John Frazier’s business partners as part of Carlsbad’s first real estate project. A new owner bought it in 1919 and converted it into a restaurant that became renowned for fried chicken. It’s still a restaurant, but it was restored and annexed in the 1980s into— what else?— an adjacent shopping mall.

Picture of the Flower Fields in Carlsbad Orange and yellow ranunculus rows at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad Red and white ranunculus rows at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad Photograph of the Flower Fields in Carlsbad Flower fields overlooking Interstate 5 in Carlsbad Picture of Carlsbad flower fields with green tractors Photograph of Carlsbad flower fields with wagons Picture of a a red tractor at the Flower Fields in Carlsbad

In the spring, drivers speeding through Carlsbad on Interstate 5 are treated to the sight of multicolored stripes of flowers. The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch® is a 22-hectare field of ranunculus, farmed not for the flowers but for the bulbs that are harvested for sale after the flowers die off.

I had never heard of ranunculus before I visited the Flower Fields. Strictly speaking, Ranunculus is a botanical genus that includes some 600 species. As many of those species are buttercups, “ranunculus” has become synonymous with “buttercup” in popular usage. Some Ranunculus species that aren’t buttercups grow in the watery places favored by amphibians. They most likely gave the genus its name, which means “little frog” in 16th-century Latin. The ranunculus grown in Carlsbad is a strain of R. asiaticus, also called the Persian buttercup.

Edwin Frazee began breeding ranunculus in 1933. His multicolored not-so-little buttercups, which he called “Tecolote® Giant Ranunculus,” outsold his competitors’ less impressive varieties and eventually drove them all out of business. (Tecolote, Mexican Spanish for “owl,” refers to the owls that lived on the farm where Frazee developed the cultivar.)

Frazee grew ranunculi and gladioli in various places around north San Diego County before settling on the Carlsbad location in 1965. The blooming fields attracted many visitors and photographers, but Frazee considered them nuisances and shooed them away.

When Frazee retired in 1993, he sold the ranunculus operation to Paul Ecke, Jr. Ecke had done for poinsettias what Frazee did for ranunculi. But along with his green thumb, Ecke had a superior knack for marketing and promotion: He made the poinsettia not only synonymous with Christmas, but the world’s best-selling potted plant.

So rather than continuing Frazee’s practice of turning away visitors, Ecke seized the opportunity to turn them into a revenue stream. He re-branded the farm as a kind of seasonal theme park. The season varies annually depending on the weather, but the fields are usually open to paying visitors between March and mid-May.

The admission price (which some might consider steep) lets visitors romp round the ranunculus rows. Boardwalks lead into the plantings, providing places for families and groups to photograph themselves and each other among the blooms. Various exhibits and activities are specifically for families and children. For an extra charge, a family can take a ride around the fields in a wagon drawn by a colorfully-painted tractor.

Colorful gate at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Blue door and blue peacock at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Detail of gate with leather binding at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Detail of the tiered barn at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Picture of the Hacienda at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Tack shed and stables at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Picture of Deedee's House at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Picture of barn and stables at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Cactus and a Hacienda window at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Photograph of a peacock strutting on the tack shed at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad Picture of a peacock tail at the Leo Carrillo Ranch in Carlsbad

Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park has a low-key ambiance that may not entertain youngsters the way Legoland® does. But it offers adults an opportunity to spend a pleasant morning or afternoon exploring a former working ranch inspired by California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage.

Leo Carrillo might not be a familiar name today. But in the 1950s he was well-known as Pancho, the Mexican sidekick in the Western television series The Cisco Kid. He played similar roles in some 90 films beginning in the 1930s, after an earlier stage career as a character actor on Broadway in the 1920s.

Because of his dedication to Republican Party causes, Governor Earl Warren— a future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court— appointed Carrillo to the California Beach and Parks Commission. As a commissioner for 18 years, Carrillo played a key role in acquiring such prime properties as Hearst Castle and the Anza-Borrego Desert for the state park system. Leo Carrillo State Park, a beach in Malibu north of Los Angeles, was the Commission’s tribute to his service and accomplishments. (If you were born after 1980, you might not realize that Republicans weren’t always dogmatically devoted to cutting taxes, privatizing government assets and services, and eliminating programs that benefit non-wealthy Americans.)

For Carrillo, a ranchero wasn’t just a role he played on the screen. His family occupies a distinguished place in early California history. Jose Raimundo Carrillo was one of the founders of San Diego, the first Spanish pueblo in California, established in 1769. Carlos Antonio Carrillo, Leo’s great-grandfather, was the first governor of Mexican Alta California. Leo clearly felt a strong connection to his ancestry and to California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, and sought to build a modern-day version of that colorful past.

(Interest in Mexican ranchos was not confined to Californians of Latino heritage. The “Spanish Colonial Revival” craze, which began with the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, dominated California architecture in the 1920s and made all things adobe very popular. A wealthy family could build a ranch similar to Carrillo’s around an actual Mexican adobe, like John Bixby’s Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach. Those of more ordinary means built “ranch style” houses with “adobe” stucco on their suburban lots.)

In 1937, Carrillo bought the 688-hectare Rancho de las Quiotes (also spelled los Kiotes)— the “Rancho of the Spanish Daggers”— in what was then an isolated rural tract within Carlsbad city limits. Rancho de las Quiotes was a subdivision of a large 19th century Mexican rancho (land grant) called Rancho Agua Hedionda, named for a coastal lagoon that was part of the land grant. The lagoon must have been a foul swamp in those days, as its name means “Stinky Water.” Agua Hedionda Lagoon now consists of three connected lagoons in Carlsbad, used for water sports, shellfish farming, and cooling a power plant. It’s no longer stinky.

Carrillo had a clear vision of what he wanted for his ranch. He reportedly communicated his vision and design by drawing outlines in the dirt marking the location and dimensions of the various buildings. Then he let a trusted carpenter fill in the details and bring them to life. The centerpiece was the hacienda, built around the remains of an existing adobe building. It’s the main adobe house where Carillo, his wife Edith (“Deedie”), and his daughter Marie Antoinette (“Tony”) lived when they weren’t at their home in Santa Monica (also an adobe house). Nearby was a separate retreat for Deedie, along with a stable, carriage house, barn, cantina, wash house, and all the other accouterments of a working ranch.

Construction was completed in 1939, after Carrillo bought another 339 hectares of adjacent land. From then until his death in 1961, Carrillo presided over his ranch, which included a stable of horses and a staff of vaqueros who managed some 600 head of cattle. Carrillo also frequently entertained his Hollywood friends at the hacienda, which had a backyard with a large pool, patio, and cabana for that purpose.

Tony Carrillo lived in the hacienda until her death in 1978. Most of the ranch land was then sold to developers for suburban subdivision, leaving the 4 hectares containing the main buildings as a city park. With two phases of an ongoing restoration project complete, the park opened to the public in 2003. Among the improvements is a visitor center in the former hay barn, and a flock of very clamorous peafowl like the ones that honked and strutted for Leo Carrillo and his family and guests. Unlike Carlsbad’s more popular attractions, there’s no admission charge for the park; but donations are encouraged.

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