This is Part 4 of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
China Ranch Date Farm
Vonola Modine planted the first date trees at China Ranch, which lined a driveway to a house she and her husband dreamed of building. And eventually they did build a house. But around the year 1924 or 1925, something happened to Vonola’s mental state. She became distraught and superstitious and decided she wanted to move away from the Chinaman’s ranch. But Alex refused. He loved the ranch.
So one day while Alex was away, Vonola burned their house down. This was a rather extreme strategy, but it worked. Her husband, viewing the smoldering ruins of his hard work, agreed that maybe it was time to leave. They sold the ranch and moved to Santa Paula, California, about 40 miles northwest of Hollywood.
Perhaps Vonola’s superstitions were accurate, because this turned out to be an auspicious change of scenery for her family. In Santa Paula that same year, she gave birth to her daughter, Nola Jo Modine. Meanwhile, Alex went to work for Texaco Oil.
During the Great Depression, Vonola washed clothes to pay for singing and dancing lessons for Nola. And these lessons paid off. Nola Jo Modine changed her name to Nola Fairbanks, after her mother’s maiden name, and became a successful stage actress. During the 1950s, she starred in several hit Broadway shows, including Out of This World, Paint Your Wagon, and Fanny (where she replaced Florence Henderson for the lead role).
She also became a regular on Arthur Godfrey’s television show. Her show business career quickly faded during the 1960’s, but Nola faded much more slowly. She managed to live on to the ripe old age of 96. In fact, she died just this year, on February 8th.
Vonola had a grandson, Nola’s nephew, who also went into show business. Matthew Modine has played roles in many great films. He was Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, starred as the high school wrestler, Louden Swain, in Vision Quest, and portrayed the villainous Dr. Martin Brenner in Stranger Things.
But let’s get back to the ranch. Remember that Vonola and her husband Alex sold the ranch in 1924 or 1925, after she burned the ranch house down. After that, the Chinaman’s Ranch changed hands many times. But in 1970, the property was purchased by a brother and sister named Charles Brown, Jr. and Bernice Sorrells. They were the children of State Senator Charles Brown, whom Vonola’s sister, Stella, had married. So they were the nephew and niece of Vonola Modine.
They changed the name to the China Ranch Date Farm, and it has remained in the family to this day. It seems the date palms that their Aunt Vonola had planted in the 1920’s were mature, fruit-bearing trees by this time. So the new owners decided to expand the date orchard and try to make a profitable venture out of date farming.
I’m not sure just how profitable their date business has been, but in the 1990’s they opened up their date farm to tourists. I don’t know how successful that has been either, but they do have a gift shop and a cafe on the grounds. The gift shop sells many gimcracks and whatnots, including some collectible rocks and gems that left me feeling mesmerized, until the price tags shook me back to reality.
The cafe serves date shakes and date smoothies, along with a variety of other drinks and meals. And of course, you can buy bags and boxes of dates, date muffins, date candies, date paste (for making your own date shakes at home), and a date cookbook.
Are you feeling romantic? With all their merchandise, it seems the China Ranch Date Farm is the perfect place for a date.