by Rima Thompson
photography by Liz Lucsko
One brisk fall day, when red and yellow liquid amber leaves line the pavement, and the cool October air stirs up memories of ghosts and goblins, one does not have to go far to experience the serenity of the season. Nestled behind the blooming trees of kumquats, oranges and lemons, the city of La Verne successfully preserves what could be considered a piece of utopia.
With the mischief of “trick or treat” in the air, and nature playfully stirring, the place to be is Heritage Park. It is where families learn to appreciate La Verne for offering another kind of orange, the orange of a pumpkin.
Each year, school children and families eagerly anticipate the Heritage Park Foundation opening its doors for two fun-filled weeks of the “Heritage Pumpkin Patch Festival.”
On the other side of the wire fences, which separate the city from the country, across the fairy tale bridge, families find a place to relax and enjoy a feeling of safety. Parents are able to let their guard down long enough to let their children enjoy the freedom to explore the pumpkin patch.
Starting in October, district schools can visit the Heritage pumpkin patch prior to its opening to the general public. The Heritage Foundation develops a customized agenda for the students, with exciting and creative projects and learning activities. They curiously and excitedly hold baby chicks, interact with goats or pick their own pumpkins from the “kid patch.” They then enjoy personalizing and decorating their pumpkins with the assistance of a park volunteer. Although all the activities are great, the most popular is the tractor-riding tour that travels through the orange groves.
On Oct. 19, 2002, the opening day of the pumpkin patch, families arrive with their anxious little ones thrilled to pick their very own pumpkin and hold the baby chicks. The park’s opening to the general public offers the chance for festival goers to buy pumpkins, tour the grounds and, for a dollar donation, experience a tractor ride. Eating and picnicking or going to the tot play areas is an extra bonus.
The first arrivals of the day are the Arredondo family, who hail from Pasadena. They are first time attendees and learned of the park’s existence from flyers. “We love the atmosphere,” says Matt Arredondo. Adds Mrs. Arredondo, “It’s a nice place for families to come and take photographs; it has its own little petting zoo, hay rides and a tractor ride you can’t beat for a buck!”
It is also the Gallagher family’s first time. They eagerly traveled 100 miles from Ventura so that their grandchildren could enjoy the magical atmosphere. Their 5 year-old granddaughter Jennifer Holland runs around screaming for her grandparents to come over to where she is, and when they do not, she runs to them, exclaiming, “I found the perfect pumpkin, Grandma! Come see it! Come see it!”
Page Rode, a La Verne resident, comes to the pumpkin patch every year with her daughter Erin Rode. “We really enjoy the hay rides and historical nature of the park.” A few feet away, Alvin Luna and his girlfriend Lisa Walker, from Glendora, comment, “The layout of the park shows the historic nature of the past, and my family and I are having a great time.”
No matter the distance of travel the families go through, all agree that the enchantment of the park is well worth it. However, some visitors like Kathy Hattn of La Verne wish the park had more animals to pet, and that the craft corner was open to decorate pumpkins. Despite minor complaints, Hattn says she loves the park’s supply of pumpkins and the euphoric feeling when one enters the park; it made her feel like she entered a different time zone, she says.
The centerpiece of the park is the Weber House, now converted into a quaint gift shop. The house, built in the 1880s, is one of La Verne’s oldest existing houses. Located on a half-acre site, the Weber house was originally on a citrus ranch owned by John Weber. The ranch closed in the 1980s, and, in 1984, the Weber house was in danger of being razed to make way for on-going housing developments, before it was moved to the park site. Inside, the gift shop offers unique items appealing to a wide range of interest while remaining light on the wallet. The house is also a home, with private living quarters at the back and upstairs. Scenically placed to the left of the Weber House is a miniature park with slides, swings, benches and a sandbox for children.
The ambiance continues with the pumpkin patch decoratively placed in the middle of the park. The patch exhibits a variety of pumpkins, distinctive and appealing in shape, size and color. The price donations range from $3 to $45. A short distance away, the “kid patch” invites and delights little ones to pick child size pumpkins at $2. Additionally, a view of growing corn can be seen in the small garden plot behind the pumpkin patch. The park’s festival experience continues with picture taking. Visitors pop their heads into seasonal character slots and immediately became a pumpkin, ghost, witch, scarecrow or cat; it was a costume party where the costumes were provided. All a customer needs to bring is a smile. To retain the visit memory, visitors can browse the souvenir stand located outside the barn next to the pumpkin patch. There, they can stock up Halloween necklaces, spider suckers, cold drinks, jack-o-lantern jellies, red delicious apples, red licorice and candied scarecrows. Baby chicks, $2, are available.
The commitment of the volunteer staff, ranging in age from youth to adult is impressive. The young adults enhance their business skills by collecting monies from the pumpkin patch and souvenir sales. “It’s fun to see all the families come and enjoy themselves, and to see all the little kids get excited to hold the baby chicks,” says Thea Britzman, park volunteer. Adds co-volunteer Julie Lelnard, “We love helping out here because it’s for a great cause, and we have fun doing it.”
When the park first opened, its biggest attraction was its Harvest Festival, an event where people were able to show off their smudge pots and various other wares of the citrus industry. In the park’s later years, the founders wanted to do something that would involve the surrounding communities. The Heritage Foundation decided to have an October pumpkin patch. Bonnie Brunell, secretary-treasure for the Heritage Foundation and a member since 1987, explains, “We just started with the idea that we wanted to do something where schools and the community could be involved.” It has been 13 years, and under the supervision of the new Heritage Foundation president, Robin Hanley, the festival has grown into one of Heritage Park’s most successful attractions.
La Verne City Councilman Craig Walters, who wanted to preserve La Verne’s rich past and recreate the citrus industry atmosphere from the 1900s, guided the 1985 founding of the Heritage Park Foundation. With $10,000 donated by Hughes Development Corporation and the help of the city of La Verne, Walters was able to move the Weber House to Heritage Park thus marking the beginning of the Heritage Park Foundation. Today, the foundation remains a non-profit organization and receives most of its funding from sales obtained from the pumpkin patch and school tours. The funds are invested back into the park to cover the cost of continued restoration.
For those wanting the year-round experience, Heritage Park celebrates with other events including, “U-Pick Oranges” on Saturdays from January through March, “Hands on History” from March through June, “Spring Squeeze” in March, “Concerts in the Park” every other Sunday in June through September and “Our Family Xmas Trees” in December.