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A sweet legacy

Posted: March 30, 2009 11:16 p.m.
Updated: March 31, 2009 4:59 a.m.

Ray Billet walks along a line of some of the 5,500 peach and 1,000 pear trees on the 60 planted acres at the Blum Ranch in Acton.

 
When you motor up the driveway to Blum Ranch, the frenetic pace of Santa Clarita seems a world away.

On a farm tucked back in the hills of Acton, Ray and Elizabeth Billet work the land Elizabeth's grandfather, George Blum, homesteaded in 1891.

On a clear afternoon recently, two horses meandered through the orchard, munching at the grass in the shade of pinkish-purple peach blossoms.

Ray and Elizabeth cultivate about 60 of the ranch's 160 acres, producing peaches, plums, pears, lilacs and honey. The Billets hire from 10 to 40 farm hands, depending on the season.

Long before anyone had glimpsed the gleaming, stuffed produce aisles of a modern grocery store, the Blum family was producing fresh fruit every year.

The farm has lasted through the sprawl of the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, the wrath of wildfires and even the nation's current economic downturn.

"It's a challenge. You're fighting nature all the time," Ray said. "It's always something different from year to year.

"We work seven days a week."

With clear blue eyes and a frequent smile, 75-year-old Ray has the frame of a man who's worked a farm his whole life - he's lean and limber.

And while last year was one of the best ever for the farm financially, Ray said he's concerned about how the state of the economy will affect Blum Ranch.

"It gets harder and harder to stay out of debt," he said. "We will make it or we won't. (But) we don't need a handout."

The couple lives in a grand, 93-year-old house that is at the center of the farm and is a shrine to the Blum family's past.

The lower half of the two-story, stone-and-timber home is crafted from granite hauled from the nearby riverbed and cut into precise blocks.

Inside, the dark woodwork has never been refinished, Elizabeth said. After all these decades, its finish is still robust.

The faint aroma of wood smoke hangs on the air and the walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of the family through the years.

A stonecutter, George Blum worked on the original Los Angeles County courthouse and buildings in Santa Barbara. In 1891, searching for a place start a farm and raise his family, he filed homestead papers for 160 acres in Acton's Aliso Canyon.

By 1911, the first orchards of 1,200 pear and apple trees had been planted. Today there are several thousand trees.

A country life
Elizabeth has essentially spent her entire life in Acton.

"I was born in Burbank (in 1935) and came home from the hospital a week later," she said.

She grew up on the farm, and married her high-school sweetheart.

Ray Billet's family had also farmed in the area for years - he and Elizabeth rode the same bus to school.

In 1953, they were married. He was 19; she was 17.

"I don't think I even asked her. I think I just told her (we were getting married)," Ray said with a laugh. "She was a farm girl ... (and) a very nice-looking young lady.

"She was very sharp. Sharper than me, I think."

As newlyweds they lived in Palmdale, as he worked on his family's farm and she worked at Bank of America.

When Elizabeth's brother decided to go to college, the couple moved back to the Blum Ranch in late 1953.

"We've been here ever since," Elizabeth said.

The couple said there's no real secret to the longevity of their nearly 56-year marriage.

"We're best friends and we love each other," Elizabeth said.

"We're always helping one another," Ray added. "We just kind of work together. We don't have time for (arguments)."

The Billets have two sons, a daughter and several grandchildren.

But farming doesn't seem to run in their children's blood, so the couple remains uncertain about the future of Blum Ranch.

"I suppose someday if we have to quit, we'll probably want to put it on the National Register of Historic Places," Ray said.

A year-round job
Running the ranch is a pretty much a year-round operation, with the winter months being the slow time.

In the next few weeks, Ray said the 4 acres of lilacs they grow will be in season, and by midsummer the fruit harvest will begin.

For years, Elizabeth said, Charlton Heston's driver would make annual visits to buy lilacs for the Hestons' wedding anniversary.

Only about 25 percent of their business is wholesale, Ray said, and added they draw customers from as far as Santa Barbara and San Diego.

"People appreciate good-tasting fruit," he said.

The Billets grow four types of peaches, including the "Blum's Beauty" that Ray developed, and which Elizabeth described as soft and juicy.

Three years ago they started making and selling peach jam, which she said has proved popular.

Last year they sold 900 pints of jam, and they've prepared 1,200 pints for this year.

A barn dating to 1911 houses the ranch shop and a mini-museum of sorts.

The weathered wood walls are covered with old news clippings, historical photographs, autographed celebrity pictures and even a plaque honoring Elizabeth as the first Miss Acton in 1952.

And so it is that while the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys surge with activity to the south and north, Ray and Elizabeth continue to drink in the relative solitude of country living.

"People want to escape the city," Ray said, but they want to bring the trappings of city life with them to the suburbs.

"We want to walk out of the house at night and see the stars. That's the lifestyle."

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