Forty-something years of being a California native and I had yet to visit Hemet, California before this January. Embarassingly, I admit I thought that the Ramona Pageant took place in the city of Ramona, not Hemet. Now after a day of taking in the various sights, I can say with enthusiasm that I plan to return to Hemet.
So, what is charming about the city of Hemet? Why, the history of it! Seemingly simple like an old man who says little yet is a wealth of interesting history, Hemet sits quietly in the San Jacinto Valley of Riverside County disturbing no one. More boastful cities brag of their treasures and tout their popularity like school girls but not Hemet. Hemet is refreshingly at ease with being a Plain Jane and I find confidence like that very appealing.
Hemet was once full of lakes, streams and was lush enough to be the playground for mammoths, sloths and mastodons. Personally, I think its history is more fascinating than having a high-end shopping mall in town but I am the gal who frequents malls less then three times a year and crawls through museums reading every plaque, so what do I know? Fast forward ten thousand years or so, Hemet dried up a bit but that didn’t prevent the Cahuilla Tribe from settling there. It was also used for cattle ranching by Mission San Luis Rey. In 1895 the Hemet Dam was completed thus creating Lake Hemet and providing water to San Jacinto Valley. The Valley would be forever changed now bringing agriculture, settlements and the railroad. Hemet quickly became a trading center for agriculture like citrus, apricots, peaches, olives and walnuts.
A fascinating piece of Hemet history is the Ryan School of Aeronautics, where 6000 fliers were trained during WWII. The site of the school is now Hemet-Ryan Airport. There is a sailplane center for adventurous types and in nearby Anza, there is Moto-Ventures, an off-road motorcycle training school. Large scale residential development began in the 1960′s but mostly consisted of mobile home parks and retirement communities. The 1980′s brought subdivisions and “big-box” retail that still define much of the city. Nowadays, Hemet is the seasonal home to many snowbirds seeking a more temperate winter.
How many cities can boast being home to Southern California’s emergency water supply? To put this in perspective, 19 million people count on the water in it should there be a drought or an emergency! That alone should give the town instant respect. This reservoir is the largest in Southern California and is called the Diamond Valley Lake. Open for boating and fishing, it is stocked full of tasty Bass, Trout, Bluegill, Sunfish and Catfish, so bring your boat or rent one of many types available. The awe-inspiring three dams, lake and 13,500 acre Multi-Species Reserve can be seen from an viewpoint perched on a hill or one can opt for one of the two trails where hiking, bicycling and horses are allowed.
Other treasures in Hemet include the Western Science Center (2345 Searl Parkway) which houses Ice Age mammals, “Max” and “Little Stevie” which were found while clearing the land for the dam. Next door is the Diamond Valley Visitors Center which has great exhibits that kept my attention for longer than I care to admit. Downtown Hemet is home to the 1921 historic Hemet Theater, where they still show an occasional movie. Just down the road you will find the old train depot that now houses a museum showcasing Hemet’s history.
Hemet’s true claim to fame is the Ramona Pageant which occurs every spring at the Ramona Bowl. “Ramona” has delighted audiences since April 13, 1923. Its final first season performance drew an audience of 2000 people. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote the 1884 novel to create more concern from the American public for the Indians. Interestingly, the novel has never been out of print and has inspired many songs, four motion pictures and the Hemet play where many notable actresses like Raquel Welch have portrayed “Ramona”.
This April, I plan to make the pilgrimage back to Hemet for the Ramona Pageant where I look forward to sharing the same space where thousands have come to witness the fictional romance and tragedy of Ramona and Alessandro. I might just come early and sip a cocktail at Chappie’s while looking out the window at the Historic Hemet Theater. I would like to imagine movie goers in 1921 standing outside waiting to see their favorite new talking movie. Care to join me?