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Rancho Cucamonga: From Wine Region to Birthplace of ... Flamin' Hot Cheetos?

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Members of the Nazarene Church stand in front of the John Rains House in Rancho Cucamonga, 1902. (Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum)

A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. Know an unusual place name in California? Tell us about it in the comments below, or send a note to calreport@kqed.org.

Many Californians may know Rancho Cucamonga because of its rather exotic-sounding name. But this suburban city nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains is also known for its robust wine industry.

In fact the city is home to California's oldest commercial wine facility -- the Thomas Winery -- which dates back as far as 1839.

A redwood wine tank at the Thomas Winery in Rancho Cucamonga. (Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum)

And to accompany that wine, the city has birthed an unusual snack food -- addictive to some, repulsive to others.

Richard Montañez worked as a janitor in Frito-Lay's factory in Rancho Cucamonga. One day, he had an idea to take some plain Cheetos and coat them with chili. He pitched it to company executives, and they loved it. And just like that, Flamin' Hot Cheetos came into existence -- and then became Frito-Lay's top-selling product.


But back to the town's rather exotic-sounding name.

Where did it originate? We called up Jennifer Dickerson, from the San Bernardino County Museum, who says it dates back to 1200 A.D., when the Kukamongan Native Americans established a settlement in the area.

"They were part of the Tongva native peoples," Dickerson explains, "so the name 'Cucamonga' actually derives from these people."

The name itself has had various spellings throughout history, but it has always been pronounced the same way.

Grapes and apricots in Rancho Cucamonga. (Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum.)

In the 18th century, the Spanish soldier and explorer Gaspar de Portolá incorporated the Cucamonga area into the Spanish mission system.

"That land [then] belonged to the Mission San Gabriel for cattle grazing," Dickerson says. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain.

Ten years later, Dickerson says, the missions were secularized and the land that all the missions owned and encompassed was parceled off into what were called "ranchos."

"Rancho Cucamonga was actually one of those ranchos," Dickerson explains.

By 1839, Rancho Cucamonga was a sprawling 13,000 acres.

"It was in a really prime location because not only was it in a good region," Dickerson explains, "but it was also along the old Spanish Trail."

Rancho Cucamonga was also on the road that led from Los Angeles to Mission San Gabriel to San Bernardino.

"It's really built up in the last couple of decades," Dickerson says. "It's a wonderful city."

Foothill Boulevard (Route 66) in Rancho Cucamonga. (Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum)

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