Living in the Olden Days in Orange County

With a child in 3rd grade, new and exciting topics start coming home infiltrating the dinner conversation.  Since my son returned back to school after the winter break, studies have revolved around the history of Orange County, CA that has sparked new excitement in the Field Trip Mom family.  Orange County has a vast amount of incredible history with many learning opportunities in which you too can enjoy with your family.  Today, we are proud to share some exciting information as well as a bit of history as lived by the descendants of our family.
Located in Irvine, CA, you can visit the Irvine Historical Museum for a great inexpensive way to learn more about the history of Irvine and the surrounding areas.  For thousands of years, Gabrielino Indians, also known as the Tongva Tribe, lived in villages that later would become the Irvine Ranch.  Prior to the mid 1700's, these peaceful Indians lived in family units sheltered by huts called "Wicklups."  Their culture was a simple lifestyle, living off of the land by hunting, fishing and gathering acorns and seeds for food.

In July 1769, one of the first Spanish Exploration parties led by Gaspar de Portola traveled through the Irvine Ranch are in search of Monterey Bay.  These Spanish Explorers camped at Tomato Springs, now where Portola Parkway and the 261 Toll Road meet, and they named the area Rio del Dulcissimo Nombre de Jesus del Temblores.  This translates to River of the Sweetest Name of Jesus of the Earthquakes.  Portola claimed the land and established missions.  Later, the land was divided into large land grants called "ranchos."  In 1841, Jose Andres Sepulveda was deeded a 49,000 acre land grant named Rancho San Joaquin where he raised longhorn cattle for hides and tallow.  Severe droughts claimed the herds causing Sepulveda to sale the rancho to James Irvine I and his business partners for 37 cents an acre.  In 1868, the first Irvine Managers House was built in support of the sheep and cattle ranching and is now the site of the Irvine Historical Museum.  The Irvine Mansion was built in 1876 and served as a residence for four generations of Irvine family members.  Although rebuilt, the mansion now serves as the Katy Wheeler library located at Myford Rd and Irvine Blvd.  In 1894, James Irvine II inherited the land turning it from sheep and cattle pastures to the most successful agricultural operation of its time. Lima beans, barley, strawberries, asparagus, oranges, tomatoes, avocados, and corn were the main crops grown in the area now known as Irvine.   In 1897, Irvine deeded a 160 acre parcel of land to the Orange County Parks where 750 year old California live oaks and sycamores grew and is now the famous Irvine Park at the top of Jamboree and Chapman Ave.  More history can be discovered by visiting the Irvine Historical Museum and Old Towne Irvine.

Another great place to learn about the history of Orange County is to visit the Heritage Hill Historical Society in Lake Forest.  Heritage Hill has a great significance to the Field Trip Mom family as many wagons, tools, artifacts and buildings at the Historical Society were refurbished or donated by my Grandfather, LeRoy Evans.  In 1862, my Great, Great Grandfather, Ruben Bonepart Waterman came to the El Toro area at the age of 4, now considered Lake Forest, on a wagon pulled by ox from Ohio.  Ruben married Carrie Wilson of Santa Ana in 1890 and they settled in the El Toro area where my Great, Great Grandfather Ruben opened a blacksmith shop.  Rumors swirl that Ruben invented and built a barley roller to crush and roll barley to make it flat and easier for animals to digest the grain.  According to other history records, around the same time in Akron, OH, the Quaker Oat company developed a grain rolling invention that was the beginning of rolled oats, Quaker Oatmeal.  Although there are very similar and coincidental accounts for the timing and similarities of equipment and family settlements, it is only rumored that my Great, Great Grandfather Ruben was instrumental in the rolled oats invention. 

My Grandfather, LeRoy, grew up a very poor young man having to go to work at the age of 11 or 12 working on several ranches in the El Toro, Irvine area.  LeRoy worked for the Charlie and Hatty Swartz ranch with their son Harvey according to my grandfathers memoirs.  According to the Orange County Historical Societies website at OC history
...And then, there was El Toro’s one celebrity, the great Polish actress, Helen Modjeska. She came to Santiago Canon in the middle eighties, and purchased two hundred acres of land there from Joseph Pleasants in 1888, and built a home in which she lived, when not playing, for over twenty years.

...There are several families identified with the immediate town of El Toro who came here in the nineties or the early years of this century and have done much for the community. John Osterman came in 1893 and in the course of a few years bought two hundred and forty acres from the Whiting ranch, which he farmed for years, together with other property that he leased. He is now living in Santa Ana, but his ranch is owned by his son, Bennie, who has planted it to citrus trees, while his son George owns and operates the El Toro store.

...Harvey Swartz also arrived in 1893 and was the first man to break sagebrush and set plow to portions of the Whiting ranch. He farmed on lands leased from the Whiting, the Santa Margarita, and the Niguel, and finally purchased William Hoyle’s home and property, where he resides with his family.
With relation to these statements from the Orange County Historical Society, my grandfather's notes state, my Great, Great Grandfather Ruben was responsible for taking Madame Helena Modjeska from the train depot in El Toro to her home in Modjeska Canyon in his buckboard (or horse drawn wagon) every time she arrived back to El Toro.   My Grandfather Leroy worked for the Swartz family for 50 cents a day plus a meal.  Harvey was a larger gentlemen paralyzed in his right leg as a kid.  One day while working in the fields with Harvey, the tractor ran out of gas and Harvey told my Grandfather to run to the house to get his father to bring some more gas.  It appears it was a very hot day and the plowed soil was soft and hard to walk on so Harvey nicknamed my Grandfather "Sea Biscuit" because it took so long for him to get back to the house.  This nick name stuck with him through the years and he was frequently and affectionately referred to by his sister in law who married George Osterman, son of John Osterman and owner of the El Toro store as noted above.

As you can see, we have very close ties to Orange County and its history.  Much of this history can be discovered by visiting the Irvine Historical Museum and the Heritage Hill Historical Society.  History doesn't have to be of bravely fought wars or dynamic engineering feats...take the time to learn more about the place you call home, you may be surprised at what you discover.
Schedule a field trip with your family and enjoy a piece of history.
Irvine Historical Museum
5 San Joaquin
 Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 786-4112
Irvine Historical Museum
Open Tuesday and Sundays 1 PM to 4 PM

Heritage Hill Historical Park
 25151 Serrano Road
Lake Forest, CA 92630-2534
Open Wednesday - Sunday 9 AM to 5 PM
Written by guest writer Tim Bosek, COO of Field Trip Mom.  We received no compensation for this post other than the personal enjoyment of the historic research and visitation of the two historical parks.

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