Jul 30, 2014
Partly Cloudy

Back to School, (Old) El Toro Style!

Among their earliest lessons, Ben and George Osterman learn that “shank's mare” is better than the burro express.

Back to School, (Old) El Toro Style! Back to School, (Old) El Toro Style! Back to School, (Old) El Toro Style!

The next time someone at your house complains about how boring it is to be shuttled back and forth to school in the family SUV, show them this photo of the Osterman brothers, bound for El Toro’s on the family burro.

They’ll probably note the boys are barefoot—no Crocs for these kids!—but going shoeless was fairly typical in those days, even at school. Except, of course, on the day your class photo was taken. Then you put on shoes and even socks. Plus, of course, your best shirt and overalls in place of your everyday set.

But let’s get back to the business of getting to school. Which, after all, was an ever-important concern back in those early El Toro days, just as it is for today’s Lake Forest students.


Some El Toro kids did live in town. So for them, getting out the door and up the steps was just a matter of minutes.

But many children lived outside of El Toro on farms and ranches. The kids, luckier than many, lived only about a mile away. I think most of us will agree that walking down the hill each morning wouldn’t have been too bad.  But how about all those uphill trudges, especially after a long day of sums and essays?

So when the distance was significant, most kids rode to school on whatever type of equine he or she had been allotted. It's easy to imagine a last-minute rush of children dismounting and tying up their mounts at the school's nearby hitching posts before charging up the steps in an attempt not to be tardy.  

Occasionally this type of transportation could become an art form of its own. For example, some of you may remember a previous El Toro & Before in which , and 's youngest daughter, is quoted as taking particular satisfaction in a variety of grand entrances. “I went on one pony, standing up on two ponies, or in a buggy with two ponies, or in a buggy with one pony—anything to be different.”

The Osterman boys, alas, didn’t have that many options.

Initially they’d had an easy half-mile walk from their canyon homestead to the Trabuco Canyon schoolhouse. But now that the family had moved to the Whiting lease a few miles above the Serrano adobe, the boys would be attending school in El Toro. And El Toro was a good three miles away.

Lesson #1: Life is full of complications and adjustments.


It should be noted, however, this lesson wasn't necessarily new. Both boys—Ben in particular—already had been subjected to childhoods somewhat reminiscent of a Dickens novel.

Growing up in the canyon adjacent “the Trabuco”—the wide plain and site of today's city of  Rancho Santa Margarita—had in many ways been a boys’ paradise. Although the cabins of other fellow homesteaders were fairly close by, the area was, for the most part, an untrammeled wilderness filled with all the sights and wonders that can fuel an imaginative childhood.

But when Ben was not yet 4 years of age and George only a toddler, tragedy occurred: Their mother, the former Sadie Anette Havens, died of tuberculosis. The two boys watched from a hillside above their cabin as their mother’s body was placed into a wagon for the long ride down to the cemetery in Santa Ana.

Years later George’s son would write about a conversation he’d had with his Uncle Ben about what happened next. “Making a living had to occupy most of Dad’s time, and he was unable to effectively raise his two youngsters.” As a result, Ben added, “we kids were farmed out.”

The loss of your mother, followed by separation from your father. How much worse can it get?

Fortunately for the littlest Osterman, not much, for he went to live with a branch of the kindly Fox family—“Grandpa and Grandma Fox, on their dairy farm in the Delhi area of Santa Ana.”

Ben’s lot, however, was to go live with Uncle Charley Havens, who soon showed his true colors. Or, as Ben later recalled, "I went under the hand of Uncle Charley Havens. With no children of his own, Uncle Charley made my life anything but enjoyable."


Yet a silver lining did exist. "The only good thing about this situation was that I came to know and love Mary Lillian Havens, sister of our own mother."

In time, Ben and George's father also got to know his sister-in-law. To the point that, two years and four months after Sadie's death, .

The two boys joyously returned to the canyon and their new mother.

"Our family was reunited.  We were still in the mountains, life was tough and hard work was necessary. Still, our new mother found time to help us with books and our reading.  As I recall, our homestead cabin featured plenty of reading and reciting with an emphasis on poetry." So much so that by the time each boy was of an age to begin school in the canyon, they took to learning like ducks to water. 

Then in 1907, a new opportunity for the Ostermans: A chance to live and work on the Whiting Ranch lease, just a few miles above the . 

"I was eleven, your dad was nine, and we were beginning to be more of a part of the running of things." 

But John and Mary Lillian—by now expecting the first of three additional little Ostermans—were adamant that getting an education trumped working the farm. 

And so off to school went Ben and George, on board Si, their much-beloved burro. "As eldest son, I drove and George rode in the second seat."  

Efficiency, though, was a problem. As was, one might say, a complete lack of rich Corinthian leather.  

Or, as Ben later put it, "We discovered the Si was both slow and lacking in comfortable seating bareback."

The upshot being that after a short trial period of plodding discomfort, no doubt punctuated by some serious rein flapping, repeated heel digs, and any number of rump slaps to "giddy-up," the boys gave up Si for " shank's mare." And Si returned to the ranch to graze. 

So it seems that despite Ben and George continuing to advance their educational careers, Si never did have much of a school experience.

On the other hand, maybe this clever burro didn't need it! 

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