Jul 29, 2014

Traveling Back in Time to El Toro

Writing a history column about Lake Forest—old El Toro—does have its hazards.

Traveling Back in Time to El Toro

OK—show of hands—how many of you have seen the current Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris?

If so, you know it’s a comedy about a writer visiting contemporary Paris, and that every night at the stroke of midnight he's magically whisked away to meet musicians, writers and other members of 1920s Parisian café society.

I confess to having something of a similar experience—though not nearly as cinematic—this past year. Or, to be more specific, ever since December 2010, when I started writing this column.  

Before that I had visited Heritage Hill Historical Park a number of times, and, yes, I did enjoy taking a look-see at the , , the , and the .  

But last year at this time, as I began reading more and more about the buildings at the Hill as well as the people who built them, the story of El Toro started taking on an exciting and rather personal life of its own. Upon every visit, in fact, it became easier to visualize the children who'd attended school weekday mornings and afternoons, the worshipers who'd attended Sunday services at the mission, and the parents and six children who'd made that ranch house their headquarters for more than half a century. 

As for the Serrano adobe? Well, you'll note a photo of that structure—the only structure, incidentally, original to the site—accompanies this story. It was taken sometime after its restoration in the 1930s, and I don't know about you, but that outdoor seating beyond the pepper trees and just below the bougainvillea looks mighty inviting...

Paging Rod Serling

Next I started looking into the history of the El Toro homes and businesses that hadn’t been preserved. As well as the many different people who lived in this area long before most of us were even thought of: Spanish grandees, canyon homesteaders, and wheeler-dealer entrepreneurs, as well as farmers, ranchers, and townspeople. And, of course, their children and their children’s children.

By the way, if you haven't done so already, go ahead and cue The Twilight Zone music. For as you've likely guessed, by this time I was feeling a definite kinship with these folks. 

One of the most obvious examples occurred soon after I was shown the photos of the , then decided to research their lives. Soon I'd come to the conclusion that if only Mr. and Mrs. Keating could’ve time-traveled and been interviewed by  Larry King, by show's end he definitely would have dubbed them America’s grandparents. A few weeks later, visiting their  gravesite at El Toro Memorial Park was a sobering experience; I'd grown to believe in their existence, just as small child believes so fervently in Santa Claus.

Perhaps the column that had the greatest effect on me, though, was the one quoting a Santa Ana newspaper reporter’s impressions during his 1892 .  As I wrote the story, I had a general idea of where the ranch had been located. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I actually had the chance to drive that area and figure out the former site of both Whiting’s property and that of his Keating in-laws.

What followed was a good week or so of feeling cross and out of sorts, as I kept asking myself why those graceful homes and acres of apricot and walnut trees ever had to give way to "progress." 

Finally it dawned on me that Dwight Whiting had, in fact, publicized his “ranche” so that he might achieve the very thing that eventually happened: convincing others to move to this area.  And, in doing so, creating the foundations of a community that ultimately was .

All the same, I think Whiting would be amazed to see how those initial crops of apricots and walnuts gave way in the 1920s to bountiful harvests of citrus, with citrus giving way in the 1970s to sprawling "groves" of housing.   

Amazed, but not entirely surprised—or, for that matter, disappointed.

A January Opportunity

Still, I hope you’ll agree with me when I say that learning about this area’s past not only can be fun, but also a way of understanding our present and future as well.  

For those of you who feel this way, then, here’s a heads up: Beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22, the Saddleback Area Historical Society will be holding their first meeting of the year at—where else!— Heritage Hill Historical Park. And the featured speaker? Robert Selway, who for many years was head of Orange County’s Historical Parks and Programs department.

As for contact information, Heritage Hill is located at 25151 Serrano Road, near the corner of Lake Forest Drive and Serrano and adjacent the Ralphs shopping center parking lot. For more information, call the park at (949) 923-2230, or SAHS president Marian Norris at (949) 581-0822.

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