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A Visit to California's Past in San Juan Bautista

February 22, 1987|CHARLOTTE GARNER | Garner is a Mountain View, Calif., free-lance writer.

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — A high-pitched scream cut through the quiet air, followed by the thunderous sound of high heels pounding a wooden floor. Lively music blares, and through an open doorway you see quick flashes of energetic cancan dancers in a whirlwind of ribbons, ruffles and petticoats.

The "Butterfly Bloomers" are on stage at the Plaza Hotel Barroom.

Sound like a scene out of the Old West? It is. "Living History Days" recaptures the zest of California in the 1800s the first Saturday of every month at San Juan Bautista, a small, normally peaceful California town in the foothills of the Gavilan Mountains 90 miles south of San Francisco.

The site of Mission San Juan Bautista, 15th in a chain of 21 California missions that stretches from San Diego to north of San Francisco, San Juan was a large community in the 1860s.

Cultural Center

"San Juan," recalls Carla Hendershot, one of the founders of the San Juan Bautista State Park Volunteer Assn., "was the largest city in the central coastal region . . . even at one time larger than San Jose, 48 miles to the north. This was the cultural and business center of the area, and the population of San Juan Bautista was around 3,000."

Today the population is a scant 1,400. What was once an important stagecoach stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco has become a community focused on agriculture and tourism.

The town populace increases, however, the first Saturday of each month when residents and history buffs from the surrounding area dress up in period costumes to revive customs and re-create events from California's past.

This monthly "Living History Days" observance was launched by 25-30 members of the San Juan Bautista State Park Volunteer Assn. They live in San Juan and neighboring towns and share a keen interest in California history, and they work to keep those days alive for today's travelers.

The theme for the special Saturdays varies from month to month. One time the emphasis might be on local elections, with soldiers stationed at the polling place to make sure no one stuffs the ballot box and that women didn't try to vote.

Monthly Events

The next month might see members of the Women's Temperance League, protesting public drunkenness, march through town and close down the bars. Still another Saturday could feature the saga of the war widow and her children, evicted from their cabin for non-payment of rent and led off to the jail house by the sheriff.

In addition to the special events, many activities associated with California's frontier life are repeated each month. These range from candle making, bread baking and croquet games on the plaza green to saber drills and military formations, cycling on antique high-wheelers and games of chance at the corner saloon.

"Living History Days," explains Florence Carlon, a resident of San Juan Bautista whose family has lived in the area for more than 50 years, "is a time to show people throughout California, as well as out-of-state visitors, what life was like here in the 1850s, '60s and '70s." Carlon is one of several "costume ladies" whose hobby is researching and re-creating fashions worn by Californians in the 1800s.

"Most park volunteers," says Carlon, "make their own costumes or wear original pieces of antique clothing handed down by previous generations. We occasionally hold workshops to familiarize newcomers with early California styles, types of fabrics used and the historic patterns available from museums and companies that specialize in nostalgia.

"The Park Volunteer Assn. also maintains a clothing wardrobe from which members can check out costumes for a Saturday celebration."

Cavalry March at Noon

Festivities usually begin at noon when a group of uniformed cavalry soldiers from Company E (stationed in San Juan during the Civil War) march along 2nd Street to the Plaza Hotel and raise the flag. The hotel, one of four restored buildings that compose San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, was a barracks for Spanish soldiers in 1813.

The building opened as a hotel in 1858 and operated until 1933 with many celebrated guests, including Gen. William T. Sherman of Civil War fame. Some of the rooms have been furnished in 1860s style and a corner barroom, with its original wooden bar, occupies one end of the building.

The hotel barroom is the liveliest spot in town, a gathering place where "Living History Days" celebrants can sit in on a hand of poker, imbibe their favorite libation or clap their hands, stamp their feet and whistle at the "Butterfly Bloomers."

The "Bloomers," a troupe of eight high-kicking cancan dancers wearing the traditional cotton bloomers under ruffled dresses in bright red, yellow, green, blue and purple, demonstrate an energy that makes them the runaway favorites of this monthly event.

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