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'I hate to have people think that we are an anachronism.' --Bernardo Yorba : Descendant of 1st Ranchero Dusts Off Past

March 01, 1987|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

With dirt flying, the two men on horseback raced down the dusty street in the pueblo of Los Angeles. Stopping in front of a general store, they sat imperiously on their mounts as the shopkeeper came out and took their order. That done, they rode off as they had come.

Who are those two "wild men?" asked a mid-19th Century visitor who witnessed the showy display and later wrote about it in a travel book.

"As it turns out they were a couple of Yorbas--can you beat that?" said Bernardo Yorba, grinning as he leaned back in his padded-leather desk chair in his office in an Anaheim high-rise.

"I'd like to know more about them," said Yorba, a direct descendant of Orange County's first ranchero family. "Were they as arrogant as the story makes them sound, or was that just the way they did things in those days?"

Yorba is the great-great-grandson of Jose Antonio Yorba, one of 62 Spanish foot soldiers who accompanied Gaspar de Portola on his 1769 expedition of California. Forty-one years later, as a reward for his long service in California for the King of Spain, Yorba was given a 62,000-acre land grant.

The vast parcel, which Yorba named Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, encompassed the present-day cities of Santa Ana, Orange, Tustin and Costa Mesa.

'So Many Great Stories'

Bernardo Yorba, a land developer who lives on part of the original ranch in Santa Ana Canyon, is fascinated by California's legendary ranchero days of the 1800s and has begun his own research into that so-called golden era.

"There's so many great stories of ranch activities," he said. "I'm interested in the horsemanship and the people. The women of the ranches were really quite strong and were good managers. I think we should know more about them. I'm not claiming I'm going to be the foremost authority. It's for my own benefit. I'm just curious."

Yorba will share what he has so far uncovered about life on the great ranchos of California's Spanish-Mexican era when he is guest speaker at the fifth annual Orange County Pioneer Council meeting. The reception and dinner next Sunday at The Catch Restaurant in Anaheim is open only to members and their guests.

The council is composed of the descendants of families who came to Orange County before 1914. Its ranks include such familiar Orange County names as Irvine, Muckenthaler and Spurgeon.

"The purpose of the council is to generate interest in preserving the history of the county, and by getting together we hope to encourage people to exchange memories or dig into their files and come up with interesting things," said dinner chairman Jean Wahlberg, who added that the council has begun an oral history project involving pioneer families.

Wahlberg's family (the Benjamin F. Kelloggs) arrived in Anaheim in 1868. She acknowledges, however, that the Yorbas "are the longtime pioneers of the area. They are before any of us. We are the people that came from the East."

Yorba said he respects and admires the pioneer families. "They have done so much."

A big, rugged man with a deep tan and graying, dark brown hair, Yorba declines to reveal his age. "I don't like to talk dates," he said, smiling. "Talking about the 1700s or 1800s, that's one thing. . . ."

Yorba is a member--"and proudly so"--of the board of trustees of Orange County Centennial Inc., a nonprofit organization coordinating activities for the Orange County Centennial celebration in 1989.

"I think this (the centennial) is going to do a hell of a lot to recognize our history and put the spotlight on people who contributed to our growth over the past 100 years--people like the Segerstroms and the Irvines and the O'Neill family and many others who contributed to our heritage in our later days of development," he said.

Casually dressed in a white V-neck sweater and brown slacks, Yorba took a visitor on a tour of his two-room office. It is filled with old photographs, paintings and dozens of Western and early California artifacts, including an 1877 map of Southern California land grants, a Mexican saddle and old spurs.

The saddle and spurs reflect Yorba's lifelong interest in horses. He is a member of the famed Rancheros Visitadores, the decades-old trail-riding fraternity that rides in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara. He's also a member of El Viaje de Portola, an Orange County trail-riding group; and Charros Los Amigos, an organization specializing in Mexican-style rodeos.

As a direct descendant of one of the county's most illustrious families, Yorba is proud of his heritage.

"Yorba is one of many great old names--Ortegas, Peraltas, Sepulvedas, Verdugos--that left their mark on history," he said.

However, he laments the fact that many descendants of those illustrious figures are no longer active in public life.

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