EL TORO — Nowadays it's suburbia, not citrus, that covers much of Orange County.
Planned communities are rapidly filling the wide-open spaces that once were home only to groves of orange trees and grazing cattle. Fortunately, the memories linger on.
In the midst of the residential enclave of Lake Forest you'll find a tiny tribute to the area's early agricultural era. It's Heritage Hill Historical Park, Orange County's first mini-village of vintage structures that go back to the days of the Mexican land grants.
Besides an 1860s adobe the restored buildings include the area's first school, an early church and a turn-of-the-century ranch house. Guided tours are given daily except Mondays.
The park covers four acres of the former 10,688-acre Rancho Canada de los Alisos, a land grant named for a valley of alder trees. It was awarded in 1842 to Don Jose Serrano, who built an adobe on a knoll overlooking the vast ranch.
His home still stands as the centerpiece of the compact historical park that was established in 1982. The house is the sole survivor of five adobes the Serranos built at their ranch while raising cattle there a dozen decades ago. Droughts forced the family to sell most of the land by 1884, and a wealthy Englishman became its owner and promoter.
Dwight Whiting urged other English families to settle in a growing agricultural community called Aliso City. The name was changed to El Toro when the Santa Fe Railroad established a depot there in 1887.
St. George's Mission of the Episcopal Church was built three years later for the English settlers who arrived to become "gentlemen fruit farmers." Built for $500, it was the first religious structure in southern Orange County since the Spanish mission at San Juan Capistrano.
Clamshell Baptismal Font
The church was refurbished after being moved to the park. During the guided tour you'll see its original stained-glass windows, pews, organ and hand-carved altar. Look for the baptismal font made of a giant clamshell from the South Pacific.
Children of English settlers attended El Toro's first grammar school, which dates to 1890 and also was trucked to the park and restored. Wooden desks with inkwells, chalkboards and a pendulum clock in the one-room school recall times when grades one through eight were taught by the same teacher.
Pioneer Orange Grower
You also can visit the Bennett Ranch House, furnished as it was earlier in this century by Francis and Harvey Bennett, who raised six children in the 1 1/2-story home. It was built in 1908 by Harvey's father, Charles Bennett, a pioneer grower of navel oranges.
Adjacent is Heritage Hill's visitor center with an exhibit--"Ranchos to Real Estate"--that reflects life in old El Toro from the Mexican cattle-grazing days to the establishment of the citrus industry. It also chronicles the Serrano family.
Their adobe home is included in the tour, but it reflects improvements made in 1932 when Dwight Whiting's son, George, added a master bedroom, dining room and kitchen. An artist's conception portrays the building in the Serranos' time.
Even in summer the interior is kept cool by walls nearly two feet thick. Many of the furnishings are of the home's last owners and residents, the V. P. Baker family.
Tours of the park's four historic structures take about an hour and begin every day except Monday at 2 p.m. On Saturday, Sunday and holidays there is an additional tour at 11 a.m. For more information, call (714) 855-2028.
Admission is free to Heritage Hill Historical Park, 25151 Serrano Road. The grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and feature plants of the early days. One pepper tree is at least a century old. You can picnic at shaded tables.
Get to the park from Los Angeles by driving south to the Lake Forest Drive exit just before reaching El Toro/Laguna Hills. Turn left to cross the freeway and go east about two miles over former Irvine Ranch land that now has homes, business plazas and a man-made lake. Then turn left on Serrano Road to the Heritage Hill entrance and parking area.
Round trip from Los Angeles to old El Toro is 102 miles.