It takes a bit of imagination, but if you stand at the overlook at Heritage Hill Historical Park in El Toro and stare off to the northwest, you can almost see a ghostly cloud of dust approaching. Long ago, when the heights of El Toro were covered with grazing land and planned neighborhoods were more than a century away, when there was a nearly direct line of sight from the heights across the flatlands to Santa Ana, the family and staff of cattle baron Don Jose Serrano would begin to prepare the stables, fire up the kitchen and set the table for company when those dust clouds would appear.
Back in the 1860s, when Serrano established his adobe home on a hilltop, his Rancho Canada de los Alisos was used as a convenient midway rest stop for travelers riding from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano. And the Serrano family, known for its hospitality, always had water for the horses and food and drink for the riders.
Today, although the Santa Ana-to-San Juan Capistrano trip takes only half an hour and the clouds of dust have been replaced by auto exhaust, the Serrano adobe still has regular visitors. It is now the centerpiece of Orange County's only historical park, a collection of four meticulously preserved local buildings dating from the mid 19th Century.
The Serrano adobe is the oldest of the four, and the only one at Heritage Hill Historical Park that was not moved there from another place in El Toro. The other structures are the original El Toro Grammar School, the Bennett ranch house and St. George's Episcopal Mission. The adobe, which was built in 1863, and most of the rancho property was bought by Dwight Whiting, an early El Toro developer, in 1884 and was renovated and improved by his son George in 1932. It is now filled with elegant furnishings of the Early California period, but it also includes an armoire for Whiting's wife that was so large that it was counted as a room for tax purposes.
The Bennett ranch house, which was built at the corner of 2nd Street and Cherry Avenue in 1908, is the only remaining turn-of-the-century ranch house in El Toro. Harvey Bennett, the son of El Toro citrus rancher Charles Bennett, lived there with his family while he administered his father's ranch. Unlike the other structures at the park, most of the furnishings in the ranch house are those that were in the house when the Bennett family lived in it. An early RCA table-top radio can still be played in the living room, decades-old medicine still sits in the bathroom cabinet, 1936 expense ledgers and crop spraying bills still rest atop the writing desk, and in the kitchen cabinets there are even preserves prepared by Harvey Bennett's wife, Frances.
St. George's Episcopal Mission, built in 1891 and named for the patron saint of England, was attended largely by settlers who came from that country and who had been recruited as fruit farmers by Dwight Whiting, who intended to promote the area as "Los Alisos City." The furnishings, most of which are original, include an oak baptismal font with a giant clam shell basin, a carved wooden altar, ship's lanterns and a reed organ. The structure originally stood on Whisler Drive and was used as an Episcopal church until 1968.
The one-room El Toro Grammar School was the first school in the area and housed grades one through eight. Built in 1890, it originally stood at the corner of 1st Street and Olive Avenue. From 1915 to 1968 it served as St. Anthony's Catholic Church. During its first year of operation, according to docent Judy Eastman, between 14 and 29 pupils attended, instruction lasted only three months and the teacher was paid $50 a month.
Although none of the furnishings in the school building are original, they are antiques typical of the furniture and objects used in schoolhouses of the 1900s, Eastman said. There is a brass school bell and a box of vintage McGuffey's Eclectic Readers on the teacher's desk; a 44-star American flag standing in the corner; display cases containing quill pens, jump ropes, rulers, composition books and other items of the period, and a series of individual slate boards and slate sticks--not chalk--that were used by elementary school pupils in the early years of the century.
Periodically from September through May, local schoolchildren are offered a chance to experience school as it would have been in the early days of El Toro. Through the Living History Program offered by the park, local teachers bring their classes to the schoolhouse for 90-minute sessions in which the children dress in period costume, are taught from textbooks of the time and play games that were popular among children of the late Victorian era.
Information about the Living History Program may be obtained by calling the park at (714) 855-2028.
HERITAGE HILL HISTORICAL PARK
Where: 25151 Serrano Road, El Toro (just west of Lake Forest Drive).
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Tours: Free guided tours Tuesday through Friday beginning at 2 p.m. Tours on Saturday, Sunday and holidays begin at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tours at other times by prior arrangement.
Information: (714) 855-2028.