SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — By Stephen Rios' reckoning, nine generations of his family have lived in the house on Los Rios Street, making it the oldest adobe residence in California continuously owned by the same family.
One of 40 adobes built by Juaneno Indians in 1794, Casa de Los Rios is a state historical landmark and the most prominent of the historic buildings in the neighborhood.
But "it's more than just a house; it's a street," Rios explains as he strolls along Los Rios Street, pointing out the Montanez Adobe, as old as his house, and the other old homes tucked away among the shrubs and trees.
His adobe's front yard is marked by a huge 145-year-old pepper tree held together with steel rods. Near it is a tall olive tree said to have grown from a seed brought from the Holy Land by one of the Mission San Juan Capistrano's padres.
Feliciano Rios, a mission guard, was the first family member to live in the house. After his years of military service, he retired in San Juan Capistrano with his Juaneno Indian wife. His offspring were Californios, an ethnic mix of Spaniard, Indian and Mexican.
The family's fortunes waxed and waned over the centuries. The Mexican government granted a seven-acre parcel near Doheny Beach to Santiago Rios in the 1840s, says Orange County historian Pam Hallan-Gibson.
The parcel fell within Rancho Boca de la Playa, a 6,600-acre rancho granted to Emigdio Vejar in 1846 in what is now Dana Point. It was "a grant within a grant," explains David Belardes of San Juan Capistrano, Rios' cousin and a keeper of the family history.
That parcel is long gone, but Steve Rios still has two acres around the adobe. The property reaches almost to Trabuco Creek, beyond the corrals where he raises horses, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits and ducks.
In keeping up with what he calls "a living museum" of the county's past, Rios, 39, appears to carry his historical responsibilities comfortably.
In white cowboy hat, black jeans, cowboy boots and Vuarnet sunglasses, Rios is an intricate blend of attorney, rural rancher, Indian mystic and small businessman. He says he accepts his fees in horses, chairs, livestock, firewood or "whatever it takes to keep a ranch running." One neighbor who owed Rios for legal fees built an aviary on the property in lieu of payment. Rios' children appropriated it for a playhouse.
Maintaining and refurbishing the house is no small job. Within the last two years, a major structural renovation was undertaken, putting a cement foundation under the front of the house where the old floor rotted out. Because the adobe had only a simple wood and dirt foundation, it sagged over the years. Termites once riddled the house.
There is plenty more renovation to be done. Rios points out a door frame that was recently replaced. "I have a wood craftsman client . . . ." he notes, again with a grin.
The adobe has four bedrooms, a front room, living room and kitchen. Over the years, according to family accounts, the house has had as many as 14 rooms. The size of the house, says Rios, depended on how many grandchildren were living there.
The aged wood floor off the younger children's room bounces like a trampoline when one walks on it, and the rhythmic compression has a bellows effect inside the walls, lifting a child's drawing that is covering a hole.
Rios says his father would draw a line across a crack in the wall, write the date of the crack on the wall and watch its movement. "That's how he'd tell its severity."
He points to a long, meandering crack.
"I've been watching that crack for 25 years," he says.
The house is whitewashed inside and out, the whitewash forming a protective carapace over the fragile adobe brick beneath. "Water is the biggest enemy of adobe," Rios says.
The whitewash feels like papier-mache. Tapping it, one can hear a spongy hollowness in the spots where the whitewash has lifted from the adobe. These bulges qualify as an attractive nuisance. "My kids pick at it," he says, examining a finger-sized hole.
Few people know how to protect adobe, Rios says, and he is one of them. He learned the process from his father. The ingredients for whitewashing are only as far away as Rios' back yard. In the yard, an 8-foot California spineless cactus waits to provide the binder that keeps the whitewash from turning to dusty chalk.
Rios chops up the cactus with a machete and throws it into a large pot called an olla. After boiling for two or three hours, the jugo (juice) is strained through a gunnysack, then mixed with water and lime to make the whitewash.
When he was young, Rios invited friends over to help whitewash. "I was a real Tom Sawyer," he says. Whitewash fights were a regular sideshow to the main event.
While the family does not run regular tours of the home, Rios has offered countless open houses over the years. His sister, Carol Rios Deckard of Tustin, acts as co-host.
"It's a tough task," Rios says, explaining that it can take three days to arrange the artifacts and antiques, oil the wood surfaces and do extensive yard work.
Alongside Casa de Los Rios, there is a ramada (arbor) built by his father. Rios settles onto a sofa there, a cool spot to relax on a warm day.
He says he has always wanted to live in the adobe. "I've been solid," he says, but then he pauses to reconsider, and one suspects there may have been a time or two when Rios toyed with the idea of living somewhere else. No more, though. "I've got an old adobe house that needs me," he says.