SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Carrying a parasol and wearing a derringer tucked in the folds of her floor-length riding outfit, Alice Dentler said she had come to Mission San Juan Capistrano on Saturday to enjoy the fiesta.
A lady of the early 1860s, she explained, had to protect herself from the sun and against the bandits and rattlesnakes that roamed the countryside.
Dentler, a widow who ran two hotels in San Diego in the 19th Century, was one of several characters who stepped out of history in the shoes of actors Saturday and strolled the mission as part of San Juan Capistrano's second annual Rancho Days celebration.
Faye Brussel of San Diego played the part of Dentler, whom she described as a woman who defied the customs of her time by being successful in business.
Brussel, in her outfit of blue cotton and white trim, said she belongs to a group of docents from San Diego who came to San Juan Capistrano in period costume to help give the event a feeling of authenticity. Pantaloons, full skirts and lace mantillas transformed docents into wealthy ladies of yesteryear, while men wore fringed buckskin and toted big game rifles to pose as trappers.
Nick Margalousis, director of the mission museum, said Rancho Days celebrates the era between 1825 and 1865 when the mission was taken out of the hands of the \o7 padres \f7 and Indians and operated as part of a vast cattle ranch owned by the Forster family.
A major objective of the celebration, which continues today, is to "breathe life" into the history of the mission, he said.
"It's a wonderful educational experience," said Lee Digregorio, an archeologist for Cleveland National Forest who was among visitors listening to a mission tour guide. Digregorio said she had planned to stop by the mission and was happily surprised to learn that the festival was going on.
Digregorio said the festival points out "the contributions of native Americans, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo settlers to Southern California."
The weekend event is sponsored by the mission, the Downtown Merchants Assn. and the Fiesta Assn., which hope that it will also help boost tourism in the city.
The street outside the mission was closed to cars Saturday to make room for a country bandstand and for booths that selling cowboy hats, barbecued beef sandwiches and corn on the cob.
But inside the mission walls, great pains were taken to promote historic accuracy of the rancho period, Margalousis said.
On the mission grounds were displays of crafts that included Indian baskets and weaving done on looms by women in ranch families who, according to a docent, were often sent to convents in Mexico as young girls to learn such skills.
At a food booth, visitors could select from a menu researched from history books of the period, including \o7 frijoles de La Olla, \f7 a bean soup, and \o7 pozole, \f7 a festive dish made of hominy, chicken, pork, cilantro, onion and radishes served with hand-made corn tortillas.
Conspicuously absent from the menu inside the mission was beef because, history buffs at the mission said, cattle grown at the ranch were slaughtered only for hides to make leather that was shipped to Eastern states.
At a branding display were Thomas A. (Tony) and Pat Forster, great-grandsons of John Forster, an Englishman who migrated to California and bought the mission at an auction from the Mexican government in 1844 for $710 cash.
Tony Forster described his great-grandfather as a stately and hospitable gentleman who had a knack for ranch management and the "perceptive intuition to marry well." His wife was the sister of Pio Pico, then governor of California.
He said his great-grandparents and their three sons lived at the mission, from which they operated an 80,000-acre ranch. When Abraham Lincoln in 1865 deeded the missions back to the Catholic Church, Forster moved out of Mission San Juan Capistrano. But he bought additional land in what is now Camp Pendleton, thus expanding his holdings to 250,000 acres.
It was the great drought of the 1870s, Forster said, that forced the Forster family to mortgage the vast ranch and ultimately sell it to pay off a huge bank debt.
Forster said his great-grandfather's life ended with pathos. His youngest son, Francisco Pio, was shot to death in 1882 by a woman whom he apparently refused to marry after he impregnated her. The next year John Forster died at the age of 70, some said of a broken heart.