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Heritage Hill Captures South County Life as It Was

January 06, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

The bucolic community of Lake Forest is home to a peaceful park called Heritage Hill, an island of history in the middle of an area that seems to be constantly in development.

2 to 3:30: Even though the park is open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, the best hour to visit is 2 p.m., when one of the park's docents conducts a tour. The docents guide visitors through the four buildings on the grounds: Serrano Adobe, Bennett House, El Toro School and St. George's Church. After a visit here, it's easy to imagine life a century ago in South County.

Serrano Adobe is the main attraction, the original building on this site (the others were either constructed later or moved here from various nearby locations). The home belonged to Don Jose Serrano, a landowner who had nearly 10,000 acres here in the 19th Century, and it has been lovingly maintained. The thick walls and floor are made of adobe brick; the antique furnishings were donated by generous estates.

The Chain of Title, posted on the wall, traces the property from the days when it belonged to the king of Spain, up to the present-day owner, the County of Orange. The house was expanded around the 1930s by a wealthy man named George Whiting, who kept it as a summer home. Its magnificent appointments, such as the eight-foot-high rosewood armoire and the beautiful writing desk, are alone worth a visit.

The next building you tour is St. George's Church, also known as St. George's Episcopal Mission. Whiting had envisioned the grounds as some sort of settlement, so at the end of the 19th Century he brought farmers from England to harvest fruit, constructing the church for them. It's a charming little clapboard building done up with a nautical theme--porthole-type windows and a ceiling that looks like the hull of a ship turned inside out. Many of the pieces of furniture were part of the original church.

El Toro Grammar School was built in 1890. It's a one-room schoolhouse with pastel green shutters and a widow's walk atop it (where women looked out to sea to see if their husbands were soon to return) that was used only 24 years. Grades one through eight were taught in here, and the blackboards and desks remain intact. Of particular interest are a collection of pull-down maps that show the world before World War I, and a list of rules for teachers. Two of the more eye-opening ones are "Teachers will clean chimneys daily," and "Women teachers who marry will be dismissed." Yep, a different world.

Bennett Ranch House, surrounded by orange and lime trees, is the last remaining turn-of-the-century ranch house in El Toro. It was moved to the park from the corner of 2nd Street and Cherry Avenue, and today it is filled with lovely period furniture. The Bennetts were citrus farmers, and the house and grounds transport a visitor back to that quiet era, when what we now know as the Saddleback Valley had but a few residents.

3:30 to 4: The park's research library, which is partially funded by the Saddleback Valley Historical Society, is the perfect place to learn more about this era. It's a small bungalow crammed full of historical books about Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo, whose names were once Rancho Canada de Los Alisos, Rancho Trabuco, Rancho Niguel and Rancho Mission Vieja. The library also contains manuscripts, audiotapes, maps and photographs. 4 to 5: Ralphs Center, adjacent to the park, is home to Black Forest Bakery and Cafe. The bakery belongs to a German-born couple named Werner and Doris Eckel, and as the name implies, the food and pastry here is largely German in origin too. Less than $5 buys you a hearty German meal--a huge bratwurst or Hungarian-style sausage served with hot German potato salad, red cabbage and sauerkraut. Doris Eckel also prepares hot soups daily, including an unctuous cream of potato and leek.

Eckel gets up at 3 a.m. to start his homemade breads, and his pastry selection is awesome: homemade apple strudel; pfeffernusse --those sugar-dusted German gingersnaps; rich chocolaty tortes filled with marzipan and fruits, and much more. The cafe also serves a mean cappuccino and has shelves stocked with imported German goodies. Wunderbar.


1) Heritage Hill Historical Park 25151 Serrano Road (714) 855-2028 Open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free

2) Black Forest Bakery and Cafe 21731 Lake Forest Drive (714) 768-6101 Open Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 7a.m. to noon.


* There is ample parking around Heritage Hill Historical Park and in the Ralph's Center.

* OCTA bus 75 (Santa Ana to Laguna Hills via Lake Forest Drive) stops at Lake Forest Drive and Serrano Road.

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