Sites and Parks That Feature the OC’s Yesteryears
range County is famous for its sunshine and beaches, but we all know it’s so much more than that. We have delicious eateries, booming shopping centers and some pretty incredible amusement parks. As locals, we are so lucky. We can take a morning hike in the canyon, grab lunch by the beach, then enjoy the fireworks at Disneyland all in one day. But with all our hectic schedules, it’s hard to say if you’ve ever wondered how everything got here. Luckily for us, there are parks and sites that are brimming with answers about historic Orange County, and they’re just waiting for you to ask the questions.
The History of California (Late 18th to Early 19th Century)
This field trip isn’t just for middle school! A trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano is a great way for the entire family to soak in some history. There’s something for everyone: the architect, the archaeologist and even the birdwatcher.
The story of the Mission begins in 1775 with Father Lasuen as the original founder. However, shortly after their arrival, the padres and soldiers heard about a revolt in San Diego, so they sent aid south. After San Diego reached resolve, Saint Serra re-founded the mission in November 1776.
The Mission’s objective was to spread Christianity and expand Spain’s territorial boundaries. Their methods included converting the Native Californians and introducing them to Christian-European customs. By 1806, Mission San Juan Capistrano completed the Great Stone Church. It was a home to over 1,000 people. But by 1812, the population faced decline because of disease. Then the church began to fall apart due to an earthquake and inadequate funding from Spain. It continued to decline after Mexico gained the territory, up until California became a state. Preservation efforts took place from the 1910s to 1940s, and has since been an important site for Catholics and historians alike in Southern California.
Today it has exhibits and tours that allow visitors to see the remodeled church and explore late 18th to early 19th century mission life. Another specialty of Mission San Juan Capistrano is its annual migratory visitor. Every March 19th, swallows migrate from Argentina to Capistrano, but recent urbanization hasn’t been too friendly to the birds’ nesting patterns. Luckily, efforts to make the Mission a safe place for the swallows to nest are showing promise.
The Life of Orange County Pioneers
Every OC local should take a day to explore Heritage Hill Park in Lake Forest. Even though it has changed hands in ownership a few times over the years, the preservation of the park and its buildings has been a priority.
A wonderful thing about this park is that it offers information on some of its first inhabitants. The first archaeological evidence of humans at Heritage Hill is a grindstone used by Native Americans circa 4000 BCE. In 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola came across 50 Native American villages in what is now known as Orange County. In case it’s a little tough to visualize what that would look like, the park offers life-size replicas of these villages.
Fast-forward to 1842. Don Jose Serrano petitioned the governor of Mexico for land. He obtained Rancho Canada de Los Alisos, an old rancheria that belonged to Mission San Juan Capistrano. By 1846, he increased his land size to 10,688 acres, and in 1863, built the Serrano Adobe. The Serrano Adobe is the oldest surviving house in Saddleback Valley and serves as a well-kept reminder of early rancho life. The 1860s to 1880s brought hardship for the ranch as severe drought killed off all the cattle. After Don Jose’s death in 1870, Don Jose’s widow portioned the land and sold it to their sons and relatives.
Since then, the owners have sold, purchased and resold the land a handful of times. Finally, in 1976, Orange County registered the Serrano Adobe as a historic site, and in May of 1982 Heritage Hill Historical Park opened. Since then, the park has hosted numerous family picnics, historical reenactments and even weddings to its visitors.
Orange County’s First Celebrity Encounter
Helena Modjeska was a famous as a Polish actress who graced stages worldwide. But she also has ties to Orange County. From 1888 to 1906, Modjeska and her husband, Charles Bozenta Chlaplowski, called Arden home. The couple and their friends moved to Anaheim in 1876 to form a Polish agricultural colony. Despite the colony becoming a financial failure, Modjeska earned success in American show business. For the next twenty years Modjeska and her husband toured nationally and internationally for her career, and lived in Arden in the off-season.
Arden was eventually sold in 1923 to the Walker Family of Long Beach who used it as a vacation home. The Walkers carefully preserved the history of the house for sixty-three years until they sold it to the County of Orange with the intent of it becoming a park.