The ruins of the Trabuco Adobe, circa 1940 (courtesy the San Jacinto Museum).

The ruins of the Trabuco Adobe, circa 1940 (courtesy the San Jacinto Museum).

The Rancho Trabuco

The history of the Rancho Trabuco encapsulates much of the history of Southern Orange County, from Spanish explorers and missionaries to Mexican rancheros, Basque sheepherders, American cattlemen and farmers, military pilots, and modern community builders.

For most of its existence, the rancho has been combined with one or more of the adjoining ranchos, eventually becoming a part of the vast Rancho Santa Margarita, which once stretched from El Toro to Oceanside and included three former Mexican ranchos – the Trabuco, the Mission Viejo, and the Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

To avoid any confusion, it should be pointed out that our modern community names don’t actually line up with the old Mexican rancho boundaries. For instance, the City of Rancho Santa Margarita is not on the historic Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, and the City of Mission Viejo is not on the original Rancho Mission Viejo. Both are on the old Rancho Trabuco.

The actual Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores was what is now Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. After 1942 the Trabuco and the Mission Viejo were combined under the Mission Viejo name. It’s only in more recent years that the combined Trabuco and Mission Viejo ranchos have been generally known as the O’Neill Ranch.

Hopefully all this will become clear as this story unfolds.

 

A Lost Gun

Trabuco is one of the oldest place names in California. When the first Spanish overland expedition traveled north from San Diego in 1769, they camped along the banks of Trabuco Creek. The expedition’s priest and diarist, Father Juan Crespí, named the spot San Francisco Solano; but while they were camped there, one of the soldiers lost his gun – a smooth-bore blunderbuss known in Spanish as a trabuco. That incident gave Trabuco Creek its name.

For the Spanish, the principal tool of colonization in California were the Franciscan missions, designed not only to convert the Indians to Catholicism but to teach them Spanish-style civilization and make them good citizens of the Spanish crown. The seventh of this line was missions was founded in 1776 and dedicated to the honor of Saint John of Capistrano. Mission San Juan Capistrano grew to be one of the largest missions in California, with outposts spread out across the southern half of Orange County.

 

The Rancho Trabuco

Among the earliest outpost of Mission San Juan Capistrano was the Rancho Trabuco. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper believed the adobe outpost here may have been built as early as 1806; in any case, the rancho was well-established by 1818. We know this because in that same year a band of Southern American privateers raided the California Coast.

Captain Hipólito Bouchard and his men sailed from Buenos Aires, ordered by the revolutionary forces of the United Provinces of Río de la Plata to plunder Spanish shipping and attack Spanish settlements. That government commission made them privateers, not pirates – though the people they attacked might not have noticed the difference. After attacking Monterey and Santa Barbara (apparently seeking supplies as much as political conquest), Bouchard’s two ships sailed south in December 1818. At San Juan Capistrano the padres hastily moved the mission residents inland to the Rancho Trabuco, taking whatever valuables they could carry, including the gold and silver articles from the church. While they were away Bouchard’s men broke into the mission storerooms, but stole mostly wine and brandy. They seem to have burned a few Indian huts as well before setting sail the next day. The padres and their neophytes soon returned and things calmed down – but their brief flight to Trabuco would later lead to years of legends.

The Rancho Trabuco continued to contribute to the mission in various ways. Cattle, sheep, and horses were grazed on the Trabuco Mesa, and Trabuco Creek helped irrigate the mission farmlands below.

Located on a bench above the creek, the Trabuco Adobe was protected from all but the worst floods. A spring nearby provided drinking water. The adobe was originally just two rooms (one large, one small) with a red tile roof and perhaps tile floors as well. Outside, a covered walkway ran along the south side. At least in later years, pillars inside each room helped support the weight of the heavy tile roof. The adobe walls were about three feet thick, with only a few doors and windows.

The area around the Trabuco Adobe was used mostly as grazing land by the mission (horses, originally). Any large-scale farming was much further downstream. Other outlying ranches provided grazing for cattle and sheep. Isolated on a far frontier, the California missions had to largely self-supporting.

 

Secularization

The constant attacks against the Spanish Empire (not just by Bouchard, but throughout the New World) eventually won the Spanish colonies their freedom. In 1821 Mexico broke away from Spain, taking California with her.

For the California missions, the change of flags meant they could expect even less outside assistance. They would have to support themselves (Capistrano had a population of more than a thousand neophytes in the early 1820s), the soldiers, and their families as well. In the long run, it would also mean the destruction of the mission system.

The missions’ vast holdings helped to bring about their demise. Where the Spanish Crown saw the missions as a tool of colonization, the Mexican Government saw them as an impediment. Too much good land, they argued, was controlled by the missionaries and thus unavailable for settlers. And no one argued this louder than the Californio officials, who for years demanded the secularization of the missions. After a few false started, in 1834 the California mission lands were ordered taken from the missionaries. The padres were expected to remain and minister to the religious needs of the Indians, but the management of the missions was to be taken over by government-appointed administrators.

Now that the missionaries were out of the way, the Californios could achieve their real goal – taking possession of the missions’ lands and livestock. Where the Spanish Crown had held that all lands in California were the property of El Rey – the King – the Mexican Government had already enacted laws allowing the governors of its various states and territories to grant land (up to 48,000 acres, or 75 square miles) to any citizen of good standing who was ready and able to develop the area. Over the next dozen years, the old mission lands were whittled away bit by bit until there was nothing left, and some 800 land grants covered the California coast and inland valleys from San Diego to Shasta – more than a dozen in Orange County alone.

These Mexican ranchos would bring further change to the area and draw boundary lines that influence our development to this day.

 An early copy of the  diseño  (sketch map) of the Rancho Trabuco (from  The Branding Iron , June 1953).

An early copy of the diseño (sketch map) of the Rancho Trabuco (from The Branding Iron, June 1953).

The Rancho Era

In theory, the secularization of the California missions left the padres in charge of religious matters while government administrators were charged with supervising the operation of the mission ranchos and workshops. Both missionaries and administrators – in theory – were expected to look after the interests of the Indians, who were still to receive the benefits of their labor. As for the mission lands, they were eventually to be divided among the former neophytes, who had developed them by the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow for more than half a century.

But that wasn’t how it worked out.

The mission ranchos were just too much of a temptation for the Californios, and one by one they were taken away and granted to private individuals. And too often, first in line were the government administrators themselves.

Santiago Argüello was appointed administrator of the ex-mission San Juan Capistrano in 1838. He proved very unpopular with the neophytes, and his salary and the support of his large family (he had 22 children) was an added burden on the mission’s already declining resources. Many of the Indians fled. Argüello meanwhile moved his own cattle onto the Trabuco Mesa, pushing out the mission herds. Still not satisfied, Argüello then filed a formal petition with the governor, asking that Trabuco be taken from the mission and given to him. 

The governor quickly complied, provisionally allowing Argüello two square leagues (some 8,800 acres) in February 1841 and following up on July 31st with a formal grant.

Father José Maria Zalvidea, the old mission padre, protested to the governor. “The Indian community came and informed me that efforts had been made to deprive them of Trabuco, Mission Vieja, and Yuiguilli [Niguel],” he wrote. “If their land is taken from them, how will they maintain their few thousand cattle…?” The Indians had rights after all (he wrote), both under law, and under God, and the governor had an obligation to protect them.

Instead, that same summer, the governor dissolved the ex-mission San Juan Capistrano and converted the community into a pueblo, allowing the Indians a bit of land on the east side of the valley and granting the rest to various Californios.

Santiago Argüello had moved his cattle to the Rancho Trabuco by 1840, placing Belgian-born Agustín Janssens in charge. As with the missions, the Indians did most of the work as vaqueros (cowboys) and ranch hands. Only now the profits went to the rancheros.

The old Trabuco Adobe had already fallen on hard times. During Janssens’ tenure he had the building repaired and expanded, adding a third small room on the west end of the building, taking the adobe to roughly 70 feet long and 25 feet wide.

It seems unlikely that Santiago Argüello himself ever lived on the Rancho Trabuco, and after just three years he sold the rancho to an English-born immigrant, John Foster – or as he was known to his Spanish-speaking friends, Juan Forster. He would become the leading the figure in the story of southern Orange County for the next four decades.

Juan Forster was born in Liverpool in 1814 and came to Mexico as a teenager in 1831 where he had an uncle who ran a trading business. In 1833 he expanded his business into California, bringing his nephew with him. Juan Forster soon struck out on his own; he became a Mexican citizen and in 1837 married Ysidora Pico, a daughter of one of the most prominent families in Southern California. After running the port of San Pedro for a few years he set out to be a ranchero, beginning with his purchase of the Rancho Trabuco in 1844.

But that was only the beginning. That same year he expanded his operations to the adjoining Mission Viejo, which was granted by the governor to Agustín Olvera a year later. Forster immediately bought it. Then in 1846 he asked the governor to expand the Rancho Trabuco and was granted another three leagues – taking the rancho to more than 22,000 acres, located generally between Aliso Creek and Cañada Gobernadora, from today’s Trabuco Canyon Road down to about Crown Valley Parkway. Forster was also granted three small potreros (pastures) high up in the Santa Ana Mountains, allowing his cattle to roam even further.

Still expanding, in 1845 he and a partner (James McKinley, a Scottish-born trader) bought the Mission San Juan Capistrano at auction, and the mission buildings became the Forster family home for the next two decades, through the years of the Mexican War (1846-48), the discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill (1848), and California statehood (1850).

The 1850s were good years for Southern California’s rancheros – including Juan Forster. Hungry miners in the gold fields gobbled up Southern California’s cattle at unheard of prices. Where once hides and tallow sold for a few dollars to trading ships, now cattle were driven north to be sold as beef at $50, $60, and even $75 a head.

But statehood brought new challenges as well. The American government demanded the rancheros prove the ownership of their land – an expensive and time-consuming legal process – and there were now property taxes to be paid. The flush times simply could not last, and many rancheros began borrowing money (at ridiculously high interest rates) just to stay afloat. Then came the drought of 1863-64, when cattle died by the thousands. And in 1865, Mission San Juan Capistrano was returned to the Catholic Church on orders of the U.S. Government.

But Juan Forster managed to weather the storm, and even expand his empire. In 1864 he acquired the adjoining 131,600-acre Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in San Diego County from his brothers-in-law, Pío and Andres Pico, and moved to the old mission-era adobe at Santa Margarita (later the Base Commander’s residence for Camp Pendleton).

Pío Pico later claimed that he had only transferred half the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores to Forster, but in a famous trial, the courts ruled otherwise. Two books have been written about the case. Terry Stephenson’s Forster vs. Pico, A California Cause Celebre (1936), gives a general outline and points out some of the legal arguments the court relied upon. More recently, in Forster vs. Pico, The Struggle for the Rancho Santa Margarita (1998), attorney-historian Paul Gray argues that Pico’s claim was true but his case was badly handled, cheating the Pico brothers out of half the Santa Margarita. Others suggest that Forster actually saved the rancho for the family (including his Pico brothers-in-law) by taking control.

Juan Forster now owned more than 200,000 acres stretching in a solid swath from Oceanside to El Toro. The Rancho Trabuco was just one part of his vast operation – about ten percent of his holdings. In the 1860s it was used primarily for cattle grazing.

Like many rancheros, Forster had begun mortgaging his land in the 1850s, and lived most of the rest of his life in debt. He managed to hold on to the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, but at a heavy cost. In 1872 he lost the Ranchos Trabuco and Mission Viejo along with the mountain potreros to San Francisco banker F.L.A. Pioche. Also stressed by debt, Pioche committed suicide that same year, but his estate held on to the ranchos, renting much of the Trabuco out for sheep pasture.

By then, Juan Forster was growing old. He died in February 1882, leaving his wife and children tens of thousands of acres of prime ranch land, thousands of head of cattle, and an insurmountable debt. The Forster family had no choice but to sell the land.

The buyer was James Flood, a San Francisco millionaire who had made his fortune in Nevada’s Comstock silver boom. His ranch manager was a former San Francisco butcher turned ranchman, Richard O’Neill – a name we will hear more of very soon.

 

The Rancho Santa Margarita

It took Juan Forster twenty years to build his ranching empire; it only took James Flood just two years to buy it.

James C. Flood (1826-1889) was a former San Francisco saloon keeper who had come to California in the Gold Rush of 1849 but made his fortune in the Silver Boom in western Nevada in the 1850s – not as a miner, but as an investor. From mining investments he moved into banking, launching the Nevada Bank in San Francisco (named in honor of the source of his wealth), and then started investing in land up and down the state. His first major acquisition was a large cattle ranch near Chowchilla, in Central California, which he picked up on a mortgage owed to his bank. To manage the ranch, Flood hired an old acquaintance, Richard O’Neill.

Born in Ireland in 1825, O’Neill had moved as a child to Canada. By the time he was a teenager he was in Boston, where like everyone else he heard about the big gold strike in California in 1848, and like thousands of others followed the lure of easy wealth west, sailing around the Horn and arriving in San Francisco early in 1850.

A year or two of mining was enough to convince O’Neill it was time to find another line of work. Miners worked long hours, often standing in icy streams, shoveling tons of earth to pan out the tiniest particles of gold. Living conditions in the gold country were crude, and prices were astronomical. That gave Richard O’Neill a clue, and by 1853 he was running a butcher shop in San Francisco, which he grew into a large business. As a meat dealer, he would have met many of the big cattle ranchers up and down state. He came to know their ups and downs, and when some of them were being forced to sell out

O’Neill earned a reputation as a savvy businessman. He was remembered by one acquaintance as “silent, shrewd, persistent, decisive, with a keen, caustic wit, yet under all of it a kindly disposition.” Others remembered his rather colorful use of the language. “He used to cuss everybody,” one Oceanside old timer later recalled. “If you cussed him back, twice as hard, he was tickled to pieces because it happened so seldom.”

It was apparently O’Neill who alerted James Flood that the Forster heirs needed to sell out. Juan Forster’s death in 1882 had left them more than $200,000 in debt. Using Flood’s money, Richard O’Neill bought the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in his own name, but on that same day deeded it over to Flood.

The two men now made a remarkable business deal. O’Neill would run the ranch at a salary of $500 a month. But in addition, Flood would credit him half the profits from the ranch and that money would eventually allow him to “earn” a half-interest in the ranch. More amazing yet, the deal seems to have been made on a handshake, and only put in writing years later.

In 1884 Flood expanded his new ranch by purchasing the ranchos Trabuco, Mission Viejo, and the Potreros de San Juan Capistrano which Forster had lost to debt years before to F.L.A. Pioche. A man named George Grant acted as Flood’s agent on this sale, and then deeded the property to Flood’s son, James L. Flood. In all, Flood spent about $460,000 for the three large ranchos and the three small potreros. The combined spread was known as the Rancho Santa Margarita until the 1940s.

The ranchos Trabuco and the Mission Viejo were then being used for sheep ranching. Flood put cattle on the Mission Viejo, but kept sheep on Trabuco, which did not really have enough water for large numbers of cattle. Only in later years were wells put down on the Trabuco and some cattle grazed there.

 

Woolies

Sheep ranching was a big industry in California in the 1870s and ‘80s. The drought of the 1860s had decimated the cattle industry, while the Civil War raging in the East had cut off the Southern cotton supply. Together, this made sheep ranching an attractive proposition on the West Coast. Investors with names like Irvine, Bixby, and Moulton all got rich on sheep (even if most of them later switched to cattle).

Beginning in the 1870s, parts of the Rancho Trabuco were rented out by the Pioche estate to various sheep ranchers. As in other parts of California at the time, many of the ranchers and their herdsmen were Spanish-speaking Basques. Together, a group of them including Bernardo Erreca and the Orroqui brothers leased the Trabuco Mesa. They were joined in 1873 by Bernardo’s 19-year-old cousin, Miguel Erreca. Miguel Erreca eventually bought out the partners and leased the entire Rancho Trabuco, running some 20,000 head of sheep on the land.

Helen Hunt Jackson (best-known as the author of Ramona) toured Southern California in the early 1880s; while she did not visit the Trabuco, she noted in general that, “The sheep ranches are usually desolate places; a great stretch of seemingly bare lands, with a few fenced corrals, blackened and foul smelling; the home and out-buildings clustered together in a hollow or on a hill-side where there is water; the less human the neighborhood the better.” It made for a hard, lonely life for the herdsmen

The busiest time of year were the sheep shearings, held each spring. Jackson witnessed a shearing on the Rancho La Puente, just north of La Habra, in 1882:

“A shearing at a large sheep ranch is a grand sight…. A shed sixty feet long by twenty-five feet wide, sides open; small pens full of sheep surrounding it on three sides; eighty men bent over at every possible angle, eighty sheep being tightly held in every possible position, eighty shears flashing, glancing, clipping; bright Mexican eyes shining, laughing, Mexican voices jesting. At first, it seemed only a confused scene of phantasmagoria. As our eyes became familiarized, the confusion disentangled itself, and we could note the splendid forms of the men and their marvelous dexterity in using the shears. Less than five minutes it took from the time a sheep was grasped, dragged in, thrown down, seized by the shearer’s knees, till it was set free, clean shorn, and its three-pound fleece tossed on a table outside. A good shearer shears seventy or eighty sheep in a day; men of extra dexterity shear a hundred. The Indians are famous for skill at shearing, and in all their large villages are organized shearing bands, with captains, that go from ranch to ranch in the shearing season….

“A pay clerk stood in the center of the shed with a leathern wallet full of five-cent pieces. As soon as a man had sheared his sheep, he ran to the clerk, fleece in hand, threw down the fleece, and received his five-cent piece…. As fast as the fleeces were tossed out from the shed, they were thrown up to a man standing on the top of the roof. This man flung them into an enormous bale-sack, swinging wide-mouthed from a derrick; in the sack stood another man, who jumped on the wool to pack it down tight….

“The faces of the sheep being shorn were piteous; not a struggle, not a bleat, the whole of their unwillingness and terror being written in their upturned eyes. ‘As a sheep before her shearers is dumb’ will always have for me a new significance.”

Some 3,000 sheep were sheared that day. Jackson was told it cost about $1.25 a year to care for each sheep, with wool selling for $1.50 a fleece. In addition, a hundred sheep on average would give birth to about 45 lambs a year, which could be sold for 75 cents apiece.

In the 1870s, ranchers in southern Orange County shipped most of their wool from Newport Bay. There was little market for mutton in Southern California then, Miguel Erreca recalled, so every other year he would drive sheep north for sale in San Francisco, taking herds of about 2,500 each and spending about three months on the roundtrip. Later ranchers would ship sheep and wool by rail, driving them only as far as the Santa Fe depots at El Toro, Capistrano, and Irvine.

Around 1880 Miguel Erreca was offered the chance to buy the entire Rancho Trabuco for $4 an acre and even had a Los Angeles banker ready to loan him the money; but he hesitated, and decided not to risk it – which he always considered the biggest mistake of his life. A few years later the rancho was sold to James Flood, and Erreca lost his lease.

In the 1890s, Domingo Oyharzabal, one of San Juan Capistrano’s most prominent Basque ranchers, leased the Trabuco for sheep, with Bautista Duhart as his partner. Duhart and his family took up residence in the old Trabuco Adobe, the last family to live there. Around 1900 a fire gutted the historic adobe, the roof collapsed, and the walls began to melt back into the soil from which they came.

 

Three Keys to Nothing

Buried treasure stories and old adobe ruins just seem to go together, and almost every historic adobe in Orange County (even the mission itself) was dug up by treasure hunters at one time or another. The old Trabuco Adobe had the added allure of having been the hiding place of the padres (and their valuables) during the Bouchard raid in 1818. Surely there must be lost treasure buried there!

(How the padres could have forgotten where they had buried things over the course of just a few weeks is a question the treasure hunters never seem to have asked themselves.)

By 1877 – if not before – the treasure hunters were already at work on the Rancho Trabuco, seeking “a number of boxes” of coins, buried “many hundred years ago, during one of the revolutions.” One group of Mexican hopefuls dug down more than 40 feet that year. They were sure they were getting close when one of them claimed to have found hair from one of the padres who had been buried alive when one of the original pits caved in and the others had ‘abandoned him to his fate.’ The excitement grew, along with the estimates of the treasure (some three to ten million dollars’ worth) as scores of men headed out with shovels to try their luck. But luck failed them all.

Such failures did not deter later searchers, who returned every few years to dig more holes. Over the decades the stories became more detailed – and more numerous. Some said there was a box hidden in the roots of a certain sycamore tree that held a map to the treasure. Or maybe the tree was marked with a cross. In another version, two padres divided the map, each taking half. Others said mysterious “tongues of flame” danced through the Trabuco Adobe at night to mark the spot, “as they are said to do above buried gold.”

But the most enduring story told of three keys that would lead to the treasure, tied to a tree near the Trabuco Adobe. Rupert Serrano, the son of the grantee of the adjoining Rancho Cañada de los Alisos, claimed to have found the keys back in the 1860s, but always refused to reveal the location of the tree. He wanted the gold for himself. But he never found it.

“It’s always the same old story,” scoffed Billy Magee, the O’Neill’s ranch foreman, “– ancient keys hung in a sycamore and a mysterious map found in the possession of an old Mexican. The Mexican must be old or the story won’t go.” He threw a number of treasure hunters off the ranch over the years, each armed with their own set of keys. As late as the 1960s, a prominent former county official claimed to have a key and secured permission to search with a metal detector. But only on the condition the ranch would get their share of what he found. Which was nothing.

Serrano’s keys passed from hand to hand after his death and were still making the rounds as late as the 1980s. Blasted hopes and old wives tales aside, the legend of the lost treasure of Trabuco lives on; in fact, the mythical three keys are even included on the Rancho Santa Margarita city seal!

 

Farming the Trabuco Mesa

The sheep business was on the decline in Southern California by the 1890s, but the region’s expanding population meant there was a growing market for farm crops. So in 1893 the Flood interests leased out the Trabuco Mesa – some 3,000 acres of rolling grasslands between the Trabuco Creek and Tijeras Creek – for dry farming. Ben Kohlmeier got the lease and farmed there for the next decade.

The soil proved to be very rocky, and the lack of roads made it difficult to haul farm equipment up onto the Mesa. But he made it work. In 1898 Kohlmeier harvested over 12,000 sacks of barley along with a “considerable quantity of oats and several hundred tons of hay.” By 1902 he and partner Henry Hassheider bagged 13,000 sacks of wheat and 8,000 sacks of barley, “which is perhaps the best showing that will be made on any grain land in this county this year.”

Kohlmeier established his headquarters along Trabuco Creek, just outside the original boundaries of O’Neill Park. From there, a rough road climbed a small canyon up onto the Mesa, much as the park road to the Mesa Day Use area does today. Estelle Carle, who taught school at Trabuco in 1897, recalled: “Ben Kohlmeier built a shack of a house with four rooms and a long cook house with a kitchen in the middle, small dining room at one end and a larger room at the other for the ranch hands. This was the only structure, save the bunkhouse and a large barn.”

There were no wells on the Trabuco Mesa in those days, so Kohlmeier had to rely on dry farming. “Dry farming is a form of gambling,” El Toro’s first historian, Clara Mason Fox, explained in the 1930s, “somewhat like mining, but entailing a heavier investment.” Besides equipment (including plows, harrows, seeders, wagons, and a harvester), a large scale dry farmer like Kohlmeier would need about two dozen horses and mules – “quite an investment,” Fox noted.

“Then there was help to be hired,” she continued, “three men to drive the plow teams, a roustabout, who was usually a blacksmith as well as general utility man; and a cook to prepare the food.” In fact, until the 1920s, farming on the Mesa was probably the biggest local employer in the Trabuco country. And all those men had to be fed.

“This last was no small job in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Fox observed. A chuck wagon followed the crews day by day.

“Each meal was hardy; there would be bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, hot biscuits, with plenty of coffee, for breakfast; meat, potatoes, a vegetable, pie and coffee for ‘dinner;’ (one never had luncheon at noon); and the same for ‘supper,’ plenty of it! And often sandwiches were sent to men, when there were long hours between meals. Breakfast was before six, dinner about noon, and supper at all hours. The cook put in a long, strenuous day.”

“Plowing was started about the first of November and was usually finished by the first of February,” Fox explained.

“Men were out of the bunk house by four o’clock in the morning, each man tending and harnessing his own six horses or mules. Breakfast came then, and the men were out in the fields, their stock hitched to the plow by the time it was light enough to see the furrow. At noon the horses were taken from the plow, watered at the water wagon drawn to a convenient spot, and usually fed grain, occasionally hay. A wagon from camp brought the hot dinner. Table and benches were unloaded, a shade rigged from the wagon with canvas, and the men sat at ease to eat. Plowing resumed, to continue to late dusk. Unhitched from the plows, each man took his team to camp, unharnessing, feeding, and currying them before going to supper.”   

“All this for from $18 to $20 a month,” plus room and board – a fair wage in the 1890s. But plowing and planting were just the start.          

“Cutting of the grain for hay started about the first of May. To run a hay-baler, six head of horses or mules were required, teams working in relays, on the round and round. These were usually driven by a boy, and five men did the baling – two pitchers, a feeder, a roustabout, and the man who tied the wires. At first tents were set up for the cooks, but soon cook-wagons came into use. The roustabout was usually the chef.

“When the grain ripened, the heading and stacking began. The header was pulled by six horses, and was served usually by three wagons, each drawn by four horses, which transported the grain to stacks spaced apart so that three wagons could unload and get back to the machine in turn. A net-boy at the stack with a team unloaded the wagons…. This work usually started in the early part of June and lasted until the middle of August or later.          

“Threshing machines were driven by stationary steam-engines which burned straw for fuel, and were operated by about sixteen men. There was an engineer who received four or five dollars a day, a separator-man at five dollars, two sack-sewers at two dollars each, a tender, an oiler, four or six hoe-downs and straw tender, each getting a dollar and a half; and a roustabout and a water-buck who received two dollars. Besides the engine and thresher, the equipment included water wagons, feed racks and a cook wagon….          

“When harvesting was done, men and stock were busy taking the grain to the warehouse. Two wagons were pulled by eight horses. They were on the road by six o’clock. From outlying leases, like the Trabuco Mesa, but one trip a day could be made.”

At the height of the harvest twenty or thirty wagons might be lined up alongside the warehouses at El Toro. The tall stacks of grain sacks inside had to be carefully cross-stacked so they would not topple over. Later they would be loaded into railroad cars and shipped throughout the state. Farmers from the Santa Margarita, the Niguel, the Aliso, and the Irvine ranches all shipped from the little station.

“El Toro was a busy place in those days,” Fox recalled,

“the warehouse was enlarged and was open long hours, receiving and handling the grain. With so many horses and mules to be shod, wagons and machinery to be repaired the blacksmith shop was crowded with work, and since towns were a long way off, when driving a team, all men were boarded where they worked, and the local store had a great trade. Grain raising was at its height about 1895.”

Up on Trabuco Mesa, Ben Kohlmeier began enlarging his operation in the later 1890s.          

“Kohlmeier used forty-five head of stock, an equal number of horses and mules. He operated five plows, using eight head, four abreast; he had two wide harrows, two drills and ten wagons. There were five men employed for the plowing, a blacksmith worked at that alone, his shop being just on the edge of the mesa; and a roustabout, who cleaned stables, got wood for the cook, milked the cows, and carried meals to the mesa for the men at work. Wages by now had risen to thirty dollars a month.          

“Harvesters soon came into use where lands were sufficiently level to make them practical. These were pulled by thirty-two or thirty-six head, guided by drivers sitting on a framework high above the horses. There was needed a separator man, header man, sack sewer and sack tender. The harvester was followed by two feed racks, the water wagon having been taken out in the morning by the driver with his team. A wagon pulled by eight head picked up the sacks of grain dropped behind the machine.”          

 Sleeper & Waller's harvesting rig on the Trabuco Mesa, circa 1909.

Sleeper & Waller's harvesting rig on the Trabuco Mesa, circa 1909.

“Big Jim” Sleeper

Kohlmeier and Hassheider sold out at the end of 1903 to James Sleeper and Cood Adams. “Big Jim” Sleeper (the historian’s grandfather) had been farming on the Irvine Ranch for 15 years, so he knew a thing or two about dry farming – and the life of a tenant farmer. He and Adams had to sign a detailed contract with the Rancho Santa Margarita, spelling out the terms of their lease. For starters, they owed the ranch a quarter of all the crops they harvested.

Sleeper and Adams’ lease for 1907-08 covered some 3,000 acres on the Trabuco Mesa. In it, they promised to work the land “in a farmer-like manner,” paying all expenses for planting and harvesting, and had to haul the ranch’s share to the railroad station at El Toro. The ranch manager or his representative (by then, Jerome O’Neill, acting on behalf of his aging father) had the right to inspect the operation at any time, and always had someone there during the harvest, “in order that no difficulty may arise as to the correctness of the count, or division of sacks or of crop” – and “no second-hand sacks shall be used.” And when the harvest was done, the ranch had the right to graze their cattle on the stubble.

Sleeper and Adams grew mostly wheat and barley, along with black beans, and hay to feed their livestock. In 1906 they harvested 6,000 sacks of wheat and 10,000 sacks of barley. But by then the Mesa was beginning to show the effects of a dozen years of continuous farming and production began to drop as the fertility of the soil diminished. Over the next few years, the partners would leave some of the land unplanted, letting it lay fallow over the summer to refresh itself. To make up the difference, they expanded their lease to take in upper Gobernadora Canyon – though the steep hillsides there were harder to cultivate.

In 1908 Sleeper bought out Cood Adams and continued lease farming on his own. Soon after, he built a home down among the sycamore trees along Trabuco Creek, near Kohlmeier’s headquarters, near today’s “Featherly Sycamore” in O’Neill Park. The Santa Ana Register described it as an “eight room bungalow.” Sleeper’s grandson (with pardonable pride) noted that it was, “scarcely a ‘bungalow,’ this was a two story house of substantial proportions, certainly the largest house on the ranch, and probably in the Santa Anas, barring Modjeska’s in upper Santiago Canyon.” The house was still standing when young Jim Sleeper visited the area in the mid-1940s, and probably did not come down until after the park was acquired by the county. Sleeper remembered it painted dark barn red, with a tiny fireplace in living room, “dark, but rather large rooms – typical ranch house style.” Nearby were the “barn, stables, bunk house and mess hall – all whitewashed.”

But the elder Sleeper and his family only lived there a year or two. In January 1911, Big Jim Sleeper was appointed County Assessor, and moved to Santa Ana at the end of summer in time for his children to start school there. He would spend the next 33 years in county office.

To keep up his farming operation, in 1912 Sleeper took on a new partner, William Waller, who moved into the Sleeper “bungalow” along the Trabuco and looked after the day-to-day operations. America’s entry into World War I (1917) brought an increased demand for farm products, and Sleeper and Waller planted their biggest wheat crop ever in 1918, with the U.S. Government agreeing in advance to buy the entire crop at a good price. They harvested more than two million pounds of wheat that next summer, along with 8,000 sacks of barley.

But 1919 was Sleeper’s last hurrah after more than 30 years as an Orange County farmer. At the end of the harvest that September, he sold out to “Billy” Waller, who took over the lease and continued farming on the Trabuco Mesa and in Gobernadora Canyon even as agricultural prices fell after the war. In fact, by the mid-1920s he was the largest lease farmer on the Orange County end of the Rancho Santa Margarita, with Milo Stevens over in the Oso Canyon running second. Waller finally gave up on the Mesa around 1927 and moved his farming operations over to Aliso Canyon, where he lived in the James McFadden ranch house (now owned by OC Parks).

The Trabuco Mesa was left largely unfarmed during the next few years. In 1928, soon after Waller moved off Mesa, scenes for the film “Lilac Time” was shot there. This was a WWI romance set in France and starring Colleen Moore and a young Gary Cooper. A French village set was built on the Robinson Ranch and dogfight scenes filmed over the Mesa, with glimpses of Old Saddleback in the background. (You can watch the entire film on Youtube.)

Bootleggers also occasionally used Trabuco Mesa as a landing field for planes carrying illegal liquor, which was hidden in the brush for later pick up and distribution to speakeasies around Southern California.

Sometime around 1940, James Stone got a new lease on the Mesa and farmed there until 1944, when he was forced out by the Marine Corps.

 

Changing Times

As the years went by, the ownership and management of the Rancho Santa Margarita flowed from one generation to the next. When James Flood died in 1889 ownership of the ranch passed to his wife and children. Later everything was put in the name of his son, James L. Flood. Richard O’Neill remained in charge through all these changes. In December 1906, after nearly 25 years of work, he finally “earned” his half-interest in the ranch.

By then, Richard O’Neill was nearing the end. As his father aged (and lost his eyesight), his son Jerome took over more and more of the operations of the huge ranch. He had been by his side since the 1880s, living and working on the ranch. Polio had left him with a withered leg, but he rode well and understood ranching. Generous (like his father), Jerome O’Neill was remembered as a serious man, who expected a straight answer to any question. When Richard O’Neill Sr. died in May 1910, he followed his father as ranch manager.

The O’Neill’s half-interest in the ranch was placed in Jerome’s name. His brother, Richard O’Neill, Jr., had no interest in ranching; he lived in San Francisco where he enjoyed city life. Some of the Spanish-speaking vaqueros on the ranch called him “Flojo,” (lazy) – only behind his back, of course – but he was a whiz with figures and always fun to have around. He had married Marguerite (“Daisy”) Moore, a Sepulveda descendant, in 1916, after a 15-year courtship. She would become a major figure in the ranch’s later years. Jerome and Richard’s sister, Mary (“Minnie”) O’Neill, married rancher John J. Baumgartner, adding another branch to the family tree.

As the second generation of the Flood and O’Neill families grew older, certain legal steps were taken to help preserve the vast ranch. In 1923 the Rancho Santa Margarita Corporation was formed, covering all three ranchos and the potreros. The corporation was controlled by James L. Flood and Jerome O’Neill until their deaths (just two days apart) in 1926. Since he had no children, Jerome O’Neill’s stock was divided between his brother, Richard O’Neill, Jr., and his sister, Mary Baumgartner, but was controlled by a trust Jerome had established. Hired managers would run the ranch from now on, with the Los Angeles bank that controlled the O’Neill trust making more and more of the decisions.

After 15 years, the various branches of the two families finally decided to go their separate ways. In December 1941 they announced a three-way split of the ranch. The Flood heirs took the southern half of the ranch. The Baumgartners took the next quarter, up to the San Diego County line (largely in the San Mateo/San Onofre country). The O’Neills got the Orange County end of the property – some 55,000 acres, including both the Rancho Trabuco and the Mission Viejo, but henceforth known as simply the Rancho Mission Viejo. The Baumgartners’ share was good ranchland, with several miles of coastline that might be developed for resorts and recreation. The O’Neill property included some of the best farmland on the ranch, which could be rented out to tenant farmers to continue to provide income for the family. But the Floods were looking to sell out – and they soon found a buyer.

World War II had already begun in Europe, and the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into the war just days before the three-way split of the ranch. Now the U.S. Marine Corps was looking for a major West Coast training base, and they found it on the Rancho Santa Margarita.

In March 1942, the Marines occupied the San Diego County portion of the old rancho – some 125,000 acres. There is some indication the Baumgartners were not eager to sell, but the Federal government condemned the land, paying the Floods and Baumgartners a little over $4,200,000. The Floods retired from ranching. The Baumgartners shifted their operations to Central California where they continued in the cattle business for decades.

The Marines dubbed the new training base Camp Pendleton, in honor of General Joseph Pendleton, a prominent West Coast Marine commander who had recently passed away. The base was officially dedicated in September 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived by rail by way of San Juan Capistrano. The historic Santa Margarita adobe became the home of the base commander and Camp Pendleton remains an important part of Marine Corps training operations to this day.

But Camp Pendleton was not the only military use of the old ranch. In 1943 the Marines also took over the lower end of the Trabuco Mesa as a practice bombing range for planes from their new El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to the north. The move was not officially announced until March 1944, but such things were common during the war.

The creation of the Trabuco bombing range marked the end of half a century of tenant farming on the mesa. Now, outlines of Japanese warships and aircraft were drawn with white lime on the ground and fighter planes swooped in, dropping practice bombs that let out a puff of white smoke when they detonated, so pilots and ground observers could see the “hit.” Other pilots staged fake “dog fights” in the air above the mesa. But there was a price to be paid. There were a number of fatal crashes over the years, and the practice bombs sometimes set off wildfires.

The Trabuco bombing range remained in use until at least 1955. The transition to jet fighter planes required larger areas for practice flights, such as San Clemente Island. Though no large bombs were ever used on the mesa, small smoke bombs and plenty of shrapnel remained scattered over the mesa for many years until it was finally cleaned out by the military during the development of Rancho Santa Margarita.

Most of the remainder of the Rancho Trabuco (and the Mission Viejo) continued to be farmed and grazed on into the 1960s. When Richard O’Neill, Jr. died in 1943, ownership passed to his widow Daisy and their children, Richard (Dick) and Alice, though ranch operations were still controlled by the trust.

Relations between the O’Neill heirs and the trust were often shaky. Daisy O’Neill was especially unhappy with the bank’s management of the ranch, and her son Richard later complained that the bank officials were too conservative in running ranch and didn’t take advantage of good years to expand cattle operations – and the family’s profits. At least twice, it seems, the ranch was almost sold. Daisy O’Neill later claimed that James Irvine had tried to buy it as early as 1944 to add to his vast empire. Yet through it all, the trust remained in force until Daisy’s death in 1981 at the remarkable age of 101. Two years later, the bulk of the remaining family holdings passed to the new Santa Margarita Company.

 

Suburbia Closes In

The O’Neill Trust’s hold on the Rancho Mission Viejo (including the Rancho Trabuco) began to diminish in the 1960s. Richard O’Neill and his sister, Alice Avery, got control of their shares and in 1963 partnered with outside investors to form the Mission Viejo Company, which acquired 10,000 acres from the trust. In 1966 the first homes in the new master planned community of Mission Viejo went on sale and within three years the population had topped 10,000.

On the east side of the ranch, the Macco Corporation announced plans for a private riding and hunting club in 1969, which they dubbed Coto de Caza. Residential development began in earnest in the 1990s, and the modern community of Coto de Caza now covers parts of both the Rancho Trabuco and the adjoining Mission Viejo.

In 1982, the agricultural preserve on the Trabuco Mesa was cancelled and plans were made to develop the property. In 1983 the family formed the Santa Margarita Company, with Alice O’Neill’s oldest son, Tony Mosio, taking the lead in the planning effort. Construction on a complete, master planned community on the Mesa began in 1985 and in May, a groundbreaking marked the official birth of Santa Margarita.

But there was a problem. It turned out there was already a Santa Margarita, California up in San Luis Obispo County; and not surprisingly, they objected to the new town taking their name. After a little confusion and complaints, Orange County’s Santa Margarita was reluctantly renamed Rancho Santa Margarita. The first residents arrived in 1986 and the city incorporated in 2000.

South of Rancho Santa Margarita, plans for the community of Las Flores were announced in 1990, though home construction did not begin until the mid-90s. Even further south, the Santa Margarita Company also developed Ladera Ranch, a portion of which is on the old Rancho Trabuco.

Year by year, the old ranch lands disappeared under a sea of housing and commercial construction. But there was a bright side to all this development. The county demanded a certain amount of “open space” to accompany each new community. This created several new county parks (such as Wagon Wheel – now Riley Wilderness Park) and added thousands of acres to the existing O’Neill Park.

The O’Neill family had originally given the county 270 acres along the north side of Trabuco Creek in 1948 to create O’Neill Regional Park. Several additions followed, including the Arroyo Trabuco section in 1982 (which includes the ruins of the old Trabuco Adobe), though various issues delayed its opening until 1995.

The transition of the Rancho Trabuco from grazing land to modern community is now almost complete. The surviving open space and parklands give us only a glimpse of the area as the padres and rancheros first knew it, but they are places well worth visiting.

 Rancho Santa Margarita Civic Plaza, 2018.

Rancho Santa Margarita Civic Plaza, 2018.