A Village Romance: San Juan Capistrano Offers a Window to California's Storied Past

Article excerpt

Throughout California, only a handful of monuments or markers link us to our earliest settlements. The town of San Juan Capistrano is an exception, however. For it is not one building, not even the bougainvillea covered chapel and ruins of the beautiful mission (founded in 1776 and battered by earthquakes since 1812) that remind visitors of California's past. It is the presence of more than twenty-three buildings throughout the town, an intact Santa Fe railroad depot, and an entire residential district--Los Rios--that have all attained historical landmark status. A slice of Old California remains, authentic and welcoming.

With his snow-white beard, straw-brimmed hat, and tropical colored shirt, Tony Forster looks like a southern California Santa Claus. He is president of San Juan Capistrano's Historical Society, a position he's held for fifteen years, and his family tree is deeply intertwined with the town's history. Forster's great, great grandfather, Don Juan Forster, purchased the mission from Mexican Governor Pio Pico in 1845 for $710 in hides and tallow. (Mexico seized ownership of the missions following independence from Spain in 1821. They were returned to church ownership by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.) Today, the mission is open to the public daily from 8:30 am to 5 pm for either self-guided or docent-led tours.

Docents from the historical society conduct walking tours every Sunday at 1 pm, but Forster graciously leads me on a private tour around town. For Forster, every building has a story, and he often refers to homes by the name of their first or second owner dating back more than a hundred years rather than by the street number nailed near the front door.

Los Rios District, a forty-acre expanse bordered by the railroad tracks and Trabuco Creek, is California's oldest residential neighborhood. "When the mission was under construction, many of the Acjachemen Indian neophytes would intermarry with the Mexican laborers coming up to work on the church," says Forster. "The padres gave them permission to build homes outside the mission walls."

Three of the forty-two room, dirt-floor adobe homes built in the 1790s are still here. The Montanez Adobe is open to the public as a museum run by the historical society. The Silvas Adobe is a private residence, as is the Rios Adobe. But Steve Rios, attorney-at-law, can often be found greeting the public, as his home has the unique distinction of being continuously occupied by members of the Rios family for eleven generations, dating back to 1794 when Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier, built the adobe for his new wife and family. No other family home in the state can claim such continuous residence. And the district's main street, once named Occidental, was renamed Los Rios sometime in the 1900s in honor of its most loyal resident family. …