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Lake Forest : Historical Restoration Is Celebrated at Park

Wearing period costumes as they strolled past antique cars and century-old steam and gasoline engines, Saddleback Valley residents who have been working for 10 years to preserve a bit of the past celebrated the completion of their job with daylong dedication festivities Saturday at the Heritage Hill Historical Park.

The park, tucked behind a neighborhood shopping plaza in Lake Forest, amid the urban sprawl of apartment buildings and office structures, contains four buildings that remind visitors of a time when the valley--and the rest of Orange County, for that matter--was mostly pasturelands and citrus groves.

“We’ve got Spanish-style buildings and ones marking the English settlement,” said Ray Prothero Jr. of El Toro, a past president of the Saddleback Valley Historical Society. “We’ve got residents’ homes, and religion and education also are represented.”

The diversity represents a new concept.

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“This is the only historical park in the county, and it gives visitors a chronological history of the valley,” said Dave Lennox, a ranger with the county’s Harbors, Beaches and Parks Facilities.

“We worked hard for this,” said Nikki Fannon of Mission Viejo, who has been the society’s president three times.

She had first suggested that the society acquire the schoolhouse, which was built in 1890. She later led the efforts to save the 1891 St. George Episcopal Church and the 1908 Harvey Bennett Ranch House.

All three structures were moved in the 1970s to Heritage Hill, which opened in 1981 on 3 1/2 acres of Don Jose Serrano’s 10,688-acre Rancho Canada de los Alisos of the mid-19th Century.

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The Serrano adobe sits on top of a knoll shaded by pepper trees almost as old as the structure itself. Recent research, Lennox said, indicates that the adobe was built in 1863 by the rancher’s oldest son, Cornelio, but was used by the don’s widow, Petra Avila Serrano, after he died. The main adobe and three others were destroyed long ago, he said.

The schoolhouse and the church had deteriorated so much that county officials doubted that the public could ever enter the buildings. But the local historical society and other Saddleback Valley civic groups collected the needed funds to repair the two structures in time for the 1981 opening, said Fannon and Prothero.

The St. George Episcopal Church was originally located on Whisler Drive in El Toro and was used as a house of worship for English settlers recruited to El Toro by Dwight Whiting, who took over the Serrano ranch in 1883, to become “gentlemen fruit farmers.”

The Bennett House was off-limits to the public until last May, when restoration was completed. Built by El Toro orange grower Charles F. Bennett for a live-in caretaker, the 1 1/2-story house with its gracefully curved roofline became instead the home for Bennett’s son, Harvey, who managed an expanding citrus farming operation for his ill father and raised his family there.

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