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A Visit to California’s Past in San Juan Bautista

<i> Garner is a Mountain View, Calif., free-lance writer. </i>

A high-pitched scream cut through the quiet air, followed by the thunderous sound of high heels pounding a wooden floor. Lively music blares, and through an open doorway you see quick flashes of energetic cancan dancers in a whirlwind of ribbons, ruffles and petticoats.

The “Butterfly Bloomers” are on stage at the Plaza Hotel Barroom.

Sound like a scene out of the Old West? It is. “Living History Days” recaptures the zest of California in the 1800s the first Saturday of every month at San Juan Bautista, a small, normally peaceful California town in the foothills of the Gavilan Mountains 90 miles south of San Francisco.

The site of Mission San Juan Bautista, 15th in a chain of 21 California missions that stretches from San Diego to north of San Francisco, San Juan was a large community in the 1860s.

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Cultural Center

“San Juan,” recalls Carla Hendershot, one of the founders of the San Juan Bautista State Park Volunteer Assn., “was the largest city in the central coastal region . . . even at one time larger than San Jose, 48 miles to the north. This was the cultural and business center of the area, and the population of San Juan Bautista was around 3,000.”

Today the population is a scant 1,400. What was once an important stagecoach stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco has become a community focused on agriculture and tourism.

The town populace increases, however, the first Saturday of each month when residents and history buffs from the surrounding area dress up in period costumes to revive customs and re-create events from California’s past.

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This monthly “Living History Days” observance was launched by 25-30 members of the San Juan Bautista State Park Volunteer Assn. They live in San Juan and neighboring towns and share a keen interest in California history, and they work to keep those days alive for today’s travelers.

The theme for the special Saturdays varies from month to month. One time the emphasis might be on local elections, with soldiers stationed at the polling place to make sure no one stuffs the ballot box and that women didn’t try to vote.

Monthly Events

The next month might see members of the Women’s Temperance League, protesting public drunkenness, march through town and close down the bars. Still another Saturday could feature the saga of the war widow and her children, evicted from their cabin for non-payment of rent and led off to the jail house by the sheriff.

In addition to the special events, many activities associated with California’s frontier life are repeated each month. These range from candle making, bread baking and croquet games on the plaza green to saber drills and military formations, cycling on antique high-wheelers and games of chance at the corner saloon.

“Living History Days,” explains Florence Carlon, a resident of San Juan Bautista whose family has lived in the area for more than 50 years, “is a time to show people throughout California, as well as out-of-state visitors, what life was like here in the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s.” Carlon is one of several “costume ladies” whose hobby is researching and re-creating fashions worn by Californians in the 1800s.

“Most park volunteers,” says Carlon, “make their own costumes or wear original pieces of antique clothing handed down by previous generations. We occasionally hold workshops to familiarize newcomers with early California styles, types of fabrics used and the historic patterns available from museums and companies that specialize in nostalgia.

“The Park Volunteer Assn. also maintains a clothing wardrobe from which members can check out costumes for a Saturday celebration.”

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Cavalry March at Noon

Festivities usually begin at noon when a group of uniformed cavalry soldiers from Company E (stationed in San Juan during the Civil War) march along 2nd Street to the Plaza Hotel and raise the flag. The hotel, one of four restored buildings that compose San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, was a barracks for Spanish soldiers in 1813.

The building opened as a hotel in 1858 and operated until 1933 with many celebrated guests, including Gen. William T. Sherman of Civil War fame. Some of the rooms have been furnished in 1860s style and a corner barroom, with its original wooden bar, occupies one end of the building.

The hotel barroom is the liveliest spot in town, a gathering place where “Living History Days” celebrants can sit in on a hand of poker, imbibe their favorite libation or clap their hands, stamp their feet and whistle at the “Butterfly Bloomers.”

The “Bloomers,” a troupe of eight high-kicking cancan dancers wearing the traditional cotton bloomers under ruffled dresses in bright red, yellow, green, blue and purple, demonstrate an energy that makes them the runaway favorites of this monthly event.

On the south side of the Plaza Hotel is the Castro-Breen House which, with its red-tile roof and second-story balcony, looks much as it did when the adobe was built in 1838. The rooms, however, are furnished in the manner of the 1870s when the house belonged to Patrick and Margaret Breen, survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party, stranded in the Sierra Nevada for 111 days without supplies during the heavy snows of 1846.

Across the street from the Castro-Breen House the open doors of the white clapboard stable are an invitation to step inside and look at the variety of old carriages and wagons, including a fringed surrey, a beer wagon and a miner’s stage that transported workers to the New Idria quicksilver mines, 60 miles southeast of San Juan Bautista.

Built around 1861, the Plaza Stable was designed to handle the extensive stage and wagon traffic, a major factor in the town’s growth. At one time seven stage lines operated through town, and up to 11 coaches arrived and departed daily. Heaviest traffic was between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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The impressive gold, wine-trimmed Plaza Hall, which stands alongside the stable and overlooks the plaza green, was once a dormitory for unmarried Indian girls. Later the original adobe structure was enlarged with a second story and a wide veranda where the ladies of San Juan Bautista often did their needlework and exchanged gossip.

A second-floor ballroom was the setting for political rallies, temperance meetings and grand balls where waltzes, mazurkas and quadrilles were danced by hoop-skirted ladies and their gentlemen escorts wearing dress uniforms or frock coats and cravats.

Original Inhabitants

San Juan Bautista was originally inhabited by the Mutsun Indians, who built their beehive-shaped huts of willow and coarse grass on the western edge of what was to become the town. In the 1790s Franciscan missionaries arrived from Spain and on June 24, 1797, Mission San Juan Bautista was founded by Padre Fermin de Lausen. The date was the traditional feast day of St. John the Baptist, and the mission was named in his honor.

The cornerstone of the church, largest of the California mission churches, was laid in 1803, and nine years later the building was opened for services. Daily Mass has continued at Mission San Juan Bautista from 1797 to the present.

Set on the edge of the San Andreas Fault, California’s most dominant network of underground fissures, the mission was badly shaken in 1799 between Oct. 11 and 31 by as many as six quakes a day. But it was 1812 that became known as the year of the earthquakes when the outside walls of the mission church collapsed, leaving the side aisles exposed to the elements.

View of the Fault

Today’s traveler can look down into the fault from a viewing station to the right of the church building. Placards detail the history of the fault, and the overlook provides a close view of cracks in the earth’s surface.

The discovery of quicksilver at the New Idria mines brought an influx of settlers and prosperity to San Juan Bautista in the 1850s and 1860s. But the boom days were cut short in 1870 when leading businessmen of the community refused to pay a $60,000 subsidy to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was diverted to Hollister, and so businesses in San Juan began to fail and many merchants moved away.

Good times returned shortly after the turn of the century with the opening of a cement plant outside of town and the eventual arrival of the railroad in San Juan Bautista. In 1934 the state bought the old buildings that surround the plaza green. Since then there has been a gradual restoration of the buildings of Mission San Juan Bautista and those that make up the State Historic Park--the Plaza Hotel, Castro-Breen House, Plaza Stable and Plaza Hall.

Admission is 50 cents (payable at the Plaza Hotel office) for viewing the interiors of the Plaza Hotel, Castro-Breen House and Plaza Hall. A donation is requested at the mission. Mission buildings are not officially part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

The monthly festivities traditionally begin at noon on Saturday and conclude at 4 p.m.

Many visitors pack a picnic lunch and eat on the plaza green or elsewhere in the park. Picnic tables are provided in the shaded patio of the Castro-Breen House (where hot tortillas are served) and at the rear of Plaza Hall. Wine, beer and soft drinks are served at the Plaza Hotel Barroom.

Restaurants include Jardines de San Juan, 115 3rd St., open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Features a delightful patio for outdoor dining. Specializes in Mexican and Spanish food. Dona Esther, 25 Franklin St., open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Serves traditional Mexican fare with many entrees named in honor of the missions, including Carmel and San Luis Rey. Mariposa House, 37 Mariposa St., luncheon daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Thursday and Sunday 5 to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 9 p.m. Features international cuisine.


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