Settling In : Jensen-Alvarado Historic Park Celebrates Early Pioneers Who Changed Southland


“Gold! Gold!” shouted Cornelius Jensen’s crew as they jumped ship and headed for the gold fields along the San Francisco coast.

The Danish sea captain didn’t find his own fortune until years later when he traded cargo for cattle and moved to Southern California. There he met and married Mercedes Alvarado, the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent California family. Together, they developed 500 acres near Riverside into a lucrative ranch.

Their story and the story of how Southern California changed from an agricultural to a commercial economy is being told at Jensen-Alvarado Ranch Historic Park in Riverside, which opens today for the season.

And to celebrate both the park’s one-year anniversary and Jensen’s birthday, a day of festivities is planned for Sept. 28. Visitors will tour the grounds in authentic wagons and carriages, and youngsters can enjoy pony rides and 1880s-style wooden toy making. Several local groups are scheduled to perform early California music and fiddle and banjo favorites. Also, a blacksmith, a farrier and a sheepshearer will demonstrate their crafts.


This is no garden-variety park. Each weekend, visitors are treated to an early-California lifestyle by exploring Jensen’s winery, now a museum, and participating in chores. Docents don period costumes and encourage guests to roll up their sleeves and use the washboard, churn cream for butter and feed the chickens. After chores, visitors can relax with hoop races, stilts and homemade ice cream.

Children who visit the ranch these days usually have a hard time visualizing life a century ago.

“We get kids out here doing laundry, and we talk about what pre-Nintendo life must have been like without plumbing, faucets and electricity,” says Diane Falconer, who directs the visitors program.

Taking a break from cooking tortillas on a wood-burning stove, Falconer describes the mistress of the house. “Mercedes had no help. Instead, her 10 children pitched in with all the daily chores and running the household.”


Occasionally, there would be accidents. “When Mercedes discovered a spill on the floor of the milk house, the children would blame Marcella, the local witch,” says Falconer.

A large brick structure with high pitched roof and three chimneys looks out of place in the bright California sun, for Jensen modeled his family’s home after dwellings on his native Isle of Sylt in the North Sea. Chinese workers labored for five years on the two-story house and adjacent winery, livery stable and barn. For more than 100 years, family members lived in the four-bedroom house.

Tapestries and carpets, porcelain and marble tables decorated the Jensen home, considered luxurious for its day. The prized possession, a piano, was shipped around Cape Horn from Boston.

“The third and fifth steps of the circular staircase pull out for storing gold and valuables,” says Falconer. “I know. I lost a cat down there once.”


Although European in design and furnishings, the house operated in the less-formal tradition of Californios --a term used to describe native-born Californians. As Leonard Pitt writes in his social history, “The Decline of the Californios,” the most important symbol of family for native-born Californians was the rancho. All lines of dependency radiated outward from the casa, embracing children, in-laws and other relatives.

Cornelius Jensen embraced the value system of the Spanish-speaking Californios and adopted his wife’s native tongue.

“For Mercedes, providing for family was key,” says museum assistant Bonnie Herron. “She always had a pot of pinto beans on the stove and relatives in and out.” The diminutive woman liked to sit by the parlor window doing needlework and smoking hand-rolled cigars.

Twelve years ago, Riverside County Parks Department purchased 30 acres and began restoring the property, now on the National Register of Historic Places.


The county is trying to salvage the wa and termite-damaged home, which is closed to the public for renovations. While the house undergoes repairs, its spirit is recreated in the nearby brick winery. Facsimiles of the bedroom, parlor and kitchen, outfitted with original furniture and domestic wares, take visitors back to the Riverside of the 1880s.

“There were no closets or hangers in those days,” Herron explains as she opens up Jensen’s wardrobe. “Instead, clothes were hung on hooks inside large armoires or folded and stored in trunks.”

In another section of the museum, history buffs can enjoy Mercedes’ pre-electric kitchen. In place of a refrigerator, a pie safe stored prepared foods. Old letters describe sausage, hams and bacon hanging in the smoke house and casks of wine in the winery. Two large containers under a bin table held flour and sugar, bought in 1,500-pound sacks.

Jensen’s leather desk, with the ledger books he kept in Spanish, stands beside Mercedes’ treadle sewing machine. Wine-making equipment is also on display, including a grape crusher, basket press (for separating juice from skins), fermenting vat and riddling rack.


In fact, with miners thirsty for wine and brandy, the Gold Rush created a boom in viniculture. Jensen was among the two-thirds of area farmers who grew grapes by 1889, and the Jensen label won awards at county fairs.

Muscat vineyards similar to those on the original ranch are part of a project to reproduce the family orchards. A grove of 275 orange trees recently has been planted, as well as peaches, apricots, plums and figs.

Jensen’s farming success owed much to his choice of land. As it is today, water was a valuable resource, and the Jurupa Ditch, dug in 1845, rationed water from the Santa Ana River to local ranches. So critical was irrigation that Jensen waged a court battle to secure his water rights. Nearly 150 years later, the state’s oldest cooperative water company continues to provide the property with water.

The ranch prospered, producing wine, olives, grapes, grain and cattle. As his wealth grew, Jensen became a part-time banker and venture capitalist. He also was a supervisor and school board member for the newly established Riverside County.


Jensen’s voyage was a long one--from cabin boy aboard European sailing ships to the landed gentry of Southern California. During his lifetime, Jensen saw the political influence of the pastoral ranchos give way to commercial and real estate developments brought by other Anglos.

“We’re trying to present this tale of history and transformation of culture,” says Riverside County historian Diana Seider. “We think things are changing today, but I suspect the kinds of changes Jensen experienced were even more profound.”


Jensen-Alvarado Ranch Historic Park, 4307 Briggs St., Riverside. From California 60, two miles west of Riverside, take the Rubidoux exit south one mile to Tilton Avenue. Turn right and go three blocks to Briggs Street; turn left and follow Briggs half a block. Open today to June 30. Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursdays and Fridays for groups by appointment. Admission is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children. For more information, call (714) 369-6055.