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IRVINE : 1868 Structure Was Ranchers’ Meal Area

The city of Irvine may be only 20 years old, but the sprawling Irvine Ranch on which it was built stretches back to the 1800s. Indeed, the Irvine area’s rich history goes back to when it was part of a huge Spanish land grant, and before that when it was home to American Indians. Capturing the area’s past has been difficult because, until recently, the Irvine area was sparsely settled, leaving few remnants to be preserved. What did remain of Irvine’s past often was torn down or discarded during the region’s growth.

Even with those obstacles, the 15-year-old Irvine Historical Society has slowly built a collection of donated historic artifacts, photos and farm equipment, said Anne Davis-Johnson, founder of the museum that houses the items and a member of its operating board.

Many of those artifacts are on display two days a week at the society’s museum, hidden away next to the San Joaquin Golf Course in a building thought to be the oldest standing structure on the Irvine Ranch.

The region’s history unfolds to museum visitors even before they reach the porch of the 1868 Victorian building, which was built as a dining area for sheep ranchers. Outside is a hollow pepper tree planted by the Spanish settlers and thought to be the oldest living tree in Irvine. Near the tree is a fenced-in plot that held one of two adobes that sat on the site until the late 1800s.

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Several farm implements that were used on the Irvine Ranch from 40 to 90 years ago also are usually on display outside the museum, but the historical society has loaned most of the equipment to the city for Irvine’s 20th anniversary display in the Civic Center plaza.

The museum is in a home that once was an addition to the Charles E. French ranch home built to feed sheep hands that French managed for James Irvine. The main house was torn down in the 1960s after neglect made it a hazard, Davis-Johnson said. Today, the museum houses small displays dedicated to particular themes of Irvine’s past.

Exhibits include Indian stone artifacts excavated near the museum; photos, maps and narratives of the Bolsa de San Joaquin cattle ranch that began in 1831 when the Mexican government deeded the land to Jose Andre Sepulveda, and Irvine Ranch tools and equipment illustrating the time when the area was mainly used to grow lima beans, raise sheep and cattle, and later grow asparagus and oranges.

A children’s section has replicas of cowboy clothing and equipment that youngsters are free to try on.

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Besides the older equipment, the museum houses artifacts of Irvine’s more recent past. When Lion Country Safari closed in 1984, the historical society asked for and received several items from the park. One is a wooden sign showing a drawing of a lion’s head resting atop a pair of imitation elephant tusks arrayed in an X-shape.

“We can’t be shortsighted on what is historic,” Davis-Johnson said. “We can always throw it out. But if we don’t save it, it’s gone forever.”

When the Irvine area was being developed, not many people thought to save historic buildings and other artifacts, she said. The Irvine family mansion no longer exists, and the 1909 Culver family house was razed in 1953 to make room for the Santa Ana freeway. Several other old ranch homes also have been demolished.

The museum is just west of Culver Drive and Sandburg Way at the corner of Sandburg and San Joaquin. Museum hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays. Group tours can be arranged on other days by calling by the museum.

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