Back to School, (Old) El Toro Style!

Among their earliest lessons, Ben and George Osterman learn that “shank's mare” is better than the burro express.

The next time someone at your house complains about how boring it is to be shuttled back and forth to school in the family SUV, show them this photo of the Osterman brothers, bound for El Toro’s on the family burro.

They’ll probably note the boys are barefoot—no Crocs for these kids!—but going shoeless was fairly typical in those days, even at school. Except, of course, on the day your class photo was taken. Then you put on shoes and even socks. Plus, of course, your best shirt and overalls in place of your everyday set.

But let’s get back to the business of getting to school. Which, after all, was an ever-important concern back in those early El Toro days, just as it is for today’s Lake Forest students.


Some El Toro kids did live in town. So for them, getting out the door and up the steps was just a matter of minutes.

But many children lived outside of El Toro on farms and ranches. The kids, luckier than many, lived only about a mile away. I think most of us will agree that walking down the hill each morning wouldn’t have been too bad.  But how about all those uphill trudges, especially after a long day of sums and essays?

So when the distance was significant, most kids rode to school on whatever type of equine he or she had been allotted. It's easy to imagine a last-minute rush of children dismounting and tying up their mounts at the school's nearby hitching posts before charging up the steps in an attempt not to be tardy.  

Occasionally this type of transportation could become an art form of its own. For example, some of you may remember a previous El Toro & Before in which , and 's youngest daughter, is quoted as taking particular satisfaction in a variety of grand entrances. “I went on one pony, standing up on two ponies, or in a buggy with two ponies, or in a buggy with one pony—anything to be different.”

The Osterman boys, alas, didn’t have that many options.

Initially they’d had an easy half-mile walk from their canyon homestead to the Trabuco Canyon schoolhouse. But now that the family had moved to the Whiting lease a few miles above the Serrano adobe, the boys would be attending school in El Toro. And El Toro was a good three miles away.

Lesson #1: Life is full of complications and adjustments.


It should be noted, however, this lesson wasn't necessarily new. Both boys—Ben in particular—already had been subjected to childhoods somewhat reminiscent of a Dickens novel.

Growing up in the canyon adjacent “the Trabuco”—the wide plain and site of today's city of Rancho Santa Margarita—had in many ways been a boys’ paradise. Although the cabins of other fellow homesteaders were fairly close by, the area was, for the most part, an untrammeled wilderness filled with all the sights and wonders that can fuel an imaginative childhood.

But when Ben was not yet 4 years of age and George only a toddler, tragedy occurred: Their mother, the former Sadie Anette Havens, died of tuberculosis. The two boys watched from a hillside above their cabin as their mother’s body was placed into a wagon for the long ride down to the cemetery in Santa Ana.

Years later George’s son would write about a conversation he’d had with his Uncle Ben about what happened next. “Making a living had to occupy most of Dad’s time, and he was unable to effectively raise his two youngsters.” As a result, Ben added, “we kids were farmed out.”

The loss of your mother, followed by separation from your father. How much worse can it get?

Fortunately for the littlest Osterman, not much, for he went to live with a branch of the kindly Fox family—“Grandpa and Grandma Fox, on their dairy farm in the Delhi area of Santa Ana.”

Ben’s lot, however, was to go live with Uncle Charley Havens, who soon showed his true colors. Or, as Ben later recalled, "I went under the hand of Uncle Charley Havens. With no children of his own, Uncle Charley made my life anything but enjoyable."


Yet a silver lining did exist. "The only good thing about this situation was that I came to know and love Mary Lillian Havens, sister of our own mother."

In time, Ben and George's father also got to know his sister-in-law. To the point that, two years and four months after Sadie's death, .

The two boys joyously returned to the canyon and their new mother.

"Our family was reunited.  We were still in the mountains, life was tough and hard work was necessary. Still, our new mother found time to help us with books and our reading.  As I recall, our homestead cabin featured plenty of reading and reciting with an emphasis on poetry." So much so that by the time each boy was of an age to begin school in the canyon, they took to learning like ducks to water. 

Then in 1907, a new opportunity for the Ostermans: A chance to live and work on the Whiting Ranch lease, just a few miles above the . 

"I was eleven, your dad was nine, and we were beginning to be more of a part of the running of things." 

But John and Mary Lillian—by now expecting the first of three additional little Ostermans—were adamant that getting an education trumped working the farm. 

And so off to school went Ben and George, on board Si, their much-beloved burro. "As eldest son, I drove and George rode in the second seat."  

Efficiency, though, was a problem. As was, one might say, a complete lack of rich Corinthian leather.  

Or, as Ben later put it, "We discovered the Si was both slow and lacking in comfortable seating bareback."

The upshot being that after a short trial period of plodding discomfort, no doubt punctuated by some serious rein flapping, repeated heel digs, and any number of rump slaps to "giddy-up," the boys gave up Si for "shank's mare." And Si returned to the ranch to graze. 

So it seems that despite Ben and George continuing to advance their educational careers, Si never did have much of a school experience.

On the other hand, maybe this clever burro didn't need it! 

Darelene Carpenter September 10, 2012 at 07:01 PM
I.m a docent at Heritage Hill Historical Park and we use this picture of the Osterman brothers on our children's tours when we get to the Old El Toro Grammar School. The children always laugh about how different life is today compared to that time. Janet, thank you for your insightful articles, they provide relatable facts about how it was to live in El Toro at the turn of the century. I will enjoy sharing this with my "time travelers" on the children's tours!
Janet Whitcomb September 10, 2012 at 11:21 PM
Darelene, thank you so much for your kind words. I would've loved to have come roaring into my school like Louise Moulton—via buggy, or even better, standing up on two ponies!—but riding a burro three miles down to school, then three miles uphill to my home? I’m thinking it would've tested my patience, not to mention whatever patience the burro possessed.
Janet Whitcomb September 10, 2012 at 11:36 PM
Charles, thank you as always, and this time in particular for the photos you submitted. I remember when the hills on both sides of the freeway looked just like they do in that 1960s photo. My parents and I frequently traveled down the 5 to visit friends in San Clemente, and I recall only a few buildings . . . the occasional gas station, plus a Colony Kitchen restaurant! As for the Pankeys, our SAHS library at Heritage Hill does have some information about them, but I'm not sure that specific book is in the collection. Will have to check for it next time I visit! Just like the Ostermans, Protheros, and Whitings,* the Pankeys have their own very interesting story to tell, and I look forward to writing a future column to showcase that story. * To name but a few!
Charles September 11, 2012 at 02:54 AM
One thing I have always wondered Janet, seeing that you've lived in this area a long time, is who were the Mission Viejo developers marketing to in the mid 1960s when they committed to building that community? I don't think the 405 was constructed as far south as Irvine. There were no Irvine jobs like there are now. The nearest employment centers were probably Santa Ana and Anaheim. It would have seemed that MV was way "out there" compared to today - yet people were waiting in line to buy these homes.
Janet Whitcomb September 11, 2012 at 07:56 PM
True, I have lived here for a while . . . but only about 20 years in south Orange County; I grew up in Orange, or what is now called The City of Orange. My initial reaction to your question, Charles, is that the planning and eventual development of UCI had a great deal to do with it. That’s what I remember my parents talking about as we drove around the newly-minted campus. My mom was happy enough about the university, but she did deplore the sacrifice of outlying rural Orange County—especially all the orange groves—to suburban sprawl. She and my dad took special pleasure in a popular song of the time, “Little Boxes,” about tract housing and the conformist aspects of suburban living. Of course, it should be noted that we lived in a very standard, post WWII, three bedroom, two bathroom house! And I’ve lived in a condo community for almost two decades. Perhaps those who moved to the new communities being built in Lake Forest and Mission Viejo could provide some further insight?


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