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The Time Traveler of El Toro

Native son Joe Osterman chronicled the area's transition from pioneer community to modern suburb.

If you’ve been following this column for the past 10 months, you probably remember I’ve been quoting two El Toro historians on an almost weekly basis. The first, Clara Mason Fox, wrote the 1939 publication A History of El Toro. Earlier this year, her own story became the subject of .

I’ve also quoted extensively from a more recent El Toro historian: Joe Osterman. Joe was a prodigious talent. In addition to his career as a high school teacher and coach, he authored four books about El Toro history and a popular weekly newspaper column on the subject. Joe, who died in 2003, also served as president of the Saddleback Area Historical Society and appeared as a guest speaker at schools, libraries and historical societies.

Pioneer Roots

Like Clara Mason Fox, Joe’s history was deeply rooted in El Toro and the Saddleback Valley. Unlike Clara, who moved to the area as a child with her parents, Joe was a third-generation resident.  

His family’s story and family tree will be the subject of a future El Toro & Before column. But to know about Joe is also to have a working understanding of his immediate family history. That story, as Joe documents it, began when his grandfather John Osterman emigrated from Sweden to Wisconsin while still in his teens to live with his Uncle Sven’s family. In 1890, however, Uncle Sven decided to move his family to California, settling in Redondo Beach. John found employment as a farm worker for Ben Kohlmeier, and when the latter moved his farm operation to the Trabuco Mesa—now known as Rancho Santa Margarita—John went with him.

Two years later, in 1895, John had put aside enough money to purchase his own 100-acre ranch in the canyon area now known as Trabuco Oaks. That same year, John married Sadie Annetta Havens, the daughter of a nearby homesteader. A year later, in November 1896, she bore him their first son, Bennie Willis Osterman. By August 1898, another son, George Dewey Osterman, had joined the family. But tragedy stalked their canyon idyll, and Sadie, always delicate, died of consumption less than two years later.  

The motherless boys were sent to live elsewhere while John worked through his grief for more than a year. And then, as the saying goes, he reached “an understanding” with none other than Sadie’s younger sister, Mary Lillian Havens, marrying her in May 1902. Bennie and George joyously returned to the canyon home to live with their father and their beloved aunt, now their even more beloved new mother.

A Born Storyteller 

These were the stories Joe Osterman loved to tell ... how Bennie and George grew up, attending a one-room schoolhouse out in Trabuco Canyon, then graduating from the eighth grade at . Because their father, John, placed a high value on education, their next step was to rent a room in “the city,” 14 miles away, so they might attend Santa Ana High School. 

It was there that George met his wife-to-be, Lois Smith, whom he married in June 1914. At first, the couple farmed a Rancho Niguel property about two miles from the ocean. It was known as the Miguel Erreca, after the original tenant, a Basque farmer, but had been leased out for some time by John Osterman. 

In July 1921, however, George and Lois decided to move to El Toro to help brother Ben and his wife, Cynthia, run the town’s new general store. By that time, George and Lois had a toddler, George William, born in 1919. Four months later, according to Joe’s Fifty Years In Old El Toro, the young couple made a “rush trip back into Santa Ana where their second son, Joseph David ... came into the world [on Nov. 26, 1921] as if he were sliding into second base.” A third son, James Edward, born in late 1922, rounded out their happy trio of boys.

During the Depression, the Ostermans, like so many other Saddleback Valley families, lived modestly and persevered. Childhood memories of , cookouts at  and chores for his parents would later become the basis for a quartet of Osterman books.  

Joe Strikes Out On His Own 

Joe graduated from Tustin High School, followed by five years in the Army. Upon returning home, he enrolled in Santa Ana College, majoring in California history and meeting fellow student Edra Squires, whom he married in 1948. Their daughter, Kate, arrived in 1949 and their son, Tim, in 1950. About this time, the family moved to Whittier, where Joe had been offered a teaching job at Whittier High School. Eighteen months later, however, he left to teach at the newly opened El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, where for the next two decades Joe settled into a happy existence of teaching history and English and coaching athletics.

Then, in 1979, Joe and Edra received some less-than-happy news: Because of Proposition 13's passage the previous year, Joe's summer school teaching job was no more.    

What's next for Joe? We’ll find out in next week’s installment of El Toro & Before.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Bennie Willis Osterman's first name.

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