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Searching for the Aliso School House

A few years before Dwight Whiting founded El Toro, children of homesteaders and ranchers attended school somewhere near El Toro Road at what would become a popular roadhouse.

What, you haven’t yet visited Heritage Hill Historical Park and taken the free-of-charge 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. tour?

Those of you who’ve taken this docent-led tour know what fun it is to explore "the Hill's" four historic buildings: St. George’s Episcopal Mission, the Serrano Adobe, the Harvey Bennett Ranch House, and the El Toro Grammar School.  

Each of these buildings has been the focus of an El Toro & Before column at least once. The two-room brick school house which eventually replaced the original grammar school also has been discussed.

But did you know that, prior to Dwight Whiting’s sponsorship of the El Toro Grammar School, other schools also existed in this general area?

Shortly after was posted, a reader sent me the following question:

What information, if any, do you have on the Aliso School House, a one room school house that was off of El Toro Road near Cook’s Corner around the late 1890s and early 1900s? 

Confession time: Other than being aware that the school did exist, I didn’t have much information. And after researching the school at the Saddleback Area Historical Society’s library, I’m still coming up shorter than I would like. 

However, I did find some basic information to firmly answer five of the six basic journalistic questions—"who," "what," "when," "why," and "how"— regarding the Aliso School House. The exact "where" of the school house, however, remains elusive . . . until, of course, one of you supply it or point me in the right direction!

At this time, however, I'll provide you with what I did discover. 

FIRST, A FEW CLARIFICATIONS

Despite sharing a near-similar name, Lake Forest's much-loved Aliso Elementary School on Loumont Drive which, until last year, served many grateful families, is not the school we'll be talking about today. A private school currently leases that property and the children who would've attended Aliso Elementary now attend other elementary schools within the Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

Also, it should be noted that wherever pioneer families settled, eventually an effort was made to set up a some sort of school for the children. For example, before John Osterman and his family moved to the Whiting lease above the Serrano Adobe, his young sons Bennie and George walked about half a mile from their homesteader's cabin in Trabuco Canyon to a rudimentary school house.

This location also served, among many other canyon children, their cousin Ray Adkinson, who years later would serve as the superintendent of schools throughout Orange County. And over in Silverado Canyon, children learned their "three Rs" from a young woman, just barely out of school herself, by the name of Clara Mason.

In fact it is that same young woman, many years later the author of the late 1930s publication A History of El Toro, who we'll now consult.

PROLIFIC PIONEERS

In Chapter Four, Early American Settlers, Clara writes that "A school district was formed in Trabuco [Canyon] about 1881; at first school was kept in a small building on the Lyons place."

By the second year, however, a "honey house was used as a school."

The next year, another private home served as a school site, and in the fourth year another "honey house," until "the regular school house was erected in the Trabuco Canyon at the mouth of the Live Oak, only recently removed, although school has not been kept in it for some years.

"Here came youngsters, on horseback and afoot, from as far east as Bell Canyon, to Aliso on the west: Foxes, Millers, Joplins, Robinsons, Shaws, Rowells, Havens, Adkinsons, Straws, Lyons, Hallecks, Staples, Salters, Cooks, and others."

Obviously this area's homesteaders were not only hardy, but also prolific!

But soon, Clara says, "Aliso Canyon families desired a school nearer home, so about 1886 a school district was organized. The Wilkes family were living here then and, to quote Mrs. Wilkes:

There was a settlement of Americans a few miles north on the creek, among them the A. J. Cook and Albert Staples, the John Scoville family and the Robert Shaws and Salters, and they needed a school.  So a district was formed, with no house.  As I was holder of a legal certificate, I agreed to teach under a sycamore tree, at $60 a month. Lumber was landed from McFadden's Landing (Newport) and soon a good-enough house was built and the district saved; and with earnest pupils, a good attendance led to success, for Martin Huntley became mayor of Tustin, and John Cook twice mayor of Anaheim, and became father of Bill Cook, noted coach of Junior College of Santa Ana.  I taught the school for a few months when we sold our ranch and moved to Santa Ana. Mr. Al Harlan then taught the school, followed by Miss Gray (Mrs. Harry Lewis now)."

Clara adds that "One of the Sprouse houses was built where a gum [eucalyptus] grove now stands, on the present Jack Cook ranch, and school was held under a group of sycamores across the road from it. Benches were built to seat the children, and they moved back and forth to keep in the shifting shade of the trees. [Then] Mr. McFadden donated ground for a school house, which was erected on the point just below the flat to which it was later moved. Water was carried up the hill by the pupils from the spring below, near the creek.

"In the first school there were two Staples children, Annie and Hattie; five Cooks, John, Jim, Susie, Annie, and Agnes; four or more Serranos, among them, Isabel, Alfonso, Ninfa, and Juan Pablo; two Oliveras, Salvador and Nicolas; two Scovilles, Charles and Annie, with Martin Huntley, step-son; and Mrs. Wilkes' two daughters, Maud and Blanche."

All of this checks out with a document I found at the SAHS library. It reads, in part, "In the month of October 1886 our School House was built. Partly by the citizens of the district donating their services and partly by contract." 

Dimensions, it adds, were "Sixteen by thirty feet with ten feet [high] walls . . . June 13, 1887, Board employed Albert Staples to build a fence around the School house lot and paint the School house at two dollars per day."

TRACKING THE FOOTPRINT 

This may be all (and very possibly more) than you would want to know about the Aliso School House. 

However, for those of us who like to ferret out the small details, the question remains of exactly where the Aliso School House was located. Clara has provided a number of hints which, at the time her book was published, would have made the location crystal-clear for any local reader. Seventy-plus years later, however, the exact location remains—at least to yours truly—obscure rather than definite. 

A few hours at the County Archives might resolve the issue. Or perhaps one of you can provide the answer, or at least a few additional clues.

Whatever the case, we'll keep the case open—one of the many advantages of online journalism!—and welcome any feedback on the "where" of this area's first Aliso school.

Charles September 24, 2012 at 12:44 AM
On the subject of local adobes, there's one just west of the Tijeras Creek Golf Course called the Trabuco Adobe which was built about 200 (yes, 200) years ago. It is easily accessed by parking in the golf course parking lot and hiking about 200 yards down an easy trail. It is protected in a plywood hut but you can peek inside and see the remaining adobe walls. (If you're online use google maps or bing maps to find a little hut about 1/4 mile west of the TCGC clubhouse.)
Janet Whitcomb September 25, 2012 at 03:45 AM
Charles, isn't that the approximate site where Gaspar de Portola camped?
Charles September 25, 2012 at 11:43 AM
Yes, in July 1769 he camped around that area and supposedly it was there that one of his soldiers lost his "trabuco" or musket. To mark this loss, the stream was named Trabuco. The name has been associated with the mesa, the canyon and the entire area ever since. (source: http://www.ocparks.com/oneillpark/default.asp? If you want to have real fun, visit www.historicaerials.com and see side by side aerial photo comparisons of the area dating back as far as 1938. You can clearly see the Osterman store and the El Toro Road/railroad tracks intersection and Highway 101 (as it was known back then) and the old railroad alignment around Alicia.
Charles September 25, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Yes, in July 1769 he camped around that area and supposedly it was there that one of his soldiers lost his "trabuco" or musket. To mark this loss, the stream was named Trabuco. The name has been associated with the mesa, the canyon and the entire area ever since. (source: http://www.ocparks.com/oneillpark/default.asp?Show=History) If you want to have real fun, visit www.historicaerials.com and see side by side aerial photo comparisons of the area dating back as far as 1938. You can clearly see the Osterman store and the El Toro Road/railroad tracks intersection and Highway 101 (as it was known back then) and the old railroad alignment around Alicia.
Janet Whitcomb September 28, 2012 at 03:40 AM
Hi Again, Charles! Yes, that www.historicaerials.com website is amazing; the decade-to-decade transformation of El Toro to Lake Forest is literally worth a thousand words . . . mine included! ;^) One of the first locations I checked once I'd investigated El Toro was the site of my former home in Orange, where we moved when I was almost three years old, and which we sold only a few years ago after the death of my mom. She had told me, long ago, that an orange grove used to be where our house was, and she was absolutely correct. Only a few farm houses are anywhere nearby. In fact my Grandfather Dollard used to call the street where our house--and so many other post WWII homes were built--"an old cow path"! Whereas since the 1960s it has been a bustling and exceptonally busy thoroughfare.

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