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Starry, Starry Night: A Rendition of an Old El Toro Landmark

Gladys Prothero’s depictions of old El Toro are a lovely reminder of the rural community and its residents.

When I first saw the image to your right, I became something that—for me—is unusual.

Speechless.

Given my 10-plus years as a County parks volunteer, I’d become quite familiar with all four historic buildings at Heritage Hill Historical Park,  included.

Up until that time, however, I’d visualized St. George’s one of two ways: either within the context of "the Hill," where it was moved in 1976, or in old black-and-white photos at its  north of Muirlands Drive and El Toro Road.   

But now, courtesy a flash drive image, I was looking at St. George’s just as it appeared to residents of old El Toro. In its original surroundings. And in beautiful, vibrant color.

The signature at the bottom read Gladys Prothero. That last part was familiar . . . I’d attended a at the Hill back in April 2011.  But I wasn’t so sure about the Gladys part of it. I’d been introduced to a quite a few Prothero family members that day, and I now I was having a problem trying to remember who was who.

Then someone said, "We live near Gladys’s son and daughter-in-law. I’ll see if I can put you in touch with her."

And that’s how I came to spend a recent Friday afternoon with artist and former El Toro resident Gladys Prothero and not only see the original of the illustration that accompanies this column, but also a number of other depictions of scenes from the community's salad days.

BUT FIRST, A BIT OF PROTHERO HISTORY  

The day of the reunion, Gladys’s nephew, Steve, gave a talk about the Protheros and their place in El Toro history.  What follows, then, is based on his notes, which he generously allowed me to photocopy before the end of the afternoon.

According to Steve, there are actually two stories of how the Protheros arrived in El Toro.

"Piecing together a couple of sources," he says, "it seems that [my grandfather) Raymond H. Prothero’s great-grandfather arrived in the United States in 1847 with at least one son, John Prothero, born 1839.  The family had been involved with the Joseph Smith Mormons in England, but upon arrival were met by a Brigham Young sect, as Smith was dead.  Eventually they traveled to Salt Lake City, but finding the situation unpleasant, stole away under threat of death, eventually arriving in San Bernardino, another Mormon community.  That’s the version from John Prothero’s daughter."

Then, adds Steve, there’s the version given to Samuel Armor, editor of the 1911 edition of The History of Orange County.  In that retelling, Steve says, "John Prothero immigrated to the United States from Wales in 1861, set out from Iowa in 1864, married Charlotte Martin in 1870, and eventually located to San Bernardino County where John M. Prothero was born in 1875.  John Sr. then moved to Santa Ana and set up a ranch."

Then he adds, “The first is more dynamic and controversial, the second more politically correct for an English Episcopal community." 

THE EL TORO LINK 

"John M. Prothero eventually moved to the El Toro area, working share farming on the Moulton ranch for six years, breaking open 700 acres, planting barley on the area bounded by Aliso Creek, the railroad and the 5 freeway.  There he met and married Josephine Buchheim in 1897 and Raymond Prothero was born in 1898."

When John passed away in 1913 due to lock-jaw, Raymond, 15, dropped out of Santa Ana High School to work the ranch. Nine years later he married Doris Bargsten, who had grown up in Orange on a citrus ranch. “He and Doris moved into a newly-constructed Sears Craftsman kit house built on his ranch property—a house that still stands on the end of Cornelius Drive.

"Four kids were born in quick succession: Ray Jr. in 1923, Ted in 1925, Earl in 1927, and Eleanor in 1928. All matriculated through , grades first through fourth in the little room and fifth through eighth in the big room, and eventually on to Tustin High School . . . like all farm kids, they learned the citrus trade as well as other chores."

After World War II, Steve continues, Ray Jr. returned from Navy service and, "using money previously earned growing a citrus tree nursery, purchased the ranch and house immediately to the south of his father’s ranch from his Uncle Jake [of the Buchheim family] and married Gladys Poage of Orange in 1946."

ENTER THE ARTIST

During my visit Gladys and I talked about her own family. She’d been born in Kansas, the youngest of five children and the only girl. But when she was still an infant her parents decided to come out to California, moving to Orange to live with her grandfather; her father found employment working for the Yorba family.

Despite the economic depression of those days, Gladys recalls an idyllic childhood spent playing with neighborhood children and going to parties given by the Yorbas. Her first job, right around her 13th year, was that of babysitter, which she enjoyed. But she has mixed feelings about a job as a cashier she later took at a restaurant near Orange's downtown movie theater. As Gladys soon found out, in addition to working the cash register, the job also involved dishwashing and—when the cook would disappear—working in the kitchen!

During the World War II years, Orange often was the site of Saturday night dances for both locals and servicemen.  It was at one of those dances in February 1946 that Gladys met Ray Jr.  Gladys graduated from Orange Union High School that June, and she and Ray Jr. were married five months later in November.

During the early years of their marriage Ray and Gladys welcomed three children: their oldest son Bill, born in 1947, followed by Bob in 1948, and Nancy in 1952.  But as the children became older, Gladys began to tap into her interest in drawing, which she’d enjoyed as a very little girl.  Eventually she began taking classes at an studio in Tustin. So as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, she continued to paint, usually from photographs, family portraits, landscapes, seascapes, and scenes from the many travels abroad that she and her husband took.

But perhaps the most wonderful paintings she created—from the perspective of an El Toro & Before columnist, at least!—are those of old El Toro. During my visit I admired the original of St. George’s Mission, displayed just above her home's staircase, as well as two views of ; the , , , and homes; the ; ; and the , which, at the time, was serving as St. Anthony's Catholic Church. Each painting is an outstanding rendition of an old El Toro landmark. 

At this time, however, the only one of the group available to share with you is this lovely depiction of St. George’s. The time of year is December—Christmas night, to be exact—showing parishioners making their way to the service by lantern light, the mission framed by olive and palm trees and a midnight blue sky aglow with stars. 

So although we're still in August, I hope you won't mind this "holiday preview." And good news: in time you'll be seeing the others in future El Toro & Before installments, as Gladys has very kindly agreed to their eventual digitization as well!  

Carol Grams August 27, 2012 at 08:32 PM
Thanks for another great column.
Sarah de Crescenzo August 27, 2012 at 11:53 PM
Carol, thanks for the nice note about Janet's latest column. Isn't it fun to start each week with a peek into old El Toro?
Janet Whitcomb August 28, 2012 at 10:28 PM
You're welcome, Carol! And as soon as it can be worked out, I hope to bring more of Gladys Prothero's El Toro landscapes to this column. In at least two of his books, Joe Osterman wrote about artists from Laguna Beach putting seascapes on hold and instead setting up their easels and paints in El Toro to paint the pond/lake. Somewhere, he would say, there must be views of that pond hanging in people's living rooms or, at the very least, stowed away in attics. Well, Gladys isn't an artist from Laguna Beach but a proud former resident of El Toro itself. And she painted two lovely views of the pond before that landmark, like so many others of the area, was replaced by homes, places of business, and parking lots.
Paulina Finorio October 30, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Nice article and painting!

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