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Thank Dwight Whiting for Lake Forest's First School District

The man who put the "forest" in Lake Forest also opened a schoolhouse that you can still visit today.

Imagine you’re getting ready to develop a new town. What are you going to build first?

That’s what local land developer Dwight Whiting was contemplating in 1889, right about the same time Orange County established its independence from Los Angeles County.

As we learned , Whiting had purchased about 10,000 acres of Don Jose Serrano’s foreclosed cattle ranch in 1885. Always the entrepreneur, Whiting set about turning a good portion of his land into agricultural enterprise, planting olive trees, vineyards and 400 acres of fast-growing eucalyptus trees. Next Whiting successfully petitioned that the railroad continue into South Orange County so he’d have the means to transport his crops.

In her seminal 1939 book, A History of El Toro, states that by 1889, Whiting and his wife and baby daughter were living at a nearby hotel—“then the only business building”—while their home was being built up on one of the knolls overlooking his property. At this point, Fox adds, Whiting decided it would be logical to start a school for the children living on nearby farms. “So a district was formed, and a school board appointed, of which Dwight Whiting was clerk.”

At first a “small, rough building was hastily constructed on Los Alisos Avenue, just below Second Street. Benches were made to seat the children, and a small table was the teacher’s desk.”  But Whiting realized that in order to attract additional families, a new and more spacious schoolhouse would need to be built.

And so it was. Land already had been set aside for such a purpose at the corner of Olive Avenue and First Street, and by 1890 construction of a $2,000 Victorian-style schoolhouse with Queen Anne ornamentation was under way. Inside would be a large, airy classroom with individual desks lined up in rows, smallest in front and largest in back, to seat more than 40 students, grades one through eight, at any given time.  Moreover, the building’s “T” shape allowed for two separate cloakrooms at the rear of the building—one for boys and one for girls, each with their own separate side entrances—as well as a teacher’s office and small library/study.

Accommodations also were made for a large pot-bellied stove that would heat the schoolhouse, as well as blackboards and map boxes installed around the room’s perimeter.  In addition, situated outside toward the back of the schoolhouse were “two-holer” outhouses—again, one for boys and one for girls—plus a small stable for the teacher’s horse.

By mid-fall the schoolhouse was ready, with dedication ceremonies taking place Tuesday, Nov. 25, 1890.  

Today you can visit this very same schoolhouse—preserved after an extensive Save Our School campaign, then moved in 1976 to its present location—at the county-run in Lake Forest.

We’ll be learning more about the El Toro Grammar School and its teachers and students in future columns.  But for now I’d like to mention that guided tours of the schoolhouse and the park’s other three historic buildings are provided by volunteer docents Wednesday through Sunday; for further information, call the park at 949-923-2230.

And speaking of kids and learning, just in case you haven't yet read last Sunday's column, here’s another opportunity to enjoy Heritage Hill: On Saturday, April 16, Heritage Hill will present its annual Art in the Park event, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with artists from the Saddleback College Emeritus Institute painting views of the schoolhouse and other park sites to inspire your child’s creativity.  In addition, art professors Pamme Turner and Maria Kiernan will provide art lessons to children of all ages. The event is free, all art supplies will be provided by Heritage Hill, and no preregistration is required.

Beth March 28, 2011 at 01:19 AM
I am trying to imagine 10,000 acres around the town of El Toro and its train station and school building out to what we call now the Whiting Ranch wilderness area up to the canyons. That is quite an impressive ranch, much larger than the other existing cities of Tustin, Anaheim, or Santa Ana. Thank you for the interesting article and picture of the school building.

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