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What Ever Happened to El Toro’s First General Store?

Several years before the Osterman’s Mercantile, another building and a long line of shopkeepers provided dry goods, postal service, and rooms to let. It’s location, however—as well as the when and why of its demise—remain a mystery.

If you’ve been following this column you’ve probably read one or two installments telling something about the El Toro store, run for many years by George and Lois Osterman.

But before the Osterman operation, El Toro was served by another general store.  And yes, there it is in this week’s illustration, standing just beyond the station depot. If you look close you can even see some folks out front on the porch plus someone looking out an upstairs window, all very much aware they are having their photo taken.   

When I initially saw this photo I was immediately reminded of the storefronts featured in all those classic western films and TV shows. Not to mention that the store’s multi-purpose usage and its ties to the railroad also rings true.

Here’s what Clara Mason Fox says about the genesis of El Toro's earliest store in her late 1930s book, A History of El Toro:

"The first station agent was O. D. Fairchild, and he set to work to do his part toward starting a town.  He put up a two-story building across the street from the station for a store, post office, and hotel, and he boarded newcomers and most of the section hands, who, at that time, were nearly all Americans.  James DeLong was the first section foreman , and the first section house was located across the tracks from the present warehouse.  Levi Hemenway was an early helper, as was Frank Gomez, who bought property later from Dwight Whiting, the house he built being recently moved down onto #101 Highway.  

"When Fairchild left, DeLong bought the store building from him and leased it to various parties, still owning it when it burned, about 1917.  His first tenant was Charles Lyons, the station agent succeeding Fairchild. Lyons built the house on Aliso Avenue, afterwards sold for a parsonage.  After Lyons' death, [the] following storekeepers in the 90s were David Gockley, Bob Squires, and James Lucas."

Following in the early 1900s, I might add (as does Clara, a bit later), was a Mr. Gail, whose daughter Nellie would eventually become Lewis Moulton’s second wife. The final proprietor appears to have been a Mr. A. A. Avery, whose name would conveniently lend itself to what were perhaps the store’s most memorable monikers: the Three A Store, or—alternatively—the Triple A Grocery.

LOST TO HISTORY?

In the preface to her book, Clara apologies for any mistakes readers might find. Being something of a writer myself, I completely understand and forgive the minor goofs I’ve now and then noticed within Clara’s remarkable work. Including—if the tombstone at El Toro Memorial Park is correct—the possibility that El Toro’s first station agent was actually Olif G. Fairchild.  

As for some additional information about Mr. Fairchild, an online November 1996 edition of Saddleback Valley Trails lists some of the interred at El Toro Memorial Park and states that Mr. Fairchild was born in New York in 1846. Also included are James DeLong, whose death date is not noted but whose wife, Louisa, is mentioned as having died in May 1896, as well as Wells Fargo agent Charles Lyons, born in Pennsylvania in 1847. Additional Internet searches have, so far, revealed nothing further about these gentlemen or the other storekeepers listed by Clara.   

Who were these men, and how did they happen—sometimes for a short time, sometimes until the end of their days—to play a role in our area’s history? Perhaps someone reading these words will be able to supply further details.

A QUEST OF WHEN, WHY, AND WHERE 

As Clara mentions, the store burned down "about 1917." Four decades later in Fifty Years In Old El Toro, Joe Osterman follows up on Clara’s uncharacteristically vague statement by noting "there is historical disagreement on whether the fire occurred in 1917 or in 1921, but there is a picture of the Three A Store with a number of 'players of the Santa Ana High School football team,' circa 1919, lounging on the hitching post out front."

And by the way, neither Clara nor Joe mentions the "why" of how the fire started.

So I tapped Genealogical Society volunteer Herb Abrams’ excellent research skills to find out more, but despite his thorough checking, he has not yet located any information as to when the store met its demise.

Once again, then, I extend the request, that if any of you can furnish clues or offer pointers on further research possibilities, I’d love to hear from you.

And what about the exact location of the original store? As you've read, Clara says it was "across the street from the station." At first I thought this meant . But Joe says the first store was "closer to the tracks and across  from the depot," and disputes a June 1957 Santa Ana Register article stating that the Osterman store "stands in the same spot where the store was first (Joe's italics) established 70 years ago." 

What is agreed upon is that for at least a few years, El Toro residents had to go elsewhere for their sugar, flour, chicken feed, and other goods. This meant a train excursion—or, more likely, a ride on the family buckboard—to either the store in Irvine or the one in San Juan Capistrano.

The inconvenience of this situation eventually would cause Joe's Uncle Ben, recently graduated from Santa Ana High School and back working for his dad on the Whiting lease, to consider purchasing three "downtown" lots—one containing the charred remains of the old store—and start his own mercantile.

But that, of course, is another El Toro & Before!

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