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Sunday, June 11, 2006

City active in preserving the valley’s history

Jerry Bowen

Harbison House, Pena Adobe are among projects

It has been a pretty good month for history buffs in Solano County.

Well, let me amend that a little. County officials approved permits to demolish Cordelia’s Green Valley Schoolhouse in spite of offers by Cordelia’s local historian, Daphne Nixon, to remove and restore the historic building on her own property at her own expense.

That doesn’t say much positive in regard to county officials’ attitude about local history.

On the other hand, a private developer, Joseph McNeill, a partner with Headwaters Development Company LLC, is preserving a small stone and adobe structure on the old Mangels Winery property as a centerpiece of the Pony Express Business Park.

The structure once was used as a stage stop on Suisun Valley Road. It is also possible that it was one of Mariano Vallejo’s original structures to obtain one of his land grants. Much more research is still needed to verify whether or not this is correct.

At any rate, many kudos to the company for its part in preserving Solano County’s heritage.

There is much positive effort and support in the Vacaville area by officials and private citizens to preserve and promote the history of Vaca Valley.

To start with, the historic Harbison House is to be restored by the Vacaville Museum and several of the favorite Nut Tree artifacts loved by people around the world will receive new life as part of the Nut Tree development.

On June 3, Ethel Hoskins and her fantastic nonprofit “Joyful Ranch” volunteers held their opening day at the historic Pleasants Ranch. If you missed this outing it’s your own fault that you weren’t able join in on the outstanding festivities and tours of the William James Pleasants home that was built in 1891.

In my own mind, there are only a few of the homes on Buck Avenue that are equal to the quality and grandeur of local Victorian-era homes and even better yet, the public will have access to it by appointment only and for events and occasions. If you were one of the folks who missed the June 3 opening, you can call 448-228 for information and appointments. They also have a Web page:, and e-mail address: joyfulranch@on Thank you for a great day provided by Ethel and the Joyful Ranch volunteers. I thoroughly enjoyed your outstanding opening event!

If you’ve been out to the Pena Adobe lately, you will see that the roof is missing and in the process of being renewed. But, I’ll explain about that later as I continue through this article about the history of the historic 1842 adobe.

Both Sabine Goerke-Shrode and I have written quite a bit about the trek by the Vaca and Pena families, so I’ll just review some of the basics with this column.

The trail the Pena and Vaca families followed was a southern trade route of the Old Spanish Trail that was established by Armijo from Abiquiu, N.M., to Los Angeles. The Armijo route was unsuitable for wagons and mules ( the favored beasts of burden).

With a promise of free land to Manual Vaca by Commandante Mariano Vallejo around 1838 (and with a volatile political situation existing in New Mexico), Vaca, with eight children and Vaca’s godson Pena and wife, Isabella, and their six children decided to make the move to California. They left Abiquiu in September 1841 and arrived in Los Angeles in November.

After staying in Los Angeles for a few months, they traveled to Sonoma, where Gen. Vallejo housed the women and children. The men continued on to occupy their chosen lands and to build homes. For temporary housing they built a temporary “wattle” house, in what is today’s Andrews Park, on a knoll where the former Vacaville High School was located.

The adobes were begun in 1842 in Lagoon Valley about a quarter of a mile from each other and were completed in 1844.

The Pena Adobe was constructed with three rooms on the ground floor and a full-length attic. The overall dimensions are 18 feet by 50 feet. The walls are about two feet thick and made entirely of adobe bricks. The original hewn redwood joists still support the ceiling. Door and window lintels came from the hills near Napa. The original roof was a tule-thatched roof.

In one account of the Pena Adobe history, the thatch roof was replaced with Spanish tiles “formed on the hips of Indian laborers,” although I have never seen any factual proof of this statement and it is probably not true. The thatched roof was replaced in 1850 with hand-split shakes from redwood logs.

The adobe was not spacious by any means. With no general store nearby, self-sufficiency was paramount. In the early days, cooking was done outdoors. Outside was a clay bake oven big enough to roast a full-sized pig. Fire pits lined with rocks supported the kettles and other cooking vessels. In addition, large kettles hung over open fires and bread was baked in a Dutch oven.

In the early days, there was no indoor plumbing and outhouses were necessary as well as wells for household use and farm chores. Other buildings around the home included barns, a blacksmith shop and two or three bunkhouses for the work crews. The early pioneers spent most of their time outdoors except during inclement or very hot weather.

The adobe was sparsely furnished as described by Luzena Stanley Wilson when she was invited to a fiesta in 1850, “Don Manuel with his daughter, greeted us with all the ceremony and courtesy of a Spanish grandee and showed us to the place of honor. We were ushered into a long room illuminated with tallow dips, destitute of furniture, with the exception of the two or three chairs reserved exclusively for the use of the American visitors. On either side were many mats, on which reclined with careless grace and ease the flirting belle and beau and the wrinkled duennas of the fiesta.”

Fiestas have a long tradition in Vacaville’s history and one of the better-known celebrations was the marriage of Maria Delores Vaca, granddaughter of both Manual Vaca and Juan Felipe Pena to John Patton Lyon in 1867.

Among the prominent guests were many of the early Spanish families of the country including the Armijos, Picos and Berryessas whose families, over time, would also become close relatives of the Vaca’s and Pena’s through marriage.

The celebration included a bull and bear fight to the death. Numerous cattle were slaughtered to feed the visitors who came from all over California.

Music filled the air as celebrants in colorful costumes swayed to and fro to the music of a guitar and tambourine. Refreshments included hot Spanish stews, tortillas and gallons of aguardiente - a Colombian liquor similar to Sambuca (black licorice) that is still very popular in Colombia and is included in all types of festivities.

The wedding festivities at the Pena Adobe lasted an entire week.

Several generations were born and raised in the adobe, as we shall see as we progress through this series about the history of the Pena Adobe right up to the present day.

Perhaps some of you will be interested in joining with the members of the “Friends of the Pena Adobe.” The goal of the “Friends” is to continue the restoration of the historic structure and associated museum, fundraising, and to reopen the adobe with a docent on a regular basis to the public. Programs that will interest schoolchildren and teach the history and heritage of the Indian and Spanish eras as well as native plants and their uses are also in the works.

If you think you might like to join this happy crew of dedicated volunteers, you can call Beverly Morlock, Nature-Environmental Education Program specialist, city of Vacaville Community Services Department, 469-6674, or e-mail her at

Also, if you are in the area of the Old Town Hall on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., drop by the Vacaville Heritage Council (bottom floor) for information.