By Mary G. Marston
Some of the happiest memories of my childhood center about the old Agua Tibia Ranch. I can still hear the drowsy hum of the bees, smell the sage, and feel the hot, dry air of summer afternoons when my cousin and I, sitting on the high seat of a farm wagon under the ramada at the end of the house, engaged in long conversations while our elders took their siestas.
Seventy years ago it took a day or more to reach the ranch. Either we drove with two horses from San Diego, spending a night on the way at a farm house or country hotel, or we took the morning train to Oceanside, where we were met by a team from Trotter’s Livery Stable. It was driven by a young Englishman, said to be a remittance man of good family, of whom there were quite a number in Oceanside. We drove up the San Luis Rey Valley, sometimes stopping at the Old Mission long enough to be shown the church and the garden by one of the priests. Beyond the Mission the road was dose to the river, which I remember as a clear, sparkling stream. Willows and alders festooned with chillicothe vines, wild grape vines, and wild clematis grew between us and the water. We crossed the river at the Monserrate Ranch. By the time we reached Pala everyone was tired and so were the horses. We had four miles more to go, first by a level road through the sage brush and then by a winding road up the hill to the old adobe ranch house.
The house had been built by an Indian chief. It consisted, when I knew it, of one long row of rooms; in the middle was the living room, with a door and two windows at both front and back; on either side were bedrooms, the dining room and kitchen at one end and the ramada at the other. The floors were of wood, the roof of tile, and the adobe walls were at least three feet thick. Built on a low spur of Palomar Mountain, the house commanded a view down the valley and across it to a range of hills, bathed in magic light and color at sunset time. Along the entire front of the house a hard earth terrace made a shady out-door sitting room in the mornings. Here we were often regaled with chilled watermelon from the stone dairy house, and here we watched with field glasses travelers on the road that led from Pala to Rincon, my cousins all excitement if a horseman or a team should turn into the ranch road. There was plenty of time to prepare for company before an approaching guest could cross the open flat and climb the steep hill to the house. The ranch was a lonely place and guests were eagerly welcomed.
An occasional visitor did not interest me. I loved the ranch, which was indeed a paradise for children. My fondest recollection is of the hours spent under the fig trees, where an irrigating ditch ran between two rows of trees. The ditch with its dear water was a sylvan brook to a child and one of the trees, really of moderate size, to two little girls seemed immense. Under “the big fig tree” we set up our playthings and had our tea parties. Our refreshments were crackers, bars of Ghirardelli’s chocolate, and figs.
At that time the ranch was famous for its fruits. It grew a great variety, but I remember only the summer ones, the figs, both purple and white, the peaches, the Moorpark apricots, the plums and the grapes. These were of a deliciousness unsurpassed, but too perishable for shipping. Olives, oranges, walnuts, and persimmons were sent to market, and also dried apricots. In early summer there were always large wooden trays of halved apricots drying in the sun.
In the dairy house, a small stone room separate from the house at the kitchen end, there stood two large wooden barrels of olives, with dippers hanging at their sides. We children could help ourselves as often as we wished. No other olives have ever tasted so good. On shelves around the room were the milk pans, the cream rising thick and luscious, and under the shelves on the stone floor were watermelons.
The ground sloped away from the house at the back to the tool house and the barn, the corrals for the horses and cows, and the pig pen, from which the little pigs often strayed into the dusty barnyard or to the lush green meadow on the right. This meadow was watered by the overflow of the sulphur spring whose tepid water gave the ranch its name. Stepping stones in the oozy meadow led to the bathhouse, where the spring water was continuously running in and out of the wooden tub built into the floor. No matter how dirty we children got, a bath in that soft, warm water restored us to pristine cleanliness. The smell of the sulphur was strong, but the softness of the water more than made up for it. Washing clothes was an easy task for the fat Indian woman, named Encarnacio´n, who had to be fetched for the purpose from the reservation at Rincon.
There were many unforgettably beautiful things at the ranch. Below the bathhouse the tules, with their brown blossoms, grew thick and tall and wild roses bloomed beside them. Bordering one of the orchards was a rose hedge, higher than a man, of many varieties, red, white, pink, and yellow. I especially remember the Ragged Robins and the old-fashioned pink Moss roses.
Behind the house on the left beyond the fig trees, a mountain stream tumbled down a narrow canyon. This was Marion Creek, one of three creeks on the property. The tangle of vegetation, the rocks and the possible rattlesnakes made it too dangerous a place for children. We were not allowed to go there alone, but I remember one exciting and exhausting expedition up the stream bed. Always on the look-out for snakes and poison oak, we clambered over the rocks and ducked under the low branches of the alders until we reached miniature waterfalls and lovely pools.
My cousins, Anita and Lewis, just a little older than I, were thoroughly at home with horses. Riding bareback behind Anita I learned to keep my seat, even at a gallop. But one day we decided to go after a .watermelon. The melon patch was at the foot of the hill in front of the house. It was a very hot afternoon and it took us a long time to catch and bridle a pony and to climb onto its back. Remounting with our heavy melon was even more difficult, as we had only a barbed wire fence from which to mount; however, we accomplished it. As we climbed the steep path home I kept sliding backwards. The pony had been taught to buck when a hand was placed on his flanks, so up into the air I went and down onto the dusty path and the watermelon fell on the rocks and broke into a thousand pieces!
In later years we rode a great deal, each with a horse properly saddled and bridled. A favorite ride was to Pala because the long, level stretch of hard dirt road through the sage brush gave us the chance for a good gallop. But as children we went to Pala very seldom; occasionally someone going there on an errand would take us for the drive. I considered it a very interesting place. I liked seeing the Mission with its bell tower and walled graveyard and I liked watching the Indians, who loafed about the doorway of Veal’s Store where we got the mail. There was nothing else to be seen, but the tiny place had a unique attractiveness.
I have one grim recollection of a visit to the ranch when I was eight years old. Soon after arriving I came down with the measles and was quite out of my head. In the bedrooms were no clothes closets, only pegs on the walls. In my delirium I thought the garments hanging there were people whom my aunt had beheaded! My confused state lasted only a short time and my kind aunt’s good nursing soon had me up and able to eat her wonderful food.
How we looked forward to the meals at the ranch! The Mexican beans (a great pot of them always simmered at the back of the stove), the game, the poultry, the sweet-pickled peaches, the marmalades and jellies and jams, the honey, and the rice puddings! Into those rice puddings, made without eggs and baked for hours in a slow oven, was stirred, every half hour or so, a cup of thick cream.
There was a definite Spanish atmosphere about the Agua Tibia. The name, the adobe house, the Mexican and Indian ranch hands, the use of the Spanish language with the servants and with some of the neighbors, gave it aspects of an old Spanish rancho. My aunt was always addressed as “Señora.” My cousins, who had lessons with a Spanish gentleman who lived in Temecula, spoke Spanish fluently.
As I grew older I went less often to the ranch and for several years I did not go at all. When I went again the old adobe house was gone. It had been severely damaged by the Christmas morning earthquake of 1899 and had been replaced by a frame house. I sadly missed the familiar long white facade standing out against the dark mountain and the swallows circling about their mud nests under the eaves of the ramada. To my astonishment the big fig tree had shrunk to ordinary size and our brook was only an irrigating ditch! I realized, too, that ranch life was not all easy and carefree and that my aunt and her family, who had been away intermittently, would like to sell the place and leave permanently. But no adult perspectives could ever efface the happy recollections of my childhood visits to the Agua Tibia.