Rancho Santa Margarita Remembered: An Oral History
By Jerome W. Baumgartner. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1989. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. 170 pages. $17.95.
Reviewed by Shirley E. Stephenson, Associate Director and Archivist, Oral History Program, California State University, Fullerton; author of Editing and Indexing Guidelines for Oral History (1983) and co-editor of A Guide for Oral History Programs (1973).
Rancho Santa Margarita Remembered: An Oral History is alleged to have taken place on one weekend in 1974 when Jerome O. Baumgartner, a gentlemen of seventy-one years of age, recalled childhood memories of living on the Santa Margarita Ranch in northern San Diego County for his son, Jerome W. “Jome” Baumgartner. These stories had been told many times over the years but this time they were being tape recorded. The outcome, claims the publisher, would “become a remarkable oral history” of one of the biggest and most important ranchos in California history.
In the foreword, the author states that his father reminisced for one entire weekend; however, according to the bibliography, Baumgartner was interviewed on a long weekend in October 1974 and again in February 1975. The reader will only obtain this information from checking the bibliography as there are no questions, no prompts, and no comments which are traditionally a part of oral history methodology. The bibliography also notes there were three days of interviewing with two ranch employees. Again, there is no indication in the text of this supportive material.
The publisher has printed the comments credited to “the author” (the son) in italics. There are only two italicized notations indicating any form of a question. The daughter-in-law, Sydney Baumgartner, offers the reminder, “You were telling us about the ranch house, Mr. B. Please go on.” (p. 20). Then again, she says, “Mr. B. tell me about Sing.” (p. 27). At no other time is the reader made aware that anyone is present to ask questions, while Baumgartner recalls the “flawless” first-person memories of childhood events which occurred some sixty or seventy years earlier. Baumgartner was born in 1903. In only a few instances does it appear he has repeated the same information. For example, Baumgartner describes how the entire family would sit on the porch on summer evenings and talk in hushed tones as they could hear the vaqueros playing their guitars and singing the popular tunes of the time, especially one beautiful melody, “La Golondrina.” (pp. 24-25). This story is repeated in almost the exact words (p. 133), which could give the reader the impression that the narrator has repeated stories in other areas, too, but that they have been edited “properly.”
Interestingly, Mr. Baumgartner states “when you get to be my age, you look back at your childhood and find that a lot of it’s distorted. You can’t remember clearly.” (p. 5). How then, one wonders, can his story be told in such an error-free rendition of the past. What follows are 168 pages of well-edited narration.
We who practice oral history and do interviews as a method for collecting and preserving the past memoirs of older citizens, and recording our local, regional, and national history, know all too well that reminiscences do not come off in a well-defined articulate style without false starts and repetition. As stated earlier, there are a few times when the editors have printed the reiterated stories. Is this so the reader will get the impression that the memories of twenty years might not have flowed in perfect chronological order? For example, Baumgartner was explaining the adventures of fishing with Sing, the Chinese cook, in the afternoons when he seems to abruptly begin talking about the Christmas customs on the Santa Margarita. Here the reader might wonder if he was asked some questions or was prompted in some fashion. Otherwise, one can go on for hours and hours without repetition of facts.
The acknowledgements state that the book was shaped from a series of interviews with people who lived on the Rancho Santa Margarita in its last days, and that all the words spoken in the book were either spoken by Jerome O. Baumgartner; Carl Romer, an employee of the Santa Margarita; Inez Grant, a niece of Jane Magee; or Harry Whitman, the manager of the Santa Margarita after Jerome O’ Neill died. However, the reader is never made aware of their comments nor are they identified or attributed to anytime throughout the book.
As this reviewer recorded several hours of oral interviews with John J. Baumgartner, Jr. (an older brother of Jerome O. Baumgartner) transcripts were published in 1982. The stories and small details told in Rancho Santa Margarita Remembered, with few exceptions, are almost in exact duplication of those in the 1982 book. In fact, replication occurs so often you wonder whose it is. For example, in the case of the explanation and pronunciation of the word “rodeo,” the explanation is nearly identical to the explanation of John Baumgartner, who was regarded as a champion rider and roper. Because of the many similarities in the stories recalled in Rancho Santa Margarita Remembered and the John J. Baumgartner, Jr.: Reflections of a Scion of the Rancho Santa Margarita, (1982), one gets the impression that the brothers were either very, very close as children, or they had reviewed the other’s printed copy. Jerome Baumgartner reviewed his brother John’s oral history transcripts, by request, because of John’s very serious injury which affected his memory. How much of this volume was recalled or made more vivid because of reviewing his brother’s transcript? Or would each man’s memories be piqued by the same photographs? These oral histories have many common interests: many of the same photographs are reproduced, the family tree appears to be a duplication made by the interviewer/editor of John Baumgartner’s oral history, and the TO brand, an important part of the Santa Margarita, is used throughout the volume to separate stories and chapters, even though the brand is currently registered by John Baumgartner.
The stories of the Rancho Santa Margarita are a most interesting facet of California history and Rancho Santa Margarita Remembered provides an exciting recall of different events about rural southern California. Anyone who has read the oral history of John J. Baumgartner, Jr., however, will not find too many different events recalled in this later volume. Although a different type of “oral history” and well done, this volume could be improved with an index, an integral part of any published oral history.