Happy First Day of October everyone! Can you believe Fall is here? Football games are in full swing, baseball is winding up, leaves are turning…even in wacky Southern California we have had glimpses of Fall weather here and there. We’re ringing in the eerie days of October bright and early for you with today’s episode. We met up with our favorite local ghost tour company, Haunted Orange County, for another fun evening filled with rich history and lots of haunted stories replete with bandits, banshees and faceless monks. Our amazing guide, Charles (you’ll remember him from last year’s episode “Haunted Orange“) was in splendid guide mode as we walked through the quaint and über-historic town of San Juan Capistrano.
If you don’t live in this area, chances are you may still have heard about San Juan Capistrano. It’s famous for two things: 1) Mission San Juan Capistrano and 2) the swallows returning to town every year in March. If you live in Orange County – or even Southern California – something’s for certain: you either took a school tour of the Mission in elementary school and/or you had to do some kind of report on the Missions of California that probably included some form of construction project you proudly (or not) carried into your classroom to display along all the other renditions of Missions of our lovely state.
Having lived in Orange County, CA, all our lives, we never thought beyond the Mission when San Juan Capistrano is mentioned. Pity, that. It’s a fantastic town so full of history we could do a month or two of podcasts on downtown alone. We are grateful to Charles and Haunted Orange County for helping us see beyond the mission walls.
We showed up for our tour about an hour early and tried to get a “quick” bite to eat at Trevor’s by the Tracks restaurant. We waited in line for almost 10 minutes before hearing the hostess tell the couple ahead of us there was an hour wait for first available. Rats. While there are other less crowded restaurants in the same space, we trotted ourselves over to our old stand-by: Starbucks. After coffee and a sous vide egg bites (YUM), we headed back to the meeting point, checked in with Charles and after the (very loud) train pulled away, we crossed the tracks into another world. In fact, this is the interval sound effect we used in this episode. It was very exciting to experience the train pulling in and then departing. The energy of people going places…travelling…IT’S SO COOL!
If you haven’t been to Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano, and you’re in the area, you must make this part of your adventure. Park in the parking structure next to the tracks (or in some of the other lots across the main street near the park), and as you walk toward the tracks, notice the tiny building which used to be the home of a very stubborn young woman.(Charles told this story, but you’ll have to hear it from him in person, since we only include highlights of his tour in today’s episode). It is now the Hummingbird House Cafe (Kris can attest to their delicious food from previous trips). As you cross the tracks, feel yourself melt into the past in this magical, relaxing street (which happens to be a working residential street so do watch out for cars which seem very incongruous in this setting). This street is the longest-occupied residential street in California, with houses dating back to the 1700’s. The oldest continual residence since then – lived in by the same family – is the Rios Adobe, now home and law office to Mr. Stephen Rios, Esquire. It is also, according to Charles, quite haunted.
Turning to your right, there are many little homes converted to businesses – mostly cafes and colorful shops bursting with trinkets and artsy wares, and a tea house if you want to get your high tea on. But be sure to visit the Montanez Adobe with it’s lovely butterfly sanctuary out front. It’s not a walk-in tour, so you’ll have to call the museum ahead of time to go inside. Even if you can’t tour the interior, there are benches all around for you to sit and marvel at the peaceful loveliness of the garden.
Next to the Rios Adobe is Old Mr. Tree, a gigantic ancient pepper tree. If you look up, you’ll see a skull or two hanging from the branches (can you spot one in the photo?). To the left is a coffee shop called Hidden House Coffee; when we went back the next day for photos and a walkabout, the joint was hoppin’! If you don’t mind a bit of a wait, you can grab a bite and a cup of coffee before heading over to the Zoomars Petting Zoo.
You don’t have to go into the petting zoo…you can walk along the outer edge and get a nice visual (and sniff) of the animals they have inside: chickens, emus, llamas (alpacas?), goats, horses…there’s more, we’re sure. Right now they are decorated for Halloween, and will be having their Pumpkinpalooza event all October, so if you have littles, take them on down! Haunted Orange County is also hosting a Sugar Skull Workshop on October 19, so sign up soon because they sell out fast.
Although Charles told us a story about a local “la llarona” (a child killing banshee, basically) who is said to wander the creek at the end of the path near the zoo, he assured us it’s all just an urban myth. (No, the movie is not about this la llarona legend. We don’t think it is anyway…)
Our tour took us past the petting zoo to the O’Neill Museum. This is the oldest wooden structure in the area, built in the 1870s by saloon owner Jose Dolores Garcia as a gift for his wife Refugio Yorba. Garcia was murdered, and his despondent wife sold the home to a Mr. Albert Pryor, and then it passed to the Cornwall family who donated the home to the Historical Society of San Juan Capistrano in the 1970s. The home was moved across the train tracks to its present location and is open to the public for a very fair requested donation of $1. To walk through this tiny home and see the furnishings (and the wallpaper incarnations), the artwork, and just feel the atmosphere and energy of the past within its walls is a must-do on your visit to the district. For Halloween, the Society is conducting their own Ghosts and Legends Tours on Friday, October 25, and Saturday, October 26, 2019. Please check the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society website for this and other events year ’round. We include Charles’ story of Mr. Garcia’s murder, and the hauntings of the building in today’s episode (including Mr. Pryor rocking in a rocking chair on the porch. As you can see below, there’s no rocking chair there…)
One of the highlights of the ghost tour, and of our day trip, was visiting the “second jail cell” of San Juan Capistrano. It’s literally an iron-work cage sitting in front of one of the museum’s buildings on property, and is open for anyone to go inside and get a feel for the eerie. Charles spoke of suicides and other horrible events related to this tiny little holding cell, and honestly, when we tried to get a photo of Kym going into the cell that night, the photos were streaked with all kinds of what looks like backscatter. Oddly enough, there was no wind or breeze, there were no bugs, no flurries, no mist to speak of that evening, not even people hurrying in and out of the frame of the camera. Yet every photo had issues with the quality. When visiting the next day, we both went inside the cage together but all we felt was cramped. But hey, look for yourself and see what you think:
On our night tour, we went to the El Adobe Restaurant for more haunted stories. Passers-by leaving the restaurant kept saying how delicious the food is and so the next day we tried to go to lunch, but we were too early as the El Adobe was closed (it was just past 11 am). Disappointed at first, we were pleasantly uplifted by the offerings of Ellie’s Table across the street. At first glance it looked to be just a bakery and coffee shop, but they had a full menu and their display cases were packed with some nicely colorful and tasty looking premade sandwiches, salads, and of course baked amazingness. We each ordered an eggwhite burrito and cappuccino and sat on the terrace outside to eat. Coincidentally the restaurant was once the home of “Judge” Egan (who wasn’t really a judge) and was part of the tour (we realized once we sat down). In today’s episode, we share Charles’ story of the “Judge’s” not-so-legal construction endeavours. It’s a beautiful house (THE FLOORING!), shady history and all, and is definitely a nice eatery with reasonable prices.
We ended both tours in the same spot…in front of the majestic Mission San Juan Capistrano. We include Charles’ touching story of Father John O’Sullivan in our episode. O’Sullivan is credited with “saving” the mission, as he was responsible for creating the look of the campus as we see it today – taking it from ruins back to its (humble) glory. The Mission had been passed along for many years from governments to (rich) private owners where it fell into disrepair. Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln returned all missions to the Catholic church shortly before he was assassinated; if it wasn’t for President Lincoln, and then Father O’Sullivan, it’s likely we would only have blocks of masonry to study, rather than the beautiful heritage site we can explore now. Charles also talks about the earthquake that killed parishioners attending mass in the cathedral, and of the young woman who’s death caused a mysterious tolling of the mission bells, even though no one knew she had died, and no one had been in the bell tower when the bells pealed their mournful goodbye to their loyal servant.
If you can’t tell, we love San Juan Capistrano. There are many shops, restaurants, and parks to visit. We highly recommend you spend at last a day there, walking in Los Rios district, enjoying the local park, perusing the antique shops, and definitely visit the mission. You could even cross the 5 freeway and search out the private (and closed) cemetery Charles spoke of in the episode…we know where it is and we may just have to go back to see if we can sneak a peek somehow. Until then, we’ll have our photos, our memories, and definitely this episode to tide us over.
Many thanks again to Charles Spratley of Haunted Orange County. Charles has been conducting tours for 18 years; he is a history aficionado – his love of all things paranormal, antique, and teaching comes through on every tour. He’s our favorite guide and we hope to join him in future events! Be sure to take some cash to tip him at the end of the night. It’s well worth it.
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