The weather was gray and over-cast the day I visited Pio Pico State Historic Park, yet from the moment I set foot on the property I could almost hear the Mariachi trumpets, see the colorful ballgowns and hear the laughter and gaiety of the grand fiestas of the past.
As it turns out there is reason to once again celebrate. Just two days ago, June 12, 2012, the City of Whittier came forward to help save this park. The city will be signing an agreement with the state and contributing $30,000 to keep Pio Pico open for the next year, giving them another six months to raise the additional $40,000 to keep the park from closing. Contributions can be made at the Save Pio Pico website.
Pío Pico was the governor of California in 1832 and again in 1846, before and during the Mexican-American War. Born at the San Gabriel Mission in 1801, he lived in a time when the Spanish, Mexican and American flags consecutively flew over California. He began to build his ranchito here in about 1853. Today it is surround-ed by the towns of Whittier and Pico Rivera east of Los Angeles.
I roamed the outdoors of the estate first. Only five of the original 9000 acres of the ranch remain. Governor Pico once owned more land than any other individual in Southern California, being in possession of over half a million acres in the 1850s.
I was drawn to a large open lawn with a stage-like terrace at one end. I was certain this area accommodated many lively parties in its prime time, and I could almost envision dancers on the lawn for the starlight balls, with the musi-cians playing their tunes on the terrace. And indeed that's how it was.
The parties, customs and hospitality of Old California were legend-ary throughout the 19th Century.
Governor Pico lived larger than life. He was renowned for his extravagant lifestyle, as well as for his gambling. He spent lavishly although he was often land rich but cash poor. Entertaining in a grand style, funerals, wedding s and religious festivals were opportunities to invite family and friends for week long celebrations complete with music, dancing, feasts and the wearing of elaborate gowns and other finery.
Guests often stayed for weeks, with their every need provided, including coins throughout the house so they would not have to spend their own money.
From his home, Pio Pico could look westward across the plain to the old San Gabriel River one mile away. The adobe was surrounded by beautiful gardens with rare and imported flowering plants. Citrus groves, a vineyard and a kitchen garden were within steps of the mansion
Or he could sit on his north veranda, where a historic bell marker indicates the original El Camino Real, and watch horses and buggies pass by on the old road.
His grain fields and the mountains were his western view when he dined on the patio.
The mansion is typical of the type of adobes that wealthy Californios built for themselves. Originally twice as large, it was considered to be quite impressive for the 1850s - 1860s.
Festivities at the Pico Adobe centered around the parlor, and the adjoining patio. Pico Americanized his parlor by way of furnishings, wall coverings and modern conveniences but the hospitality was purely Californio.
Like most Californios, Pio Pico had much difficulty proving legal title to his land once California became part of the United States. Court cases were expensive and lengthy. After decades of legal battles, he eventually lost everything and was forced off of his property in 1892. He died in his daughter's home in 1894.
The city of Whittier bought the land for water wells in 1905. The building was in ruins.
Mrs. Harriet Russell Strong - a friend of Pio Pico since 1867 - purchased the adobe and began restoration under the newly formed Governor Pico Mansion Society and Museum Association. The building was stabilized and repaired. Unfortunately many inauthentic changes were made to the original structure in the process. Mrs. Strong donated the property to State for safekeeping in 1927.
Like many historic California structures, it was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Repairs are still in process.
But today - thanks to the City of Whittier - we can celebrate that there is still life left in this grand old adobe where once the wine flowed freely from its vineyards.
Perhaps I'll have a glass myself in celebration. I'm certain Governor Pico would approve.
I hope to see you at the state parks.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of my Father, who loved reading maps, exploring alternate routes, and taking the road less traveled.
Alvin David Dick, April 28, 1926 - May 20, 2012