Almost immediately upon its completion, cliff swallows began building their nests in the eaves of the house. One day, Fr. Junipero Serra was passing by the house just as the Don's son, Tavo, was shooing the birds away. Serra invited the birds to come live at the Mission, and they’ve been returning there ever since.(This annual migration, of course, inspired that beloved romantic hit tune of the 1940s, "Inka Dinka Doo.")
In December 1818, the cut-throat pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard ransacked San Juan Capistrano and commandeered the old adobe as his base of operations, burying a share of his pirate treasure under the home’s dirt floors. It is said that some of the treasure may yet remain.
(The basement later also served as a hideout for Juan Flores, the Tomato Springs Bandit, and Patty Hearst during her time with the S.L.A. Each fugitive left their name etched in the adobe walls.)
For some years after the mission was secularized, the adobe served as the local Catholic Church. In fact, it was here, in 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the document which returned the mission to the Church’s ownership. It’s said that his ghost can still be seen playing mumbleypeg on the porch each Presidents Day at midnight.
Shortly after the repatriation of the mission, the old adobe was purchased by Horst D. Westenfiel who sold beer and sandwiches. Ramona, (the half-Indian beauty for whom Helen Hunt Jackson’s named her blockbuster novel), famously ate part of a cheese sandwich there in the 1870s. Beginning around 1890 and continuing for half a century, the adobe was best known to tens of thousands of tourists as "The Place Where Ramona Ate A Cheese Sandwich." (Trade in Ramona/sandwich-related tourist tchotchkes kept the town's economy afloat even during the Great Depression.)
Next to the adobe was the famous “Old Hanging Tree,” on which many a criminal met a sudden end. Eventually the tree died, but its wood was used to build actress Helena Modjeska's home in the Santa Ana Mountains.
|The main room as it appeared prior to the 1960 adaptive reuse project. Note the circa 1900 fireplace.|
Rumrunners brought in booze through an old tunnel in the basement – once used for quick escapes by Murrieta – which ended in another basement on the far side of Camino Capistrano. The tunnel is sealed off now, but still exists and is said to be haunted.
Because it was so historically important, Walter Knott moved the adobe to Knott’s Berry Farm in 1941. But he moved it back when Capistrano locals complained.
In the early 1950s, the adobe was part of a large area suggested as a site for the future Disneyland by the Stanford Research Institute in a report developed for Walt Disney. Being close to a freeway and another major tourist attraction (the mission) was seen as a benefit. But the site was ultimately found unsuitable because a portion of it sat on an ancient Indian cemetery. Walt said a cemetery in his theme park would have been, "like, a major bummer, man."
|Among the more modern of the many historical plaques that slather the adobe.|
Since then, it has remained a bank, cycling through a number of names, including Southern California First National Bank and California First Bank. It was already a Union Bank (its current name) in 1996 when an unarmed but extremely convincing robber made off with almost $2,000.
Many famous Orange County residents, including Gwen Stefani, Dean R. Koontz, John Wayne, Dennis Rodman, Richard Nixon and Octomom, have done their banking there.
A recent environmental impact report on the adobe found it to have no historical significance. It's scheduled to be bulldozed and replaced with a frozen yogurt stand next year.