Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Furniture from the Trabuco Adobe

Trabuco Adobe ruins, circa 1930s. Now inside the boundaries of O'Neill Park.

People often come to me with "old stuff." When I can't immediately tell if I'm being offered trash or treasure, I tend to grab the item in question and figure it out later. Over the years, I've saved some important things that way. But sometimes the answers don't come easily. Here's a case where a group of artifacts which finally proved to be a mixed bag of relatively significant items mixed with one particular artifact that may yet prove to be downright amazing. Or not.

In 2019, archaeologist Holly "Sonny" (Windolph) Shelton of Grand Junction, Colorado contacted Mission San Juan Capistrano with an offer to donate four pieces of furniture which had been removed from the historic Trabuco Adobe about a century earlier. This adobe had been an estancia for the Mission and its ruins, located on the Rancho Santa Margarita side of O'Neil Park, are a reminder of what was perhaps the earliest "permanent" building in Orange County outside of San Juan Capistrano. Theoretically, this furniture could have dated back as early as the Mission Era. And even if it wasn't that early, it's association with the Trabuco Adobe alone made the furniture historically interesting.

The Mission turned down Shelton's offer. So on August 28, 2021, Shelton emailed the same offer to the Historical Parks division of OC Parks: 

She wrote, “During the late 1930s or 1940s my grandfather, Leo Windolph of San Juan Capistrano, purchased a parcel of land in Trabuco Canyon, in an area now encompassed by O'Neill Regional Park. Several deteriorating adobe structures were situated on the property.”

Painting of Trabuco Adobe ruins, circa 1920s by Anne Robinson

The only adobe structure there at that time was the Trabuco Adobe. And indeed, further research has shown that her family was farming that part of the Plano Trabuco (where the adobe is located) in the early 20th Century. 

The adobe, Shelton continued, “had previously been used by Mission San Juan Capistrano . . . and still held a number of mission-related antiquities such as ornate candlesticks, Santos, and other items. In addition, there were several pieces of furniture, all constructed by hand of wood and wrought iron . . .  Mr. Windolph felt these articles belonged to the Church and contacted a Father at the Mission who did come and took all but the furniture back to San Juan Capistrano Mission.” [See entry re Windolph, in Talbert's Historical Volume & Reference Works, Vol. 3, pg 687]

Here, the family lore becomes a little hazy, but none of the important information conflicts with the known historical facts about the furniture itself. Some details, however, are missing from the story. 

For instance, a key turning point seems to have come when the roof was torn off the Trabuco Adobe in the early 1920s to provide tile for Fr. St. John O’Sullivan’s restoration of the Mission’s Serra Chapel. Either the furniture was removed at that point and put into storage (perhaps in a nearby barn) or it was left, as Shelton suggests, still in situ until the 1930s or 1940s. The degree of weathering on most of the furniture suggests the former. 

Portion of the Trabuco Adobe ruins, inside a wood shelter, 2012 (Photo by author)

“Eventually, of the aforementioned furniture,” Shelton wrote, “I inherited two high-backed chairs and a large table and bench. . . As I have no heirs or family and feel the items should not remain in Colorado, it is my intention to return them to an entity located as close to their place of origin as soon as possible. As the Mission has declined my offer I am pursuing other alternatives. . .”

“. . . Approximate sizes are: Table 5ft L x 3ft W x 3ft high; bench 5ft L x 1.5ft W x 1.5ft high; chairs 4.5 feet high at back and 2ft wide. Condition: As they are quite old but have been indoors, the wood is slightly weathered but structurally sound, wrought iron in good condition, leather sling seat, and back of chair #1 professionally replaced from a pattern of the original leather which was so old it had begun to crumble. Chair #2 is all wood. The bench has been stained and sealed but is reversible.”

The refinished "Chair #1" (Photo by author)

OC Parks also rejected the offer but kindly passed the email along to the Orange County Archives, which unfortunately is not in the business of accepting such large artifacts. County Archivist Susan Berumen then passed Shelton's email along to me.

I accepted the furniture myself with the idea to study it, pull together as much information as possible about it, and then carefully find an appropriate home (or homes) for it. 

In September 2021, Shelton’s brother, Doug Windolph -- at great inconvenience to himself -- delivered the furniture to me at a predetermined storage site in Orange County. 

Six-foot table with moving straps still around it. (Photo by author)

Soon it became clear that two of the pieces – the table and the bench -- were definitely not from the Mission Era. Historian Eric Plunkett suggested measuring the furniture, and indeed the table and bench measured neatly in feet and inches rather than Spanish varas and fractions of varas. 

Moreover, the table and bench were carefully crafted to look like mortise and tenon construction but were actually held together with hidden nuts and bolts. And finally, the furniture was not built of woods that were readily available in Early California and the wrought iron supports showed a level of sophistication uncommon on the rugged frontier. The table and bench were likely built as “Mission Revival” pieces circa 1900-1920. They were probably purchased during that time and added to the Trabuco Adobe with an eye toward having it appear “at home” in such a structure. 

Six-foot long bench. (Photo by author)

The refinished chair with leather sling seat is likely also from the early 20th Century, although it’s harder to tell for certain. It may be early, but the fact that it was refinished makes it difficult to tell a great deal more about it. 

That said, the table, bench and refinished chair’s century-old connection to the Trabuco Adobe make ALL of this furniture historically significant, regardless of its exact age. Very few artifacts from this early estancia survive, from any era. Moreover, they still look – as intended – right at home in an adobe structure and accurately depict the style of furniture one would have seen in Southern California during the Mission Era. Thus, being simultaneously historical artifacts AND historical reproductions, in mid-2022 I offered them to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, which graciously accepted. At the time, they were restoring/rebuilding a historic adobe in the Los Rios District as part of their museum and I asked that these pieces be “displayed for educational purposes, and interpreted through signage that reflects the history of the Trabuco Adobe.” 

"Chair #2" (Photo by author)

The fourth piece of furniture – still under study and not donated with the rest – is what Shelton identified as Chair #2. This chair is in rougher condition than the rest of the furniture and has clearly had a couple pieces (including the seat) replaced at some point in the past. But this chair bears many indications of being very early. It has traces of paint seemingly consistent with the Spanish/Mexican Colonial era. It features no obvious measurements in feet or inches, but numerous measurements in fractions of varas. 

Also, Chair #2 is made of pine or fir, which would have been the only lumber available locally prior to expanding trade in the 1830s. The construction techniques – aside from the aforementioned replaced pieces and two holes that seem to have been drilled at a later date -- are consistent with the Mission Era as well. (Admittedly, such furniture has often been replicated by others over the generations.) A number of historians have provided their observations regarding the chair so far, including longtime Rancho Los Cerritos curator Steve Iverson, who also happens to be a master woodworker. 

Detail from "Chair #2" (Photo by author)
There is still a hope that a few more experts to weigh in on this chair. To that end, it has been moved to another location in Orange County which not only provides better temperature and humidity conditions for the chair but also provides easier access for said experts to assess the piece. 

Meanwhile, the reappearance of this collection of furniture has led Eric Plunkett to do additional original research into the Trabuco Adobe as well as the story of furniture manufacturing at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Among his earliest findings were the fact that the Trabuco Adobe is older than most thought and that it was used initially for shepherds rather than vaqueros. He has also learned exactly who the master carpenter was at the mission and the names of the neophytes he trained. (See The Trabuco Adobe: The Oldest Adobe Outside of Capistrano in O.C.?

Delivery day! (L to R) Chris Jepsen, Eric Plunkett, Sandra Windolph, Doug Windolph. Sept. 19, 2021