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By Jan Siegel
Don’t you just love it when the entire history of San Juan Capistrano comes together in one neat little package? And this one is even tied with a bow!
Two hundred years ago, on March 8, 1812 at Rancho San Pedro in Alta California (Los Angeles), Juan Avila was born. Yes, this is the Juan Avila that Capistrano lore refers to as “El Rico.”
It is thought that the family name comes from the area in Spain, where they came from originally.
Cornelio Avila with his wife Isabel Urquidez helped Felipe de Neve bring the first families from Mexico to settle in the Pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781. Their son, Antonio Ignacio, was the mayordomo of Rancho San Pedro and the father of Juan Avila who was born on the ranch in 1812. Juan Avila married Soledad Yorba of San Juan Capistrano in 1833. She was the daughter of Jose Antonio Yorba.
Juan Avila was given a large Mexican land grant on June 21, 1842, which he named El Rancho Niguel. Thousands of head of cattle roamed the Ranchero, which extended from the ocean at what is today called Laguna Niguel and included the area now known as Laguna Woods.
Avila became very wealthy by driving cattle to northern markets during the Gold Rush.
When the four years of drought occurred in the 1860’s only 800 of his 8,000 livestock survived. But he was able to financially survive the drought and helped his neighbors as well.
The Avilas built their home in San Juan Capistrano. In an article from the 1941, The Coastline Dispatch, the 10-room adobe home was described “as the best in Spanish Californian native architecture with luxurious woodwork and furnishings that were brought around Cape Horn from the eastern states. The mansion had “glistening white walls, green New England shutters, great paneled doors, lofty beamed ceiling and rich and artistic furnishings that were the pride and envy of Southern California pueblos. ” The 10 rooms ended where the north wall of the large two-story brick building now stands (the Provincial building and) formed the Avila residence, the remaining seven contiguous rooms, ending at the corner of Verdugo and forming the Valenzeula and Pryor homes, had a common front wall and corridor with the Avila portion making a great unbroken block of adobe buildings.” Don Ramon Yorba, nephew of Soledad Yorba de Avila and frequent visitor of the large adobe, said in an interview question “what was San Juan like in the 1860’s?” The answer, “Why, Don Juan Avila’s house of course-that was all there was to San Juan Capistrano in those days.”
Don Juan Avila also had a rancho adobe on his Rancho Niguel property. “Part of the decoration in the living room of that establishment was a stuffed calf. The calf was stuffed from head to hoof with great eight-sided gold slugs-California’s fabled $50 gold pieces!”
The hospitality of the Avila’s were legendary. In 1846 and 1847 Generals Fremont and Kearny as well as Commodore Stockton were said to have been entertained. General Andreas Pico and the last two Mexican governors Pio Pico and Jose Maria Flores were also welcome visitors.
There was always music and plenty of food. Whenever provisions ran low, locals knew that they could always count of the generosity of Don Juan.
The fire of 1879 destroyed most of the Avila mansion. What furnishings could be saved were moved outside by Ranch hands. According to legend, it took eight ranch hands to move the great chest from the blazing adobe to safety. What happened to the ‘gold inside the chest’ is still the talk of legend in town today. But Avila could no longer afford to rebuild the adobe. So he settled on a suite of four rooms and used the saved shutters and saved paneled doors as reminders of the past. The chest. Oh yes, it survived.
Starting in March, the Historical Society on Los Rios Street will exhibit artifacts from the Avila family, including the chest. This is the tying of the history of our town with a neat bow. The artifacts have been bequeathed to the Society by the great-grandchildren of Don Juan Avila.
Jan Siegel is a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission and Historical Society Board of Directors. Her name appears on the city’s “Wall of Recognition.”