History is not so much about the people of the past as what the
past means for the people of the present. That’s why California’s
colorful frontier story comes to vivid life this weekend in San
Juan Bautista when
re-enactors take visitors on a trip back to the town’s pioneer
History is not so much about the people of the past as what the past means for the people of the present. That’s why California’s colorful frontier story comes to vivid life this weekend in San Juan Bautista when “living history” re-enactors take visitors on a trip back to the town’s pioneer days.
The San Juan Bautista State Historic Park’s annual “Early Days in San Juan Bautista” event will be held this Saturday when the park’s grounds bustle with a variety of special interpretive activities.
“It’s a family-oriented day where people can learn about the everyday life of someone living in the 19th century,” said Andrea Mapes, a park ranger and co-organizer of the event. “It happens mostly in the plaza, but some of the stuff happens inside the buildings as well.”
Historic era demonstrations such as black-smithing and bread baking in an horno – a beehive-shaped adobe oven – will give visitors a chance to feel the heat from the everyday activities of the folks of San Juan Bautista long ago.
A magic show is planned to entertain kids and grownups with Victorian-era illusions. And a covered wagon exhibit will allow visitors to observe how early immigrants to California transported their worldly possessions when they made the arduous trip overland.
“It’s all loaded up with stuff,” Maples said of the wagon. “It has a big display of objects that would have been inside it.”
Volunteers costumed as mountain men and early California pioneers will interact with visitors to give them a sense of the daily difficulties and challenges people in the town’s past faced, she said.
Musicians such as the Limber Jim Bartz Band and the Los Californios Band will play popular songs of the period, she said, adding, “There’ll probably most likely be period dancers doing dances of that time, such as fandangos.”
Event volunteers strive for authenticity in conveying what life was like in the early days of the Spanish mission town. The clothing and equipment used in re-enacting the past represent as closely as possible the common items ordinary people of the 1800s would have been familiar with, the ranger said.
In conjunction with the day’s events, a Grand Victorian Ball is planned for Saturday evening in the second floor ball room of the park’s Plaza Hall. This popular annual event, held since 1982, requires special tickets to attend. Guests are encouraged to dress up in the elegant fashion of the 19th century.
“There’s going to be a dance instruction for the ball,” Maples said. “Basically, there’s a live band that plays Victorian music of the later 19th century. A lot of people like to dress up for it in Victorian- or Mexican-era attire, but they can also dress in a nice dress or suit.”
The Early Days event serves as a fund-raiser for by the Plaza History Association, a nonprofit organization created to help preserve the park’s buildings and educate the public on San Juan Bautista’s riveting past.
Association member Carol Verbeeck, a San Martin resident who helped in organizing the Early Days, said California is rich in human history starting thousands of years ago when Native Americans first made their home here. She and her husband Bruce Horttor volunteer in the park’s annual event – as well as its monthly “Living History Day” events – to bring the South Valley’s past to life for visitors. They have one of the most popular attractions – the reconstructed covered wagon.
“Most of us didn’t set out to get as involved as we did. It just kind of drags you in,” Verbeeck said.
Attractions of the park’s Early Days event will not focus on a specific year but will span several decades. From the colorful Spanish and Mexican eras when California was sparsely populated, to the Gold Rush period and American statehood, from the Civil War period of the 1860s, to the turn of the 20th century when the frontier came to a close, visitors will get a panoramic view of the dramatic changes San Juan Bautista experienced in its early days.
Visitors are encouraged to chat with the volunteers and ask questions to learn about life in the past.
“We all want to be approached by your questions,” Verbeeck said. “Visitors are absolutely encouraged to ask about our camp – such as why were are dressed that way, what kind of equipment we brought, what kind of period we represent.”
Families with children are especially encouraged to come, she said. “It’s a great way for kids to learn about California history,” she said. “There are connections that kids can make to every day life.”
For Verbeeck personally, participating in living history events such as Early Days helps her “hook” to the remarkable women who were the region’s pioneers. “For me, there’s a very strong connection in the history of women in the West – just the personalities and changes that women went through as they made the journey,” she said.
“It gives me heroes, in a way, with these (pioneer) women whom I admire because of their strength and how they got through any number of challenges.”
Understanding what these women went through emotionally and physically in their daily struggles of creating a new life in the hard frontier helps Verbeeck find her own emotional strengths.
“It gives us something we can apply to our modern lives,” she said. “It’s not something quaint we do on a weekend.”
Early Days in San Juan Bautista
The event will take place at the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park from 11am to 4pm June 18. The park is located in the city of San Juan Bautista, on Highway 156, three miles east of Highway 101 and 7 miles west of Hollister. Admission is $4 for adults and free children 16 and younger.
The Victorian Ball will take place at the park’s Plaza Hall from 7pm to 11:30pm June 18. Period dress is suggested but not required. Info: (831) 623-4881.