Today I spent a couple of hours exploring Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and a small section of nearby Presidio Park. As I walked through Old Town’s historic plaza near the Cosmopolitan Hotel, I noticed some people in period attire were demonstrating how to create adobe blocks.
At the very beginning of San Diego, in the early days of Spanish and Mexican settlers, adobe was the small town’s primary building material. Primitive bricks–or blocks–were made by simply mixing mud and straw together. The mixture was then shaped using wooden forms, then left to dry in the sun for a month or so. The resulting adobe blocks were used to build walls that in our arid climate were remarkably sturdy and insulating.
During past visits to Old Town, I’ve seen people working in this same spot demonstrating the making of adobe. Over time, that wall in a couple of my photos has slowly grown.
I was told by one friendly gentleman that eventually this grassy spot will be used for a Native American Kumeyaay exhibit, and a more permanent demonstration adobe structure will be built inside the fenced area near Old Town’s Blacksmith Shop.
Here’s a pic I took a couple months ago which shows how the adobe wall is slowly being built, layer by layer…
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I recently walked down a few streets in Old Town that are seldom visited by tourists. After taking photographs of the Old Adobe Chapel, I noticed that across Conde Street there was some sort of structure containing glass display cases.
Upon closer inspection, I saw this was an outdoor exhibit concerning San Diego’s early history. And that its contents were in a sad state of decay.
No one seemed to know who’d created this exhibit until I spoke to a cashier in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park’s visitor center, inside the Robinson Rose House. She told me the structure had been built decades ago for the Old Town Mexican Cafe and that the displays had been designed by a woman who loved history. But she had gone blind.
Time moves incessantly forward.
You can find this fascinating but faded exhibit on Conde Street, behind Cafe Coyote.
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The Mason Street School was San Diego’s very first schoolhouse. It was built in 1865. In 2015, 150 years later, it’s one of the most interesting sights in Old Town San Diego Historic State Park.
The one room schoolhouse museum isn’t always open to the public. So whenever I walk through Old Town, I eagerly wander past to see if the front door is swung wide. If it is, I amble inside and look about, trying to absorb what life was like in the early days of San Diego.
I remember how the Mason Street School used to contain numerous desks. But they’ve been replaced by plain benches, to more accurately portray where a small number of students from Spanish, American and other diverse backgrounds, grade one to eight, sat together and learned how to read, write and do arithmetic.
Back in the early years of San Diego, school was held twelve months a year. Hours were 9 to 4, but many students would skip school to watch bull fights, fiestas and other exciting town doings. Many children were held out of school by their parents to help on a ranch or farm, or to work in a family store.
San Diego in 1865 was a small, isolated, somewhat ramshackle town. Mary Chase Walker, Mason Street School’s first teacher, wrote when she arrived in San Diego by steamship: “I arrived in the bay of San Diego on the morning of July 5, 1865. It was a most desolate looking landscape. The hills were brown and barren; not a tree or green thing was to be seen. Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen, this was the worst. The buildings were nearly all of adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tile and some with earth…”
Mary Chase Walker originally traveled from Massachusetts to California, in search of greater opportunity. While in San Francisco, she learned of a teaching opening in San Diego. After less than a year at the Mason Street School, however, she became embroiled in a local controversy. One day she made a kind gesture to a lady who was part African-American, but many early San Diegans had arrived from the Confederate South and voiced their disapproval. A number of students were removed from the small school in anger. To allow the scandal to pass over, Mary quit teaching and married the president of the school board, early San Diego settler and prominent merchant Ephraim Morse.
It’s hard in modern times to imagine the life and culture of San Diego long ago. But one can get a flavor of that fascinating history by stepping inside the old Mason Street School.
The nearby plaque reads:
MASON STREET SCHOOL
FIRST PUBLIC SCHOOLHOUSE IN THIS COUNTY.
ERECTED AT THIS SITE IN 1865 AND KNOWN AS
“MASON STREET SCHOOL – – DISTRICT NO. 1”
WHEN SAN DIEGO COUNTY COVERED AN AREA
LARGER THAN THREE NEW ENGLAND STATES.
RESTORED BY POPULAR SUBSCRIPTION IN 1955.
STATE REGISTERED LANDMARK NO. 538
MARKER PLACED BY SAN DIEGO COUNTY BOARD OF
SUPERVISORS AND THE HISTORICAL MARKERS COMMITTEE
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One of my favorite areas in San Diego is Old Town. There’s so much to see and enjoy wherever you turn. For lovers of history, it’s a treasure trove of discoveries.
Here’s a photo taken inside the central Plaza de las Armas, the heart of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This old Spanish cannon is called El Capitan. It was one of ten cannons that long ago protected Fort Guijarros near the entrance to San Diego Bay. The Spanish fort was built in 1797 on Ballast Point out of adobe.
El Capitan was likely fired during the Battle of San Diego in 1803, when the Spanish attacked the American brig Lelia Byrd which was smuggling otter skins. This cannon was likely fired again at the American smuggler ship Franklin in 1828, when the fort was under Mexican control. The only other surviving cannon from Fort Guijarros is called El Jupiter, and can be seen in the Serra Museum atop nearby Presidio Hill.
Old Town is all about history. The grassy plaza, containing the cannon, historical plaques, a high flagpole and picnic benches, is surrounded by old adobe buildings preserved and recreated from the early 1800’s. San Diego originated right here, at the base of a bluff where a Spanish military outpost stood. The outpost, called the Presidio, was built by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. That same year, Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded on Presidio Hill by the ambitious Spanish Franciscan friar, Father Junipero Serra. This made Old Town the site of the very first European settlement in California.
Around the Plaza de las Armas visitors can check out numerous interesting small museums, including the original one-room schoolhouse, an old blacksmith shop, San Diego’s very first newspaper office, an early courthouse, and a stable with a large collection of antique wagons and stagecoaches. Tourists can find gifts and souvenirs in a smattering of craft-filled shops. Families can dine at several colorful restaurants. Plus, there are many additional historical and commercial attractions along San Diego Avenue to the south of the plaza.
Can you guess another thing I like? Admission to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and all of its museums is free!