My sister and her husband are in the first phases of a new home search near their current digs in Laguna Niguel, California. A few weeks ago, she directed my attention to a certain Zillow listing. I assumed, at first, that I’d click the link to see another perfect-for-two townhome. But no. This was different. The property, surrounded by live oak and sage brush, was perfectly nestled in picturesque Trabuco Canyon. And right smack dab in the middle? A simply adorable circa-1907 cobblestone cottage.
“See! There are old stone homes in California,” she said. “You could move out West, be close to me and still live your dream!” I have to admit, the notion of old stone homes in California intrigued me: Was this home an anomaly or some sort of regional vernacular that to this point had escaped my notice.
I’ve always assumed that those who moved West in the mid to late 1800s constructed shelters of log, timber, sod brick or adobe. But a quick google images search surfaced pictures of stone ruins — a foundation here, walls there — mostly in the arid desert regions of California and Nevada. The story continued to unfold: Ranchers, gold and silver prospectors and then homesteaders staked their claims in the Southern California deserts and built their first homes with materials easily accessible to them. And that meant lots of rock. From what I could tell, homesteads were often destroyed by fire or slowly crumbled to dust, abandoned by prospectors who moved on to bigger and better things.
My sis was apparently on a roll. A few weeks later, she sent another Zillow listing, a plot of land in Modjeska Canyon. I couldn’t resist the note attached, “Would love to know the history … stone foundation, fireplace.” Game on!
I first reached out to the realtor, who knew only a legend shared by locals: Sometime during the 1960s, hippies living in the area started a fire that destroyed the homestead. Interesting, but who knows if it’s true. I next reached out to the Orange County Historical Society. History buff and Silverado Canyon resident Mike Boeck asserted that the remains sit on land that was once homesteaded by beekeeper Joseph Pleasants in the late 1800s. Could the stone walls and chimney be the remains of some early shelter? I love that theory! But archivist Chris Jepsen noted that Pleasants’ homestead was incorporated into the estate of famed actress Helen Modjeska in 1888. Clearly as curious as I, Jepsen took a closer look at deeds and tax records and found that in 1937 there was no home listed on the site. By 1939, one appeared. And it’s hard to say if the home was made entirely of stone or stone paired with timber, sourced in the Riparian forest that surrounds the site. Regardless, the remains could easily be incorporated into a new build. An exciting prospect!
Thanks to my sis, I am now keeping a close eye on California real estate listings, hoping that a property pops up with terribly old stone ruins — and a wickedly interesting story to tell.