Vista’s Historic Jewel
The Rancho Guajome Adobe County Park was originally part of a 2,219-acre Mexican land grant that was awarded after the disbanding of the local Mission San Luis Rey. It later became a home for a prosperous cattle rancher and his family, who built the property’s 7,000-square-foot, 22-room ranch house in 1852. The ranch house still stands today, a testament to the rich cultural history of early California and a window to the daily life and traditions of a bygone era. Today the Rancho Guajome Adobe County Park covers 112 acres and offers many amenities and resources to the local Vista community. We sit down with Senior Park Ranger Hector Live to learn more about the storied past of the Rancho Guajome Adobe and why it is such an important historical landmark.
Q&A with Senior Park Ranger Hector Live
What is the history behind the Rancho Guajome Adobe? When was it first built?
The word “guajome” is derived from the Luiseño Indian word wakhavumi, loosely meaning the “place of the frogs.” The Indians had a village at wakhavumi, the small valley where the adobe ranch house and steam engine museum sit today. When the Spanish explorers came to this part of California, the Mission San Luis Rey grazed cattle in this picturesque valley. During Mexican rule, the missions were disbanded or secularized. After secularization Mexican Governor Pio Pico granted 2,219 acres to two Luiseño brothers, Andrés and José Manuel. They sold their grant to Able Stearns, a wealthy Los Angeles merchant. Stearns presented the ranch land to his sister-in-law Ysidora Bandini as a wedding gift in 1851. Ysidora was the daughter of the wealthy Juan Bandini, a distinguished social and political leader in both Mexican and later American San Diego. Ysidora married the dashing Cave Johnson Couts, a lieutenant in the United States Army from Tennessee.
Couts, a graduate of West Point, became a prosperous and controversial cattle rancher in North San Diego County. Huge profits gained from the sale of cattle to the beef-hungry ‘49ers induced the young rancher to build a house for his wife and children.
In 1852, Cave and Ysidora started construction of the Guajome ranch house. Four miles away the abandoned Mission San Luis Rey provided an assortment of building materials in exchange for a donation to the diocesan bishop. Couts transferred huge hand-hewn beams, roof tiles, and other construction materials to the ranch. His work force consisted of Luiseño Indians whose ancestors had lived for centuries in the region and whose parents had honed their adobe-building skills while under the influence of the mission system.
Rancho Guajome is built in the traditional Californio style – four wings enclosing a central patio. All of the rooms had doors opening onto the patio. The adobe walls are two to four feet thick. In 1867 Couts expanded the ranch house by adding a chapel, a new kitchen wing equipped with a cast iron range, a bathing cistern, and various outbuildings. The Couts family even installed glass windows and shutters. Cave and Ysidora, their eight lively children, a schoolmaster, a resident priest, and household servants occupied the 22 rooms.
“…Rancho Guajome is an excellent representation of the Indian, Mexican/Californio, and American history of early Vista and California.”
The couple became well-known for their gracious hospitality, making Guajome a favorite overnight stopping place for travelers. Ysidora was described as “vivacious, mild, witty, and intelligent.” Being a businessman, Cave was always looking for new sources of revenue and even stocked a store in one room of the ranch to provide supplies to neighbors and travelers. Couts passed away in 1874, leaving Ysidora a huge rancho, eight children, servants, and ranch hands. Ysidora managed the ranch capably until her death in 1897.
Cave Couts, Jr. assisted his mother with the management of the ranch, and later he and his bride lived at the ranch as well. As a wedding present to his wife in 1886, Cave Jr. built a wood-frame second story sewing room. He was divorced in 1897 shortly before his mother died. There were many economically difficult years during the time that Cave Jr. was in charge, but in 1924 he received an inheritance and constructed major changes to the adobe. He replaced the old front-columned veranda with a multi-arched façade in the Mission Revival style, a fad that swept the southwest in the ‘20s. Cave and his new family opened the doors of the ranch house to colorful and frequent guests including popular movie stars, artists, authors, and intellectuals of the time. Cave referred to himself as the “last of the Dons.”
The County of San Diego acquired the ranch house and surrounding buildings and lands in 1973 and restored the ranch house in the mid-1990s. The adobe and grounds are designated as a National Historic Landmark because Rancho Guajome is an excellent representation of the Indian, Mexican/Californio, and American history of early Vista and California.
Tell us more about the grounds and property. How large is the Adobe itself? And its surrounding grounds?
Guajome’s original Mexican land grant consisted of 2,219 acres. Currently, 112 acres make up the Rancho Guajome Adobe County Park. The ranch house is made up of 22 rooms at over 7,000 square feet. The adobe structure houses: kids rooms, a school, teacher’s room, general store, office, bedrooms, bathrooms, two kitchens, one bakery with an horno, a dining room, two pantries, guests rooms, servants rooms, tack room, black smith shop, majordomo’s room, and plenty of patio and veranda areas. Additional historic structures surrounding the ranch house include a chapel, bathhouse, cistern, and a reservoir. All of these historic structures were built by Couts Sr. or Couts Jr., from the 1850s through the 1920s.
What sort of amenities does the Rancho Guajome Adobe offer the community?
A one-mile multiuse trail is available to the public seven days a week from dawn to dusk. The trail connects to the City of Vista Sports Park to the south and to Guajome Regional Park to the northwest. The park also has a community garden. Garden plots can be rented for a small fee for one-year terms. The Guajome Chapel and gardens can be reserved for weddings, receptions, and social events. Restrooms, picnic tables, and drinking fountains are also available.
How did the Rancho Guajome Adobe gain status as a National Historic Landmark?
Rancho Guajome Adobe is listed on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks because its history encapsulates the history of Vista and North San Diego, as well as State and National history. The history of the property includes the Native American period (pre-contact), the Spanish Mission era, the Mexican era, and the pioneer era. The history of the property also includes the blending of the cultures and architecture, plus the introduction of agriculture and livestock activities that built the commerce base of early North San Diego County and California.
“Cave and his new family opened the doors of the ranch house to colorful and frequent guests including popular movie stars, artists, authors, and intellectuals of the time.”
What is your role at the Adobe? What are some of your duties or responsibilities?
As a senior park ranger, I answer questions and explain park policies and regulations to the public. Interpretation of the natural and historical features of park to visitors is another everyday part of the job. Other responsibilities include performing maintenance and repair work on grounds and structures throughout the park. Additionally I supervise park staff, volunteers, and non-paid workers. My goal is to provide outstanding customer service and park experiences to our various customers.
Rancho Guajome Adobe | At-A-Glance
Address: 2210 N. Santa Fe Ave.
Year Built: 1852
Number of Rooms: 22
What is the most challenging aspect of your role? And the most enjoyable aspect?
The most challenging part of my job is balancing the preservation of resources with responsible use of the park. The most enjoyable aspect of being a county park ranger is that I’m protecting a piece of Vista history for future generations to enjoy and learn from.
How is the Adobe maintained and funded?
The Adobe is maintained by park staff and volunteers as well as contracted services. All maintenance is funded by County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation.
How many staff members work on the property? Can you tell us more about their roles?
Park personnel include one senior park ranger, one park ranger, two park attendants, and three sets of live-on-park host volunteers. Our roles include interpretation, customer service, maintenance, and enforcement of policies and regulations. Additionally, over 20 docents volunteer for Rancho Guajome Adobe County Park. Docents lead tours, attend to the grounds, and acquire artifacts and antique furnishings for the adobe ranch house. The three park host volunteers assist with the daily maintenance and operation of the park.
Does the Adobe offer any opportunities for school/group field trips or other large events?
Rancho Guajome Adobe offers tours of the ranch house to third grade students and up. Each tour is one hour long and includes an adobe brick-making activity. Private tours for large groups are also available upon request. The adobe is open for self-guided tours Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The adobe gardens and chapel can be reserved for weddings, receptions, and social events.
The Rancho Guajome Adobe is a member of the San Diego Founders’ Trail. What does this mean?
San Diego Founders’ Trails is a group of historic locations that offer the public opportunities to visit places where they can learn about the rich heritage of early San Diego. The public can relive local history along the Founders’ Trail by traveling in the footsteps of San Diego’s earliest inhabitants. For more information go to www.earlysandiego.org.
Does the Adobe need volunteers? How should those interested in volunteering get involved?
Rancho Guajome Adobe is always in need of volunteers. Volunteers can get involved by helping out during our annual special events such as Dia de los Muertos or Rancho Christmas. Anyone interested in being a docent can assist park staff by leading tours, tending to the gardens, or by joining the furniture committee.
If you could describe the Rancho Guajome Adobe in five words, what would you say?
One of Vista’s Historic Jewels!
Tell us about the upcoming Rancho Christmas event. What can people expect to find at this event?
On Nov. 28 Rancho Guajome Adobe will be celebrating the 19th Annual Rancho Christmas. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can step back in time and celebrate an old-fashioned holiday at Rancho Guajome Adobe! Using natural materials, each of the 22 rooms and two large courtyards will be decorated for the holiday seasons of yesteryear with over a hundred wreaths, garlands, and centerpieces. Children will delight in the variety of hands-on crafts and activities, which are free with paid admission, from making cornhusk dolls to dipping apples in caramel to weaving with colorful yarn. Guests will be able to enjoy live music and dancing as well. At 4:30 p.m., complimentary hot cider will be offered as we gather in the inner courtyard for caroling by the warm glow of luminarias. More information can be found at www.sdparks.org.