History has long been my favorite subject. Well, U.S. History to be exact. It helps that there’s only 242 years of it, so it’s easier to digest. This is probably the reason why I loved U.S. History in high school but hated European History. I mean, processing 242 years worth of information vs thousands of years…I digress. A couple of weeks ago I happened to be perusing the internet for interesting places to see in California when I stumbled upon Fort Tejon State Historic Park.
Fort Tejon is located toward the end of the 40-mile stretch of Interstate 5 known colloquially as “The Grapevine” which runs North from Castaic to the small unincorporated community of Grapevine, CA. Come to find out, the area was originally named La Cañada de Las Uvas or “Canyon of the Grapes” in 1772 due to the abundance of wild grapevines growing along the route. Apparently there are still some wild grapes growing along the canyon to this day. Hence why we still call it “The Grapevine.”
Well, enough about Grapes. Kelli and I followed the GPS to the Fort Tejon offramp and at first I thought we had maybe taken the wrong exit. It felt like one of those offramps you take on long trips when you’re desperate to find a bathroom. The only thing on the east side of the freeway was Tejon Ranch, which I think is just a massive land conservancy like Irvine Ranch in Orange County? I’m not 100% on that but its definitely worth investigating for another video. We continued north on the road which lead us over a bridge to the west side of the freeway and bingo. Right into the Fort Tejon State Park parking lot.
It was the first Saturday of the month ⎯ the day Fort Tejon winds the clock back over 160 years for its Frontier Army Days demonstration. We got there right at 10am when the park opened and I didn’t know what to expect being that there were only a couple other cars in the parking lot. As soon as we walked in, a regiment of 4 soldiers dressed in 1850s military uniforms marched by us and performed a flag raising ceremony. I cried a little inside. It was beautiful. What followed after was a series of fantastic reenactments on display demonstrating what life was like on the fort in California’s early statehood days.
After walking around the restored barracks which housed old uniforms and weaponry, we walked over to the blacksmith shop not realizing what we were in for. The blacksmith was an interesting older man to say the least with a whimsical charm and a capricious Robin Williams-esque style of humor. Kelli and I became a captive audience to his seemingly unending supply of “What do you call a…” jokes. Some folks are easily annoyed and quick to write off people like this. But me? I love interacting with them because in my book they’ve found the key to happiness. Life’s too short so you might as well act a little crazy and have fun doing it. Mr. Blacksmith ended up pulling Kelli into his little demonstration and she got a hands on lesson in how to keep the fire going in an 1850s blacksmith forge. A dad and his two kids eventually showed up to the scene so we said our Irish goodbyes and slowly listed away into the wood shop.
The older gentleman running the woodshop was the Blacksmith’s polar opposite; down to earth yet just as knowledgeable and eager to share 19th century woodworking techniques with us. I used a block plane for the first time in my life, which is a small tool used for paring end grain and removing thin shavings of wood for fine fitting. About this time, the 4 soldiers were preparing for an artillery drill with an old howitzer cannon on the main parade ground. A crowd gathered around and the soldiers passed around dissected cannon balls that were used back in the day. One type, the Canister Shot, was filled with dozens of small iron balls which effectively caused the cannon to act as a giant shotgun at close range. The soldiers loaded the cannon with a blank charge and fired it off a few times. It was definitely a sight to see…and hear!
Our last stop was at the restored commanding officer’s quarters. As we walked around the creaky old house, I couldn’t help but think how lonely it must have gotten back in those times ⎯ here in the middle of nowhere. After all, a supply wagon from Pueblo de Los Ángeles would have typically taken anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to arrive at Fort Tejon. Three women were working in the detached kitchen behind the home in a demonstration of open hearth cooking. Back then, kitchens were sometimes detached from homes in order to prevent the spread of fire. The women were working away furiously on a dinner of chicken and vegetables and a carrot pudding dessert ⎯ all of which they cooked around the open hearth simultaneously using an elaborate triage method. By this time, the day was winding down and it was about time to go. But we didn’t leave the kitchen empty handed! Kelli and I got to sample some homemade bread with delicious home-churned butter and we were given a copy of the original 19th century carrot pudding recipe.
Our visit to Fort Tejon was well worth the journey and I highly recommend it. Historic demonstrations are generally conducted on the first Saturday of every month and are a unique way to experience a piece of California history!