Historical House and Land Ownership

Column for North County Times, for October, 1997.

Three Fallbrook families, Pittengers, Davies, and Griffins, have called the Historical Society's hundred year old ranch house "home." The story of these families tell us something about how our town developed. Knowing about those people who owned the land before the house was built, and those who called our area home even before Fallbrook became a town, seems to me to be a bit of historic justice.

In the beginning, when all our creeks between the hills were oak-shaded, boulder-studded natural water courses, our area belonged to Native Americans. The local tribal group had many villages, the nearest of which was over the ridge to the west, on today's Naval Weapons Station. Evidence of their use of our land is still everywhere, in the form of granite milling rocks. Old timers tell us about finding arrowheads near streams, like Ostrich Farm Creek

For a brief time, during the early 1800's, our hills and creeks were under the jurisdiction of Spanish Franciscan missionaries at San Luis Rey. They reported to their religious order, headquartered at the Franciscan College in Mexico City. The Order had been commissioned by Spain to hold the land in trust for the Native people of California. The San Luis Rey missionaries operated under Spanish law, which decreed that in ten years the Luiseno people would become Spanish citizens, and title to their land would revert to them. Then the mission buildings they had constructed would become the nucleus of their major town, their civic center. However, before this could happen, Mexico won its war of independence.

By 1848, after Mexico lost California to the United States, and reluctantly agreed to peace, the U.S. government held this land in trust for the Picos. Carrying out the terms of the peace treaty, Congress commissioned officers to research the Pico family's title to see if they could keep it. The Picos had received their land under the new land distribution laws of the Republic of Mexico. They qualified to receive non-Indian land because their soldier father had given faithful service in California during the struggle to win freedom from Spain. The land where the Historical House is now located was at the far eastern edge of the Pico grant (called the Santa Margarita), now Camp Pendleton and the Weapons Station. The U.S. Congress, while validating the Pico title to most of their grant, kept this eastern strip for the American land grant program, called homesteading. Then young Millard Neff filed with the Land Office to obtain his homestead.

Millard had come from the Sacramento area with his parents in 1874. His blacksmith father filed a homestead claim on 160 acres in the "dry uplands" of the Fallbrook District, right next to the Pico's fence. Millard's father built the family home near today's Grand Tradition. (There is a picture of it in an 1883 book about San Diego County.) The family watered their orchard and garden from Los Jilgueros creek, and for cash crops, they kept bees and raised grain on the hills of their homestead. In addition to working on the farm, son Millard attended school with Henry Magee's children on the neighboring homestead.

Millard's father died before completing his five years of residency, and Matilda Neff filed for the land in her own name. Then, in 1880, Millard turned eighteen and applied for eighty neighboring acres of the former Pico grant. To get his land sooner, he filed under a special homestead law, paying $1.25 per acre to have the residency requirement reduced to six months. After he built a small house and planted a crop, he gave notice to the Land Office that he would make final proof of his right to the homestead in September, 1883. There was as yet no newspaper in Fallbrook District (nor yet a town), so his public notice was placed in the San Luis Rey Star. Millard's final title to his homestead land was signed by President Cleveland in 1885.

The year 1885 was an eventful one for other local residents. The town of Fallbrook was surveyed, streets and town lots were laid out, a store and hotel were built, and Millard's older brother started Fallbrook's first newspaper. Both a church and a temperance lodge were organized, and Millard sold his 80 acre homestead for $26.25 per acre, got married, and moved into the new town.

In two years, Fallbrook was sharing in the Southern California economic boom created by the completion of the transcontinental railroads and the subsequent rate war. A forty room resort hotel and the Methodist Church were under construction, and the Fallbrook Water and Power Company was surveying for an aqueduct and dam on the Santa Margarita River. Land speculators were active, and Millard's former homestead changed hands three times. Ten of its acres were sold to a newspaperman, G.F. Van Velzer, and its cost rose to $70 per acre.

By the 1890's, when Reverend William Pittenger brought his family to Fallbrook, depression had set in, and Pittenger purchased 20 acres of the former homestead for $60 per acre. On his new ranch, he built a country home as a family retreat. (That house is now the Historical House Museum.) The family's main home was in town, located across Fig Street from the Methodist Church, where Rev. Pittenger served as minister. (That house also still exists, part of the Fallbrook Country Day School. It can be recognized by its similar square hipped roof.)

Pittenger employed his neighbor, Van Velzer, to develop the 20 acres and additional land he had purchased. In an 1894 letter, while praising the virtues of Fallbrook, he described his ranch with these words: "On my own little ranch I have planted for profit (and all are doing well) walnuts, apricots, prunes and lemons, together with nearly every other kind of fruit for home use." The view he described looking east is similar to the one we have today from the east windows of the Historical House: "On Palomar Mountain, twenty-five miles away there was a rainstorm with a rainbow arching over it; the rolling hills between showed .... acres of emerald grain fields /and/ orchards...."

Pittenger was also interested in education. As a boy in Ohio, he had trained himself in astronomy, taught briefly in country schools, and edited a children's magazine. After the Civil War, he wrote books on public speaking, and taught Shakespeare and elocution. But he was especially interested in Fallbrook schools because of his own children. In Fallbrook, he and his wife had three children attending the grammar school (where Maie Ellis is now) a block from their home, and a son was away at school, for Fallbrook had no high school. Pittenger helped organize the high school district, and served as president of the school board.

In addition, William Pittenger was a national hero. He had received one of the first Medals of Honor, given by Congress for outstanding service in the Civil War. He was one of Andrews' raiders in the Civil War exploit known as "the great locomotive chase." He wrote several early accounts of the adventure, while continuing to gather information and interview participants. He researched original documents in the Library of Congress in preparation for a more complete history of the action. (At the time, the government was gathering all papers pertaining to the events of the conflict, both Union and Confederate. Already, 25 volumes had been published.) While living in Fallbrook, Pittenger traveled to the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee to deliver the closing prayer at the unveiling ceremony of a monument to the Andrews' Raiders. Pittenger's lectures on his new book drew large audiences in Fallbrook and elsewhere.

In 1918, the ranch and the house were purchased for $17,000 by Elizabeth Davies and her husband, Dr. B.C.Davies, a Los Angeles surgeon. They weekended first, and then retired to Fallbrook. Dr. Davies served on the board of the Fallbrook Irrigation District, and helped organize the first Rotary Club in Fallbrook. When there was a shortage of doctors during World War II, he treated Fallbrook residents in his home office, the screened north porch.

In 1946, the house and property were purchased by Jack and Marion Griffin, who developed it as the Rocky Crest Ranch, and raised daughters, Kate and Molly, here. Jack served on the FPUD Board, and Marian started a cooperative pre-school and revived the Camp Fire Girls. Kate and Molly graduated from FUHS.

In 1981, the Historical Society, supported by community donations, bought the house from Griffin heirs. Board members, Russ Elam and Red Hanson restored it, keeping as much of the original hardware and doors and windows as possible. It was headquarters for the Historical Society and its collections until the new museum was built.

Visit our museums at 260 RockyCrest Road, to see copies of some of the maps and documents which are the basis for this article.

Possible photos and captions:

Neff house from 1883 book. Millard Neff grew up in this house in Fallbrook in the 1870's. It was near today's Grand Tradition on his parents 160 acre homestead.

Neff homestead paper. This is one of the papers required to gain title to homestead land. It was copied from the original in the Federal Archives at Laguna Niguel.

Pittenger family. Rev. Pittenger and his family when they came to Fallbrook in the 1890's.

School photo. Walter Pittenger at the FUHS school picnic in Reche's Grove (today's Live Oak Park). It was in 1904, the year he graduated and the year in which his father died.

Historical House. Fallbrook's Historical House, 260 RockyCrest Road, drawn in 1983 by Fallbrook artist Dorothy Stillens.

Picture from Pittenger's book. This is an illustration from "The Great Train Robbery," written by Fallbrook's Reverend Pittenger. It shows him being taken to prison after being captured by Confederate soldiers.

Copyright © 1998 by Fallbrook Historical Society
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to the Fallbrook Historical Society at this source:
Comments and feedback: Elizabeth Yamaguchi
Last update: 25 December 1998.