Ormsby Story

Written By Bessie (Ormsby) Helsel, edited by Janice (Helsel) Bricker

Originally Published In Village News Dec. 17, 24, 31, 1998

Contributed by the Fallbrook Historical Society

Don Rivers, President

The following story was written by Bessie (Ormsby) Helsel and edited by her daughter Janice (Helsel) Bricker, of Fallbrook.

Matthew Ezra Ormsby was born in Harrisville, Butler County, Pennsylvania June 17, 1827 a few months following the death of his father, after whom he was named. He was reared in Pittsburgh or the immediate vicinity. Although he studied both and law and medicine, he did not practice either profession.

In 1849 at the age of 22, he joined the gold rush emigrants to California, making the trip by boat and hiking across the Isthmus of Panama. He joined his two older brothers Dr. John S. Ormsby and Major William Ormsby who were in business in Sacramento, operating a private mint and stage line. During 1853 Matthew drove one of the stages in the mail and passenger line operated by his brother William, between Sacramento and Marysville.

During or prior to 1855 he returned to his family home in Pittsburgh. Shortly thereafter he attended a southern academy where he met and married Augusta Abigail Bradford of Alabama. They settled in the Brazos River region of Texas and engaged in the cattle business. Their oldest daughter Libby Ormsby was born there in 1857 as was their oldest son, Ezea but both died young.

Matthew Ormsby joined the Confederate army with a commission in the commissary department and was with the Army of General Robert E. Lee which surrendered at Appomattox in 1865. A daughter Celeste was born in Texas in 1864 and another daughter, Elect was born there in 1867.

In May 1868, Matthew and his family, including his wife's sister Celeste Bradford joined an emigrant wagon train organized in Northwest Arkansas and made the overland trip to Southern California. A young man by the name of Huston was killed when he pulled a loaded rifle, muzzle first, out of his wagon.

The Indians knew the wagon train was too strong and did not attack. They wanted to trade for horses and talked through an interpreter. The threat of attack was ever present though causing the wagon train to "circle the wagons" many times.

According to a diary of this journey kept by Augusta Ormsby, they traveled North through the Indian Territory to Abilene, Kansas, turned back to the old Santa Fe trail, followed this to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then down the Rio Grande River and took the old Butterfield Stage Route (Southern trail) from Los Cruses, New Mexico to Southern California via Apache Pass, Tucson, Gila River, Fort Yuma, Warner's Ranch and Temecula.

While at Fort Yuma they were separated from the wagon train, as they had to stay over to have the wagon tires replaced. After the steel tires were replaced on their wagon and not finding another wagon train to join, they drove all night trying to catch up with their original wagon train. In fear of Indians as they were in a very dangerous area, Matthew walked ahead, with his gun loaded, leading the oxen that were pulling the covered wagon. Augusta rode on the seat of the wagon, small children behind the seat and household goods in the rear. In the middle of the night they heard the sound of horses approaching. Matthew, ready to fire, dropped to one knee at the side of the trail, covering the on-coming horsemen, believing they were Indians. Augusta saw white shirts gleaming in the moonlight and called to Matthew not to fire. They were white men. As it turned out they were a group of soldiers from Vallecitos Stage Station that had ridden out to meet them. The soldiers informed them that the wagon train was not far ahead but cautioned them as to the great risk they had taken traveling alone in such dangerous territory.

The wagon train followed the old Butterfield Stage route north having to double team the oxen to pull some of the steep grades around Warner's Ranch. The train divided up at Warner's Ranch, some going to San Diego area and others going north. The Ormsbys traveled northwest to Temecula then turned north to Lake Elsinore, where they camped. The next day they went down Temescal Canyon to the Butterfield Stage Station where they camped again. Two of their oxen got loose during the night and wandered back down the trail toward Lake Elsinore. Matthew Ormsby went in search of them and returned to camp with the oxen.

While camped in Temescal Canyon, just south of Corona, a rancher wanted to trade his ranch for oxen. As the oxen were exhausted from the long trip over the desert, they traded and Matthew and Augusta settled into their small adobe house awaiting the birth of their second son.

John William Ormsby arrived on October 10, 1869. The Ormsby's original destination had been Sacramento, hoping to rejoin Matthew's brother Dr. J.S. Ormsby. After selling their place in Temescal Canyon the Ormsby's moved south to Vallecitos (Little Valley) where he traded mules for a farm. A short time later he sold this farm to J.P.M. Rainbow, after whom the valley was later names.

In 1870, Matthew Ormsby settled for a brief time on Rancho Monserate, a large Spanish Land Grant on the San Luis Rey River east of Oceanside. It was there Augusta taught school in one of the first schools in northern San Diego County. The school was built out of sticks and tulles. When Augusta went before the Superintendent of Schools in San Diego to be examined as to her qualifications for teaching, he said. "You should be the examiner and I the examined, for you have a better education then I." She had been educated in a Presbyterian Academy in Alabama.

In 1871 Matthew and Augusta moved to a farm at Mount Fairview (Bonsall). Augusta died in childbirth that year at the age of 34 leaving two small daughters and a one-year-old son. She was buried near the intersection of Gopher Canyon road and the old Bonsall Road. The grave is in a clump of century plants on the hillside above a house that was moved up from the creek's edge shortly after the flood in 1916. The house is now owned by the Clancy family.

In December 1872 Matthew remarried taking as his second wife Margaret Belle Huston of Berleson, Texas. She and her three nephews, Walter, William and John Huston had come west in the same wagon train in 1868. Seven children were born to them and all were reared at Mount Fairview (Bonsall) where Ormsby farmed and operated a small General Merchandise store. In 1878 he served on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, when it embraced all of the present Riverside and Imperial Counties.

John William Ormsby who was born October 10, 1869 to the marriage of Matthew Ezra and Augusta Abigail Ormsby in a small adobe house in Temescal Canyon near the Butterfield Stage Station. Shortly after his birth his mother died.

As a young man John was restless. He worked in the Stonewall Mine at Cuyamaca, also helped string the first telephone lines in Alpine and the Laguna Mountains. He rode horseback to Bisbee and Tombstone, Arizona, where he worked as a cowboy.

John told about participating in a "Rooster Pull" and one time his foot got caught in a stirrup and he was dragged by a horse. "Rooster Pulls" were held during the Indian Fiestas in the riverbed near Pala. They would tie a purse containing money to a rooster's feet and bury him in the sand, leaving just his head sticking up. The cowboys would ride by, lean down and grab the rooster's head to pull him out of the sand. This was not so easy to do as the rooster usually dodged the grabbing hand. The one who succeeded in pulling the rooster out of the sand won the money in the purse.

John W. Ormsby married Annie Perry Findlay of Lowell, Massachusetts on April 10, 1893. Herbert Findlay, their first child was born on January 5, 1895 in an adobe house in Moosa Canyon. They had two daughters. Bessie Elizabeth Ormsby (Mrs. Ashton Helsel of Escondido) was born in 1905 and Dorothy Electa Ormsby (Mrs. Max England) of Laguna Niguel born 1908.

John formed a farming partnership with Victor McGee and he and Annie lived a year at the Condors nest on the northwest edge of Palomar Mountain, northeast of Pala on what is now McGee Road. While living at the Condors Nest, Herbert, less than two years old, wandered off with his dog. The dog returned without little Herbert, and a frantic search was on as the area was full of vicious wild pigs. They found Herbert in one of the deep canyons asleep by a rock. Another time while driving down the mountain the horses became frightened and ran away. John told Annie to jump so she picked a heavy brushy area and jumped with little Herbert in her arms. Neither was seriously hurt, however when X-rays of her hip were taken some years later they showed a break, which could not be accounted for.

Along about 1898, John and the family left the mountain and filed on a homestead above Pala, adjoining the Reservation on the rear side of the "Rocky Mountain." He built a two bedroom house with a large porch in the canyon area near the oak trees and called it Rancho de Las Encinas. Their friends, Wilbur and Lucy Spalding claimed a homestead next to them and planted ten acres of olive trees. The Ormsby's had a fine spring and ample water. Some were not so lucky when the draught came in later years. They came from miles around to get drinking water. Many old timers had to give up their ranches and move away. John bought the Spalding place and later forty acres from the Government on the edge of Rocky Mountain. Austin and Marguerite White, Ed White and George and Elizabeth Findlay all homesteaded on the hill above and west of the John Ormsbys.

Herbert Ormsby lived with his grandparents in Fallbrook for a brief time attending High School. He joined a Halloween group of boys that really "fixed" up the town so John decided he should just stay on the ranch until he really wanted an education. He had graduated from grammar school at Monserate at the age of 12. Therefore he stayed at home until he was 16 and went to Los Angeles to live with his uncle Lemuel. While there he attended the old Polytechnic High School and after graduation he went to Stanford University.

John Matthews homesteaded next to the Lilac Ranch nearest to the Ormsby. He had an old thresher machine and each year the farmers would all gather and go from place to place threshing the grain. John Ormsby referred to him as "John Balingwire," as he kept the old thresher going with bailing wire repairs. It was always breaking down.

The kids of the neighborhood spent many happy hours roaming the hills and watching the thresher crews work. They always carried a homemade snakebite kit, which probably would not have done a lot of good if one of them would have been bitten. Rattlesnakes were plentiful and one had to always be on guard. It was not uncommon to find big ones in the ranch yard or in the hen's nests. One never reached for eggs without a careful look first.

In October 1915, their daughter Bessie contacted Polio. Dr. Graffin in Fallbrook called it a 'serious derangement of the central nervous system.' Bessie relates the experience, "I ran a very high fever for three days and when it lowered, paralysis set in. My left side made gradual recovery but the right side was pretty useless. I had to learn to walk all over again through sheer perseverance. Grandmother tied a dish towel under my armpits so someone could hold me up while walking and Mother would massage my useless muscles with olive oil." Gradually I could walk enough to follow the other children, but if I fell I was unable to get up again, a most terrifying experience for an 11 year old," Bessie said. "I made a pretty good recovery by the time I was in high school, although it left my right arm weak and one side much smaller then the other. I grew very tall by the age of 13 and only 98 pounds, so it was only natural that I acquired the nickname of 'rattlebones' while in grammar school."

In the years before they owned a car John would now and then hitch up the horses to a buggy or spring wagon and take his family to visit neighbors. One time they went to visit the Isaac Frazees' in their "Woreland Castle" home in Moosa Canyon and one of their daughters played the piano for them. On another of these trips the Ormsby's attended the first "Peace Pipe Pageant" put on by the Frazees' along the creak under the oaks below the castle.

Matthew and Margaret Ormsby, Bessie's grandparents, were buried in Isaac Frazee's private cemetery under the oak trees near the creek where Castle Creek Golf Course is located today. Several other old timers were also buried there. When the property was bought for a golf course they asked that the graves be moved, so Matthew and Margaret were moved to the San Marcos cemetery. The Frazees called it "Hallowed Ground" and refused to move their father's remains and others were also left as no families were living to move them

John Ormsby bought his first Ford from his friend, Frank Rose, the dealer in Fallbrook, in 1913 and just bought a new one in 1916 and sold it as the roads were in such bad shape everywhere. They hauled it out with a team of horses. He later bought another one in 1917.

During the 1916 flood the Ormsbys were marooned at the ranch. A mudslide on the grade below the ranch closed the road when the entire hillside slit into the canyon leaving nothing but bedrock. Along with the steel bridge across San Luis Rey River, the river took every tree in its path and left huge trees from Palomar Mountain along its banks. Cows and horses bogged to their stomachs whenever they were allowed into low areas. Everyone had to be cautious wherever they went so as not to get stuck in the mud.

The Ormsby children walked two and one half miles to the Monserate School, making a total of five miles each day and thought nothing of it. In 1919 the Monserate School was closed and incorporated into the Bonsall School District. The children then had to go to the Bonsall School. In 1920 three students graduated, Kathryn Wackerman, Louis Erreca and Bessie Ormsby. Their teacher for that year was Margaret O'Neil, a member of the O'Neil family from the Santa Margarita Ranch.

George Kirkwood bought the Merriam Place (Lilac Ranch) which was homesteaded by the Keys. Kirkwood's manager's name was McCann and they lived in the house by the gate. Neighborhood dances were held in the Lilac Schoolhouse under a big oak tree just across the road from the present Lilac Ranch house. Later Kirkwood offered the use of his barn down the lane and many old time dances were held there.

"While living on the old ranch John Ormsby was an Assistant Deputy Fire Warden and whenever a fire showed in this area, he and my brother Herbert would go, gathering men as they went, to fight it. It was a neighborhood affair in those days," said Bessie. "The Warden would come from Fallbrook also bringing men. We had some scary fires but were never burned out."

Bessie tells the story of her first trip by car up Palomar (then Smith) Mountain about 1915 when she was about nine years old. "Uncle Ed and Aunt Mabel came down from Los Angeles in their Auburn car. It had no top but I believe it did have doors on the side, at least in the back. We went up Nate Harrison "Nigger Nate" Grade and stopped to picnic at his corner. Harrison came out to visit with his head tied in a red bandanna and was using a cane. He said his horses had run away with him on the grade a few days earlier." Bessie continued, "Uncle Ed says that Nate was among those on Grandfather's wagon train in 1868, but I am not sure," "Coming back down the grade we tied a tree onto the rear of the car and dragged it down the hill to save the brakes on the car, a usual thing in those days. After going over that grade in later years, I believe we all took our lives in our hands to go up and back in a car of that vintage," she exclaimed.

Before the twenties, Kate and Clay Upson were the nearest neighbors to the Ormsbys and they spent many hours together. Mrs. Upson was a daughter of the Austin White's and a sister to Fred White of Fallbrook and Ed White of San Diego.

John Ormsby built up a fine apiary while at the old ranch, he also ran 200 head of cattle one year and also farmed grain and beans. "The ranch also had a fine fruit orchard and when the fruit was ripe people would come all the way from Fallbrook to get boxes of fruit to can. There was also a fine berry patch with nice raspberries. When the berries came on Mom would make so many luscious pies our family and also the hired help would all get sick so Dad threatened to dig them out," said Bessie.

" 'Old Friday,' the horse that we Ormsby kids drove three miles down the hill and across the river each day to meet the school bus to Bonsall, was considered very gentle but one day the buggy wheel went over an old demijohn (empty bottle) left along the road and the glass breaking made him take off. We all flew down that oak canyon and he finally ran himself out. There was no holding him back!" said Bessie. "Another day a rattlesnake hissed at us from a high bank just above us on the grade on our way home from school and 'Old Friday' made one big leap, but as it was steep uphill, he didn't run and soon quieted down."

"We would unhitch the horse and tied him with food and water at the bus driver's (Mr. Eaton) home while we went on to school. The bus was an old Ford touring car and it could not cross the river to pick up the children that lived on the south side. One day it just poured all day and when we came back from school the river had risen so high we were afraid to cross, but a neighbor came along on horse back and we followed him through. It was up to the horse's stomach at one point and the old buggy just floated, but we made it through. There was a time when no one crossed, even on horseback for three weeks," said Bessie. "Dad took us children to school in the old Ford car by way of the Lilac Ranch (when that creek could be crossed) up by Houck Mesa and along what is now Lilac Road to Bonsall, then to school. We always missed a lot of school but managed to keep up," she said.

In June of 1920, my father sold the old ranch to R.V. Couser, Superintendent of the Hammon Lumber and Construction Co. of Los Angeles and moved the family to 829 East Ohio Street in Escondido.

Go To:

Fallbrook Historical Society
Fallbrook, CA Area Information: History
Elizabeth Yamaguchi's Writings On Fallbrook History

Copyright © 1998-1999 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: Don and Mary Rivers
Last update: 11 February 1999.