In a previous post I shared some recollections of José Jesús López, a legendary vaquero of Rancho El Tejón in Kern County. Don José was born in 1852 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, what was then called “El Paredón Blanco.”
Don José describes the rancho-era houses like the one he grew up in as less than luxurious. Features included cowhides as door coverings, wooden bars on the windows to keep animals out and tar ("brea") dripping from the roofs.
If doors and windows were primitive in Californio homes, you can also imagine that furniture was not much better.
In his reminiscences Don José also shared details about rancho era home furnishings:
The López family, as well as all of the early Angelenos, had very little furniture, say until about 1820. A few of the wealthiest families shipped in some furniture from Mexico. But until about the time of my father, most of the furniture consisted of very rough benches and chests and tables and rawhide bottomed chairs, with both solid rawhide and rawhide strip bottoms. I can remember my mother telling of getting bad with an Indian rawhide worker because she took some rawhide strips he had prepared for use in making a reata, and had another Indian use them to put rawhide bottoms on some chairs.
Chairs weren’t the only creature comforts made of rawhide:
Beds were a simple wooden frame set on legs about two feet high. A wet cow hide was stretched over this frame, or was laced around the edges to the frame. A few were made of open rawhide strips, like the chair bottoms, but with the strips about three inches apart. I have heard that Claudio [his great grandfather, who had been mayordomo at Mission San Gabriel and alcalde of Los Angeles] and Juan López [Claudio’s brother, who became mayordomo at Mission San Fernando] came to California with fine furniture and household furnishings. But these were all burned by renegade Indians at San Gabriel. I have heard my father say he was born in a rawhide bed.
I have seen recreations of some of these rawhide beds at places like the Peralta Adobe in San José. They don’t look comfortable.
And yet Don José’s descriptions, as rough as they are, are also filled with nostalgia for that time.
In those days, 1852 to 1860, I was a boy living in the López home on El Paredón Blanco. I can remember our old home like it was yesterday. By present-day standards of housing we lived very primitively. But, understand, we were healthy and comfortable and we were happy.
Don José’s fond memories revolve around two fundamental aspects of Californio culture, horseback riding and fandangos:
Let me tell you, no future resident of Los Angeles will ever have the fun I have had in riding from López Station to el Monte horseback at a gallop, and in dancing all day and all night in an old adobe home with a dirt floor when we kicked up so much dust we couldn’t see across the room. Bad for the lungs maybe, but wonderful for memories.
"Bad for the lungs maybe, but wonderful for memories."
Don José’s nostalgia for the rancho era, with all its hardships, points to something about human memory. As time passes and people enjoy material progress, we also remember things that we have lost.