When I make a left onto the aptly named Old Adobe Road, I feel like I’ve traveled back in time. Minutes earlier, I was cruising alongside Teslas and SUVs on Highway 1 in Watsonville. Now, I’m navigating a single-lane dirt road that—aside from a few houses and mailboxes—probably looks no different than it did to the travelers on horseback who trekked down this same road 170 years earlier, leaving a dust cloud in their wake.
After a mile or so, on the righthand side, the two-story Rancho San Andrés Castro Adobe presents itself as if it had risen from the earth to greet me, just as it has hundreds of guests since it was built between 1848-49. One of only a few adobes of its kind still standing on the Central Coast, the structure—which sits on a hill overlooking the Pajaro Valley—was built by Don Juan Jose Castro, the son of Jose Joaquin Castro. He was an original member of the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition.
Following the Castros, 14 different families called the adobe home. The structure has survived two of California’s largest earthquakes on record, and has been abandoned and left in disrepair many times over the years. But thanks to those who have dedicated their lives to preserving the structure and its history, its story continues.
I park at the Kimbro home, the future site of the Castro Adobe visitor’s center and archives. Edna and Joe Kimbro were the last private owners of the adobe, and helped spark a renewed interest in preserving the landmark. The picturesque courtyard looks like something that would sit adjacent to the Mediterranean—stone pathways and fruit trees blossom with lemons, oranges and avocados.
In 2002, the Kimbros passed the ownership title to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, on the condition that restoration and renovations would continue, and the adobe would eventually open to the public.
Of the 13 acres of land surrounding the Kimbro house, 12 belong to Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. The other acre, where the adobe sits, belongs to California State Parks. Friends has taken the lead on the project management, which includes building restoration, working side-by-side with State Parks. The unique and unprecedented collaboration between the two agencies is part of the Kimbros’ legacy. The partnership has fueled the entire project.
“We’re proud of the partnership because it works so well,” says Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks Executive Director Bonny Hawley, who’s been involved with Castro Adobe since 1989.
“It’s fairly unique,” adds Senior Interpretive Aide Paul Karz. “This model is a hybrid that State Parks would like to have other state parks evolve into eventually. It’s a collaboration with suggestions from both sides—what works best. When we do activities, we consult with [Friends].”
The State Parks-Friends collaboration was cemented in the summer of 2007. The restoration called for 2,500 handmade adobe bricks as part of the stabilization project. Under the supervision of Friends, volunteer board members, staff project manager Jessica Kusz and adobe brick-construction expert Tim Aguilar, 150 volunteers manufactured authentic dirt bricks using the same technique used 200 years earlier. The process involved hauling several pounds of dirt, then shaping and watering them three times per day for seven days to keep the bricks damp and slow the drying process, preventing cracking. After 20 days, the 2,500 85-pound, two-foot by four-foot brick had to stand on its side to cure. The process took three months.
In 2009, Friends also headed up the completion of the seismic stabilization project. Structural engineer Fred Webster figured out how to strengthen the second floor. It was said to have been danced on so much that it was worn thin; a steel beam that extends the length of the adobe just under the second floor was the answer. Unfortunately, Webster passed away, and the day before his memorial—which was at the adobe—the beam was installed, after three years of planning.
From the Kimbro House, there’s a small path through overgrown brush and thickets leading to the adobe. What looks like a dense plot of land separating the two structures has been a treasure trove of relics spanning back centuries—it’s also evidence that there were additional early adobe structures in the area at one time. Gopher holes have revealed chards of original pottery and other artifacts over the years, which will all eventually be on display in the archives.
“There was a dairy barn and all sorts of other buildings,” Kusz says. “Those are all gone, but after partnering with the USCS archeological team, we know there were earlier adobe buildings. We’re so used to looking at the one building, but there was so much more here.”
Rancho San Andrés Castro Adobe served as headquarters for the extended Castro family holdings until 1883. About 60 people, including Native American workers, lived in and around the building until then.
Folks like Charlie Kieffer, a Castro descendent (his great-great-grandmother, Maria de los Angels, once lived in the house), as well as a Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks board member and volunteer docent, are vital to the adobe’s legacy. He and his wife Patty, also a volunteer docent, have an infectious passion for history.
Upon reaching the adobe, Charlie leads me and the others in the group to one of the last remaining cocinas in California. It has an accurately restored brasero, which Charlie says will be used in tortilla cooking demonstrations for visiting elementary school students studying California history. It’s one of only four or five remaining rancho cocinas in California.
The second story of the hacienda, once regarded as the primary social center of the Central California Coast, features Charlie’s favorite room. He excitedly shows off the adobe’s fandango room, which was the scene of many all-night fiestas, a space that had a minimal amount of furniture so guests could dance to live music for hours on end. Doors led out to the balcony where visitors cooled off and looked out to the Pacific (trees and homes now hinder the ocean view.)
The cocina was used for other purposes following the Castro era— blacksmith shop, garage and laundry room. Since, it has been painstakingly restored back to a cocina. The one significant change was the backyard, now called the “Potter-Church Garden.” While David and Elizabeth Potter lived in the adobe in the 1960s and early 1970s, they asked their dear friend, revered landscape architect Thomas Church (considered one of the innovators of “California Style”) for help. Foxglove, matilija poppy, columbines, roses and cork oaks flood the garden with beauty.
In 1850, the Castro Adobe was not easy to miss, perched up high on a hill, and from the balcony, views of ships coming to port were visible. The Mexican-era style of architecture is defined by the two-story building’s spacious cocina and the fandango room.
The hacienda was known for its large celebrations following the rounding up and branding of cattle. The festivities always included banquets with roasted pork or beef, and lots of dancing in the fandango room.
There were also the infamous wild bull and grizzly bear fights. At the time, the California grizzly flourished in Santa Cruz County. It was the largest land animal in California, weighing 1,200 pounds or more and up to nine feet tall. The event went down as follows: Several vaqueros would lasso a wild longhorn bull and bring it to the rancho, where they secured it. Then, they had to round up a grizzly, which usually took five vaqueros on horses to capture, lassoing the bear’s neck and legs. Then they would drag it to the rancho’s corral. A hind leg of the grizzly would be tied to the front leg of the bull. The fight would begin.
The wild bull and grizzly bear fights were held outside the Castro Adobe, where people watched, usually from the balcony where it was safe. The iron tangs (rings) inserted into trees and used to tie the animal during these fights have been found around the property and will also be displayed in the archival room.
Meanwhile, the earliest known photo of Castro Adobe, from around 1889, shows “lumbering,” a Spanish technique used to cover the gable end of a building to provide space for storage. The adobe’s three-foot walls remain one of its most distinguishing features: They provided insulation from both cold and hot days and incidentally created deep window sills, which were also used for storage.
For 35 years, the Joaquin Castro Family and their workers lived in and on the property. Then, between the 1906 earthquake and the 1989 shaker, more than a dozen different families lived in the Adobe. During the 83 years separating the quakes, Spanish and Danish families came and went. For 18 years, Portuguese—Maderos and Mello farmers—owned the property.
Each family who lived in the adobe has stories that are as much a part of the structure as the mud and wood initially used to build it. Suzanne Paizis’ book The Castro Adobe in the Twentieth Century: From Earthquake to Earthquake recalls many stories. The Potters, as mentioned above, contribute “a woodpecker story of ‘The Flicker.’” The account features a hole drilled into the attic wall on the garden side of the home by an ambitious woodpecker trying to get inside to build its nest.
“When we came for a weekend, my husband discovered the hole and boarded it up, not realizing the bird was inside,” Elizabeth said. “We could hear its wings flapping all night. David took the board out early in the morning and released the poor bird, which nearly knocked him off the ladder, and he closed the hole again.”
As I tour the adobe, there are reminders of these stories and other remnants of the home’s history everywhere. There’s a spot in the middle of a renovated wall that still showcases century-old graffiti scrawled in pencil. Parts of other walls are left open to show the handmade bricks behind the plaster. Kusz calls these areas “truth windows”; I had never heard the phrase before, but it’s the perfect way to describe the design.
“We wanted to leave this so that we could talk about the restoration process,” Kusz says. “We’ll have an armoire that goes over it, and then you can open it, and there will be some interpretive information on what you’re looking at—the new brick and the old brick. You’re going to learn about the Castro family, where they came from, and who the other people were in the building. That’s been a goal. We don’t want interpretive panels everywhere. You can’t feel the history if you’re looking at interpretive panels instead of the walls. That’s one thing that we’ve been really trying to focus on: the history of the site, but also that this building is still standing and how lucky we are to have it. We’re marching through time as we go into some of these rooms. It’s not just the Castro era. We call the other owners that have lived there ‘stewards.’ I like that idea.”
The park closed for further construction and renovations in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, which kept volunteers and docents from working. While the historic building officially reopened in December 2021, there is still much work to be done. The subsequent phases include completing the “interpretive” and “landscape” plans and finishing the restoration of the adobe’s interior.
Additionally, there are loose plans for interactive elements, mural projections and an audio element. Some ambitious plans include touch screen descriptions of the graffiti, and possibly an app for phones that lets visitors see from the adobe what the property and surroundings may have looked like 170 years ago.
Friends is looking to put together a governing board for the archives, and hopes to make it accessible to the public to see artifacts like the rings used in the bull and bear fights. The Edna Kimbro Library and Archives – Center for Early California Studies will serve scholars and other visitors interested in studying the cultural heritage of early California.
It’s difficult for Kusz to believe that she initially came on just for the brick-making project back in 2007, and has been involved in the project ever since.
“There was a lot of back and forth with State Parks to get those bricks made,” she says. “But again, we all worked together from the very beginning of this project. It’s a labor of love. For the community, for the people who are working on it, for the descendants, for the volunteers.”
DISCOVERING CASTRO ADOBE
The State Park’s “Kids to Parks” program will introduce fourth graders studying the Mexican Rancho period and third graders studying local history to the concina, where they’ll experience hands-on cooking demos. A docent will teach the students how tortillas, beans and nopales (cactus) were made during the Rancho period. There will also be leather braiding and other activities led by Charlie and his fellow docents.
Rancho San Andrés Castro Adobe State Historic Park, 184 Old Adobe Road, Watsonville. thatsmypark.org.