Editor’s note: This article continues a series that looks at Solano County’s historic buildings and places. Stories will appear periodically over coming months.
VACAVILLE — Beverly Morlock stood inside the 170-year-old Peña Adobe in Lagoon Valley and recalled the first time she saw it several years ago.
She previously lived in New Mexico and saw plenty of adobes there. Solano County has far fewer, so when she moved to Vacaville in 2004 and saw the Peña Adobe, it held a special attraction.
“As I walked up to the adobe, I had a sense of coming home,” Morlock said.
Morlock is now president of the Peña Adobe Historical Society. Vacaville owns the adobe, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972. The society helps care for it, puts on events there and runs a small, adjacent museum.
Elissa DeCaro, president of the Solano County Historical Society, also feels the pull of the Peña Adobe.
“I love history and I think the place is timeless,” she said.
The Peña Adobe Historical Society held an open house at the adobe Saturday. DeCaro said the adobe brings together people from different cultures and backgrounds. She called the adobe a perfect example of how a historic structure can be used for the public interest.
“I consider it the gateway to Vacaville,” she said.
As with all local historic structures, the Peña Adobe is more than a building. It is the story of people, in this case Juan Felipe Peña and his family and companions at the dawn of Solano County.
The adobe is hardly large or opulent. It has three rooms, one upstairs that can be reached only from the outside. The original floors were dirt and the adobe has no fireplace for warmth. Here lived Peña, his wife Isabella and their six children.
Yet, if the lodging seems spare by today’s standards, it provided in the 1840s and 1850s a place for the Pena family to live in what local historian Wood Young called “primitive splendor.”
A photograph of Peña toward the end of his life shows a man with a high forehead and a penetrating look. He is unsmiling but doesn’t necessarily look stern or uninviting. He is dressed in a suit and seated in an ornate wooden chair.
Peña went through many hardships and showed plenty of ambition to reach that degree of success. The Peñas in 1840 were a prominent Spanish family in New Mexico. Possibly because of an unsettled political situation and trouble with American Indians, Peña and partner Juan Manuel Vaca joined a group of emigrants bound for California, crossing mountains and deserts. Horses and mules provided the transportation.
They ended up in Sonoma staying with Mariano Vallejo, the commandente general of California under Mexican rule. Vallejo later said that he suggested they settle in northern Solano County, which Peña and Vaca did, ultimately ending up in Lagoon Valley.
The Armijos, Wolfskills, Vacas and Peñas in the early 1840s represented the entire white population of what would become Solano County, according to the 1878 Atlas of Solano County. It speculated what drew these families to this region. Apparently, the world it described had already passed away.
“All the valleys were covered with a most luxuriant growth of wild oats, among which fed vast herds of wild cattle, horse, elk and deer, while on the hills and in the canyons of the mountains the fierce grizzly disputed the supremacy of the soil,” the atlas said.
Young in his 1965 book “Vaca-Peña Los Putos Rancho and the Peña Adobe” depicts the Peñas and Vacas as living a somewhat leisurely life, with American Indians serving as vaqueros to tend the cattle. Love of family and hospitality to all were hallmarks, Young wrote.
“The carefree Dons also loved horses,” Young wrote. “They kept one saddled at their door during the daylight hours and rode even the shortest distance. It was not dignified to walk to a neighbor’s home.”
But the Peñas and Vacas faced challenges as California passed from Mexican rule to becoming part of the United States. Young wrote that the “hospitable Dons were imposed on shamefully by gringo squatters” and had to hire attorneys to defend their land claims.
The Vacas and Peñas built their adobes in Lagoon Valley in the early 1840s. The original, sun-dried bricks apparently came from the shores of what Young called Lake Laguna, still a major feature of the valley today and the centerpiece of Lagoon Valley Park. Walls of the Peña Adobe are about two feet thick.
Vaca went on to sell land in 1850 that became the site of Vacaville, with Vaca stipulating his name be used for any future town there. He died in 1858 and his adobe was destroyed by an 1892 earthquake that also caused extensive damage in downtown Vacaville and Winters.
Peña lived in his adobe until his death at 8 p.m. March 15, 1863. He was buried in Benicia after having Catholic ceremonies, according to the March 21, 1863, edition of the Solano County Herald.
“The old gentleman had five sons and two daughters and is said to have enjoyed perfect health through his life until the final summons,” the paper wrote. It also wrote that Peña is notable for “his connection with Vaca in obtaining and settling upon the widely known Vaca Pena grant, which covers so large a portion of territory in the county.”
The adobe stayed in the Peña and Lyon families until 1947. Then two county supervisors bought the adobe and deeded it to the Solano Historic Society, which in 1961 transferred it to Vacaville. It got a $30,000 renovation in the early 1960s and a $159,000 renovation in 2006.
Keeping the Peña Adobe in good shape and holding events there are community undertakings.
“What I would like is to get people who would be volunteers to help with the cleanup and maintenance and telling the story,” Morlock said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean telling the historic story of the Peñas. Morlock talked of people perhaps coming to Peña Adobe Park to talk about such things as nature and the plants there, of finding a way to blend their own talents and interests with the volunteer efforts there.
Please go to http://www.penaadobe.org to learn more about the Pena Adobe Historical Society and its events and programs.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.