The Stories of the Castro Adobe

With the unveiling of new interpretive exhibits, the once-crumbling Castro Adobe emerges as a first-rate State Historic Park.

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By Traci Hukill

Jun. 4, 2024—If we could watch a time-lapse video of the Castro Adobe since the Loma Prieta earthquake, we would see a magnificent but dilapidated two-story structure, missing part of its roof and most of two walls, slowly being returned to its glory. In the beginning we’d see people coming and going singly and in groups, holding clipboards, taking photos, and examining the earthen walls. Abruptly we’d see scores of volunteers descending on the grounds to make adobe bricks and set them to cure in the sun, and then we’d see those bricks used to build up the missing portion of the two exterior walls. We’d see the roof rebuilt and seismic retrofitting completed, old rotting wood removed from the veranda and replaced with healthy new redwood.

We’d see a massive steel beam threaded through the thick adobe walls with utmost care and settled into place to support the second floor. We’d see the old walls whitewashed until they gleamed, and doors and shutters carefully painted to match remnants of the original. We’d see the restored garden begin to fill in and leaf out, growing into a more graceful version of itself under the shade of the cork oaks and a spectacular cascade of wisteria adorning the Adobe’s north wall.

Finally we’d see the finishing touches applied to turn this hacienda built in 1849-1850 into a first-class state historic park: artifacts mounted in glass cases, period furniture and textiles moved in, new interpretive signage positioned throughout both floors, and original sections of adobe wall exhibited behind protective glass, preserved along with the graffiti that puckish neighborhood kids couldn’t resist carving into the dirt during the Adobe’s lost decades. The transformation complete, busloads of schoolchildren from neighboring districts visit. They see themselves and their own culture in this grand old building that was here long before highways and subdivisions stamped a new way of life onto the land.

Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks partnered with California State Parks, skilled craftsmen, and countless volunteers to complete this achievement. Preservation Project Manager Jessica Kusz and other Friends staff members poured years into the project, and members of the Castro Committee and Interpretive Subcommittee gave their attention and expertise. Many, many others donated their time, labor, materials and money.

“This project has always been a community labor of love,” says Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks Executive Director Bonny Hawley, whose own involvement with the Adobe dates back to 1990 and her time as a staffer in the office of then-County Supervisor Fred Keeley. “There are thousands of people who need to be thanked, people who touched this and made it happen. That’s what’s so extraordinary about it, and I think you really feel that love and that commitment and creativity when you’re in there. It’s not like any other project.”

With every new stage of the Adobe’s restoration it has become easier for a visitor to imagine what daily life was like for the Castros, one of Alta California’s powerful founding families. With the recent installation of exhibits and interpretive signage designed by The Sibbett Group and fabricated by Gizmo Art Production, eight years in the making, it is now possible to grasp that even more profoundly—and to understand more not just about the Castro family’s rise and fall in the years leading up to and following statehood, but about the native people working on the rancho and how Mexican culture profoundly shaped the place we know today.

Voices Coming from the Kitchen

Now restored, the Adobe’s cocina was a hub of domestic activity and the province of the native people who worked on the ranch. A sign on a shelf identifies six of them. Taken from a census, the names and scant details raise many more questions than answers, but they give some substance to shadows: Hailing from different tribes and different missions, Faustina, 35, and Carlos, 39, are married; their daughter is Ynocente, 11. They work alongside Josefa and Jose Antonio, ages unknown, both from the South, likely near Oceanside. Teenaged Ybon is an orphan. Did they tell jokes? Gossip? Complain about the weather? With names come possibilities.

Leaving the cocina and walking into the front door of the main house, you hear the sounds of clinking dishes and glass coming from hidden speakers.. A large heavy table is made up to appear set for dinner; on the far wall of the sala a series of commissioned illustrations of rancho life with narrative run on a concealed projector. The illustrations are by David Rickman, an artist selected for his accurate portrayals of historic periods; a large Rickman painting in the adjoining Vaquero Room depicts a young woman lassoing a calf from the back of a galloping horse, a nod to rancho women’s known skills on horseback. It’s hard to imagine local 4th-6th graders who visit the Adobe as part of Friends’ Kids2Parks program not thrilling to this triumphant image of ability and self-determination.

Across the sala, in a small side room, are exhibits of artifacts found on the premises over the years. Through painstaking efforts by volunteers, some of the ceramic sherds were matched to actual antique dishware patterns. Examples of those dishes were purchased and are now exhibited alongside the sherds. We also see a toothbrush, a strangely small fork, part of a dainty boot, and gaming pieces made from broken dishes and shaped using traditional flintknapping techniques. In this room, beautifully lit floor-to-ceiling floating glass, bearing interpretive text, showcases exposed sections of the original adobe walls. From here, visitors can take the stairs or the ADA-compliant lift to the second floor and the Fandango Room.

On the way up the stairs is a treat. Over the decades that the Adobe stood empty, kids who visited or lived there carved random notes into the dirt walls: “Beans.” “June 14, 1936.” “Arlene GB.” These are preserved behind floating glass. A plaque quotes the grandchild of one of the adobe’s owners, who recalls how she and her cousins used to get in trouble for drawing on the walls. In some ways this is the most vivid expression of the park’s overall interpretive theme of “If These Walls Could Talk.” The fact that Friends tracked down one of the culprits in advanced age, John Rocha of Watsonville, for a photo with his old graffiti just adds another layer of delight.

Next you enter the Fandango Room, where a projector runs video of Alta California Dance Company members dancing the traditional Borrego to historically accurate music by Los Arribenos. In this generous upstairs room, with its deep windows in which to sit and rest and its commanding view of the valley from the veranda, Juan Jose and Rita Pinto Castro threw parties, with music by Juan Jose’s gifted brother Guadalupe, then put the guests up for the night on simple beds made from wood and rope or sleeping on bedrolls. Their master bedroom, probably palatial by the standards of the day, adjoins the Fandango Room. Warmed by brazier, it features a high small bed, a sturdy wardrobe, and that staple of pre-plumbing households, the chamber pot.

Leaving through the veranda to take the outside staircase down, visitors can pause and look out over the Pajaro Valley. Much in the landscape has changed since the Adobe was first built 175 years ago, obviously. But thanks to the efforts of all the staffers, volunteers and professionals who collaborated to restore this landmark, we can travel briefly back in time and see it through the eyes of those who lived there then.

The public can tour the Castro Adobe and explore the new exhibits during monthly open house events from 10:30 AM to 3:30 PM on June 15, Aug. 11, Sept. 21, Oct. 13, Nov. 16 and Dec. 8. Learn more and sign up for a tour at Follow this link to support Castro Adobe State Historic Park.