Jared Mathis of the Moulton Museum and great-grandson of Lewis and Nellie Gail Moulton, speaks during the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony at the Aliso Viejo Ranch on Saturday, May 1, 2021 in Aliso Viejo. The city has rehabbed the old ranch property with part of it used to display and educate visitors of the city’s history. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
After years of planning, the city of Aliso Viejo unveiled this weekend its long-awaited $15.5 million restoration project on the historic former property of the pioneering Moulton family: A multi-use ranch space, fit with agricultural and timeworn elements, that harks back to Orange County’s farmland roots.
On a footprint of 7.7 acres – the last unused parcel of the Moulton family’s ranch – the Aliso Viejo Ranch includes a mix of new and restored construction, a working farm, fish ponds for harvesting, an orchard and historic artifacts on display.
The space wrangles the power of aquaponics to grow a bevy of vegetables, which will be maintained by a farmer tending to the land and donated charitably, City Manager David Doyle said. The fish will be harvested twice a year, and the orchards of apple, avocado, orange and hordes of other trees will produce more food for Orange County’s hungry, he said
“I don’t know a whole lot of other cities – in fact I struggled to name one – that has an operating farm on basically what is a public park,” Doyle said.
Rehabbed was an original barn and bunkhouse, both built in the 1890s, under which foundation and utility hook-ups were added. Piece by piece, the barn was deconstructed so the wood could be treated for preservation, then put back together, “like a big, giant jigsaw puzzle,” Doyle said.
At the old bunkhouse, crews restored the building back to its past self in a similar fashion. Decades-old carpets were removed to expose hardwood floors over a hundred years old, Doyle said. The ranch’s facilities will be available for rent for events.
And added to the landscape: A new, 8,000-square-foot barn, which was constructed to be a near-replica of one that sat on the property at one point in time. Photos of the ranch from long ago, as well as old receipts from lumber purchases, helped in the design, Doyle said.
The massive red structure contains historical artifacts donated by the Moulton family, which acquired the 22,000-acre ranch in the 1890s. Lewis Moulton’s writing desk sits pristine on a platform next to an old chest and a brown, aged saddle. On another platform: A black buggy with bright red spokes.
“The history is really important because if you don’t keep it, you’re going to lose it,” Doyle said. “And by having these pieces, the physical pieces of history, it connects current people – the humans that are alive today – with what it was like back then, and an appreciation of how far we’ve come.”
The city worked with the Moulton Museum, which is expected to open this fall, to acquire the artifacts for the ranch. The Moulton family is spread out across California now, many having taken remnants of their ancestors’ time on the ranch with them when they left Orange County, said Jared Mathis, whose grandmother, Charlotte, was one of two children by pioneers Lewis and Nellie Moulton.
The museum helped bring the family’s many artifacts back to one spot. To the Aliso Viejo Ranch, the museum donated many of Lewis Moulton’s personal items, including his desk, as well as his personal pipe, Mathis said. It also gave numerous old photos, documents, maps and even film, he said.
For the living descendants of the Moultons, helping tell the story of the land during that time was meaningful, Mathis said.
“Both the city, the community, and the whole family, loved the idea of preserving the old buildings, the barn and bunkhouse,” he said. “Historically, preserving those pieces was really important, because they were the last standing buildings of an era that has passed us by.”
The ranch project has spanned the entirety of Councilman’s Dave Harrington’s time with the city. Its components of historical preservation and education feel most significant, and are ones he hopes those who visit the property find value in.
“I really hope that they appreciate the historical aspect of it, and the opportunity that we’ve provided for them to learn about Orange County, No. 1,” said Harrington, who served as Aliso Viejo’s mayor in 2017 and 2018. “No. 2, and I mean this sincerely, I hope they get out of it that government can actually do projects on time and actually produce a real nice product.”