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The Love Story of Mr. & Mrs. Moulton in the Summer of 1903

by in Articles‚ Orange County History

Shortened article published in February 2022 Best Version Media – Ladera Ranch Neighbors & Wrangler Living – Serving Rancho Mission Viejo

The Love Story of Mr. & Mrs. Moulton in the Summer of 1903

by Jennifer Keil, Museum Director of Moulton Museum and Founder of 70 Degrees

In 1900, Mr. Lewis Fenno Moulton was an eligible bachelor that had known years of hard work from toiling at the shipyard packing shingles in Boston to working on Daniel Webster’s Farm in his adolescence. He arrived in Southern California as a strappy twenty-year-old to seek his own enterprise starting at Rancho San Joaquin (Irvine Ranch). He had established his ranch by purchasing land for sheep herding in 1895 with a Basque business partner, J.P. Daguerre. He had a network of esteemed friendships with Judge Egan of San Juan Capistrano,  Shakespearean actress Madame Modjeska, and her husband Count Bozenta. 

Society ran by trains and telegrams. On a warm, sunny day in 1903 in El Toro, now Lake Forest, led us to a very important conversation between the Moulton and Gail families. It was in this turn-of-the-century Victorian culture that Miss Nellie Gail first met Mr. Lewis Moulton.  At forty nine years old, Lewis was formally introduced to twenty-four year old Nellie at the El Toro Train Depot. Nellie was visiting from the Seattle area. She was a school teacher who later became a principal and lifelong advocate of education. Her entrepreneurial father, John Gail, had brought the family to southern California and became the manager of El Toro Mercantile Store and postmaster for the town from 1902-1904. Nellie had acquired an education that included business coursework that helped her father, John Gail, manage his business.  She would visit him seasonally when on break from teaching. The Orange County station on which she arrived by train was the center of town with all the town news and gossip.

In Nellie’s memoir she shared, “My next stop, El Toro. With father’s confining hours tending the store, I spent considerable time around the place and sort of helping out. One day a Mr. Moulton, one of the ranchers, came in to get his mail and make a few purchases. Father introduced me and I helped wait on him. We exchanged some pleasantries, then, his errands done, he left. Nothing more. My only and immediate impression was that he seemed a very nice gentleman of a customer. That was the summer of 1903. Five years later I became Mrs. Moulton.” (Living Memories: All About Me Nellie Gail Moulton, 49)

Courting was a common dating practice at the turn of the century. Often, dances and formal dinners allotted for meeting new prospective suitors. Ladies were called upon with calling cards by gentlemen for a supervised visit at the family or friend’s home. These visits were often arranged with the intent for marriage.  Dating culture was developing with city dwellers as the Victorian era ended with the Queen’s passing in 1901. It was five years of Lewis pursuing Nellie that led to their matrimony in 1908. Nellie had approved visits in Seattle when she returned to her classroom in the fall and reminisced about this in her memoir, “One Friday, at recess, one of the little girls ran up to me with the mail to hand me a special message. It was from Mr. Moulton. This was the first, actual and direct correspondence I had ever received from him. Father had mentioned him once or twice in his letters and he had sent on books and baskets of oranges, shared, and a treat to those of us living in the north country. That was the extent of any contact. The message had been sent from Kentucky. It stated he would be arriving in Seattle at eight that evening, for me to meet the train and be his guest for the weekend. (Living Memories: All About Me Nellie Gail Moulton, 52-53)

Nellie continued to describe her incredible date seeing Ben Hur live theater with Lewis. “Once more Lewis set out to try his luck, and succeeded. That evening Lewis put himself out to make it an enjoyable one for me – dinner at Rathskeller’s and then, the pièce de résistance – the surprise – at the theatre we were ushered to box seats. The play met every expectation, magnificent and colorful. In those days background scenery, although done with great skill, was hard to set up to give utmost in reality, the treadmill visible to the audience, worked by the backstage crew. Live horses were harnessed to the chariots. A marvel and great effort for that time. As the curtain went down on the last act, it took a while to come back to earth and the mundane present. The next day, Sunday, after lunch, Lewis escorted me to the boat landing. We said our goodbyes. I went back to my teaching, he to return to his ranch. Apparently, as the future revealed, he had other things in mind, but I must honestly say that seeing him to me was simply a touch of friendship and nothing more than having the attention of a very nice gentleman, and what girl doesn’t enjoy that!” (Living Memories: All About Me Nellie Gail Moulton, 54-55)

Lewis and Nellie married on November 28, 1908 in Camarillo, CA. They had a honeymoon in Hawaii, which she painted en plein air. Lewis built their ranch-styled home at their homestead near the modern 5-Freeway at the Oakbrook Village. There, they had two children, Charlotte and Louise, who would carry their legacy. Lewis showed Nellie a new world vastly different from her hometown in Kansas and introduced her to world-wide travel. This global vision influenced the family’s commitment to heritage, community, and philanthropy to this day. 

Follow our story at to see our upcoming exhibit openings. The museum will be opening this year in July with 1874: Into the West followed by Women on the Ranch. Our museum is located at the Moulton Ranch Center in Laguna Hills. 

Nellie Gail Moulton (1878 – 1972) Hawaiian Coastline, c. 1908, oil on artist’s board, Courtesy of the Moulton Museum (2017.01.20)