When schoolteacher Nellie Gail stepped onto the El Toro depot one hot summer day in 1902 or 1903, it is said she looked at the dry, burnt-umber hills both east and west of the tracks and said, “Who would ever want to live here?”
Nellie had been teaching in the verdant state of Washington. Her purpose for traveling to El Toro, however, was not to scout out a new home, but to visit her widowed father John Gail, originally from the Midwest, who’d recently become proprietor of the local general store.
In those days El Toro – the future Lake Forest – consisted of little more than a church, schoolhouse, community hall, blacksmith’s shop, and warehouses and cattle pens. Most of the last two belonged to Lewis Moulton, whose vast 22,000-acre Niguel Ranch took up what is now Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods and Aliso Viejo.
Once a week or so Moulton rode over from his ranch headquarters, located about where the Laguna Hills Mall now stands, to pick up his mail at the El Toro general store.
Presumably he met Mr. Gail’s attractive daughter during one of these visits.
Lewis Moulton, then in his late forties, was known as a shrewd but congenial businessman. He’d also been experiencing a rather tangled romantic life.
After 14 years of marriage to a Ventura County divorcée, he served her with divorce papers in 1899. A few years later Los Angeles newspapers reported that a local woman, one Mrs. Fannie Mansfield, had filed suit against the well-known Orange County bachelor for breach of promise, citing “200 letters written to her by Moulton” during their supposed engagement.
Clearly, this high profile rancher needed some stability in his life.
So although the well-dressed schoolteacher almost 25 years his junior may have seemed a tad starchy, it was obvious to Moulton that Nellie just might be his answer.
After a five- or six-year courtship (their daughters were hazy on when their parents first met when they were interviewed in the 1990s) Lewis Fenno Moulton and Nellie Maud Gail married in 1908. Their first child, Charlotte – eventual namesake for Laguna Hills’ Avenida de la Carlota – was born in 1910; Louise, for whom Calle de la Louisa is named, followed in 1914.
In addition to being a wife and mother, Nellie Moulton also became an active member of the El Toro Women’s Club and a patron of Laguna Beach’s art colony – not to mention an excellent painter herself.
As a former teacher, Nellie was always ready to help out with local school events, too.
Lewis passed away in 1938 at the age of 84, leaving Nellie and her now-married daughters the responsibility of running the ranch.
When it became apparent in the 1960s that adjoining areas would be developed, the Moulton women decided to sell.
Nellie went to live in a home overlooking the ocean. She passed away in 1973 at the age of 94; her final resting place is at Santa Ana’s Fairhaven Memorial Park, next to Lewis.