An old village wakes up from pandemic shutdown

San Benito County Historical Park reopens its museums.
Ferrando Barn. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Ferrando Barn. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Tres Pinos Jail and Woods cabin. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Tres Pinos Jail and Woods cabin. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Willow Creek school. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Willow Creek school. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Anita Kane and John Wrobel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Anita Kane and John Wrobel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Dunneville Dance Hall. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Dunneville Dance Hall. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Cottage Bar. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Cottage Bar. Photo by Robert Eliason.

There is a place right outside Tres Pinos where you can visit a barn, a carpentry shop, a jail, a dance hall, a fire station, a bar, and a schoolhouse, all within a short two-block walk. The village at the San Benito County Historical Park is open to the public once again after being shut down more than a year ago.

The park, on the site of the old Gambetta Ranch, is home to over a dozen historic buildings. All but two of the buildings in the park were relocated here from other places in the county.  According to Anita Kane, director of the park, several of the buildings had been slated for demolition and others were going to be used for practice drills for the Hollister Fire Department. 

With the land deeded to the county by the Gambettas in 1967, the rescued buildings found a safe haven and are filled with artifacts and interpretive displays. The buildings are open on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and feature guided tours by park docents.

Standing at the entrance to the village, the Ferrando House and Ferrando Barn are the only buildings original to the site. The barn is used to store antique equipment and is connected to two sheds filled with historic utility and farm vehicles including an old peddler’s wagon dating to the 1880s.

The house contains working model train displays maintained by San Juan Pacific Model Railroaders and is open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

The Ferrando brothers, who owned the house in the early part of the last century, were somewhat of a mystery. The lifelong bachelors discouraged curious visitors. According to Kane, the word around town was that they were hiding a wine-making business in their basement during prohibition.

The first building brought to the park was the Mary Sullivan House, which served as the inspiration for creating the village. “The Sullivan House was built by Michael Shea, who was Colonel Hollister’s lead carpenter,” Kane said. “He built it for his widowed sister and her four daughters—her husband had been killed in a mining accident. It only has two bedrooms and an outhouse out in the back.”

The house, which was built in 1867, is constructed of redwood held together by square-headed nails. It remained in the family until 1997 when it was moved to the historical park from Hollister. It was fully restored in 1990 and contains period furniture, quilts, and a drawing room complete with a cast-iron stove and pump organ.

The next-oldest building in the park is the Willow Creek School, built in 1874. It was built by Henry Melendy for use at his ranch 15 miles south of Tres Pinos. The building was moved to the park in 1992.

“The school was used by about 20 children a day,” Kane said. “What is nice about this building is that the families of the ranchers still live in this area and every so often we have someone come by who actually attended this school.”

The building is filled with various styles of antique desks and has displays of photographs of other local one-room schoolhouses along with a  large wall map of San Benito County hanging near the teacher’s desk. Dating from the late 1800s, it details all the land claims and ranch locations of that era.

Built at about the same time as the school, the Woods Cabin once stood on Cienega Road in a canyon that is now part of the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area. The unusual L-shape of the building and the 11-foot tall ceilings made the building impossible to move in one piece.  It was dismantled in 1992, reassembled at the park, and now serves as the visitor center.

Franz Schneider, who has been a docent at the park for 10 years, is often at the Woods Cabin playing period music on his banjo.

“People are interested in different things out here,” Schneider said, “but they tend to spend the most time here in this building. We have the old telephone exchange, a case filled with old pharmacy things, the old post office, and a variety of items people enjoy learning about. I enjoy getting people engaged in history and telling them stories about the things we have here.”

The Tres Pinos Jail, built around 1905, sits next to the Woods Cabin. It was originally located directly behind the 19th Hole bar in Tres Pinos and was abandoned when the sheriff had enough patrol cars to be able to take suspected lawbreakers directly to the county jail.

“It was more of a shack for people to sleep it off when they had too much of a good time,” Kane said. “It is not particularly secure—you could just kick the roof off if you really wanted to get out.”

The star attractions of the park, the Dunneville Dance Hall and the Cottage Bar, sit across from each other at the south end of the park. 

The bar is one of a succession of buildings that were at the current location of Dassel Petroleum on Wright Road in Hollister. Originally located next to a weigh station, it gave drivers a place to get a beer and play cards while waiting for their vehicles to be checked. The bar is the second incarnation of the building, being a replacement for the original bar that burned down in 1906. It was donated to the park in 1995.

When open, the bar serves traditional period beverages like sarsaparilla, ginger beer, and root beer. It features a mirrored back bar with a pillared canopy that came from a saloon that had been located on Fifth Street in Hollister.

“I love this bar,” Kane said. “It was and is a good social gathering place. It is what we call a ‘fragile’ building—you can feel it move if you stamp your feet.” Because of the condition of the building, occupancy is limited and it’s not rented out for functions.

The Dunneville Dance Hall was built around 1890 and moved to the park in 1992. It had to be cut into three sections in order to make the trip. It had originally been the town Grange Hall and was also used as shops for mechanics and electricians, a repair shop, and a store that sold radios.

The current building is a reconstruction of the original, built from salvaged materials after the hall collapsed in 2006 during a bad wind storm. The hall can be rented out for private parties, fundraisers, youth activities and community events. It’s the chief source of revenue for the Historical Society, 

“Besides occasional grants, we don’t have other ways to generate the revenue we need to maintain everything out here,” said John Wrobel, president of the Historical Society. “We rely on volunteers, like the members of the E Clampus Vitus organization, to help with repairing and maintaining the buildings, but we need more.”

As the buildings reopen, Wrobel is interested in preserving the existing assets and expanding the educational programs at the park.

“I would like to find someone who could donate a couple more sheds to house the vehicles and equipment sitting outside,” he said. “That is irreplaceable history that is just rusting away right now.  We have a carpentry shop and our collection of old printing presses. It would be great to have someone who has skills in those crafts come out and demonstrate them to our visitors.”

For Kane, the opportunity to step back in time is a chance to not just enjoy the historic buildings but also the more natural setting they are in at the park.

“With all of the development going on, buildings like these are rapidly disappearing,” Kane said. “And it is a shame because this is part of the human history of the county. It gives you a little bit of an idea of what early towns looked like then. And you are also out here where it is a more natural area, with the trees, the birds, and the animals. You can see rabbits hopping down the street and hear the birds singing and feel that you really are taken back in time.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.