A Look At Urban Legends of South OC

By Jon Boardman, JRN 2

The Garcia/Pryor residence, now known as the O’Neill Museum, was built between 1870 and 1880 by Jose Garcia, a saloon owner, for his wife, Refugio Yorba. There are multiple urban legends about ghosts who roam the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. (Jon Boardman)

The North Beach district in San Clemente is known for its sparkling coastline, midweek farmers market, and lively restaurant scene. It’s also the setting of a tableau that leaves passerbyers puzzled. On a quiet street, in the window front of a building marked only with a sign that reads “You Are Here” you’ll find the Squirrels of Los Molinos Street.

Three well-dressed mannequins pose in a small windowed room adorned with accordions, ceramic crows and an assortment of furniture and art. The trio of dummies wear rubber squirrel masks and depict ever-changing scenes, only moving positions every so often, week to week, month to month. A sensor detects when pedestrians pass the strange scene, activating music ranging from jazz to country to polka, adding to the sense of confusion and disbelief with each walk by the strange scene.

Few know of the Squirrel Project of Los Molinos and even fewer know of their origin or meaning. What is housed in the mysterious building? Why are the squirrels there, and who keeps changing their poses? What exactly does “You Are Here” mean?

The Squirrels of Los Molinos Street in San Clemente have been in residence for several years. (Jon Boardman)

The Squirrels of Los Molinos Street in San Clemente have been in residence for several years, greeting those to visit the studio of artists James and Diane Donaldson. (Jon Boardman)

“It all started in Austin four years ago,” Diane Donaldson says. Donaldson and her husband and fellow artist James were looking at art in Texas. “We got the first mask at one of those ‘hip-and-now’ stores.”

She decided to have a little fun with their new.

“I had the squirrel head and I was in bed. There was a knock at the door, so I get up with the blanket wearing the squirrel head and go to the door and it was someone from the hotel that was there for something else. I said ‘I thought you were my husband’ which I’m sure didn’t help.”

They brought the mask home that summer and shortly after, purchased the building on Los Molinos Street which would serve as their art studio.

The two additional squirrel masks were purchased online, and the mannequins were purchased one at a time in downtown Los Angeles. The company that makes the squirrel masks do indeed make other animal masks. Donaldson has thought about buying more creatures other than the famed rubber rodents at the studio but has since reconsidered.

“I’m really kind of married to the squirrels,” Donaldson says. While the scenes are ever-changing, the masks are not. “They live ‘Here.’”

The Squirrels of Los Molinos Street

Half squirrel, half human. The Squirrel Project allows these characters to represent a variety of scenarios. (Jon Boardman)

As for the signs out front, they signify the name of the building that houses Diane and James’ studio. “We tried figuring out a name for the building and decided to call it ‘Here'” she says.

The ceramic crows that accompany the squirrels are scattered around the studio. Donaldson makes them out of clay with a mold she produced. She also made several ceramic squirrels that are laying about. They’re much smaller than the trio in the window.

“A lot of people don’t notice them when they pass by,” she says. “The people that do – they’re my tribe. They always get a kick out of it.”

Another mystery centered around San Clemente is a set of inexplicable metal placards scattered downtown. On an unnamed road that spans from Avenida Valencia all the way to El Portal, nailed into telephone poles are rectangular sheets of metal with cryptic images and messages like “What’s new on Earth?” and pictures of two astronauts, one with a briefcase, walking down a street. Pedestrians that walk this alleyway, which intersects the top portion of Del Mar, are left clueless as to what these messages mean and who has been leaving them.

Once again, the people behind this mystery are Diane and James.

“They’re like forms of haiku leaving people always surprised,” Diane says.

“He made about fifty of them,” Diane says. James hasn’t put any new placards up in the past year, and quite a few of the remaining placards have been written on, scratched up and even taken. “I hope they go to good homes.”

The placards have been a part of San Clemente for quite some time now. The remaining placards have stood the test of time.

“The one of the two spacemen walking has been on Del Mar now for seven or eight years,” Donaldson says.

Leaving the beaches of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano is also the home of some other urban legends. The story of the swallows returning to San Juan is one of the town’s most renowned tales. Many are unaware of the ghosts that are said to still linger in the town.

“If you’re a skeptic, you’re a skeptic, and if you’re a believer, then you’re a believer,” Jan Siegel, museum curator, and Historical Society program chair says. “But, in these stories, there’s always one element of truth. They all feed on each other and they become myths and legends.”

As a member of the board of directors for the Historical Society, Siegel knows of plenty of the ghost stories of San Juan, including one that takes place in the very building she works in.

The Garcia/Pryor residence, now known as the O’Neill Museum, was built between 1870 and 1880 by Jose Garcia, a saloon owner, for his wife, Refugio Yorba.

The Garcia/Pryor residence, now known as the O’Neill Museum, was built between 1870 and 1880 by Jose Garcia. (Jon Broadman)

Across from the train station is the O’Neill Museum, which is the home of the San Juan Historical Society. The building itself was constructed by saloonkeeper Jose Dolores Garcia in the late nineteenth century. Garcia was murdered in 1896 and not soon after, the home was bought by Albert Pryor.

Albert Pryor was known by residents to sit on his porch smoking cigars while he watched the trains pass by, day in and day out. Pryor died from a stroke after the turn of the century and over the years, the home went into disrepair and rumors about hearing the cries of Garcia’s ghost or smelling the smoke of Pryor’s spirit around the home grew. It wasn’t until the 70s that the Historical Society moved the house to where it rests today and remodeled it.

“It’s true, he used to sit on his rocker on this porch and smoke a cigar,” Siegel says.

She, however, has never met anyone who has smelt the cigar smoke in the house, nor has she herself ever smelt the stogies of Albert Pryor. The myths have been passed around and have been documented in books like “Ghost And Legends of San Juan Capistrano” by Pamela Hallan-Gibson, which also dissects another ghostly San Juan tale.

There are multiple urban legends about ghosts who roam the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. (Jon Boardman)

There are multiple urban legends about ghosts who roam the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. (Jon Boardman)

According to Hallan-Gibson, in 1812, an Indian girl named Magdalena was punished by the Mission priest for secretly seeing a man named Teofilo. Part of her punishment was to walk through the Great Stone Church at the Mission in front of the parish with a candle in her hand. During her faithful walk, an earthquake decimated the church, killing Magdalena.

Legends says that on quiet evenings, from the garden or even from the street, a small candle-lit face can be seen from one of the remaining windows of the collapsed church.

“There is an absolute element of truth,” Jan says. Magdalena was a real person. She was killed in the 1812 San Juan Capistrano earthquake.

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Timmy Heffernan

Tim Heffernan is an editor on the Spring 2018 staff of Orange Appeal. He enjoys music and going to concerts and festivals. He will transfer to Chico State in fall 2018 and wants to major in English.

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