Besides being a holiday to honor the American patriots who died while serving in our country’s armed forces, Memorial Day has long marked the unofficial beginning of summer (in spite of protestations from purists who stick to the scientific Summer Solstice designation that occurs around June 20-22 in our hemisphere).
Turning from the profound and solemn Memorial Day observances to a preoccupation with summer festivities may seem superfluous, but gives us one more reason to thank the warriors who have made this recreational pursuit possible.
Back in the ‘70s, this holiday weekend signaled the last of the school formalities and the beginning of a search to find summer activities that could keep youngsters entertained, while also providing a little “family togetherness.” At that time, the entertainment choices in the SCV were rather limited. The young trees planted at Magic Mountain in 1971 didn’t provide much shade during the day, and the park was yet to become the knuckle-busting capital of California that would merit multiple visits over the summer.
Those who were on limited budgets and looked to one-day excursions for their recreational pastimes could purchase a small paperback sold at some local stores that was written by columnist George Lowe and entitled “Where Can We Go This Weekend?”
The majority of the book’s trips could be enjoyed in a day’s time, requiring no motel bills and a minimum of restaurant stops. There were even a few sites listed in Newhall (a tour of the now defunct Thatcher Glass factory being one). But one unique jaunt, which was relatively close by, featured summer reenactments of Civil War battles at Fort Tejon.
Located about 68 miles from Newhall, off Interstate 5, the author described Fort Tejon as a strategic outpost to catch horse and cattle rustlers in the mid-1800s.
To a young family with limited funds, it seemed like just the place to go in July of 1975. Once the sightseers arrived, they were greeted by docents who explained that the fort was first settled in 1854 for the mutual protection of whites and Indians (the Yokut tribe was indigenous to the area). The fort dragoons were most famous for “guarding miners and Indians, chasing bandits, and giving band concerts.”
In their colorful uniforms, which were patterned after the most fashionable French troops of the time, the dragoons were also the only U.S. Army troop permitted to wear mustaches and long hair.
For a short time prior to the Civil War, the fort became the site of the experimental use of camels. It was thought that the “ships of the desert” might be useful in Southern California’s dry, arid climate. However, the camels’ hooves were more suited to soft, desert sands, not rocky terrain, and their slow pace made them a better fit for transportation than fighting. (There is an interesting article by George Stammerjohn that covers the topic in depth on the internet at www.forttejon.org/camel.html.)
Long after the fort became inactive, the state bought the land and was able to restore some of the decaying buildings. In 1975, our family spent an hour eating pre-packed lunches in the adjacent park next to a rushing brook. Then it was on to the parade grounds to watch the main attraction, a Civil War battle enactment between the blue and grey uniformed opponents.
The scenario began with a couple, dressed in the garb of the day, laying out a blanket at the side of the parade grounds and setting up a picnic lunch. There were also a few other picnickers on the sidelines and it was explained to the “present day” spectators that some battles, like Gettysburg, did have civilians watching as the combatants traded cannon fire and gunshots. In fact, many of the troops came with their entourages of hoop-skirted belles and nurses.
The hapless couple in the reenactment was rousted by some Union soldiers who, in turn, were accosted by the “Virginia Boys” from the Confederate army. Cannons that fired wadded balls of tin foil, and muskets packed with powder charges and lard, filled the air as the Civil War buffs faithfully re-enacted carefully planned battle sequences. It was heart-pounding stuff, but luckily for the tourists, this battlefield’s pockmarks came from resident gophers, not bombshells.
For anyone who hadn’t outgrown the days of “cowboys and Indians” and “war games,” the battles were exciting to watch. And except for all the noise and smoke, it was just like those childhood games, because at the end of the battle, all the dead guys got up and walked back to their respective sides of the field.
In the 1970s, Civil War reenactments took place on the last Sunday of each summer month, but today’s Fort Tejon site lists only one battle and that takes place this weekend. However, there are other scheduled attractions such as historical tours, a reservations-only Victorian tea party, and a candlelight ghost tour later in October. And the nominal fees to enter the site still make Fort Tejon a good destination for families on a budget.