HOME LIFE ON THE RANCHO
Though many rancheros (rancho owners) had a house in the closest pueblo (town), their house on the rancho was their main home, the casas de campos or ranch house. The town house might be grander, but the more casual ranch house was where the family spent most of their time.
FIRST RANCHO HOUSES
The earliest houses on the rancho were simple huts made of mud and sticks. These huts had thatched roofs of tules or straw. Sometimes the opening to the hut had a wooden door, and sometimes a cowhide was hung over the opening. These simple huts were used until the ranchero and his workers were able to build larger houses from adobe. As the ranchos became more prosperous, the houses became larger and fancier.
The spot chosen for the ranch house was usually on ground higher than the surrounding land and without any trees around it, so the people would have a view out over the rancho lands. It was nice if there was a spring of water nearby.
Adobe. The main ranch house and other buildings on the rancho were made of adobe bricks. Indian workers who had been at the missions had become very good at making adobe bricks.
The bricks were made from a mixture of clay-like soil and water with straw or rubble added to give it strength. The adobe was mixed in a large hole dug in the ground. The thick muddy mixture was poured into wooden forms about 16" x 12" x 4" in size. After the clay was patted down so it completely filled the forms, the forms were lifted off. Then the bricks were left to dry in the sun.
Walls made from adobe bricks were very thick, sometimes several feet thick. The bricks were held together with a cement made of the same adobe clay. The thick walls kept the house cool inside in the summer and warm in winter. The walls were painted inside and out with a water and lime mixture made with crushed seashells. This was called whitewashing. Window openings were covered by iron grates. Only the wealthier people had glass in their windows.
Floors in the first rancho homes were of packed earth. Water was sprinkled on the floor to keep down the dust. Later, the well-to-do people had board floors.
Roofs on the rancho buildings were made either of thatch or of tile. A thatched roof was done with bundles of tule reeds covered with mud or tar. In the Los Angeles area, dried chunks of tar were found around the La Brea tar pits, where boiling tar bubbled out of the ground. The dried chunks were put on the thatched roof. When the sun melted the tar, it spread over the straw and helped to make it waterproof and warmer.
Roof tiles were made on molds similar to the adobe bricks, and then fired in a hot oven. The tiles were held in place by rough-hewn beams of wood, bound with cowhide thongs. Nails were not commonly available.
Whether the roof was made of thatch or of tile, the eaves of the roof were extended out several feet in order to protect the walls from rain which would soften and weaken the adobe bricks.
The ranch house and other buildings were laid out around a courtyard. Much of the activity of the ranch house was carried on in the courtyard. Other buildings around the courtyard were storage rooms and workshops for weaving, blacksmithing, or other tasks, bunkhouses for the vaqueros (cowboys), and servants' quarters.
At first, all the adobe buildings on the ranchos were one-story buildings. The adobe bricks were not strong enough to support a second story safely. In 1835, the first two-story adobe house was built in Monterey by an American, Thomas O. Larkin.
Larkin's house was built with a redwood frame which helped to support the adobe bricks. It had verandas (roofed porches) protecting all the walls. The house had an inside stairway going to the second floor, and a fireplace.
Larkin's two-story house was much admired. Soon others were copying this style. Many of the one-story adobe houses on the ranchos were then remodeled into two-story houses.
ROOMS IN THE RANCHO HOUSE
Rancho houses came in all sizes, depending on the size of the family and the wealth of the ranchero. In the earlier years, a typical ranch house had two or three rooms opening into each other. By the 1850s, some rancho homes had as many as 30 rooms.
The front door of the house was often left open, so that one could see into the living room, or sala. Beyond the living room were the bedrooms.
Much of the cooking was done in the courtyard over open fires or in beehive-shaped ovens (hornitos). A separate building served as a place to prepare food. This kitchen had a wooden table as its only furniture. Strings of garlic and peppers were hung from the rafters. Large containers of water, brought from a spring or a well, stood at the door.
There was little furniture in the ranch house. Most furniture had to be imported from Boston and so was very costly.
The beds were the most important pieces of furniture. The lady of the rancho took pride in having big beds covered with white linens edged with lace, and with soft down-filled comforters and brightly-colored blankets. The beds were often surrounded with curtains that provided privacy. The large, fluffy pillows were covered with linen or satin. In spite of the fancy beds, it seems that there were always fleas (pulgas in Spanish) sharing the bed with the sleeper.
Besides the beds, there were usually a few chairs and a small table. The table was not used for eating, as most of the eating was done outdoors. People often ate standing up.
As decorations in the rancho house, the people hung a crucifix (cross) or paintings of the saints. Most houses had a mirror, or looking glass, in which the people could admire their fine clothes.
The houses were dark even in the daytime, because the windows were small. People spent much of their time outdoors in the courtyard. In the evenings, they used candles made of tallow (animal fat).
Rancho washerwomen did the laundry in the nearest stream. It was a major task to transport the clothes to and from the stream, so laundry was done only every few weeks.
On laundry day, the dirty clothes were loaded into a carreta, a rough cart with wooden wheels sliced from a big log, pulled by oxen. At the stream, the wet clothes were spread out on flat rocks and pounded with soap to get them clean. After they were rinsed in the stream water, they were hung on bushes to dry.
Doing the laundry was an all-day project. The laundry crew took along a picnic lunch, and had a siesta (sleep) in the afternoon while they waited for the clothes to dry.