The first time Roy Coox set eyes on the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House was at least 15 years ago, after he had joined the Vista Irrigation District but a decade before he would become its general manager.
To motorists on their way from Borrego Springs, the place must have seemed little more than a heap of boards cluttering the high-country prairie.
But Coox saw something else.
“I was fascinated by it because of its historical importance,” he told me. “I was a history major in college, and this was really my first opportunity to put that to use, even though it’s not a core part of my job of managing the water district.”
Built in 1857, the Warner-Carrillo house served as a key stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route and a crossroads on the westward emigrant trail, where an estimated 250,000 settlers stopped en route to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In the early 1990s, the ranch house, drooping and crumbling more each year, became Coox’s pet project, and he began looking for opportunities to restore it. Small victories came and the water district kept the house and barn from collapsing, but Coox knew it would take a lot of money — and therefore time — to do the place justice.
He was right. The year was 2012 before anyone could stroll through the fully preserved house, but when they did, in November, Coox was thrilled.
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment,” he said while standing in the original living room, a 156-year-old space. “To be able to open it to the public for the first time was very gratifying.”
“The pioneers stopped here because this was where they could water their horses for the first time since crossing the desert.”
Last weekend, I followed Coox and Bruce Coons through the storied structure, pausing to look at floorboards, doorjambs and a smattering of cowboy brands at the foot of the fireplace, burned there by idle cowhands a century ago.
Coons is the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, a San Diego nonprofit that spent more than a decade advocating for the preservation of the Warner-Carrillo house.
“Over a third of the people going to the Gold Rush used this trail,” Coons told me, motioning toward some overgrown wagon path beyond the adobe walls. “It figured very prominently in all the diaries — this was the first well-watered valley they saw after crossing about 1,500 miles of desert, thinking they made the biggest mistake of their lives. Then they got here and thought, ‘There is a promised land,’ with the grass and the water. It was the first trading post after leaving Tucson, as well.”
The irrigation district owns more than 40,000 acres of watershed out here, where snowmelt trickles into Lake Henshaw and then out of faucets in the City of Vista.
Because of the district’s ownership, Coons continued, “This is the only place coming into California where you can still see what it looked like to the pioneers.”
Coons knows how close the house came to disappearing from the landscape.
“The district had tried to keep it together for quite a number of years, but it got beyond their control,” he recalled. “We almost lost it — many of the side rooms had already gone, and the main rooms were getting ready to collapse.”
Save Our Heritage put the old stage coach stop on its most-endangered list in 2000, by which time Coox was working to find grants and persuade water board members that resurrecting a dilapidated adobe ranch house would be worthwhile.
“We’re a water district — the reason we own this property is as a watershed, to develop water and bring it down,” Coox said. “But as a property owner, there are so many ancillary issues — being stewards of the environment, stewards of history.
“As a public agency, certainly our first responsibility is to provide water, and do it economically,” he added. “But we also have a social responsibility — we can’t let parts of our social fabric just disappear. I think our board wanted to do the right thing. They said, ‘We’re not paying for this, but Roy, if you can pay for the vast majority of it through grants, we’re willing to chip in for what needs to be done.'”
The bulk of the money finally arrived in the form of a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, and by early 2012, Coox was spreading the word: the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House was almost ready to receive visitors again.
For his nearly two decades of effort, Coox was named “Preservationist of the Year” by Save Our Heritage in 2012. Also last year, the California Special Districts Association recognized him as its statewide General Manager of the Year, citing his district’s pension reform and strategic plan, as well as the time when he turned down a scheduled pay raise.
Save Our Heritage remains the irrigation district’s partner at the ranch house, staffing the facility for public visits on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.
There is a formal grand opening scheduled on May 25, with stage coach rides and tours. The house is located on S-2 half a mile east of Highway 79.
In the end, Coox sees close ties between the history of water here and the history of an old ranch house.
“It’s all related,” he told me. “Lake Henshaw was a local water source that allowed San Diego County to grow before we tapped into other resources like the Colorado River. The pioneers stopped here because this was where they could water their horses for the first time since crossing the desert.”
Coox didn’t just advocate for the preservation of the house — he literally wrote the brochure. “Text by Roy Coox, March 2006,” it says, if you look closely.
And it is obvious that he loved every minute of it.
“When you have a passion for history, you understand how there’s so many themes and threads that tie to what you’re doing, and how important it is to understand how we got to where we are today,” he said.
“There are very few National Historic Landmarks in the country — it’s a designation that’s reserved for places like Plymouth Rock and Mt. Vernon,” Coons said as we wrapped up our tour last weekend. “And this is a National Historic Landmark. It’s really Roy’s interest, and his capturing the imagination of the board, that enabled this to happen.”∗