Cross the bridge to 1822 at La Purisima Mission.

History Restored at La Purisima Mission


If you attended fourth grade in California, then you got the California Mission Curriculum. You wrote essays and did projects related to the missions, and your class probably visited one of them. You and your classmates were herded about the mission and somebody told stories of what life was like in the early nineteenth century. That's how it was for me, in 1959. Cool, man. (Today it's "awesome.") So, it was nice to get away from school (and maybe learn something at the same time). But that kind of experience has got nothing on La Purisima Mission, located near Lompoc, California.

At La Purisima, they don't just talk about history and the old ways. They live them. Docents are dressed in period attire, and each takes on the persona of a character from the early 1800s. The mission then returns to the old life of two-hundred years ago. You'll see candles and soap made, bread baked, and butter churned. At the blacksmith shop, the coals burn hot while nails and other metal parts are made in the old way. The soldiers quarters are open to visitors, complete with a soldier or two. At the loom room, you'll not only see that the big loom still works, but that there are still people who know how to use it. So you won't just hear about the old days at La Purisima, you'll see them. You'll also taste them, because when the bread, butter, tortillas and beans are done, it's chow time - and you're invited!

The original mission, La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima was in Lompoc. However, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. Moving to a new location further north, the Spaniards built La Purisima. Over the next two decades, La Purisima and other California missions went into a gradual decline. The "PC" version attributes this to disease and lack of supplies, and certainly those were major contributing factors. But there were social issues, too. As early as 1800, La Purisima Mission Fathers were accused of mistreating neophytes, the indigenous people of the area who worked at the mission. The Spanish governor dismissed the charges. 1824 saw an armed revolt, with neophytes taking control of La Purisima and holding it for over a month. Following this low point in its history, the mission was taken over by a governor in 1834. Eleven years later, La Purisima was sold at a public auction for $1,100. Time and weather took their toll on the adobe buildings, reducing them to foundations and, in wet weather, mud. The mission was languishing in ruins when Union Oil bought the property in 1903. In a nod to history, and a bow to not finding any oil, Union donated the mission to the state.

Enter Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps was employed to restore the mission. Reconstruction was done in the old ways. Blacksmithing, carpentry and adobe work were done on-site by hand. After seven years of work, La Purisima opened as a state park in 1941.

Although restoration was deemed complete in 1951, maintenance and further restoration continue today. La Purisima is now the most fully restored of all the California missions. The current effort, though, goes beyond the grounds and structure of La Purisima. It is also about the lifestyle of its early inhabitants. The docents, Prelado de los Tesoros (Keepers of the Treasures), are on hand living and revealing the early ways to visitors. They are accessible and informative. You will see them working as people did in the early 1800s, and you will realize that the "good old days" may have been good, but they were also challenging.

Regardless of any problems it may have had in its past, today's La Purisima is an enjoyable success. The docents are all pleasant and eager to share their knowledge. Find out from the mountain men or soldiers why their hat brims are turned up on one side. If you see people churning butter, ask how temperature affects the job. Find out from the candle-maker whether tallow or beeswax candles burn longer, and where either burns longer. These kinds of questions are simple...but the answers! Many questions such as these lead to very interesting and surprising answers. The docents aren't just wearing costumes and standing near props and equipment; they know the life of the California Missions. Ask them about it. You'll both be pleased.

There are several special event days at La Purisima Mission throughout the year. During Purisima's People Days and Mission Life Days, held several times a year, docents dress and re-enact the parts of people who lived at or visited the mission in 1822. You can discuss early 19th century mission life with them and see them pursue the daily activities of that time. The Mountain Men visit the mission twice a year, setting up camp on the mission grounds. They share stories, display equipment, and demonstrate essential skills of their time and lifestyle. Village Days is when the Tule Village is most active. You can see and learn about basket weaving and tule house building, and you can make tule dolls or play Chumash games. Crafts and stories can be seen and heard on El Pastor day, also. Contact the mission (805.733.3713) for dates of these and other activities at La Purisima.

Additional photographs added March 2013:

Additional photographs added March 2015:

Additional photographs added July 2016:

The Keepers of the Treasures are themselves among the treasures of La Purisima Mission. Special thanks to them for allowing me to make these photographs. I made many other photographs, but the photos shown on this page are those in which the light and background worked best. But every one of the docents at La Purisima Mission is a success and a credit to the mission. Thank you, all!