Up The Road: Mission San Juan Bautista

Aug 15, 2018


Mission San Juan Bautista
Credit Ed Bierman



We head up the road this week to another Spanish-era mission—Mission San Juan Bautista, or St. John the Baptist, California’s 15th mission. One of the most intriguing stories about San Juan Bautista is almost invisible. Tucked away in the mission museum are a couple of original choir books from Father Pedro Estevan Tapis, which demonstrate the Spanish technique of using colors or textures to teach polyphonic music. And teach it he did. The fame of the padre’s boys choir in the early 1800s earned San Juan Bautista the nickname “Mission of Music.”

The 1797 Spanish mission, one of California’s largest, is central to this very small, serene community at the foot of the Gabilan Mountains. But the historic plaza, still bordered by old adobes and now a state historic park and national historic landmark, is the true center of San Juan—rallying point for two revolutions, onetime home of famed bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, and the theatrical setting for David Belasco’s play Rose of the Rancho. Movie fans may remember Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in the mission scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which were filmed here.


Plaza Hotel, San Juan Bautista State Historic Park
Credit Ed Bierman

One of the most colorful characters ever to stumble into San Juan Bautista was one-eyed stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst, a truculent, swaggering, tobacco-chewing tough. “He,” however, was a woman, born Charlotte Parkhurst in New Hampshire. Charley voted in Santa Cruz in 1866, more than 50 years before American women won the right to vote. Definitely a woman ahead of her time.


Partly destroyed by earthquakes in 1800 and 1906—the San Andreas Fault is just 40 feet away—Mission San Juan Bautista has been rebuilt and restored many times. You can tour sections of the mission—still an active parish church—but it’s not really part of the adjacent state historic park. After visiting the small museum and gardens, note the old dirt road just beyond the wall of the mission cemetery. This is an unspoiled, unchanged section of the 650-mile El Camino Real, the “royal road” that once connected all the California missions.




Rooster in the roses, Mission San Juan Bautista
Credit S. Grace



Area community college and university students uncovered original ruins around the quadrangle, and also cleared the 1799 Indian chapel of debris and restored it; inside is an ornate altar built in the 1560s and moved to the chapel for the Pope's visit in 1987. Many of the archaeology students’ other discoveries are on display in the park’s museums.


San Juan Bautista’s oldest original building is the Plaza Hotel across from the mission, originally barracks built in 1813 for Spanish soldiers. San Juan Bautista became a major stage stop between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the hotel was famous statewide. Note its two-story outhouse. Also worth a peek are the stables—with a herd of fine old horse-drawn vehicles and the Instructions for Stagecoach Passengers plaque out front—restored blacksmith shop, jail, washhouse, and cabin.


Because this historic park is a major destination for fourth-graders studying California history, try to come when school is out, timing your visit to enjoy local special events. For many decades the event of the year has come during the holiday season, either La Virgen del Tepeyac or La Pastorela (they alternate yearly), traditional Christmas musicals put on by El Teatro Campesino. Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, known for his smash hits Zoot Suits and Corridos, founded this theater group as guerrilla theater on the United Farm Workers’ picket lines in the 1970s.