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Step back into colonial California at Rancho Los Alamitos. Adobe house, barn and garden exude flavor of 1800s

YOU don't have to read California history books to recapture the romantic home life on old Southern ranchos. Yes, romantic in a storybook way - like a 156,000-acre grant of virgin land given to a lowly corporal, Manuel Nieto, by a governor - for the King of Spain. The last heirs were a romantic and active couple, the Bixbys, whose belongings and 19-room additions made Rancho Los Alamitos a ``dream mansion.'' It's one of the oldest preserved historic ranchos of early California.

Manuel Nieto's adobe house passed through many hands. It was built, allowed to fall into ruin, and then rebuilt. This was during the time that the land passed from governance by Spain to Mexico and finally to the United States, with the annexation of the state of California.

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Manuel Nieto, who was born in Sinoloa, Mexico, built Casa de Los Alamitos (House of the Little Cottonwoods) in 1806 and retired on a portion of his lands at the much smaller Rancho Santa Gertrudes.

When he died, he was considered the richest man in his province, owning thousands of head of cattle. The 28,612-acre Rancho Los Alamitos had fresh spring water, which can still be pumped. His house was a 40-by-60-foot adobe-walled house with a reed roof.

Today, the large barns display photomurals and implements to demonstrate how horses were shod, curried, and fed, how cattle were branded, and sheep sheared and dipped.

In one photograph, Fred Bixby, who was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, is shown during sheep dipping. The ancestors of his own herd had been driven across the plains, mountains, and deserts from Illinois by Benjamin and Thomas Flint and Llewellyn Bixby.

A docent at the house explains that their journey started with 1,800 sheep, which increased to 2,400 during the nine-month trip.

The 200-piece collection of glassware belonging to Florence Bixby, Fred's wife, is beautifully preserved inside the adobe living room. The view looks out over gardens of flowers, where Castilian roses brought by the Spanish padres, blue-flowered periwinkle, and anise, with its feathery green sweet seeds, grew.

Pink amaryllis, blue agapanthus, and scarlet red poker once edged garden paths. Orange blossoms, honeysuckle, lilac, and lemon verbena, oleander, and heliotrope yielded a heavenly fragrance when in bloom.

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Many of these plants can still be seen in the four acres of gardens.

Linnets can be heard twittering in the trees, and swallows nest under the eaves; hummingbirds dart about the lilacs with yellow and black butterflies.

Though horses and carriages no longer pull up to the court hitching post, which now harbors a gas pump, this was once a busy place.

There is a faint whiff of leather in the barns where some tooled saddles are on display, but you won't see the silver-trimmed bridles made of rawhide or the high-crowned, wide sombreros trimmed with silver-braided bands once worn by Mexican sheep shearers.

Gone are the orchards where oranges, lemons, and figs and grapes, apples, and pears flourished. Peddlers once brought other fruits to the two busy Chinese men who cooked both for the house and the workmen.

Florence's four children enjoyed food fit for a king from the oven she had installed. Pies, cakes, puddings, doughnuts, and meat from the ranch were baked and roasted. Occasionally beef was killed, but usually a sheep, and there was a smokehouse to cure hams. Chicken and ducks were plentiful.

Milking went on apace, and cream was always available, so thick, the story goes, that it could be spread like butter upon biscuits or baked potatoes. Fred's father, John, kept imported Holstein cattle to improve the cream, and fine cheese was an added result.

The walls of the house were built from large slabs of adobe sun-dried on the spot. They were molded on frames that held nine to 12 at a time. The frame was laid on level ground and packed with mud into which straw had been tramped by the bare feet of Indians.

Sun exposure soon dried the bricks, which shrank away from the frame, and then were lifted up to the redwood beams and posts already in place.

Imported bricks were used for the foundation, paving the verandas, outlining garden beds, lining a 60-foot wall, and building a large cistern.

The building's exterior is kept fresh with coats of whitewash.

Shingles and shakes were substituted on the roof for the former asphalt over redwood planks, because asphalt melted in the hot sun, and the roof leaked during the heavy downpours.

The docent can show visitors how well such an old adobe home is equipped to withstand a strong earthquake, by taking them to a place where a piece of wall has been stripped, revealing its flexible structure underneath.

From the master bedroom, the Bixbys could look out to the site of their former beach house, which they had laboriously moved uphill to the rancho to use as a barn. The house also offers a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean. The stately palm trees of Long Beach edge the white sandy shores, while the surf pounds with its centuries-old rhythm. Practical information

Rancho Los Alamitos (6400 Bixby Hill Road, Long Beach, Calif.), now operated as a museum by the city of Long Beach, is open to the public free of charge 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

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