This is not meant to be the full history of the Fallbrook Historical Society (FHS), just the story of how it began.

The Fallbrook Historical Society was founded in conjunction with the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  George P. Kelsey Jr. has always been recognized as the Historical Society founder, for being an early active proponent of the idea, his organizing, and his significant financial support.[1]  ‘Mr. Hospital’, as he was widely known for his leading role in founding the Fallbrook Hospital,  Kelsey had also been involved with the Merced Historical Society and the Fallbrook Bicentennial Committee.  He was eager to see a Fallbrook Historical Society.  However, many others were involved as well, especially his wife Josephine, Don Dussault, Roy Noon, Rosemary Pankey, and other notable names.  Maie Ellis was already preparing her pictorial history of Fallbrook.

the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce had formed the Bicentennial Committee in April 1975.[2]  The Bicentennial Committee endorsed the formation of a Fallbrook Historical Society.  George Kelsey was appointed temporary chair.[3]  A public organizing meeting was scheduled where Kelsey was voted president, newspaper editor Bob White as vice president, and Community Planning Group president Don Dussault as secretary treasurer.  Kelsey served as FHS president from 1976-1980.

The Fallbrook Historical Society was incorporated on August 9 1976 as a non-profit, public benefitCorporation.[4]  Memberships dues set in November of 1976 were $3 for a single adult, $1 for a junior member, $5 for family, $250 for a life membership, and $500 for a patron membership.  By the end of 1976 the Society had 50 members.  Lorena Harris was named Library committee chair and Hilda Hroch was membership chair[5]  At the first annual membership meeting in April 1977, Treasurer Dussault reported a bank balance of $555.

For the first several years, the Historical Society did not have a brick & mortar home.  just a bank account and Post Office Box 1375.   The Society set 3 immediate goals:[6]

  • Establish a museum, both indoor & outdoor.
  • Provide a record and research library
  • Maintain a gallery of historical pictures

There was an urgency to collect Fallbrook’s historical documents and artifacts. With each passing year, these things were being lost forever, because there was no organization to preserve the history.
  The original charter members immersed themselves in fundraising, plus collecting and inventorying hundreds of historical artifacts, documents and photographs that the Fallbrook community was contributing to the new Society.  These items were having to be held in members’ homes until a museum could be established somewhere.

There had been many different proposals about where the museum should be.  Years earlier, in 1971, a previous wish to have a museum in the old train station on Alvarado had been snuffed out when Santa Fe shocked Fallbrook and bulldozed the landmark station.[7]

 In 1979, a serious plan was announced by fundraising Chairman Otis Heald to raise $300,000 to build a 3,0000 square foot museum on Fallbrook Street near today’s Heald Lane.[8]  However, the available site was eventually deemed too small.  Several old houses on Ammunition Road that had been donated to FHS, to possibly use as a museum, were instead auctioned off for the money at a later date.

In early 1981, several years after the founding, the Historical Society purchased 2.5 acres of the Griffin Rocky Crest Ranch from the Griffin heirs.  Located at the corner of Rocky Crest and Hill, the only building on the property was an old clapboard house covered in vegetation.  Unknown to the Historical Society at the time, this property had once been part of William Pittenger’s 20-acre citrus farm. 

At the time, the history of this house was not fully understood.  The Historical Society initially referred to it as the “Historic House”.  FHS the difficult, expensive work to rebuild the vintage house to be a museum and FHS headquarters.  A new foundation, new roof, flooring, wiring and plumbing all had to be restored.[9]  The work took two years and the little museum opened to the public in the autumn of 1983.

Some townspeople believed this was the old Van Velzer house built in 1887.  Jim Wayman, a well-known and respected Fallbrook realtor, said the house had been built by his grandfather, William Pittenger, about 1890.  Van Velzer descendants, who visited the property in 1982, insisted that it had been their father’s home.

  • Apparently, the Pittenger and Van Velzer houses had once been nearly identical in appearance.  Van Velzer and Pittenger had both purchased their land from Millard Neff, the original homesteader here.  Adding to the confusion, Gilbert Van Velzer had once been the caretaker of his neighbor Reverend Pittenger’s orchards in the late 1890s.[10]

Atitle search by the Historical Society, with assistance by Safeco Insurance, proved it was Pittenger’s house.[11]  The Van Velzer house, had once stood nearby in the neighboring lot to the north where the new Masonic Hall now stands. There is no trace left of the old Van Velzer House. FHS can take pride for having preserved the historic Pittenger House.

 The Pittenger House became the Historical Society’s first museum and HQ.    However, this could only be temporary as the old house was too small for displays, plus be a repository of the historical files, and there was inadequate space for the curators to work.    A larger, newer museum building was always planned, but it took several more years before another $200,000 could be raised.  The current museum was finally built in 1993, just a few feet away.  For several years, there were 3 museums on the property; the Pittenger House, the new and larger main museum, and the downstairs Gem & Mineral Museum.  After the Society gradually completed the move into the main museum, the full restoration of the Pittenger House could begin.

It would take another later round of fundraising, before the Barn construction could begin in 2006.  The Reche Club would later merge with the Historical Society in 2015.  The Fallbrook Historical Society would then become responsible for the Reche School House and the 4 acres of property it is located on.[12]  

 Tom Frew,
FHS Historian

1) The Historian, Fallbrook Historical Society, Spring 1984

2) Fallbrook Enterprise April 24, 1975

3) Fallbrook Enterprise January 29, 1976

4) Fallbrook Enterprise October 21, 1976

5) Fallbrook Enterprise November 4, 1976

6) The Historian, Fallbrook Historical Society vol.1 No.1, Summer 1977

7) Fallbrook Enterprise February 18, 1971

8) Fallbrook Enterprise November 29, 1979

9) The Historian, Fallbrook Historical Society, December 1982

10)  Gilbert Francis Van Velzer hand written autobiography at Fallbrook Historical Society.

11) Survey details on file at Fallbrook Historical Society in Van Velzer box.

12) Village News, November 25, 2015, ’Two groups reach “historic” agreement’.