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Shootout at Tomato Springs, Part 1

One hundred years ago, El Toro rancher John Osterman rode off to "the bloodiest battle in Orange County history,"

Early on Dec. 16, 1912, things must have seemed comfortably back-to-normal for El Toro rancher John Osterman.

His two oldest children had been attending high school in Santa Ana and staying in rented lodgings. But Ben, a junior, and young George, a still wet-behind-the-ears freshman, were now home for the holidays. On this Monday morning, both had been up since before dawn, feeding the livestock and taking on the other chores for which they'd previously been responsible. Osterman's wife, Mary Lillian, was inside fixing breakfast for the family and ranch hands and looking after precocious little Ethel, who would be 5 years old next month.

John, of course, was busy on a list of tasks that marked the beginning of a long work week. Still, with less than 10 days until Christmas, plus the end of the calendar year soon to follow, it would not be untoward for this former Trabuco Canyon homesteader to reflect, if only for a moment, upon his own history, and how a combination of hard work and perseverance had led to a very good life. 

A HARDSCRABBLE SUCCESS

In his early teens, John decided to leave his native Sweden and go live with his Uncle Sven’s family, which had recently settled in America. But the Wisconsin winters turned out to be just as cold and icy as those in the Old Country. Within a few years, the Osterman clan migrated to California, settling in the seaside community of Redondo Beach.

Young John began working several local farms. In time, he decided to partner with another worker, Ben Kohlmeier, who’d learned of opportunities in the southern portion of newly christened Orange County—especially up above the fledgling town of El Toro, on a large mesa called the Trabuco.

Now, some 20 years later—and despite —John Osterman was the head of a fine family living on a 1,000-acre lease that included a good-sized ranch house, two large barns, numerous corrals, separate buildings to house his farm machinery, outbuildings for the livestock, and a bunkhouse for his team of year-round hired help.

What John didn’t yet realize, however, was that a stranger had wandered the day before into neighboring San Joaquin Ranch, a vast tract owned and operated by the Irvine family, and made his presence known at three homes, two on the southern end of property and only a few miles away from his own.

ENTER, THE DESPERADO

Tall, lean and in his late 20s, the stranger was later described as being on foot, wearing a gray suit, hobnailed boots, and carrying a pack and rifle.

Unlike Osterman, the stranger had led a life of frequent bad decisions and numerous wrong turns, despite having grown up in seemingly more stable and certainly more prosperous surroundings. 

At least one of those bad decisions, in fact, had landed him in the Oregon State Reform School, where he lived during the 1900 census and was noted as the 11th entry on Sheet No. 14 of that precinct's record.

But by Dec. 16, 2012, no one in Orange County knew that or anything else about him.

He’d asked for work at the Cook place, but been told there was none. Later, one of the women would remember that the stranger had eyed the comely Myrtle Huff, 17, who, with her 13-year-old sister, Jessie, was staying with Cook relatives through Christmas.

The stranger was next seen at the Harry Spencer home, about 2 miles away in Myford—today's present-day east Irvine—where he purchased dinner. Upon finishing his meal, and the light fast disappearing from the sky, he headed back to the Cook ranch.

What transpired next set off a chain of events that would shock the community, state and even the nation.

But the following morning, when someone rode up to inform John a man was holed up less than 2 miles away at Tomato Springs—vowing to kill anyone who tried to capture him—the El Toro rancher did not hesitate.

After informing Mary Lillian, he called Ben and George over and proceeded to give them instructions on the work to be done on the ranch that day.

Then he loaded his .30-.30 Winchester, saddled up his most reliable horse, and—in the words 70 years later of his grandson, Joe Osterman, "rode off to become a part of the posse in Orange County’s epic manhunt of that day."

Next week: What happened at Cook ranch, and the shootout that ensued.

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