[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

Just off Highway 246 in Solvang in the Mission Santa Inés’ parking lot, “The Gator” awaits. Sitting behind the steering wheel of the parked John Deere utility vehicle is Wayne Sherman, a strapping man sporting a Panama-style hat, wispy white hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. He, at once, looks like a man of the land and someone who knows something about its history.

Sherman, a semi-retired Santa Ynez Valley plumbing contractor, works for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation as a part-time steward for the 39-acre Mission Santa Inés National Historic Landmark District. He oversees the olive groves and historic grist and fulling mills, which are part of the property that was once owned by The Trust and is now managed by it on behalf of California State Parks.

On a reservation-only basis, Sherman tours history, agriculture and Santa Ynez Valley enthusiasts around on foot or via “The Gator.” This tour begins on foot at a place near the mission.

“Two hundred years ago, water was the source of power,” Sherman said as he pointed to a voluminous stone reservoir. “The Santa Inés Mission is unusual in that it has two surviving lavanderies … Mission San Antonio de Padua is the only other Mission with the same.”

Sherman pauses, waits and allows silence. It’s as if he intrinsically knows that catching the “feeling” of a place is as important as revealing additional information.

At a time that must feel right to him, Sherman walks back toward “The Gator,” gets in and starts the engine. He drives down the winding path toward the olive grove.

Along the way, Sherman decides to stop again. This time it’s not for silence but rather to point out a spot where he once discovered a 200-year-old Phoenix button — a button that was used as a trade item only at Mission sites.

“The King of Hades manufactured the buttons for his soldiers,” Sherman said. “He had an excess, so he decided to trade them to the Indians.”

There’s something in the way the sun colors the land, the wind caresses the hillside and the smells fragrance the air. It’s as if this 39-acre park is untamed — authentic and real.

Sherman continues on. At the bottom of the hill, hundreds of olive trees stand like Spanish soldiers, in symmetrical lines and strong. Their wispy leaves form a canopy of grayish-green; their trunks twist down into the earth.

This grove was planted by The Trust as a reminder of early Mission-era agriculture. Similar to the grapevine, Spanish missionaries planted olive trees during the 18th century at the 21 missions they established between San Diego and Sonoma.

Sherman points out the many varietals of trees. He also shares stories about the fall harvest and bottling.

It is the valley’s own Shawn Addison, CEO of the Olive Oil Source and president of Figueroa Farms, that mills the olives, about two tons of them (with the future hope of 30 to 50 tons of olives a year). And it’s The Trust’s former board president Craig Makela, founder of Santa Barbara Olive Co., who bottles and stores the oil.

Sherman steers past the olive trees, across a creek and toward a historic grist mill. The structure is oddly inviting with its weathered stone and heavy wooden doors.

According to Santa Barbara history, Father Francisco Xavier de la Concepción Uria wanted to increase agricultural production in 1819 so he asked that a water-powered grist mill be built. By 1820, two stone reservoirs and a stone mill building were built into the slope of a small hill above Alamo Pintado Creek, about a half-mile from the church. Water was supplied by an earthen ditch or zanja that diverted water from Zanja de Cota Creek more than three miles away.

The mill is of an ancient design, using a horizontal wheel powered by a water jet to turn a mill stone attached to its axle. It was employed to grind wheat, oats and barley into flour and corn into meal.

Sherman opens the mill’s door. It’s dark inside, foreboding. Thick, heavy beams are overhead, cold stone walls surround, the original flooring’s underneath. Stepping onto the planks is like stepping into the footsteps of time.

Next stop is the fulling mill.

“Ever heard of a fulling mill?” Sherman asks. When the answer is no, Sherman talks about how fulling was an important process in making wool cloth.

“After the sheep were sheared, the wool was put into the water tanks,” he said. “The wool was then run through the fulling machine, which tightened the fabric by taking more lanolin out … the technology for fulling existed as early as 1600. Even the story of Don Quixote has him fighting with a fulling machine … the process still exists today.”

It’s easy to see by the nearby water reservoirs how important water was to the fulling process.

“This is the only place in California where someone can interpret a fulling mill,” Sherman said.

He takes the long, picturesque route back to the parking lot, an appreciated benefit as even more history is imparted. He also gives some insight into himself. He is a longtime Civil War re-enactor and spends much of his “free” time attending Civil War events.

It is obvious, for Sherman, history is his passion.

“I would have to say that to have a job within walking distance of my home that combines my love of history with my love of the outdoors is a dream come true,” he said. “The job I have is quite challenging and definitely not uni-dimensional. In addition to the challenges of agriculture and historical preservation, I daily use a variety of skills — office skills, people skills, mechanical skills, research skills and sometimes even tracking skills. It’s never boring — to preserve and protect this unique California historical site for the benefit of the public and future generations truly gives me a great sense of accomplishment in addition to all of the olives I can eat.”

Sherman ends the tour by parking “The Gator” back in the lot. But there is no rush to exit. Sherman’s tour leaves history buffs with a cinematic vision of 18th-century Mission life. In fact, Sherman’s tour is so vivid and clear that it’s easy to wonder if, perhaps in another life, Sherman was here working at the mill or picking a ripe olive from the autumn harvest.

After just one tour with him, it’s obvious he’s right where he belongs.

Olive Opportunities

Volunteers are needed for olive picking at the Santa Inés Mission Mills from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9. Volunteers should call 805.965.0093 or email info@sbthp.org to RSVP.

The Mission Mills Olive Oil is delicious, peppery and adds the perfect complement to any dinner. It may be purchased at the Presidio, the State Park Foundation, The Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington and at the Mission Santa Inés Gift Shop.

The Trust’s mission is to preserve, restore, reconstruct and interpret historic sites in Santa Barbara County. The SBTHP operates a variety of important historic properties, including:

» El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park (operated in collaboration with California State Parks),123 E. Canon Perdido. It’s open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except on major holidays.

» The former Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, 126 E. Canon Perdido across from the Presidio, which serves to interpret the history of Santa Barbara’s Asian community.

» Casa de la Guerra, the 1820s home of Presidio Comandante José de la Guerra and his family at 15 E. De la Guerra St. It’s open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, except on major holidays.

» Santa Inés Mission Mills in Solvang in agreement with the State Parks to manage and develop it as a future state park

Admission the the Trust for Historic Preservation is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors over age 62 and free to members of the museum and children 16 and under (admission includes both El Presidio and Casa de la Guerra on Saturdays and Sundays).

» Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, or call 805.965.0093.

» Click here to become a member.

» Connect with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation on Facebook. Follow the Trust for Historic Preservation on Twitter: @SBTHP.

Nancy Shobe is a Noozhawk contributing writer. She can be contacted at shobebiz@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @shobebiz. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.