Monday, August 26, 2019

First American in Downtown Santa Ana

Orange County Title Co., 1953 (Photo courtesy CSUF Special Collections)
Same scene in 2019. (Photo by C. Jepsen)
It's hard to think of a business that's had a broader and more sustained roll in the growth and development of Orange County than First American Corp. It’s clearly and indisputably one of Orange County's oldest and most historically significant businesses.  They've been good for O.C. and O.C. has been good for them.

Joshua D. Parker, brought his family to the town of Orange around 1872. His four boys – Millard, Josh, Charles Edward (“C.E.”), and Clarence all have interesting biographies worthy of more depth than I can give them here.

C.E. Parker started a nursery that was an early source for Orange County's walnut and citrus groves. He moved to Santa Ana in the 1880s, became a partner in a local granary, and was behind the push for Santa Ana to bring adopt the new technologies of electric street lights and telephones.
Three generations of leadership (L to R): C.E. Parker, George A. Parker, and D.P. Kennedy. (Courtesy First American)
Back in 1889, when rural Orange County split from Los Angeles, it was often still murky as to exactly how "clear" the title was on many properties. To make sure everything was legitimate, land buyers needed detailed documentation of all transactions in which their property had changed hands in the past. It was a complicated task requiring not only access to County records (including L.A. County records prior to Aug. 1889), but also Mexican land grants, U.S. land patents, and more. It also required an ability to accurately interpret legal descriptions of property that often included impermanent landmarks like trees, riverbeds and tidelines. There was a need for specialists to do this work.

Two companies sprang up to fill this need: Santa Ana Abstract Co. and the Orange County Abstract Co. In 1892, C.E. Parker bought part of Santa Ana Abstract Co. and, with his partners, merged it with their rival company in 1894.

Thus began the Orange County Title Co. (later renamed First American Title). In 1924, the company became one of the first in California to issue title insurance.
O.C. Title board and staff in 1904. L to R, standing: C.E. Parker, president; D.M. Dorman, Santa Ana businessman who with Moses Abbot built Newport Landing in 1872; Thomas L. McKeever, Santa Ana insurance executive; Frank Ey, member of pioneer Anaheim family and one-time mayor of Santa Ana; and A.J. Visel, one of the first realtors and subdividers in the county. Seated: George A. Edgar, whose Santa Ana grocery store was the informal town meeting hall; Charles A. Riggs, vice president; Frederick Stephens, secretary; Mrs. L.C. Green, title searcher; and Adelaide Cochrane, typist. (Courtesy First American)
Their central asset was their own set of property records (“abstracts”), which they’d hand-copied with great care from the records of Los Angeles and Orange counties. It took a staff of six, working six days a week, to create the highly accurate transcription that would serve as the foundation of the business. The company then compiled and indexed these records using their own system which allowed them to access the material much more efficiently than the county’s own system at the time.

“…The complete story of land titles in Orange County is told in the vast archives of the Orange County Title Company,” explained First American’s book, Orange County: Indians to Industry, in 1963. “Glimpses of the... gracious mode of life in the early days of the county may be had by perusal of the volumes in which recorded documents affecting the title to property were laboriously copied by hand. Deeds stipulating payment of the purchase price of a piece of land with tallow at $1.20 per ‘arroba’ and hides at $2.00 each often paint vivid word pictures of the county’s pioneer past. Marriage ‘contracts,’ wills and other documents offer exciting insight into the sacrifices, hopes and efforts that went into the making of the county.”
This was O.C. Title's third location in Downtown Santa Ana (circa 1900). The 1931 building now sits on this and surrounding properties. (Courtesy First American)
Parker remained president from 1889 until his death in 1930, after which the company continued to be steered by his family. First his son George A. Parker took over as president. Then C.E.'s grandson, Donald Parker Kennedy, became president, expanding the company's reach beyond Orange County in the late 1950s and changing their name in 1960 to First American Title Insurance. Don’s son, Parker S. Kennedy, would later take over.

George’s son, attorney Ted Parker, began collecting photos of early Orange County from the scrapbooks of pioneer families, from the studios of photographer Ed Cochems, and from anywhere else he could find them. Today, the First American Historical Collection includes over 12,500 images – many of them iconic.
Architectural rendering from the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 19, 1930.
For many decades, the O.C. Title/First American headquarters was a beautiful art deco building, with cast stone columns at the southeast corner of Main St. and 5th in Santa Ana.

"Allen Ruoff, Los Angeles and Santa Ana architect, is preparing plans for a two-story brick and concrete office and archives vault building at the southeast corner of Fifth and Main streets, Santa Ana” announced the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 19, 1930. “...Ruoff has [also] just completed plans for a $250,000 mausoleum, chapel and crematory to be built at Santa Ana for Fairhaven Cemetery."
O.C. Title Co., 1930s. Color adjusted for emphasis. (Photo courtesy Mark Hall-Patton.)
O.C. Title Co. building, 2019. (Photo by Chris Jepsen)
Contractor P.J. Walker Co. of Los Angeles began construction on the headquarters in July 1930 and finished in early February 1931. It was built in such a way that additional stories could be added later, should there be a need.

Indeed, there was a need. But rather than building upward, First American spread out. They began in 1954 by adding a new wing featuring a modern/Jeffersonian neo-classical façade by architect Thomas F. Shoemaker. This was followed by a larger expansion in 1967 that filled the entire block and also re-clad much of their 1931 art deco building to match the neo-classical look. Some additional renovations occurred in 1977. But the original façade is probably still sitting underneath all the “frosting” even today.
The First American complex circa 1963 – between the 1954 and 1967 expansions.
A little birdie in a window tells me that the farthest wing of the complex – at 4th and Bush streets – may have been modified into a J.C. Penney department store in 1949 (rather than entirely rebuilt as advertised) from part of an earlier historic building. In 1976, the Penney's was re-reclad neo-classical style and became First American's east wing. If part of the older 1890s facade facing 4th Street still hides under all that (see photo below) falderal, then it has its own interesting pre-Penney's story to tell -- as a tin and hardware store downstairs and the public library and public hall upstairs. Could there be remnants of this old façade beneath the First American cladding? It would be fascinating to know.
E. 4th St. at Bush St., looking west, circa 1910. Image color adjusted for emphasis. (Courtesy Tom Pulley)
E. Fourth St. at Bush St., looking west, 2019. (Photo by Chris Jepsen)

In any case, the campus served First American well for decades. But the entire complex was largely abandoned when First American moved into their new corporate headquarters at MacArthur Blvd. and the 55 Freeway around 2000.  (They were determined to stay in Santa Ana, even if they had to go to the outskirts to find a parcel large enough.)
Around the same time, the company was renamed again to become the First American Corporation, reflecting the wider array of financial, insurance, data services and other business services they provided. In 2010, the enormous (and by now international) company was split into First American Financial Corp. and CoreLogic Inc. The latter encompassed the property information and analytics aspects of their business. In 2017, First American's total revenue was $5.8 billion. 
Planned new development by Toll Brothers. (Courtesy City of Santa Ana)
Recently, the old O.C. Title/First American block was purchased by Toll Brothers, who plan to build a large mixed-use development on the site. Few would refute the idea that this long-empty block needs some redevelopment -- preferably into something iconic, unforgettable, and worthy of anchoring the heart of the heart of the heart of our county seat. It would be the perfect crossroads for an architect to celebrate our past while also pointing Santa Ana toward a brighter future.

Check out the project page on the City's website, with particular attention to the Cultural Resources section of the Environmental Impact Report Technical Appendices and share your thoughts.

Monday, August 19, 2019

La Matanza

A vaquero at work in 1830s California.
Q: Where did La Matanza St. in San Juan Capistrano get its name? Doesn’t it mean slaughter or massacre?

From the 1820s to the 1860s – when our local economy was still based on cattle – the matanza was the annual time, from July through September, when steers that had reached the age of three were slaughtered with long sharp knives for their hides and tallow. (Cows were generally spared, for breeding.)

Vaqueros called navajadores began by going out on horseback in threes and finding the steers. Hundreds or even thousands might ultimately be slaughtered. In the Mission era, the steers were herded to a specific flat open spot – also called la matanza – a good distance from the mission or pueblo, where the slaughter process would be more orderly and less wasteful. (After secularization, the navajadores were sometimes more prone to just slaughter the steers where they found them, take the valuable hides, and leave the bodies to rot.)

Once the cattle were dead, peladores would remove the hides. Then, tasajoras (butchers) would gather the fat for tallow and cut any meat that was to be saved. Waste material was often burned afterward. (There really wasn't a large market for beef here until the Gold Rush hit in 1849.)

Like any agricultural harvest, the coming of the matanza was cause for celebration. Fiestas were held (presumably with a lot of beef on the menu), new dresses were debuted, and so forth.

The first references I see to La Matanza Street in San Juan Capistrano are around 1939, which is not a surprise. (See my article on Verdugo St.) I’m not sure whether the actual matanza location for the San Juan mission has any relationship to the street with that name.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Verdugo Street, San Juan Capistrano

Horse tied at Verdugo St. near the Swallows Inn on Camino Capistrano, circa 1960.
Often what begins as a seemingly minor question turns into a larger and more interesting project than I expected. Isobel D. wrote, “What is the origin behind the name of Verdugo Street in Capistrano?”
 
For the little town of San Juan Capistrano, the 1930s were a period of renewed interest in local history. They began to realize that their best shot at economic survival during the Depression was we now call "heritage tourism." Accordingly, they played the "romance of the Mission Era" theme to the hilt. Their efforts spanned from architectural preservation to Mexican fiestas. They also renamed many streets.
 
Colorful raconteur, self-promoter and history buff Alfonso Yorba (a.k.a. Chauncey Chalmers; a.k.a. Bruce Conde; a.k.a. Hajji Abdurrahman; a.k.a. Major-General Bruce Alfonso de Bourbon; a.k.a. His Serene Highness Abdurrahman Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon, Prince of Conde. Real name: Bruce Hamilton Chalmers) led the drive to change the English street names into Spanish ones. As historian Pam Hallan-Gibson writes, "McKinley became Del Obispo, Garden became Verdugo, and Oriental Street returned to [being] El Camino Real. Occidental Street became Los Rios Street and Central was changed to Camino Capistrano. Most of the new names had historical significance." 
Map of San Juan Capistrano in 1875, from the 1936 WPA report, “The Adobes of Orange County California.” Note the street names.
So what was the source for the street name Verdugo? Thanks to San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Museum Curator Jan Siegel, we now know. She found something written by Alfonso Yorba that's pretty specific:
 
"[The] last of the streets leading into the old ex-plaza is Verdugo Street," wrote Yorba, "extending west from near the northwest corner of the pueblo square, and indicting the approximate location of the "L" shaped adobe of Don Pedro Verdugo in pueblo days. The high-walled adobe once stood on the ground now occupied by the Hotel Capistrano and the Mission Theater [now Hennessey's]. Fred Stoffel, builder and owner of the hotel, remembers the old adobe... Good old Monsignor St. John O'Sullivan, beloved restorer of the mission, was heartily against [the demolition of the Verdugo Adobe] and even went so far as to take the occasion of a sermon in the  mission chapel to warn devout San Juanenos 'to lay off helping Mr. Stoffel tear down the historic landmark.' So energetic was the zealous prelate in his fight to save the adobe that Fred had to do the work himself."
Pedro Verdugo, in the ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano, circa 1890s. (Courtesy USC Libraries Special Collections)
Pedro Nolasco Antonio Jose Verdugo was the longtime sextion at the mission -- maintaining the buildings and grounds. The child of Julio and Maria Verdugo, he'd been baptized in 1820 at Mission San Fernando; married Gertrudis Gonzales sometime after 1844, and died in Capistrano in early 1899.

Pedro was the grandson of Jose Maria Verdugo, for whom many Southern California landmarks are still named. In California Place Names, Erwin  G. Gudde writes that the Verdugo name's appearance in Los Angeles County "commemorates the Verdugo family. Jose Maria Verdugo, a  corporal of the San Diego company, who had served in the mission guard at San Gabriel, was grantee of one of the first land grants, dated October 20, 1784 and January 12, 1798. The name Rancho de los Verdugos is repeatedly mentioned in documents and appears in Narváez’ Plano of 1830 as Berdugo. The modern town [of Verdugo City -- now part of Glendale] was laid out by Harry Fowler in 1925, but Verdugo Park is shown on the maps of the 1910s as the terminal of a local railroad. The mountains are shown as Sierra de los Berdugos on the diseño of La Cañada grant (1843); and Sierra or Cañada de los Verdugos was the name of an unconfirmed grant of 1846.”

Jose Maria Verdugo and his brother Mariano de la Luz Verdugo were among the first to come to Alta California in 1769, marching north to San Diego with Fernando Rivera y Moncada on the first leg of the Portola Expedition. (In retirement, Mariano would serve as Alcalde of the Pueblo of Los Angeles.) Their father, Juan Diego Verdugo (1715-1780) had also been a soldier and served at Loreto and various missions in Baja California until the mid-1770s.

During the Mission and Rancho eras, the Verdugos spread out across Baja and Alta California and seemingly intermarried with every other family in early Southern California.

Local on the map named for this large Californio family include Verdugo Canyon, near San Juan Capistrano and south of San Juan Hot Springs.

In Los Angeles County, there's a Verdugo Street, the (late 1920s) Verdugo Woodlands tract and the Verdugo Hills in the Glendale area. There's also a Verdugo Wash and the Verdugo Mountains near La Cañada.
A Spanish soldier on the California frontier.
Pedro was not the only Verdugo to end up in San Juan Capistrano. One of the first Verdugos to leave their mark on the town was another of Don Juan’s sons, Juan Maria Verdugo, a Spanish soldier who served as "Cabo" in Capistrano from at least 1797 until at least 1802.

Later came one of Juan Maria’s nephews, Miguel Verdugo. According to the Orange County California Genealogical Society's book, Saddleback Ancestors, "By 1836,...Miguel was living on the Rancho Santa Ana Abajo [northwest Orange] and later served as mayordomo there for Jose Antonio Yorba, the younger. In 1841 he was granted a house lot in Pueblo San Juan Capistrano..."
According to Capistrano historian Jerry Nieblas, Miguel Verdugo’s adobe home was near the Plaza, not far from the Blas-Aguilar adobe. This matches up well with other historians' descriptions of Miguel’s home being on the east side of El Camino Real, south of the Ortega Highway.

The Verdugos "were well liked for their local generosity and were somewhat influential during their years here,” said Nieblas, citing an oral history of his grandmother, Buena Ventura Yorba Garcia Nieblas, who in turn heard stories of the Verdugos from her parents, Felipe Yorba Garcia and Florencia Yorba Sanchez-Colima Garcia.

It’s unknown how long Miguel stayed in town, as he also had a home in Los Angeles. But it’s known that in 1857 he was across the road at Mission San Juan Capistrano visiting his friend and neighbor Juan Forster at the moment the Flores gang raided the town.

Pedro Verdugo -- namesake of the street -- was also mentioned among the witnesses to the Flores raid.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Happy 130th birthday, Orange County!

How do we cut this cake into 3.18 million slices?
The recorded history of what’s now Orange County dates back to 1769 (we just celebrated the 250th anniversary of Portola’s arrival here last week), and this land was home to Indian people for many thousands of years prior to that. But Orange County itself is a more recent invention.

On August 1, 1889, the southern portion of Los Angeles County (itself founded in 1850) broke away to become Orange County. On the day we separated, we had about 15,000 residents, three incorporated cities, and no paved roads.

Map from the year of Orange County's birth. (Courtesy Orange County Archives)
Our struggle to separate from L.A. began in 1870 with Anaheim mayor Max Strobel’s proposal for “Anaheim County.” It would be the first of many attempts to separate from L.A. over the next nineteen years. We had the traditional American desire for self-determination. We thought our taxes were mostly going to the “big city” and that our voices weren’t being heard. And we were certainly tired of interminable treks up the unpaved El Camino Real to conduct government business in Los Angeles. We no longer wanted or needed to be L.A.’s “red-headed step child.”

Generally, Sacramento shot down our separation bills because the new state constitution had no provision for creating new counties. This let opponents claim that creating a new county was unconstitutional. This, in turn, made our fight for succession the bellwether for determining if new counties could be formed anywhere. If we succeeded, many other regions of the state would follow.
O.C. Supervisors Don Wagner and Lisa Bartlett sign a birthday card, while Supervisor Michelle Steele looks on.
Various bills drew our proposed physical border at different points, from Coyote Creek to the Rio Hondo. Anaheim supported bills that drew the line farther north, making them the center and logical seat of the new county. Santa Ana supported the bills that drew the line farther south, for the same reasons. And each opposed the bills supported by the other. The two towns developed a heated rivalry.

The name Orange County was first proposed in 1872, before we had any commercial citrus. Oranges were still a rarity and were associated with sunny Spain and a coastal Mediterranean climate. The name was simply a ploy to draw people here.
Lisa Bartlett, Chair of the Board of Supervisors, MCed a small, brief 130th birthday remembrance before this week's meeting.
By the late 1880s our booming economy -- spurred largely by the arrival of the railroads – finally set the stage for our liberation. We finally had enough money and power to do some arm-twisting.

Leading local Democrats and Republicans finally joined forces for a serious lobbying effort, and with the support of San Francisco – which, even then, encouraged “sticking it” to Los Angeles – a bill was finally passed allowing a vote to create a new county. Anaheim was unhappy that the border was drawn a Coyote Creek. But the public still ratified the bill in the June election. On August 1st we became a separate county. On August 5th the Board of Supervisors met for the first time, organizing our county's government.
Today, we have 34 incorporated cities and a population of 3.18 million - a more than 22,000% increase since our founding. Sorry, L.A.,… You can’t have us back.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Morally Iffy in Early Laguna Hills

Our young hero in 1946.
The word “moral” in any organization’s name should set off alarm bells in your head. So it was with the Moral Investment Co. in the formative years of Laguna Hills.

Louis Franklin “Lou” Laramore was born in Los Angeles in 1923. The son of a bond salesman, he played football for Whittier College and ended up married and divorced at least a few times. By age 31 he was already developing a large housing tract at Magnolia Ave and Crescent in Anaheim. It’s unknown whether this was his first subdivision project, but it certainly would not be his last.
Colonial, English, Hawaiian, Storybook, Western and Modern designs were available in the Eastgate development (Long Beach Press-Telegram)

In late 1961, Laramore testified he had paid a bribe of $24,000 to the mayor and councilmembers in Westminster to stop the City's attempts to annex the Eastgate area (near Knott Ave. and Chapman Ave.), where Laramore was building 2,500 homes. Garden Grove was trying to annex the same area, and the battle between cities was holding up the project, costing Laramore about $25,000 a month. He was granted immunity for his testimony, but five former Westminster officials served jail time.

Free to go on about his business, Laramore began numerous new developments. By 1964, Laramore was president of World Wide Construction Company of Newport Beach, "builders of Laguna Real homes in Laguna Hills." Laguna Real was a "planned home community in the coastal Laguna Hills just south of El Toro." It was actually on the inland/El Toro side of the Freeway. By mid-1964, Laguna Real was 567 acres with plans for 2,000 homes. (And despite the name, there was no “royal lagoon” to be found there.)
Laguna Real billboard, El Toro, Oct. 6, 1964.

In 1962, Laramore also started the Moral Investment Co. in order to develop about 167 acres near El Toro into 700 low-priced single-family homes in what he called the Moral Investment Planned Community (Tentative Tract #4848). The land was north of El Toro Road, on the south side of Valencia Ave, east of Moulton Parkway and west of the San Diego Freeway – Immediately under the flight pattern used for instrument landings by the military pilots coming in to MCAS El Toro.

Neither the Marines nor the County of Orange wanted high density population immediately in harm’s way if a plane should come down. The Marines also feared that if development were allowed to occur on the property, future complaints about noise and safety would jeopardize the very existence of the base.  Laramore had no such concerns about the public or the base.
Moral Investment Planned Community map, 1968 (C-R OR 8615/958)

In February 1963, while Laramore was still in the planning process, the County changed the zoning to permit only light manufacturing, rendering his plans useless. As if to illustrate the County’s point, a jet crashed on the Moral Investment Co. property that August. (The crew ejected safely.)

The Moral Investment Co. drained its own resources with a series of lawsuits. They tried to have the zoning reversed. They tried to have the zoning change made unconstitutional. They tried to have the County pay them for the "lost value" of the property. They fought and fought and eventually won a pyrrhic victory -- getting the area at least partially reopened to development. Even then, the County indicated it would appeal.

In the middle of all this, the groundbreaking for Laramore’s Laguna Real was held in March 1964. Ironically, the ceremony featured a helicopter from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and three Orange County Supervisors.
Laguna Real groundbreaking, 1964: (L to R) Supervisor David L. Baker, Laramore, unidentified horse, Supervisors Cye Featherly and Bill Hirstein (Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram)
Moral Investment Co. went bankrupt in July 1965 and lost their property to its previous owner, Ross Cortese’s Rossmoor Corporation, in foreclosure. The Rossmoor Corp. wanted compensation from the County for the loss of use of the land -- since the County didn't even want commercial uses there. Negotiating between Rossmoor and the County’s General Services Agency (GSA) continued through Fall 1968.

Meanwhile, Cortese was contemplating a second Leisure World development (the first was near Seal Beach) near El Toro, and included a strip with golf-courses and other low-density uses under an adjacent portion of the flightpath. He managed to make it work.

But Laramore was hardly done tangling with the law. He was still developing properties in Riverside County, where the Fair Political Practices Commission slapped him with a $138,000 fine (a national record at the time) for laundering money for the benefit of the Supervisorial candidate in 1991. Laramore was also charged with criminal offenses by the Riverside County District Attorney.  He died a free and presumably wealthy man in Upland in 2000.
Area map showing location of Moral Investment Planned Community, 1968 
Long after the Moral Investment Co. debacle, there came to Orange County an unstoppable wave of developers more wealthy, powerful and politically connected than Laramore could have imagined. When MCAS El Toro finally closed, the developers used every trick in the book to kill plans for a civilian airport reuse of the old base, allowing them to build whatever and wherever they wanted.

After voters repeatedly rejected their bid to kill the airport at the polls, the developers put it on the ballot again, this time promising that MCAS El Toro would become a Great Park. Of course, the Great Park turned out to mainly be “more Irvine,” with residential and commercial development, but the lie worked. It left Orange County without the airport it needs, but some fabulously rich people and their consultant friends got even richer.

Moral indeed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

L.M. Cox, Tomorrowland & Santa Ana Diesel

L.M. Cox Manufacturing Co. models at Disneyland's Thimble Drome Flight Circle.
I've been driving past two Quonset huts at 728 and 730 N. Poinsettia St. at Civic Center Dr. in Santa Ana every weekday for sixteen years and I always wondered about their story. For most of those years, the place was called Santa Ana Diesel, a repair shop primarily for huge diesel vehicles. But in the last couple years, the buildings got a new owner: Santa Ana's Dana Harvey. Harvey made a name for himself -- and quite a bundle of cash -- making haute couture handbags out of old seatbelts. Now his business is making about 60,000 purses a year.
726-730 Poinsettia St., Santa Ana, July 2019 (Photo by author)
Harvey is converting the old metal buildings and one big concrete building next door into a combination storefront, manufacturing facility, yoga studio, loft apartments and hipster/maker/foodcourt venue, which will cumulatively continue to bear the name Santa Ana Diesel. (Three cheers! I’m all for adaptive reuse!)

But it turns out the place has another story that's even more interesting.

Sign of things to come? (Photo by author)
On land that was originally the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad's (later part of the Union Pacific's) grounds, the two Quonset huts first appeared around the end of WWII. The timing makes me wonder if these were surplus buildings from one of the nearby military bases. On this site the map indicates, "Machine Shop and Toy Mft. Some paint spraying."

Directories tell us that from at least 1947 until 1962, the L.M. Cox Manufacturing Co. was located at this address.
Leroy Milburn "Roy" Cox (1906-1981) (Photo courtesy Radio Control Modeler)
Leroy M. "Roy" Cox learned to be a tinkerer as a child in his dad's bicycle shop in Placentia. Roy began his own entrepreneurial endeavors making photographic enlargers in the garage of his Placentia home. But scarcity of metal during WWII led him to instead make wooden pop guns in a backyard workshop on S. Garnsey St. in Santa Ana. He founded L. M. Cox Manufacturing Co. in 1946, and when metal became readily available again (after the war) in 1947 he and business partner Mike Mier began also making toy race cars. It wasn't long before their L.M. Cox Manufacturing Co. was selling as many as 60,000 cars a month, and other manufacturers began building "after market" working engines for these toys. Soon Cox began including their own engines with the cars.

Cox and Meier inspect the miniature car assembly line, Oct. 1947. (Photo courtesy Santa Ana Public Library)
But the tide of history turned again and the defense industry needed quality metal once more to build the hardware necessary to defend the free world from Communism. But even as the cost of raw materials went up, Cox found new customers in aircraft plants, Air Force and Navy depots, and various government arsenals – each requesting that he make miniaturized parts and gizmos for them with the same attention to detail he put into toys. Cox himself didn't know what some of the parts were for, but he followed the designs meticulously. By 1951, Cox was not only the leading manufacturer of miniature cars, but was also putting about 80% of their effort into defense contracts.
Floyd Summa runs a toy car parts manufacturing machine converted to make parts for defense projects, Sept. 1951. (Register photo)
But as popular as the toy cars were, and despite detours into military contracts, it was the gas-powered "Thimble Drome" toy airplane, introduced in 1953, that became Cox's signature product. The planes sold like hotcakes.

Beginning in 1957, these toy planes were demonstrated every day in the "Thimble Drome Flight Circle" in the heart of Tomorrowland at Disneyland. The planes were not radio-controlled, but used a "nearly invisible" control tether. They made a tremendous noise and drew similarly tremendous crowds of onlookers. Cox also demonstrated their motorized cars and boats at the Flight Circle.

The Cox Tee Dee .010 -- the smallest engine ever to be mass-produced
A longtime reader of (and frequent commentor on) this blog, Lee "CoxPilot" Heinly, worked at the Flight Circle for Cox from 1959 until the attraction closed in 1965 and continued working at the adjacent hobby shop into the following year. He began at the princely wage of $1 per hour. I wish I'd asked Lee more questions about his employer, but sadly, he passed away a number of years ago. In a tribute to Lee on the Daveland Blog, one of Lee's co-employees remembered, "Both the Disneyland people and the L. M. Cox people were more like family than employers. Mr. Disney, as Lee mentioned, came through the park frequently and used first names with his folks. Leroy Cox did the very same. It is easy to see why Lee, Bart, Keith, and all the other Cox folks stayed for so long."

Flying Cox planes in Tomorrowland. (Photo courtesy Davelandweb.com)
With business booming, L.M. Cox Manufacturing moved to a new factory at 1505 E. Warner Ave. in 1963. Meanwhile, Roy's longtime machinist and business partner, Mark Mier, was hired away by NASA to help them develop miniaturized machine parts for the space program.

Meanwhile, the old Cox Manufacturing complex on Poinsettia St. passed through a number of hands, including the Chemo Wholesale Supply Co., until finally becoming Santa Ana Diesel around 1975.

The Flight Circle had a prominent position at the center of Tomorrowland. (Photo courtesy Davelandweb.com)
With the death of his wife and health problems of his own, Leroy Cox sold his company to Leisure Dynamics, Inc. of Minneapolis in 1969. The new owners expanded the product line to include HO scale trains (1971), road race sets (1973), and eventually radio controlled versions of their toys (1975). In 1976 the company's name was changed to Cox Hobbies, Inc., and a good day would see them turn out 10,000 models.

The company was purchased by model rocket maker Estes Industries in 1996, which moved operations to Colorado. In 2009, Estes sold the remaining classic Cox stock to several private buyers, including a Canadian company which launched a “Cox International” website and eBay presence – and which continues to sell old stock, new versions of the Thimbledrome engines, replacement parts, and more.

Disney handbags on display at Harvey shop in Santa Ana Diesel, July 2019. (Photo by author)
In 2010 the Estes-Cox Corporation and the Cox name was purchased by Hobbico, which only made a few basic radio controlled planes under the Cox name. Hobbico went bankrupt in 2018 and the Estes-Cox brand became part of a separate, reorganized Estes Industries LLC, which now seems entirely focused on its line of model rockets.
Not much remains of Santa Ana’s once-great manufacturer of working vehicle models. But the buildings in which they rose to prominence will live to fly another mission.

(Thanks to Yvette Cabrera, Dave DeCaro, the Santa Ana History Room, and the late Lee Heinly for their assistance with this article.)

Monday, July 01, 2019

La Habra's Monkey Island

Welcome to Monkey Island! (Etching detail courtesy the Wellcome Collection)
Around 1950, "Monkey Island" was created in the middle of a man-made lake at the northeast corner of Imperial Highway and Idaho St. in La Habra.

Newspapers later recounted the island's creation, when Frank Dewey Lockman, "an avocado farmer, printer and wealthy landowner, decided to dam up part of Coyote Creek and form a little lake on a piece of his property. In the middle of the lake,...was high ground, a place where Lockman was able to let the exotic animals he bought run wild. He called the high ground Monkey Island." ("La Habra Post Office Plucks Last Pinfeather," The Register, 12-7-1975)

But Patricia Wilks Reilly tells a different story. She says her father, millionaire Chevrolet dealer John Edward Wilks of Pasadena, created the island.
John Wilks was born in 1899 in the small tobacco town of Cedar Hill, TN.
Wilks bought numerous parcels along Imperial Highway near Idaho Street from Lockman in late 1949 and early 1950. In 1949, Wilks launched the Silver Joy Stock Farm – named for his favorite horse – at 10000 E. Imperial Highway. This ranch eventually grew to sixty acres and included hereford cattle, walking horses, and ostriches. Within a year, on a parcel across Idaho Street, Wilk created Monkey Island. “I spent a lot of time there as a kid,” said Reilly. “He had a row boat so the monkeys could be fed."

The island’s menagerie came to include ostriches, a camel, a zebra, and numerous monkeys. The city shot down Wilks’ plans for an adjacent ostrich racetrack.

“We had a lot of exotic animals when I was growing up,” said Reilly. Wilks had also been involved in ostrich racing before and had donated a pair of chimps (Fred and Wilma) to the Los Angeles Zoo. Wilks loved animals of all kinds, including dogs – which is how Monkey Island got its OTHER name.

"We also called it Toby's Island, as our dalmatian [Toby] was buried on the island,” said Reilly. “The dog was the mascot of [L.A. County] Sheriff [Eugene] Biscailuz's mounted posse and was in many parades with my father, including Truman's inauguration. I have newspaper clippings of the dog sitting next to my father on the plane going to Washington, D.C. I have the dog's ...badge from the sheriff. The dog had matching outfits like the men. They were red and gold."
Monkey Island, 1952. Lake highlighted in blue. (Courtesy OC Public Works)
For some years, Dewey Lockman continued to retain some minor interest in the parcel on which Monkey Island was built via his Lockman Foundation. The Lockman Foundation translates, prints and distributes Bibles across the globe and created the New American Standard Bible, which was the bestselling version of the Bible in the U.S. by 1977.
 
In 1953, Wilks passed on ownership of Pasadena’s Uptown Chevrolet to his son, John Wilks, Jr. But he had plenty of other irons in the fire to keep him busy. He was heavily invested in Orange County real estate, which paid off handsomely as the post-war development boom picked up steam. He also owned desert property which proved to be rich in borax. He was secretary and chairman of Pasadena's Reserve Investment Co. and he held a controlling interest in several other corporations. He also owned an enormous olive grove on the island of Cyprus.
 
Although fondly remembered, La Habra’s Monkey Island didn’t last long. Wilks sold the property in 1958 and aerial photos from 1959 show the "lakebed" dry.
Ad for the Silver Joy Stock Farm, Pasadena Independent Star-News, 5-4-1958.
Soon thereafter, newspapers reported that Wilks was planning a similar (albeit larger) monkey island, to be built at the under-construction Jerusalem Biblical Zoo in the Israeli section of Jerusalem. This zoo still exhibits many of the animal species mentioned in the Bible.
 
But again, Reilly disagrees. She says her father did not create the monkey island in Israel, but he did “take bibles to Israel” and helped with the creation of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo in other ways. "He erected buildings and bought giraffes, elephants, orangutans, gibbons and chimps among other animals. I visited the zoo in Jerusalem with him in 1962."
Siamung monkey island at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Photo by Yoninah, 2010.
John Wilks died later that year. At the time, he was developing a new business venture, Imperial Scientific Inc., in Santa Ana. Who knows what other monkey-shines he would have gotten up to, had he lived longer. Would Santa Ana have ended up with a flamingo aviary, an aardvark racetrack, or a playground for elephants?

In the mid-1970s, a post office was built on site of La Habra’s Monkey Island. Please keep your smart-alecky comments about USPS employees to yourself.


Author’s note: This article began two years ago when I answered a reader’s question about Monkey Island in my column in Orange Coast magazine. In researching my answer, I primarily used old newspaper articles, including one by an excellent local journalist who in turn referenced a La Habra city official. My story apparently had solid sources and (although colorful) passed the “smell test.”

But I recently received a "Comments" post and an email from Patricia Reilly, saying I’d identified the wrong man as the creator and owner of Monkey Island. I’ll admit I was initially dubious, but I checked out the property records and her story held together. That led to even more research, and a whole new story emerged, which appears above.

I apologize for getting it wrong the first time, but there is always more to learn, and sometimes even reliable sources turn out to be less than reliable. Stuff happens. The important thing is that the record be corrected when additional information comes to light. The historian’s job is never done.

When I posted a link to the erroneous version of this colorful tale to Facebook, I prefaced it with a favorite saying of historian Jim Sleeper: “When it comes to local history, the First Liar doesn’t stand a chance.” Really, I should have used another of Sleeper’s maxims: “When it comes to local history, the last vote is never in.”

Can you help Modjeska?

Modern photos of the Opid Cottage (left) and Pleasants Stone Building (right).
Do you have a line of early photos of the buildings next to the Modjeska house at Arden? If so, you can help with an important historical restoration project. Our friend, OC Parks' Grant Manager (and longtime Historical Parks expert) Sue McIntire writes,...

"OC Parks received a Save America’s Treasures grant to restore the Joseph Pleasants Stone Building [built circa 1876] at Arden [Helena Modjeska Historic House and Gardens in Modjeska Canyon]. We are also in the process of restoring the Opid Cottage [a.k.a. Caretakers' Quarters, a.k.a. Modjeska's Guest House] but we are stuck on both projects for lack of reference documentation on what the stairs and perhaps Juliette balcony on the stone building looked like AND we have no photos or descriptions of how the interiors of either building looked. If you can think of any sources that might
provide some clues, that would be most appreciated.

"Even more modern sources from before the County got the property would be helpful. One of the [Helena Modjeska F]oundation members (who’s been in this since the beginning) recalls old stairs or railing dangling from the front of the Pleasants cottage on the initial walkthrough. Photos of that could help us re-create what was there."

You can contact Sue directly at Sue.McIntire@ocparks.com