Saturday, July 13, 2024

Historical Preservation, O.C., and the Neutras

I just came across my notes for a panel discussion I participated in on February 12, 2011 in conjunction with "The Amazing Neutras in Orange County" exhibit I helped Dion Neutra create at the Old Orange County Courthouse Museum. The point of the exhibit was to draw attention to the dwindling number of buildings designed by Richard and/or Dion Neutra in Orange County and particularly to shine a light on the deteriorating state of Richard Neutra’s “new” Courthouse – the Central Justice Center (1969) in Santa Ana. 

While the exhibit itself was (of necessity) low-budget, my fellow panelists were as impressive as they come. From left to right, in the photo above (courtesy Les Katow) are architect (and son of Richard Neutra) Dion Neutra, noted architectural historians Barbara Lamprecht and Alan Hess, me, and architectural designer Josh Gorrell. To say it was an honor to be asked to participate with such an impressive group is an understatement. I wish I had recorded all their comments that day, but alas, all I have are my own notes…

Good afternoon.

There are no better people in the world to talk to you about the Neutras’ architecture than the folks up here with me today. It would be foolish for me to take up time telling you things I've read in their respective books. But as a local historian, perhaps I can provide an Orange County perspective.

From Mission San Juan Capistrano forward, Orange County has a track record of great architecture. Our record of preserving it, however, is much spottier.

Historical preservation began here in the 1890s, when Charles Fletcher Lummis' Landmarks Club began trying to preserve the ruins of California missions, including Mission San Juan Capistrano. 

In 1910, Father St. John O'Sullivan was put in charge of the Mission, and he undertook a massive preservation and restoration project that would eventually be copied at the old Franciscan missions up and down the state. 

But with the exception of the missions, California's byword was "PROGRESS." And progress didn't always leave much room for preserving historic architecture.

The birth of the modern preservationist movement in Orange County was introduced, forcefully, by Adeline Cochems Walker, or Mrs. Weston Walker, as she preferred to be known. In 1974, Mrs. Walker gathered a number of like-minded locals and formed a group to save the beautiful Victorian Dr. Howe-Waffle House (just across the street from us now,) from being bulldozed for a parking lot. Already well-respected for her work in civic beautification, Mrs. Walker was a force to be reckoned with. Her well-crafted letters were polite and adamant, and somehow put the fear of God into elected officials.

Walker’s preservation group became the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society. She and her strike team of preservationists changed the way (at least some) people thought about the destruction of old buildings. Even in her last years, she led the charge to save the very building [Old Orange County Courthouse] in which we’re now sitting. 

Mrs. Walker (center) and historian Jim Sleeper (left) at the dedication of the Old O.C. Courthouse as a State Historical Landmark, 1970.

Today, of course, preservation and restoration projects have taken place all over the county, historical districts are not uncommon, and a number of cities have even adopted tax incentive programs like the Mills Act to encourage preservation. 

But there's still an enormous amount of work to do here. Indeed, compared to most of the country, Southern California - and particularly in Orange County -- is still living in the preservation Dark Ages. Important historical structures are torn down every day without so much as a murmur of dissent.

Now let’s take it a step further, to modern architecture. 

If we have to work hard to educate the public about the need to preserve important older historic architecture, we have to work at least twice as hard to convince them that buildings built during their own lifetimes may have historical value. 

Some of Richard Neutra's work at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa.

Our long-range goals should be to educate the public and civic leaders, and to strongly encourage local government to adopt preservation-friendly policies. Until we've got that support behind us, our short-term goals should be to choose our battles carefully - saving the best examples of each era and style of architecture as they become threatened.

In the case of the work of the Neutra Office, so little remains intact today that it behooves us to save all of it. 

Neutra's work started appearing here during what was Orange County's most important era: Our astonishing post-war boom. Our population went from 131,000 in 1940; to 219,000 in 1950; to 700,000 in 1960; to a whopping 1.5 million by 1970! We were building housing tracts, apartments, schools, shopping centers, malls and professional buildings at a shocking rate. 

The story of Richard Neutra's Santa Ana Courthouse is a perfect illustration of the times:

Since 1901, County government and the courts had all fit into about four buildings: The Old Courthouse we're sitting in now, the jail, the Courthouse Annex (the former St Anne's Inn), and the Hall of Records (added in the 1920s).

And although we saw the post-war boom coming, we wildly underestimated it.

The County began in the early 1950s with a plan for a new courthouse, just across the street from the original. By the time the plans were ready for approval, population growth had already outstripped those plans. They went back to the drawing board, only to find that growth had again overshot their expectations and yet another major revision and expansion was needed before the ink was dry on the revisions.

And so on, and so forth.

This process continued until finally a plan was hatched to create a towering courthouse that it would theoretically take generations for all its floors to be put into use. They would start by outfitting the lower floors first and gradually furnishing and utilizing each floor above -- one at a time -- as they were needed. This would continue until the whole building was full.

Orange County Central Justice Center, Santa Ana

To design that tower, they hired Richard J. Neutra who was assisted in his vision by the Santa Ana firm of Donald Ramberg and Robert Lowrey. Neutra’s courthouse featured golden louvers that moved throughout the day to block the glare of the California sun.

The empty floors filled more quickly than predicted, of course. But as local government funds dried up in the wake of Prop 13, each floor got progressively cheaper interiors. The building also fell victim to poor maintenance. New utility lines were simply tacked across the carefully designed ceilings and walls, signage went from integrated to haphazard, ceiling panels were not replaced as repairs were needed, and - infamously - the water features were not tended to. 

The water feature in back of the Courthouse was turned off almost immediately. And one night, when it had been raining heavily, the neglected front water feature sprang a leak and dumped water down into the basement where the judges kept their files. Today, that water feature is also dry.

I once told [noted architectural photographer] Julius Schulman, that a good friend of mine had written a history of the Old Orange County Courthouse, and that someday I may have to write a history of the "new" Neutra-designed County Courthouse. He said, "I have your opening line for you: 'It was a dark and stormy night!'"

Indeed, maintaining, preserving and -- when necessary -- restoring buildings of historic and architectural significance is heartaches and pitfalls. The preservationists of today and tomorrow have their work for cut out for them. But with intelligence, heart, and persistence, they can win their share of victories.

By the way,... If I ever do write that book, what do you think of the title, “50 Ways To Love Your Louvers.”

Saturday, July 06, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Potpourri Edition

Q:  I've discovered historical plaques in the boonies left by a group called El Viaje de Portola. Who are they?

A:  This equestrian group, formed in 1963, raises money for restoration projects at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Members include big landowners, businessmen, politicos, and even some real cowboys. Their annual three-day, men-only, horseback camping trek follows the still-undeveloped portions of explorer Gaspar de Portola's 1769 path through Orange County. It's about a 30-mile round trip and they often dedicate historic markers along the route. I would crack wise about the fully stocked bar that follows them in a wagon, but I'm still hoping to get invited someday. 

Q:  Is my house historic because it sits on an old Mexican rancho?

A:  Not so much. It actually takes work to find a part of Orange County that isn’t on one of the nearly 20 local Mexican land grants made during the 1830s and ’40s. (Prior to that, land was just “on loan” to rancheros from Spain.)  To find out what rancho your property was part of, borrow the Thomas Brothers Road Atlas (a.k.a. Thomas Guide) out of grandpa’s Buick. You'll find the old rancho boundaries and names printed in red. (Or alternately, check my map, here.) Once you figure out which rancho you’re on, why not embrace the spirit of the land? Invite everyone over for a fandango, build a horno (mud oven) in your yard, or practice lassoing the neighbor’s Rottweiler. Olé! 

Q:  Did Orange County invent orange juice?

A:  No, but we were certainly involved in making it synonymous with breakfast across America. 

When the citrus industry ruled our local economy, the California Fruit Growers Exchange, a.k.a. Sunkist, marketed the regions’ citrus to the whole country. Among the seven charter members of this coalition of local packing house associations was the Orange County Fruit Exchange. 

In February 1916, Sunkist ran a full-page ad in the Saturday Evening Post launching the national "Drink an Orange" ad campaign. The campaign highlighted its health benefits, flavor, and its association to sunny, romantic California. Many of the ads included promotions for inexpensive orange juicers. In short order America went from being unfamiliar with orange juice to making it a daily breakfast staple. Orange County became wealthier in the process.

Q:  Why does Orange County have so many eucalyptus trees?

A:  These tall, odiferous, Australian immigrants arrived in vast numbers and thrived. The fast-growing eucalyptus first appeared in California during the Gold Rush. In 1895, state forester Abbot Kinney wrote a book extolling the tree’s commercial potential. He claimed, incorrectly, that eucalyptus wood was good for construction, railroad ties and cheap fuel, and that the tree’s oil cured a host of health problems. This, combined with a hardwood shortage, led to a flood of eucalyptus-growing get-rich-quick ventures across California in the early 1900s. One local example was El Toro pioneer Dwight Whiting, who planted 960 acres in eucalyptus, thereby putting the “forest” in today’s “Lake Forest.” 

By the mid-1910s, it was clear that eucalyptus weren’t commercially viable. But they added shade and beauty to a largely treeless region and made fine windbreaks for citrus groves. Many rows of old eucalyptus trees still mark the boundaries of former orange groves.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Remembering Downtown Huntington Beach

Councilmen kick-off demolition of old Downtown Huntington Beach, 1980s.
In the 1980s, Huntington Beach tore out most of its historic downtown, with dreams of turning it into the raucous tourist zone it is today. A few historical preservationists -- with historian Barbara K. Milkovich notable among them -- fought to save the city's historic buildings, to no avail. Visitors from elsewhere seem to like the end result, but local residents still resent having what was once the heart of their town torn away from them. 

A while ago, I stumbled across a little booklet produced in the 1980s by the city’s Public Information Office, entitled, It’s Our Town! Questions and Answers on Modernizing Downtown Huntington Beach. Those who know how things turned out may "enjoy" it. Excerpts follow...

Q:  [One of] the objectives of the [redevelopment] agency [is the] improvement of traffic circulation within the area… [and] making sure the general public has continued access to the beach and water areas for recreation.

A:  Some [property] owners who would like to sell out might prefer use of eminent domain since there are income tax and other financial advantages over just selling the property outright…

Q:  Doesn’t redevelopment mean bulldozing the area clear and then building all new hotels, houses, shops, etc.?

A:  Certainly not. Redevelopment is a means for cleaning up a blighted area, remodeling old, but structurally sound buildings, assembling land where lots are too small for modern construction projects and for financing improvements such as streets sewers and lighting.

Q:  Will the businesses now in the area be allowed to remain?

A: ...Those businesses which depend on a dying neighborhood are likely to be eliminated as the commercial section prospers.

Q:  How about the Golden Bear?

A:  The GB is an institution in Huntington Beach, a historical landmark according to the redevelopment environmental impact report. No one is proposing to eliminate a business which has done so much for the area…

Q:  Is the city going to build a 20-story hotel?

A:  The idea of a high-rise hotel was put forth by a consultant as one of the many possibilities. It does not appear to be an economically feasible project. Such a project is not envisioned by the council…

If you care about the direction of your community, your state, or your country, watch your elected officials like a hawk and vote accordingly. 

View up Main St. from the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier, circa 1932.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Waltsicle: The History of a Myth

The story goes that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen in 1966, and that his hibernation chamber is hidden inside Disneyland, under either Pirates of the Caribbean, the Matterhorn, or Tomorrowland, awaiting the day when medical science can revive and cure him.

Actually, it’s well documented that Disney died of a heart attack brought on by advanced lung cancer on December 15, 1966, was cremated two days later -- per his wishes -- and was eventually interred in a marked plot near 33 Freedom Way, at Forest Lawn Glendale. The gravity of Disney's illness had largely been kept secret, so his death came as quite a shock to both the press and the general public.

Walt Disney, in life, avoided the subject of death to the point that he wouldn’t even attend the funeral of his brother, Herbert. He specifically asked his family to avoid any kind of public spectacle when he himself eventually died. “When I'm dead I don't want a funeral,” he once told his daughter, Diane. “I want people to remember me alive.” 

However, a small unannounced funeral was held at Forest Lawn’s Little Church of the Flowers the day after Walt's death. Only his immediate family attended, and they never spoke of it to the public. Forest Lawn officials would only say that "Mr. Disney's wishes were very specific and had been spelled out in great detail." The public was not told of Disney’s death until after his cremation and his ashes weren’t even interred for almost a year. 

But how did the “Waltsicle” myth start, and how did it become part of our pop-cultural mythology?

Some say the story began within Disney Studios. Several sources point to an unnamed “Disney publicist” who said story was started by a group of Disney animators who "had a bizarre sense of humor." And unauthorized Disney biographer Neal Gabler writes that Walt's friend “Ward Kimball, a puckish animator at the studio, took some pride in keeping the rumor afloat.” 

Ward Kimball, circa the late 1960s. (Source: The Disney Wiki)

Alternately, Gabler writes that “the source of the rumor may have been a tabloid named National Spotlight, whose correspondent claimed to have sneaked into St. Joseph’s Hospital where Disney had expired, disguised himself as an orderly, picked the lock on a storage room door, and spotted Disney suspended in a metal cylinder.”

In 1969, the story was picked up by celebrity tabloid magazine Ici Paris. From there, it spread to a variety of other American and European scandal sheets and tabloids.

The secretive way in which Walt’s death was handled, combined with his reputation for adopting futuristic technology, provided an environment in which the cryonics myth could thrive. 

Timing also played a role in the “Waltsicle” myth. Articles and books about cryogenics were prevalent in the mid-1960s. The Prospect Of Immortality (1964) by Robert C. W. Ettinger was a bestseller. And the first cryonic suspension of a human -- Dr. James Bedford of Glendale, California -- took place just a month after Disney's death.

Former TV repairman and Cryonics Society of California president Bob Nelson, who was involved in freezing Bedford, discussed the Walt Disney myth with Chris Nichols in a 2013 post on Los Angeles Magazine's "Ask Chris Blog," 

"We got a call from Walt Disney Studios, asking us how many people had been frozen, and what kind of facilities we had, and who the medical staff was,” said Nelson. “He [Walt Disney] was a very brilliant individual and he was checking all the bases.”

In a 1972 Los Angeles Times article entitled, "The New Ice Age: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow," Nelson was even more direct, saying, “Walt Disney wanted to be frozen… Lots of people think he was, and that the body’s in cold storage in his basement. The truth is, Walt missed out. He never specified it in writing, and when he died the family didn’t go for it. They had him cremated. I personally have seen his ashes. They’re in Forest Lawn. Two weeks later we froze the first man. If Disney had been the first it would have made headlines around the world and been a real shot in the arm for cryonics.” 

(For the record, if the Cryonics Society of California had actually held Walt at their Ridgeline, California facility, he wouldn't be frozen anymore. Their customers all defrosted in the 1970s when the organization ran out of money.) 

Responding to that article, Diane Disney Miller wrote a letter to the Times editor: “There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics. Cremation was his wish, as was the simple family service we observed for him.”

In the take-it-for-what-it’s worth department, website, (noted as one of the “fact checking” websites that lies whenever it serves their purpose) claims it checked out the Waltsicle story and that “the name, license number, and signature of the embalmer appearing on the death certificate are those of a real embalmer who was employed at the Forest Lawn mortuary at the time." They also point out that a marked burial plot, for Walt Disney (and his son-in-law) can be found at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park... “and court papers indicate that the Disney estate paid $40,000 to Forest Lawn for interment property." 

But the frozen Walt myth persists and has been reinforced by numerous unauthorized Disney biographies which revived the old rumors and added colorful details, but offered no proof nor meaningful footnotes. Among these were Robert Mosley's Disney's World (1986) and Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (1993). Historians looked askance, but the public ate it up. 

The second part of the myth – that Walt’s cryonic chamber was hidden under Disneyland – seems to have developed later. It was probably bolstered by the secretive nature of Disneyland’s “back lot,” which actually does include underground access tunnels, hidden apartments, a “secret” exclusive restaurant called Club 33, and even a hidden basketball court inside the top of the Matterhorn. Again, it was this semi-secrecy that provided the perfect breeding ground for an urban legend.

The alternate story that the chamber was hidden under Pirates of the Caribbean can probably be attributed to the fact that the attraction was under construction at the time of Disney’s death, and that the ride was mostly built underground. 

The Tomorrowland theory may stem from the fact that the entire area underwent a major transformation shortly after Disney’s death. 

The Matterhorn version of the story probably has the most obvious roots, since a hollow, “ice”-covered mountain seems the perfect place to freeze someone.

The Matterhorn, Disneyland, Anaheim

Specifics aside, the overall myth is astonishingly persistent. Even Michael Eisner, when he was lobbying to become CEO at The Walt Disney Co., thought the cryogenics story might be true. He actually asked Diane Disney Miller about it, point-blank, the first time they met. Author James B. Stewart described the conversation in his book, Disney War:

"Eisner… leaned toward Diane. ‘There's something I've been wanting to ask you,’ Eisner said. ‘Is he...’

"Diane cut him off. ‘I know what you're going to ask, and no. Dad isn't frozen.’ She couldn't believe Eisner would ask her about the rumor… which she considered as credible as reports that Elvis was alive."

In a February 2012 interview with the Huffington Post, Miller cited a number of ugly myths about her father -- including his apocryphal freezing as reasons she founded the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. She also cited a number of "really terrible books written about him," one of which "was a total invention." Miller said she couldn't let such lies stand.

Setting aside half-baked biographies and the speculation often generated by the Walt Disney Company's reputation for secrets, it's still easy to see how the Waltsicle myth caught on and survived. On one hand, Disney was a well-known innovator, introducing us to new technologies like monorails, audio-animatronics, the Plastics Home of the Future, and his plans for a super-futuristic "community of tomorrow" called EPCOT.  And on the other hand, Disney seemed something of a magician: Hanging out with Tinkerbell and bringing fairy tales and history to life both on the silver screen and in his breath-taking master-work, Disneyland. Via either science or pixie-dust, if anyone could figure out the trick of immortality, wouldn't it have been Walt Disney?  

But most of all, the enduring myth of a not-quite-completely-dead Walt Disney shows just how unwilling the world is to let go of him.

[Note: This article was originally published in the Dino-mite newsletter in 2013.]

Saturday, June 22, 2024

The "League of St. Christopher" Scam

Occasionally, these odd little medals show up for sale online or are donated to museum at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The unusual part isn't the obverse (front), which is a typical "St. Christopher medal" of the kind often worn or carried by Roman Catholics for protection while traveling. The mystery begins on the reverse, which includes the text, "Postage Guaranteed / Drop in any mailbox / The League of St. Christopher / San Juan Capistrano / California." So what was that all about? No one in San Juan Capistrano seems to know.

The League of St. Christopher was launched in the early 1950s, nominally as a private operation to raise funds for historical restoration work at Mission San Juan Capistrano. However, the League had absolutely no affiliation with the Mission. 

Former radio announcer and one-time movie producer ("Adam Had Four Sons") Robert C. Sherwood of Van Nuys was the founder, president, and seemingly only member of the League. He sent out at least 300,000 requests for donations by mail -- primarily to addresses in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. The League's letterhead featured an image of the Mission and gave the impression of a connection to that historic site.  

Sherwood had started manufacturing "religious items" by 1951. Presumably, these items were the "League of St. Christopher/Mission San Juan Capistrano" medals that were likely included with the requests for donations. (Many can be found on eBay today.) 

Hollywood's youngest producer (age 29), Robert C. Sherwood, in 1940. (AP Photo)

In July 1958, when Sherwood was forty-seven years old, he was prosecuted by the Feds for tax evasion and nineteen counts of mail fraud. More than forty witnesses, including his own parents, testified against him. It seems the League was a scam in which Sherwood kept all the money for himself -- buying a home, a new Cadillac, etc. Moreover, he never claimed any of this income on his taxes. 

Sherwood also replicated the scam with another group he invented called the National Child Safety Council.

In 1950, he was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury on nineteen counts of mail fraud. He lucked out when the prosecutor couldn't gather enough evidence before the statute of limitations ran out. But that wasn't where it ended.

On August 30, 1958, Sherwood was given a one-year suspended sentence and put on five years' probation for tax evasion and was ordered to pay taxes on $23,000 -- a fraction of the more than $150,000 he'd taken in from the League scam. 

In January 1961, Sherwood committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at his Sunset Strip apartment in Hollywood after an argument with his wife.

"Wait. Back up. What about the 'Postage Guaranteed / Drop in any mailbox' part of the medallion?" I hear someone ask. 

The League offered members a lifetime key return service for $1. If the medal was lost, the idea was that it could be dropped in any mailbox and thus returned to the League, which would match the stamped serial number on the medallion to their membership records and then return the medallion (presumably attached to the owner's ring of keys) to the owner. 

However, if anyone ever found a ring of keys with this medallion attached and dropped it in a mailbox, they didn't accomplish much. No one in San Juan Capistrano had ever heard of the League of St. Christopher.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Phil Brigandi on the Pacific Electric Railway

A Pacific Electric "Big Red Car" makes its way from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach.
I recently stumbled across some short articles from a project my mentor -- the late great historian Phil Brigandi -- and I both worked on. Many of these documents have been reused, reworked, or republished in the years since. But here's one of Phil's contributions that seems to have entirely disappeared from public view. (I've added photos because, well, my blog readers seem to like photos.) Enjoy.

The Pacific Electric Railway in Orange County
by Phil Brigandi

For more than 40 years, the Pacific Electric Railway played an important role in the development of Orange County. Henry E. Huntington began acquiring Southern California streetcar lines in the 1890s, and in 1901 he and his partners formed the Pacific Electric Railway Company. In 1902 the PE built its first line from Los Angeles to Long Beach. The company continued to grow, buying and building more lines. By the mid-1920s, the PE operated more than 1,000 miles of track throughout Southern California.

But by the late 1920s, the PE was already beginning to abandon passenger service on some of its lines. The company sold the last of its passenger lines in 1953, and the “Big Red Cars” made their last run in 1961. 

Three main lines and several branches served Orange County, providing passenger and freight service.

The Santa Ana Line left the Long Beach Line at Watts and angled across the center of the county to Fourth Street in Santa Ana. Service began in 1905. Cypress and Benedict (later Stanton) were founded beside the tracks that same year, and the Garden Grove area also got a boost from the new line. Passenger service continued until 1950.

Pacific Electric Triangle Trolly Tour riders pose at Santa Ana City Hall, 1910s.

A branch line served Orange via Main Street, La Veta Avenue, and Glassell Street (then Lemon Street after 1914). Passenger service to Orange ended in 1930.

Another branch line went south and then west to serve the farming communities at Greenville, Talbert, then south again to connect with the PE’s Huntington Beach branch. Completed in 1907, the Santa Ana-Huntington Beach line carried more freight than passengers, and passenger service was abandoned in 1922.

The Newport-Balboa Line was the first Pacific Electric line into Orange County. It ran down the coast from Long Beach. The trains reached Huntington Beach via Seal Beach in 1904, and the tracks were extended to Newport Beach in 1905, and finally to Balboa in 1906. The PE considered continuing on down the coast, but those tracks were never built. They began reducing service on this line in the 1940s, and the last passenger run was in 1950. 

In 1903, while the Newport-Balboa Line was still in the planning stages, Henry Huntington and his partners bought the Pacific City tract along the proposed route and renamed it Huntington Beach. Sunset Beach was laid out along the tracks in 1905, and even Corona del Mar hoped to take advantage of the proposed extension down the coast.

The PE also took over the Southern Pacific’s Smeltzer branch, running inland from Huntington Beach, and converted it to electric service in 1911. Though largely a freight line, passenger service was offered until 1928.

The La Habra-Yorba Linda Line began in Whittier. It was built in stages, first to La Habra in 1908, then Brea in 1910, and finally to Yorba Linda in 1911. Plans were made to extend the line out the Santa Ana Canyon to connect with the PE’s inland routes, but they were never carried out. 

A branch line was built south across the Bastanchury Ranch to serve Fullerton in 1917. Passenger service on both these routes continued until 1938.

Fullerton, 1937

Saturday, June 08, 2024

The Real Perry Mason of Orange County

E. E. Keech, Esq.

E. E. Keech was one of the first great legal minds of Orange County, California and a highly respected citizen. He helped develop some of the county’s longest-lived institutions, and likely served as one of the models for popular culture’s most enduring fictional attorneys. His tragic sudden death would come as a shock to the community.

Elwin Eugene Keech was born in Wisconsin in April 1856. His father, Jonathan Keech, a Wisconsin pioneer, was born in Pennsylvania around 1830. His mother, Martha, was born in New York around 1833.

In 1870, Elwin was living on the family farm in Greenleaf, Meeker County, Minnesota, with his parents and his brothers: William L. Keech, born in Wisconsin around 1854; and Edward, born in Minnesota around 1861. Clearly, the farm was doing well, as they employed a domestic servant. 

A young E. E. Keech.

His other brothers (or perhaps half-brothers) were Mirlon Keech, born about 1874; and H. M. Keech, born about 1879. In the 1880 Census, Elwin’s father, Jonathan, is shown married to a woman named Isabelle. Isabelle was born about 1841 in Ohio. 

Elwin attended Holbrook's Normal School, Lebanon, Ohio, in the 1880s and was employed as an instructor in the school immediately after his graduation. Later, he taught at the Glasgow Normal School in Kentucky. The last four years of his teaching career were spent as a Professor of Mathematics. 

He also graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio with a degree in Civil Engineering.

Keech married Amelia Boyle on August 12, 1884, in Hopkins County, Kentucky.  Amelia was born November 5, 1866, in Nabo, Kentucky. Most likely she met Keech when he attended Holbrook's Normal School. 

Amelia Boyle

He then moved to Orange County around 1886 and worked as a surveyor while he studied the law. He was admitted to legal practice around 1889. For many years, his law office was in the First National Bank Building at 4th St. and Main in Santa Ana (later remodeled as the Otis Building). 

In 1888, Keech was secretary of the Prohibition Club of Santa Ana and was a candidate for Los Angeles County Clerk on the Prohibition ticket. In some respects, his political views echoed those of Southern Democrats. He claimed, however, that he was once a Republican. Either way, he was – in the words of newspaperman Dan M. Baker – “the only consistent prohibitionist in the county.”

When Orange County broke off from Los Angeles County in 1889, the Santa Ana Standard suggested that Keech would be an excellent choice to fill the new county’s single judgeship. He never did serve as a judge, but at one point he did serve as City Attorney for Santa Ana.

Keech was an early member of Santa Ana’s first Unitarian Church and of their Unity Club, which discussed a wide range of social, moral, and intellectual topics. He was a member of the Santa Ana Wheelmen (a bicycle club) in 1893, was president of the Santa Ana School Board in 1894, and was a notary public for many years.

In 1896, it appears Keech took a temporary position on the East Coast. The Abingdon Male Academy listed Professor E. E. Keech of Santa Ana, California in their 1896-97 circular. The Academy was located in the town of Abingdon, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. It was a prep school that also provided “practical business education to the young man who finds it impossible to pursue a complete college course.”

In any case, Keech didn’t stay away from California for very long. In 1899, he hired L.A. architect G. S. Garrett to design a three-story, 19-room house at 201 E. Washington, at Bush St. in Santa Ana. It was completed in 1901. Prior to this, the Keech family lived at 714 N. Parton. 

Keech-Klatt House (1899), 201 E. Washington St., Santa Ana (Photo by author)

Meanwhile, E. E. Keech’s professional reputation continued to grow. In 1901, he was one of the ten attorneys who founded the Orange County Bar Association. Fellow attorney Horatio J. Forgy remembered, “At the time of the organization of the Orange County Bar Association, Mr. Keech was one of the most active members in organizing the association; and he did it with the sole idea and purpose of strengthening the integrity of the ethics of the profession."

Keech, whose extensive personal law library was locally renown, also served on the first board of trustees for the Orange County Law Library, from 1891 to 1895. 

Keech was a stern authoritarian as a parent.  His children were…

  • Helen J. Keech: Born in Kentucky Nov. 27, 1885. She was on the Santa Ana High School debate team in early 1905 and was manager of the Whittier College track team in 1906-1907. She became a teacher, married a man named McCarthy, and moved to Santa Barbara. Helen died in Eureka, California on Dec. 6, 1980. 
  • Madelaine V. Keech: Born in California around 1903. She was still living with mother in 1920. She committed suicide.  
  • Cara M. Keech: Born in California in April 1891. She served as a nurse during WWI. Her first assignment, in 1918, was at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco. However, she was soon sent overseas to serve as a dietitian. Cara contracted the flu aboard ship and was taken to the hospital upon arrival in Portsmouth, England. She died there on Oct. 17, 1918.  The 1919 Santa Ana High School Ariel included a tribute: “In the call of Democracy the need for those angels of mercy – the Red Cross nurses – was very great, and from our midst the following went forth to answer the call: Cara Keech, 1909, who made the “supreme sacrifice;” Edith Cole, 1907; Florence Crozier; Anna Laird.
  • Dana Eugene Keech: Born in Santa Ana on Dec. 11, 1894. Served in the Casual Detachment, Company L during WWI (was on duty in Arcadia, CA at time of father's death.). Dana’s childhood friend, historian Charles D. Swanner wrote, “Dana was enthusiastic about aircraft and we watched him make a glider in his father’s barn. He tried it out at Red Hill, northeast of Tustin, and although it was wrecked on its first flight, it did glide for a short distance. Glenn Martin made his first aeroplane and we followed his efforts to fly with great interest.” Dana Keech first married Carlotta Elizabeth Loner Kilgo, and later married Jewel Dorothy Hickox. He died in San Bernardino on June 10, 1983. Carlotta died in 1992 in San Bernardino. Jewel died in Los Angeles in 1988.
  • Hugh Boyle Keech: Born in California on Apil 29, 1889. He was working in an ax factory in 1910. He later served as an Army aviator, stationed out of San Diego, in WWI. Hugh died in Long Beach on April 19, 1978.  
  • Douglas William Keech: Born in California on June 2, 1901. He married Carmencita K. Gardom (a native of Canada) in Orange County on July 1, 1932. In 1976 he was an apartment building manager in San Francisco. He died on April 27, 1991 in San Francisco.

E. E. and Amelia with two of their children.
Keech’s sister-in-law, Lucie V. Boyle also lived with the family for many years.

In 1909, a young man named Erle Stanley Gardner came to “read law” under the tutelage of E. E. Keech. Gardner spent fifty hours a week as a clerk Keech’s office and lived in the Keech home. He spent his free time studying and boxing. 

Historian and attorney Charles Swanner remembered, “Dana Keech had purchased a pair of boxing gloves and Gardner, who was quite proficient as an amateur boxer, was teaching Dana some of the fundamentals of boxing. On one occasion I was watching the boxing lesson with my brother and Ray McTaggart, who thought he was pretty clever with his ‘mitts.’ He told my brother John and me, ‘I’m going to put on the gloves with Gardner and give him a hay-maker!’ We watched with anticipation as he started to spar around the barn with Gardner, but after he missed a couple wild swings, Erle floored him with an uppercut to the chin, and that ended the boxing exhibition for that evening.” 

Swanner also remembered that Gardner, “enjoyed the outdoors and took Dana with him to the foothills on numerous occasions.” It’s quite possible he may have even tagged along on some of Dana’s excursions to watch aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin test his aircraft.
Dana Keech in his hand-built aeroplane. Probably on the bluffs near the Newland House in Huntington Beach.
Gardner also dated Elwin’s daughter, Cara Keech, who was crushed when the relationship didn’t work out.

In 1911, with both eyes blackened from an amateur boxing match, Gardner passed the California bar exam. That same year, at age twenty-one, Gardner opened his own one-room law office in Merced. He practiced law for a time, but found his true calling as a fiction writer. He is most noted for his Perry Mason novels.

In the teens, Keech served as Counsel to Orange County Savings and Trust Co.  But he was better known in the field of water law, serving as counsel for the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company (SAVI) and the Anaheim Union Water Company. As the attorney for the Newbert Protection District he drafted the State law governing the formation of flood control districts. 
Cara Keech and Earle Stanley Gardner, Santa Ana.
In 1915, E.E. Keech was elected president of the Orange County Bar Association. He was the third to serve in that office.

On July 30, 1917, E.E. Keech died when the car he was driving was struck by a train at Northam Station, near Buena Park. There was speculation regarding the circumstances – It happened on a clear day on a flat stretch of road, and Keech was known as an extremely cautious driver. This prompted some to think his death was suicide. 

His pallbearers included some of the most prominent legal minds in Orange County. They were Superior Court Judge William H. Thomas; Keech’s former partner, Samuel M. Davis; attorneys Horatio J. Forgy, Roger Y. Williams and Richard Melrose; and SAVI trustee Edward M. Nealley.

Another memorial service was held as an official session of the Orange County Superior Court on August 10, 1917, in conjunction with the Orange County Bar Association. In his letter, inviting all local attorneys to attend the service, Judge Thomas wrote the following description of Keech:

“E. E. Keech, an affectionate husband, a kind father, a lawyer of rare attainments and splendid ability, a man of unimpeachable character and a high-grade citizen, is dead… He ever preached and practiced the highest ideals, and insisted on the maintenance of the best traditions of our profession…

“For nearly a third of a century he has practiced his profession at this Bar. His home was with us. He raised his family here. He was in truth one of us. He was not claimed by our profession only. He belonged to the entire community during his life. We have tried cased both with him and against him. None is there who can truthfully say he was not always a painstaking and able associate, or a worthy opponent, as well as a dangerous adversary, but one who always ‘played the game square.’…We all admired him as a lawyer and loved him as a man.”

Amelia Boyle Keech died in Orange County on May 9, 1946.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Orange County Registered Voters, 1920-2024

Senator Tom Kuchel voting in Orange County, June 8, 1954.
Here's a breakdown of voter registrations by party affiliation, beginning in 1920, compiled by the late historian Phil Brigandi. I think I'm the only one who still had a copy of this list, and it seemed too useful to waste, so I'm sharing it. 

To Phil's list -- which ended with 1980 -- I've added data for various years from 1990 to 2024. It's also worth mentioning that 2013 was the first time since the early 1960s that Orange County had more registered Democrats (547,458) than Republicans (547,369).

Republican: 9,145
Democrat: 3,202
Decline to State: 1,275
Prohibition: 658
Socialist: 147
All Other: 112

Republican: 29,243
Democrat: 9,194
All Other: 3,289

Republican: 36,036
Democrat: 11,487
Decline to State: 2,106
Prohibition: 709
Socialist: 199
All Other: 560

Republican: 37,154
Democrat: 10,692
Decline to state: 1,802
Prohibition: 475
Socialist: 181

Republican:  37,921
Democratic: 21,712
Decline to state: 1,738
Prohibition: 473
Socialist: 388
All Other: 74

Republican: 28,805
Democrat: 35,222
Decline to state: 1,499
Prohibition: 307
Socialist: 102
All Other: 19

Democrat: 39,473
Republican: 31,356
Townsend: 1,985
Decline to State: 1,629
Prohibition: 261
All Other: 137

Democrat: 42,890
Republican: 35,811
Decline to State: 1,851
Townsend: 988
Prohibition: 248
All Other: 163

Republican: 37,996
Democrat: 37,478
Decline to State: 2,056
Prohibition: 289
Townsend: 205
All Other: 72

Republican: 48,813
Democrat: 46,555
Decline to State: 3,998
Prohibition: 310
Independent-Progressive: 118
All Other: 219

Republican: 66,147
Democrat: 56,216
Decline to State: 4,293
Prohibition: 266
Independent: 191
All Other: 134

Republican: 98,808
Democrat: 86,996
Decline to State: 6,289
Independent: 605
Prohibition: 183
All Other: 56

Democrat: 154,373
Republican: 153,915
Decline to State: 12,433
Independent: 1,701
Constitution: 260
Prohibition: 156
All Other: 42

Republican: 229,943
Democrat: 215,749
Decline to State: 14,090
Independent: 2,951
Conservative: 121
All Other: 149

Republican: 306,696
Democrat: 243,469
All Other: 30,721

Republican: 394,935
Democrat: 337,279
All Other: 61,960

Republican: 362,990
Democrat: 335,330
Decline to State: 47,451
American Independent: 3,029
Peace and Freedom: 1,097
All Other: 713

Republican: 465,792
Democrat: 422,303
Non-Partisan: 92,363
Libertarian: 19,066
American Independent: 11,401
Peace and Freedom: 2,412


Republican: 609,492
Democrat: 371,394
Decline to State: 93,894
American Independent: 11,214
Libertarian: 5,525
Peace and Freedom: 2,948
All Others: 1,239

Republican: 577,016
Democrat: 373,190
Decline to State: 160,892
American Independent: 22,705
Reform: 8,858
Libertarian: 8,184
New Law: 4,576
Green: 4,315
All Others: 5,796

Republican: 689,737
Democrat: 514,519
Decline to State: 325,474
American Independent: 36,349
Libertarian: 10,616
Green: 7,302
Peace and Freedom: 4,367
All Others: 6,436

Democrat: 648,537
Republican: 606,174
No Party Preference: 431,435
American Independent: 50,404
Libertarian: 17,899
Peace and Freedom: 5,961
Green: 5,078
All Other: 7,212

Democrat: 676,458
Republican: 618,872
American Independent: 68,956
No Party Preference: 412,816
Libertarian: 21,979
Peace and Freedom: 9,274
Green: 6,688
All Other: 5,435