Wednesday, November 23, 2022

A personal milestone

You can now nominate me, if you so choose, for the National Register of Historic Places. And unless I get plastic surgery (which is unlikely), I’m also eligible for the Mills Act. 

Yes, I turn fifty this week. 

I tried to refer to myself as middle-aged, but Steph quickly pointed out, “Only if you live to 100.”

Thanks to everyone who's been along on this ride with me so far.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Thanksgiving, Anaheim, 1874

Thanksgiving dinner in the 1870s (F. G. Weller stereoview card)

The following item appeared in the Anaheim Gazette, Nov. 28, 1874:
"The early rains, the farming successes of the past year, the near approach of the railroad communication with Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the general indications of future prosperity in the Santa Ana valley have predisposed everyone to be literally and truly thankful. And Thanksgiving Day of the present year of our Lord was therefore kept in the good old New England style. Church in the morning, turkeys and cranberry-sauce at dinner, and the general relaxation from the cares of business, indulged in by the entire community, proved quite a change, and a pleasant one at that, from the evil days of the previous years of the present decade, when all, who thought fit to observe the day, did so with the lips and not with the heart."  
Although the roots of Thanksgiving go back to the 1600s, it was celebrated on various dates in different states. Around the early 1800s the last Thursday in November became customary. But it wasn't until 1863 -- the middle of the Civil War -- that President Lincoln made the last Thursday official. In his proclamation, he also implored "the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation." 

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Thanksgiving an official federal holiday. It was only after this -- in the early 1870s -- that Thanksgiving became a truly nationwide celebration and firmly ensconced in the public mind. Even then, many Southerners refused to celebrate it because they felt it was politicized and that celebrating it was a show of fealty to the federal government. The fact that both Lincoln and Grant had been key in enshrining Thanksgiving no doubt played a role in this sentiment.
The 200 block of W. Center St., Anaheim, looking east, 1870s. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)
Anaheim had a mix of northerners and southerners living amongst its immigrants from Germany and other nations around the world. Moreover, California had only been on the fringes during the Civil War. As such, Thanksgiving seems to have been largely welcomed locally without much fuss. 

And indeed, as the Gazette indicated, Anaheim had much to be thankful for in 1874. Their town was growing, their grapes were growing, and the weather (a constant concern of the farmer) was treating them well compared to the "evil days" of devestating drought in the 1860s. 

But the comment about the impending arrival of a rail line to Anaheim is particularly noteworthy. The Southern Pacific would begin regular service to Anaheim in January of 1875, providing a way for Anaheim vintners and farmers to sell their goods to a dramatically larger market. Later, the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad would provide competition and push down shipping prices, allowing the local agricultural industry to truly come into its own and bring wealth and political clout to the region. On Thanksgiving 1874, Anaheim residents could see track being laid, saw their future, and were even more thankful than usual.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Blinking Owl, Santa Ana

Those nondescript doors in the yellow building (right) would become the entrance to The Blinking Owl about a decade after this photo was taken. (Courtesy SAPL)
Over the years -- even before the name was borrowed for Santa Ana's Blinking Owl Distillery -- I've received questions about The Blinking Owl, which was a bar at 312 N. Birch St, in Downtown Santa Ana. Rumor has it that a it featured "a mechanical sign of an owl with a moving eyelid that went up and down." But I've never found a photo of the place (or the sign) from the years The Blinking Owl existed: 1971 to about 1976.

The best we can do, so far, is a photo like the one above, which was shot circa the 1960s, nearly a decade before The Blinking Owl moved in. This view is from the middle of 4th St, looking south down Birch. You can see the corner of the beautiful West End Theatre on the left, the lush foliage of Birch Park in the background, and the yellow building (with two doors) that would eventually house The Blinking Owl.
Same view today. The building's a similar color, but partly obscured by a tree.
The building itself (which has been made to look like it's part of the larger building facing 4th St.) had a second story added to it in 1910 and served as a number of cafes throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1967 it was a bar called The Marquis Club. And in late 1970 it was Chick & Whiteys, owned by Chick Stober and Hollis J. Stober. Very little is known about The Blinking Owl bar that moved in after Chick and Whitey moved out.

Flash forward: The new Blinking Owl Distillery (no direct relation to the bar) opened not far from the Santa Ana municipal water tower and Barrio Logan in 2016. According to the distillery's website, "Brian and Robin Christenson, longtime Santa Ana residents, had heard stories of the midcentury (sic) 'Blinking Owl Bar' on the corner of Birch and Third Streets, known for an iconic owl sign that would blink. Inspired by the craft cocktail movement, the farm-to-table food movement, and current thriving craft distilleries, the husband and wife team saw an opportunity to bring a local distillery to the neighborhood, paying homage to the history of Santa Ana."

Naturally, the success of the distillery has only added to the public's interest in knowing something more about its namesake.  If you have memories, stories, photos, etc, relating to The Blinking Owl of the 1970s, please drop me a line.

Monday, August 29, 2022

A recent place name mystery: J G Island

J G Island outlined in red.
Does anyone know what the "J G" means in the placename "J G Island Beach?" The name refers to the "island" (really a peninsula) that was created next to the Santa Ana River's mouth in Huntington Beach around 1990 when the Talbert Channel outlet was rerouted. Most of the "island" is taken up by a Least Tern Preserve. This may be recent enough that someone out there will have a firsthand account of how it got the name "J G Island." 

For what it's worth, earlier names for the beach just north of the current river outlet (near Brookhurst) include Santiago, Celery, and my favorite: Nago. The beach there was particularly popular with local Japanese families in the early 20th Century.

Friday, August 19, 2022

A Lost Place Name: Cañada del Rodeo

Detail from a sligtly wonky 1912 oil map. (Courtesy Paul Spitzzeri)

Cañada del Rodeo (a.k.a. Rodeo Canyon) was an early name for a portion of or offshoot of Brea Canyon in the Puente Hills, bridging Orange and Los Angeles counties. The name Cañada del Rodeo appears on assorted mining maps and in surface water reports beginning at least as early as 1898 until at least 1917. The anglicized Rodeo Canyon name continued in use until at least 1946. This area was generally considered part of the Fullerton oil fields.  

"At the head of Rodeo Canyon, close to the divide, are several large granite boulders, which have weathered out of the sandstone," wrote Walter A. English, in Geology and Oil Resources of the Puente Hills Region, Southern California -- a 1926 USGS bulletin. "One of them is 10 feet in diameter. There are perhaps half a dozen bolders, all told. No small boulders or pebbles are clustered around the few large blocks, and the sandstone close to the boulders is not noticably different from the fine yellow sandstone elsewhere in the formation."

Map filed with Los Angeles County (DM6298-96)
In Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region (1930) the famed Olmstead Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Assoc. describe "the head of Rodeo Canyon" being "two miles east of Brea Canyon Road, where the route turns north, a rugged and picturesque gorge is encountered that will involve heavy construction."

There was both a Rodeo Oil Co. and a Rodeo Land & Water Co. operating in the Los Angeles area during the early years of the 20th century, which might suggest a couple possible sources for the canyon's name. But no direct connections have yet been made. 

Historian Paul Spitzzeri offers another educated guess: "“Rodeo” [also] means “detour,” so a sharp change in the topography of a canyon may be our best clue [to the source of  the canyon's name].  As the canyon and creek make the abrupt westward turn toward where Birch had his rich oil property, it could well be how this feature got its moniker." 

If you know anything definitive about the source of this old place name (or even have a good clue or lead), please drop me a line.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Holy Jim: The Canyon and the Man

Jim (right) with two fellow G.A.R. members, circa 1900.
A lot of flatlanders were left scratching their heads when fire authorities dubbed a 2018 wildfire in the Santa Ana Mountains "the Holy Fire." And four years later -- when "the Jim Fire" was in the news -- the new fire's name sounded almost as odd. But there was a good reason for the curious monikers. Both of these fires burned through a branch of Trabuco Canyon called Holy Jim Canyon. The question, of course, is "Who was Holy Jim and how did he get a canyon named after him?"

In 1888, decidedly unsaintly Union veteran James T. Smith (1841-1934) bought land in a remote canyon between Santiago Peak and Trabuco Creek. There he raised bees and lived with his wife, Hat. Although reasonably even-tempered, Smith swore frequently, loudly, longwindedly, creatively, and without regard for the company he was in. Smith, wrote historian Jim Sleeper, could “cuss the devil into a bottle and screw on the cap.”

Smith usually sported a hat with an upturned brim, a walrus moustache, a jacket with a big plug of tobacco in the pocket, and no shirt. He earned the nicknames "Greasy Jim" and, naturally, "Cussin' Jim." In 1900, government cartographers named the canyon for its best-known resident, but some prissy bureaucrat in Washington undoubtedly changed “Cussin’” to “Holy.” 

About eight years later, Smith retired to Santa Ana. As an old man, he’d get lost downtown and sheriff's deputies would give him a lift. Jim swore all the way home.

For more on Smith, see the article, On the Trail of Holy Jim Smith: The Man Behind the Legend, by the late great historian (and longtime Holy Jim Canyon resident) Jim Sleeper. It was published in the Orange County Genealogical Society Quarterly, v. 5, no. 1, March 1968. It also appeared in the Rancho San Joaquin Gazette around the same time.

[Part of today's article first appeared in the Feb. 2017 edition of the author's monthly "O.C. Answer Man" column in Orange Coast Magazine.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Spare a thought for Orange County’s bears

California grizzly (taxidermied) on display at the Old Orange County Courthouse in 2010 (Photo by author)

For the modern Orange Countian – trapped in a cycle of freeway commutes between condo, school, office, Starbucks and the grocery store – it may be hard to believe that this place was once home to great lumbering bears. Many are little aware of the truest earliest versions of this land, which has long since been capped with orange groves, oil wells, concrete, housing tracts, and shopping centers.  

To experience “old Orange County,” visit our back country: the canyons, wetlands, wilderness parks, and of course, the Santa Ana Mountains. In “the shadow of Old Saddleback” one can still find mountain lions, salamanders, mule deer, bats, snakes, badgers, golden eagles, woodpeckers, and innumerable other wild animals. Sycamores line our creeks, oaks grace our mountains and valleys, pines top the ridges, and the chaparral and coastal scrub brush give our rolling hills not just the look but also the distinct smell of Old California.

Some species that once roamed Orange County – like wolves, antelope, and California condors – are gone, but still survive elsewhere. Others, like saber-toothed cats and duck-billed dinosaurs are extinct. 

Notably, the Santa Ana Mountians were the last refuge of our state animal: The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus). These bears once roamed our flatlands until a growing human population made them head for the hills. The local Indians thought the deity Chinigchinich sent bears (which they called “Hunwutvum”) down from the mountains to punish people for their transgressions. 
A local citrus crate label, celebrating the grizzly bear.
Bears were a threat to livestock during the Mexican rancho era, and vaqueros made a sport of tracking and lassoing them prior to killing them or dragging them off to participate in gory bull and bear fights. In such fights, a bear and a long-horned bull were chained together in a corral or pit, and spectators would bet on which animal would survive. 

In the decades after California joined the Union, bears were still hunted – sometimes after attacks on livestock, apiaries, or people, and sometimes just for sport. Ultimately, even the mountains weren’t safe for the bears. 

The very last of Southern California’s (and quite possibly California's) grizzlies – a female, misleadingly nicknamed “Little Black Bear” – was shot somewhere above Holy Jim Canyon in 1908. The bear’s skin was displayed in the window of Turner’s Shoe Store in Downtown Santa Ana before being sent to the Smithsonian, along with the bear’s skull. (Turner’s was located at 121 W. 4th St. The display window faced Sycamore St. where Pizza Press is today in the Rankin Building. And yes, that’s only a few yards from the spot where Francisco Torres was lynched, 16 years earlier.) 

In 1975, while researching his excellent A Boys Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County historian Jim Sleeper contacted the Smithsonian for more information on Little Black Bear, but they could no longer locate the pelt or skull. Our last California grizzly had vanished completely. It seemed an especially sad ending to an already sad story.

Little Black Bear, photographed in 1908.

But in 2014, while assisting local naturalist Joel Robinson with research, Museum Specialist Esther Langan finally found our furry friend (the bear, not Joel) in a Maryland storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. So the story of Little Black Bear continues. And so, it would seem, may some of her cousins…

Although the last California grizzly died here over a century ago, hikers, game wardens, forest service employees, and even marines at Camp Pendleton have reported rare sightings of black bears (Ursus americanus) ever since. According to Sleeper, the bears occasionally seen in modern times are probably descended from escaped pets. One such bear, trained to ride a bicycle, escaped from its owner near Corona in 1973 and into the Santa Ana Mountains. 

In theory, black bears only live about thirty years in the wild. But err on the side of caution: If you hear a bicycle bell in the woods, run.

Local attorney E. E. Keech (right) and friend, bear hunting, circa 1900.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared first in Orange Coast magazine, then in the Dec. 2014 edition of the County Connection, and later in the O.C. Historical Society’s County Courier newsletter.)

Monday, July 18, 2022

Historical facts: Because truth matters

Clocktower of the historic Spurgeon Building, Santa Ana. (Photo by author)

A fellow historian (and all-around good guy) just sent me a link to James M. Banner, Jr's thought-provoking article "All History Is Revisionist History" in Humanities magazine (published by the NEH).

In one sense, of course, the headline is correct. There are always more facts to learn, or some new way to describe them more clearly or to provide more context. That's not really revisionist history. And finding previously untapped sources of contemporary information to shed new light on old stories is also not revisionist history, but rather is the heart of historical work itself.

But I strongly disagree with this article’s claims that, 1) Facts are meaningless in and of themselves, 2) Bringing the historian’s personal biases to bear on said facts is the only way to make them relevant, and 3) There’s such a thing as “different truths.” Let me take those one at a time,...

1) Facts are of primary importance. If one is actually contributing something useful (rather than just regurgitating and offering an opinion), it means one has been dredging up newly-discovered, long-overlooked or neglected facts. At minimum, it means bringing together various *known* facts to assemble a storyline that had not previously been assembled, thereby adding value. 

2) Much like a journalist (or should I say like the journalists of certain publications of old), the goal should be to suppress our biases to the extent possible and tell the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the subject at hand. As imperfect humans, this goal may not be 100% attainable, but that is indeed the goal. It is worth the effort. The idea that we should try to make our biases and modern attitudes part of the story is foolish and does a tremendous disservice to our field. We can never write a perfect description of any episode in history – but the task at hand is to get as close as we can. (If we can’t improve on what’s been done nor add new information, there’s not much point in even picking up a pen.) Many of the complaints I hear about “revisionist history” are rightly aimed at those who simply want to use/abuse history as a platform upon which to grind their own modern political axes. 

3) No less a philosopher than Oprah Winfrey popularized the term “your truth.” But in reality there is only THE truth. Any given statement can only be true, untrue, or so vague as to be meaningless. Again, the facts -- as closely as we can vet them -- are our guiding light. And if we goof we should admit it and make corrections when we can. Getting to as much of the truth as we can and presenting it in a straightforward way is not only enough, it's also the ideal. And if that weren't enough, the truth is usually makes for a far better story than any alternate version we might dream up. 

All this reminds me of something Robert Heinlein once wrote (about the present and future rather than the past, but still…): “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what ‘the stars foretell,’ avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable ‘verdict of history’ – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

I know the pressure is on for some history writers to bend things, cut corners, purposely ignore context, or drift into conjecture. These measures make it easier to gin up shock value, which in turn sells copy. It wins you pats on the back from others who are grinding the same ax you are. It can even give you street cred among certain academics who focus more on political orthodoxy than scholarship.

But being able to look at yourself in the mirror has advantages also.  So take your time, write for quality rather than quanitity, pull from the best sources available (with primary sources when possible), play the ball where it lies, and write it in a clear and engaging way so that someone may actually read it someday. Is that too much to hope for in the 2020s?