Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

 I'm sharing a few Christmas photos today from Mission San Juan Capistrano, the oldest church in Orange County. Founded in 1776 -- a year you may remember for other reasons -- the Mission is today still a place of worship as well as an iconic touchstone of early California history. The image above is from the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which was largely demolished by an earthquake in 1812.
 The photo above is from the Soldier's Barracks building. And the final image, below, is from the Serra Chapel (1782), the oldest still-functioning house of worship in California, and the only surviving church in which Father Serra actually said Mass. Even for a non-Catholic like myself, it's impossible to enter this relatively simple, mud-walled chapel without feeling you are in the presence of a higher power. It's a very special place to visit -- particularly during the holidays.
Merry Christmas to you all!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Come to "Show & Tell"

C'mon we KNOW you have cool old stuff tucked away in your garage, your attic, or maybe even on your office wall. It's "Show & Tell" time again at the Orange County Historical Society, this Thursday, Dec. 13th, 7:30pm, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2400 N. Canal St., in Orange. Naturally, YOU are invited.

Rummage through your files, boxes and scrapbooks for a choice artifact or bit of memorabilia that helps tell us something about Orange County's past. Maybe you have a local orange crate that connects to a story about a parent who worked in a packing house. Perhaps you have your name badge from when you worked at Disneyland on opening day. What about great-grandpa’s branding iron, or a piece of flatware with the name of an early local hotel stamped on the back?

There will be a sign-up sheet when you arrive at the meeting. People will be called up in order of their position on the list. This event is also combined with the OCHS annual holiday social, so feel free to break out those Christmas sweaters or what-have-you.

Speaking of hidden treasures, one of our Orange County history friends, Tustin author Guy Ball, will make an appearance on A&E's "Storage Wars" tomorrow (Tuesday) night.
Guy writes, "Looks like 'my' Storage Wars show is on tomorrow, Tuesday, night for sure. (I'll be on for maybe 60 seconds and I'm calling it "mine." Cheeky, huh?) The episode is called 'A Tale of Two Jackets.' It's on the A&E network on your cable/satellite. My fingers are sooooo crossed that I didn't say anything too stupid or look like a total dork."

In addition to writing about Orange County history, Guy is also the world authority on vintage calculators. Undoubtedly the Storage Wars guys were picking his brain to learn the value of some old Texas Instruments behemoth (or something like that) which they won in a semi-blind auction.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Last-minute lima bean alert!

There's a rare opportunity to tour the historic Segerstrom Ranch tomorrow morning, Saturday, Dec. 8th 9am-Noon. Sorry about the short notice, but I just heard about this a few minutes ago, via the Costa Mesa Historical Society.

"Interested members of the public are requested to call (714) 546-0110 to RSVP during normal business hours. Please note that tours will not be provided. This historic site is located adjacent to 3315 Fairview Road (between South Coast Drive and the I-405 Freeway). Cost: Free. Location: 3315 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa."

I don't know how tightly they'll be adhering to the RSVP rule. If they do, then you're probably outta luck already. But it might be worth a shot. I just wish they'd promoted this a bit earlier.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Upcoming holiday historical events

A 1921 postcard depicting Mission San Juan Capistrano, from the collection of Phil Brigandi.
The Christmas season has rolled around again, and the lineup of holiday historical events is starting to fill the calendar. The beautifully restored 1889 Dr. Howe-Waffle House & Museum, 120 Civic Center Dr. West, will kick off the festivities with the Santa Ana Historic Preservation Society's Holiday Open House, this Sat., Dec. 1st, 11am-4pm. If you'd like to soak up the vibe of a Victorian Christmas, with all the decor, goodies, fellowship, and caroling around the (1870s) piano, this would be a good place to do it. An arts and crafts boutique will also be featured on the back patio, and all items in the gift shop will be on sale. (A historic/architectural walking tour of Downtown will also be available at 2:30 for $8. RSVP to 714-547-9645.)

Looking for an event in South County? Get a sneak peek at the Dana Point Museum (still a work in progress) at City Hall, Suite 104, on Sun., Dec. 2nd. This event is the Dana Point Historical Society's Holiday Open House and will run from 2pm to 5pm. (If you'd like to participate in the concurrent potluck, please bring a finger-foodish dessert or appetizer for about a dozen people.)

Also, the Orange County Historical Society will hold their Holiday Social and "Show & Tell" program on the evening of Dec. 13th. I'll write more about that in another post, soon. Meanwhile, be thinking of what interesting artifact or tchotchke of local history you want to bring that evening.
The San Clemente Lifeguard Headquarters decked out for Christmas.
Less Christmas-y but still worth checking out: Groundbreaking surfer and Hobie retail founder Dick Metz will speak and share his amazing collection of classic surfing photos at the The Surfing Heritage Foundation,110 Calle Iglesia, San Clemente, on Thurs., Dec. 6th, 6pm. Most of the programs I write about on this blog are free, but this one is $10 (a fundraiser for SHF) -- but I think you'll find Metz more than worth the price of admission. We had him speak at the Orange County Historical Society a couple years ago, and even the non-surfers in the crowd thoroughly enjoyed his stories about the development of the sport and the industry.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Aren't you a little short for a Pilgrim?

Happy Thanksgiving! The photo above shows the cast of the 5th grade Thanksgiving play at Santa Ana's Franklin Elementary School in 1931. Genevieve Straw is the Pilgrim lass in black. The entire class (sans 1620s garb) is shown below.
This has been a particularly difficult year for which to be thankful. But I am sincerely thankful for my family, my amazing friends, my job, and all the great folks at the Orange County Historical Society. I'm also, of course, thankful for my readers (like Doug McIntosh, who submitted today's photos) and fellow local historians for continuing to inspire and encourage me. 

But enough of this cloying sentiment. Go eat too much.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Broad Breasted Turkeys of Santa Ana

Ad from the Nov. 16, 1950 edition of the Huntington Beach News.
With Thanksgiving upon us, it's hard to find something topical to write about for a local history blog. How about the history of turkeys in Orange County? 

Even the quasi-comprehensive Jim Sleeper's Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities (with a special sub-section on poultry in Vol. II) has precious little to say about turkeys. Under "Quadrupeds," however, Jim wrote, "Oddest turkey. Reported in the [Santa Ana] Standard (5-16-1891) was a young turkey belonging to Fred McCaffy of that town, which had 'four legs and four eyes and a mouse head.' The account is not clear whether it was Fred or the turkey which 'had been preserved in alcohol.'"

In truth, back when Orange County was primarily agricultural, we had plenty of poultry ranches -- mostly chicken, but also enough turkey that we didn't run out of Thanksgiving drumsticks. Yet somehow, they never got the kind of press that citrus or even celery managed.  

But every November, the local newspapers featured many ads for local turkey farms like Young's Turkey Ranch. 
A quisling turkey (now in hiding) advertises Young's in the L.A. Times, 1954.
George L. Young (1916-1990) came to Orange County from Monterey Park in 1936 and started the successful Western Printing Co., but wished he had a job where he could work outdoors. Thus, in 1945, Young’s Turkey Ranch was born, just west of the Santa Ana River on First St. The Young’s owned the ranch for 26 years, and sometimes sold as many as 10,000 turkeys around the holidays. During the rest of the year, they also supplied meat to restaurants and stores.

"Yes," I can hear you tryptophan junkies say, "but what were their turkeys like?"

The L.A. Times' "Shopping with Vicky" feature gave an effusive review to Young's turkeys. To be fair, "Vicky" would lavish your service and/or product with effusive love and affection (in print) for a fee. Vicky was astonishingly diverse in her tastes and interests, from discount lumber to little neck clams.
On Nov. 15, 1962, Vicky exclaimed to her loyal readers, "You should be making your plans for those memorable holiday meals and the 'star' of any dinner is Mr. Turkey. I know where you can find the very best, those huge broad breasted, so extra meaty, perfectly cleaned and oven ready birds. Young's Turkey Ranch, 3109 W. Bolsa, Santa Ana, sell only turkeys and the finest turkeys you'll ever find, and oven ready. So many people know that Young's broad breasted turkeys are the best so you should call JE 1-2126 and order your bird now."

(Did we mention that the turkeys were both broad breasted AND oven ready, as well as being the best?)

As with the rest of Orange County, development caught up with the Youngs. Property values and taxes rose, and in 1959 they turned seven of the farm’s 10 acres into the Quiet Village Mobile Home Park. (Can’t you just hear Martin Denny’s hit version of “Quiet Village” with all the tropical birdcalls replaced by turkey gobbling?) Some of the ranch operations moved out to land near Temecula for a while. But in 1971 the Youngs closed their ranch entirely and opened a body shop and riding stables on the property.
Quiet Village Mobile Home Park in 2003, when its great sign and a bit of its semi-Polynesian theme were still intact.
It's very much the same story as other forms of agriculture in Orange County: Post-WWII development simply made land too valuable to use for fruit, vegetables, and livestock. Thus, today's "old fashioned" Thanksgiving begins with a trip to a supermarket or Costco -- not to a mom-and-pop poultry farm.

 Somehow, coming home with pigeons you caught at the mobile home park wouldn't be quite the same.

Monday, November 05, 2012

"Authors Night" and South O.C. history field day

Hear the authors of the latest Orange County history books discuss their work, and then have a chance to meet them, buy their books, and have the books signed at the Orange County Historical Society's annual “Authors Night” program, this Thursday, Nov. 8, 7:30p.m., at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2400 N. Canal St., in Orange. Authors include Jason Schultz (Jason's Disneyland Almanac), Mike Heywood (Orange County: Twelve Decades of Extraordinary Change), Ted Dougherty (Knott’s Halloween Haunt: A Picture History), Chris Epting (Baseball in Orange County), and Frank Ritenour (San Juan Capistrano Treasures, etc.)

Thursday night will also mark the release of the OCHS's annual Orange Countiana historical journal. Contributors to the 2012 journal will be on hand to sign their work as well. They include Orange County Supervisor John M.W. Moorlach (“The Orange County Bankruptcy”), Froy Tiscareño ("Memories of Memo"), and editor Phil Brigandi. All member of the Society receive a copy of the journal as part of their membership. Additional copies are available for $20 each, and back-issues will also be available for sale.
OCHS hiking group visits the Trabuco Adobe. Note "Old Saddleback" in the background.
Saturday turned out to be an all-you-can-eat South Orange County history day! I started the morning providing backup support at the Orange County Historical Society's Fall "History Hike" to the Trabuco Adobe and the Portola Expedition campsite of San Francisco Solano, took a detour through Live Oak Canyon, and wound up among the adobes of San Juan Capistrano.

Historian Phil Brigandi led the morning's hike/tour through part of O'Neill Park. In the photo above folks are checking out the ruins of the Trabuco Adobe (circa 1810), which was an outpost for the cattle operations of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Today the remaining walls are somewhat protected by a wood shelter. A number of holes punched in the plywood provide an opportunity to peer inside. (See photo below.)
 This is one of the oldest buildings in Orange County outside of Capistrano. Sadly, it's largely neglected and no serious archeological work has been done on the site. One suspects such a dig would reveal a great deal of information from the mission and rancho eras.

Many years before the adobe was built, on July 24 and 25 of 1769, the Portola Expedition (the first non-Indians to travel up through California) camped at this site, which they called San Francisco Solano. Soon, however, the soldiers in the expedition began calling the area "Trabuco" after the blunderbuss (a.k.a. trabuco) one of them lost nearby.
The photo above shows our intrepid team hiking down into Trabuco Creek. There were about 30 hikers in the party.

 After the hike, I caught up with friends for lunch at Cook's Corner -- an establishment that got its start in the 1930s.
A 2007 photo by Phil Brigandi shows Cook's Corner on a quiet day.
Our long lunch led to discussion of San Juan Capistrano. Specifically, we ended up talking about some slightly strange photos of the Mission, and about the details of the 1850s raid on the town by Juan Flores' marauding gang. On a whim, we all decided to drive down there and puzzle things out first-hand. When it comes to local history, research in contemporary sources is crucial, but you really need to "put boots on the ground" also.

 The first thing I noticed at the mission was the progress on the new entrance complex. It's looking nice so far, with a large ramada and a faux-adobe structure that the builders seem to be giving the first-class treatment.
New entrance/exit construction: If they're smart, they'll make you exit through the gift shop.
 Our first stop inside the Mission was the South Wing (now partly occupied by the gift shop), where Don Juan Forster and his family lived from 1844 to 1864. During those years, Forster made some alterations, including adding a bedroom for his daughters, which shows up in a number of photos, including the one below. Note the bricked-off archway and how the entire corner under the arches is closed off. 
Now, in the next photo (below), see how that corner is once again open, as it was in the Mission Era. We found lines in the adobe that still make it obvious where exactly the brick walls were added and later removed. This -- along with the photo above (displayed at the Mission) -- answered some of our questions about strange-looking window and door placement on this wing in early photos.
 Another of our questions involved the age of various materials spread over the adobe walls of the mission. In various places over the centuries, designs, pigment, and graffiti have been applied to the mission walls. As various layers of concrete, plaster, etc, erode or fall away from the buildings, it would be nice to date those marks and messages by the materials they were applied to. The material the particularly puzzled us was a light-colored concrete-like layer that seemed to have fairly early markings on it. My understanding was that the original coverings for the adobe and rock walls were plaster -- but what was meant by plaster in those days?

In the photo below, from the Great Stone Church, the concrete-like material in question holds what some have said are architectural sketches for elements of the church itself. (Note the straight lines and compass-drawn arcs.) If that's true, the material it's scribed into must be original to the building. But it doesn't look or feel like plaster. One of my readers must be an expert on these things, right? Anyone?
The easier ones to peg are the more recent markings, which often include both a name and a date. More on that in a future post.

Our next stop was down the street on a stretch of El Camino Real -- near the Blas-Aguilar Adobe (circa 1794) and what's now Town Center Park -- that was hit hard by Juan Flores' gang in the 1850s. The outlaws looted the town and robbed numerous businesses along this stretch of the highway, including the shops of Michael Krazewski and George Pflugardt. One of Krazewski's employees was wounded and Pflugardt was killed.
Blas-Aguilar Adobe (a.k.a. Casa de Esperanza) in Capistrano.
The tale of the gang is worth telling at another time (and involves the murder of Los Angeles Sheriff James Barton), but our task was to use old maps and existing landmarks like the Blas-Aguilar Adobe to pace off where exactly Pflugardt's murder and the robberies took place. The murder appears to have taken place just inside the boundaries of the park, not far from the adobe. Krazewski's place seems to have been about halfway up between that spot and the modern Ortega Highway.

This is the kind of tomfoolery local historians get up to when they have a lazy Saturday afternoon to spend. And yes, I really WOULD rather be doing this stuff than watching football, or going to a movie, or terrorizing tortoises with an ATV, or whatever "normal" people do. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wintersburg, a movie premiere, La Habra, etc.

Information of premiere film screening. Click to enlarge image.
The short film "Lil Tokyo Reporter" -- based on the life of newspaper publisher and civil rights leader Sei Fujii -- is a page more from Los Angeles' history than from Orange County. But the premiere screenings in Huntington Beach in November will raise funds to help save what is likely the most important Asian-American historical site in Orange County: The Furuta/Japanese Presbyterian Church site at Wintersburg. Click the image above for more information about this event. Advanced ticket sales will be available soon at

Each screening will include the chance to meet the producers, directors and cast of the film. The cast includes  Oscar winner Chris Tashima (Visas and Virtue), Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls), and Eijiro Ozaki (Letters from Iwo Jima).

For more information about Wintersburg, see or search my previous posts. For more information about the movie see  (I also heartily recommend a visit to "Little Tokyo" in Downtown L.A. -- it's a fascinating and extremely historic place that is too often overlooked.)
The La Habra Historical Museum, next door to the library.
The La Habra Historical Museum has opened a new exhibit, "Defenders of Our Freedom," in honor of our military, past and present.  The exhibit features uniforms from WWI through today, and memorabilia on loan from over 40 different individuals. It also features a tribute to Sgt. 1st Class William T. Brown, the La Habra Green Beret who was MIA in the Vietnam War and whose remains were only recently recovered.  The museum is open at 201 E. La Habra Blvd., Saturday, noon-4pm.  For special tours or more information call Suzette Eschberger at (562) 999-6453.  The exhibit runs through March 16, 2013.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Archives Bazaar, art history, Sandy Heaton, etc.

Just one room at the 2010 L.A. Archives Bazaar. And this year will be bigger!
 Are you interested in Southern California history? Of course you are! Otherwise, you wouldn't be reading this, right? So you need to check out the Archives Bazaar at USC's beautiful Doheny Memorial Library, (3550 Trousdale Pkwy), this Saturday, Oct. 27th, 9am-5pm! More than 80(!) historical archives, heritage organizations and special collections from around Southern California will be represented with booths, information, and experts who can answer your questions.

A variety of programs will also be held throughout the day, including a panel discussion on "Southern California Ranchos and Homesteads" and talks on subjects like the California Car Culture and "Getting Started in Oral History." Admission is free, although parking is $10. This event is organized by L.A. As Subject. (But organizations from outside L.A. will be there too.) For more information, see their website.
Another view from the 2010 Archives Bazaar.
Diane Ryan will speak on the history of California Impressionism and the artists who created it, from noon to 1pm, Nov. 13, at the Old O.C. Courthouse, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd. (3rd Floor Gallery), in Downtown Santa Ana. The event is free and open to the public, but do bring quarters for the parking meters. To RSVP for Diane's talk or for more information, email
Artist Sandra Heaton with a mural she designed for an O.C. Fair exhibit.
Diane's talk will be held in conjunction with the exhibit, "Orange County Illustrated: Sandra Heaton," currently on display at the Old Courthouse Museum through Jan. 2012. As a longtime artist for the County, Heaton continues to capture the natural and architectural beauty of our communities.

Speaking of art history, Diane Ryan is also offering a class on California Regionalism (an outgrowth of American Scene Painting) on Thursdays, 1:30-3:30pm, Nov. 1 to Dec. 6, at the Oasis Senior Center in Corona del Mar, for $50. Register online (under "Recreation Classes") at, call (949) 644-3244, or email Diane at
Banning Branch Library, Huntington Beach
Some of you may remember my post last year about the Banning Branch Library in Huntington Beach (a.k.a. "The Enchanted Tiki Library.") If you're interested, I've updated that story over on my other blog, The Tiki Lagoon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fairhaven, SAAAB, Marie Schmidt, Brea, etc.

 The old Howe-Waffle House in Santa Ana seems to reflect each season -- And with all that orange and white trim, Halloween is no exception. Note that the sign in the window now advertises the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society's annual Cemetery Tour, which will be held at Fairhaven Cemetery on Oct. 20th, 10am-3pm. A lot more information is available on their website.

Meanwhile, down at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, I'm told that one of the few remaining buildings from the Santa Ana Army Air Base (shown below) is scheduled to disappear. It appears that the veterans memorial garden that was once a fixture in front if this building has already disappeared, although the flagpole remains. It seems a shame to see the remnants of the SAAAB disappearing one by one.
Historical volunteer extraordinaire Marie Schmidt passed away Oct. 1 at age 94. It was only last year that Marie retired from her volunteer work at the Placentia Public Library’s History Room -- which she, along with Pat Irot and Pat Jertberg -- created in 1991. She was also an active member of the Placentia Historical Society, the Orange County Historical Society, the Yorba Linda Historical Society and the Placentia Library District Historical Committee, and was a docent at the historic Bradford House. Marie was one of the most productive volunteers in local history, and the Placentia History Room is a fine testament to her work in our field. Let us hope that future generations pick up where she left off. Marie leaves a large family and many friends and will be greatly missed.
The photo above shows crucibles and stirring rods found by archaeologists near historic mining sites in Orange County. I took this picture recently at the John D. Cooper Archaeological & Paleontological Center. Wish I had more information on these, but even without context they're pretty interesting. I'll post a few more photos from the Cooper Center soon.

The Brea Historical Society has unveiled a new publication, Brea, Then & Now, (shown below), which features hundreds of photographs of people, places, and events from throughout the community's history. The author is Tim Harvey, and the book is available for $30 at the Brea Museum & Heritage Center, the Brea Civic Center (Community Development office), That Frame Place, and Aljon Graphics.
Does anyone have any OLD pictures of the Huntington Beach City Jail, wedged into the alley between Main St. and 5th St? The building still stands (behind the Sugar Shack cafe), but modern photos won't help this time. We're trying to confirm that the big sliding doors indeed date back to the time of the structure's use as a jail.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Halloween mysteries demystified!

Preparing balloons for the 1950 Anaheim Halloween Parade.
Want to get into the Halloween spirit a little early this year? Historian Stephanie George will share the story of Anaheim’s Halloween Festival at the Orange County Historical Society’s meeting this Thursday, Oct. 11, 7:30pm, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2400 N. Canal St., in Orange. The event is free to the public, and YOU are invited.

Once called the "biggest Halloween celebration west of the Mississippi," the Anaheim Halloween Festival began in 1924 and grew to capacity crowds in the late 1950s, with estimates of more than 150,000 people traveling from all over the Southland to attend this wildly popular event. These days, the Anaheim Fall Festival & Halloween Parade bears only a slight resemblance to its predecessor, but rest assured, Thursday's presentation will conjure up the sprites, hobgoblins, and broom-toting witches of the past.
The Space Age invaded the Kiddie Parade at the Festival in the 1950s.
You'll be spellbound in discovering the Festival's disputed origins, bewitched by the Slick Chicks, and howling after learning who was behind the ousting of Steve Allen, the 1970 parade's grand marshal. Eek! Finally, the unexplained will be explained as Anaheim's long, Spooktacular tradition is explored.

Stephanie George, an Anaheim native, is the archivist at the Center for Oral and Public History at CSUF, as well as the recording secretary for the Orange County Historical Society, president of the California Council for the Promotion of History -- and second place costume contest winner at the 1962 Anaheim Halloween Festival Pancake Breakfast.
The Halloween Parade passes through the heart of Downtown Anaheim in 1928.
Members of the Anaheim Historical Society and the current Anaheim Fall Festival organizing committee will also be attending this OCHS event. Costumes are welcomed, but not mandatory.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jim Sleeper, Orange County Historian, 1927-2012

Orange County's greatest historian, and one of its most memorable personalities, Jim Sleeper, passed away this morning, Sept. 27, 2012, at about 1:30 a.m. A memorial service, open to the public, is scheduled for noon, Oct. 12, at Waverly Chapel at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. 

Jim's impact on local history, local historians, and Orange County's sense of itself was enormous and incalculable. He will be greatly missed. If you were lucky enough to know him, you undoubtedly have wonderful and colorful Sleeper stories of your own to tell. If you did not, let me tell you a little about him,...

To start with, a small sampling of titles and nicknames Jim accrued over the years may give you some hints about him: The Sage of Trabuco Canyon, Holy Jim Jr., the Ol’ Almanacker, The Professor, Rex, Orange County’s Mark Twain, the Last True Orange County Democrat, Orange County’s Last Rustic, the Last of the Victorians, Forest Lawn's Ghost Writer, co-founder of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, and Assistant Junior Bugler and President of the Old Timers’ Picnic.

But most of all, Jim Sleeper was known as the County Historian. Not "a" county historian, but "the" County Historian. It’s a title that was never officially recorded, and as he said, it carried "a good deal more prestige than profit.” But he more than earned that prestige.

 Jim loved doing historical research -- “gumshoeing,” he called it. When under full sail, Jim could spend up to 15 hours a day at it. That's not to say that he didn't find it challenging. “Historical research is like eating quail," he wrote, "You wade through so much to wind up with so little. The problem is to run down those many sources thought to exist, then digest those few that really do.”

Conversely, Jim had little patience for the official functions and board meetings that often accompany historical projects and organizations. “Are you working on anything interesting,” he would ask us, “or have they got you doing committee work?”
Jim's office was a joy to behold for local historians, but struck terror in neatniks.
Old newspapers and early records were standard tools for him, but he also brought a strong human element and wry humor to his writing. “From the old-timers you get the color and the flavor," he wrote, "and from the documentary sources you get the facts and figures. You need both of them to tell a good yarn.”

Thus, Jim, who never used a computer, found use for the tools of modern oral history. "Tape recorders are my one concession to modern technology," he wrote. "That, and pop top beer cans."

Indeed, Jim resisted change, lived the rustic life as much as he could in the 20th Century, and had an endearingly curmudgeonly manner that belied how generous and enthusiastic he was.

Most local historians focus on a town or city. But Jim's work encompassed the whole county, with a “special passion for what little is left of the rural.” His interests were divided between O.C.’s natural and chronological history -- usually stopping just short of World War II.

James Doren Sleeper was born in Santa Ana in 1927 to Boyd and Italia Sleeper. He was a fourth generation Orange Countian on one side of the family, and third generation on the other. Boyd was Santa Ana’s first Fire Marshall. Jim’s grandfather, “Big Jim” Sleeper, had come to Orange County in 1888 and leased land on the Irvine Ranch where he grew barley. “Big Jim” later served as County Assessor for 34 years and was known in his field for his remarkable success in getting oil companies to pay their fair share in property taxes. As a child, "Little Jim" would frequently visit his grandfather at his office in the Old Courthouse.

With deep roots and all our local history and backcountry to explore, Jim was always quite comfortable being a "homer" for Orange County. “When it comes to local pride, I am not just provincial, I’m downright bigoted,” he liked to say. A Los Angeles newspaper reporter once pressed him on that point, asking if he ever left Orange County to visit Downtown L.A. "Hell," Jim replied, "I wouldn't drive up there to watch Jesus Christ wrestle a grizzly bear!"
Jim (left) with Joe Scherman in 1951 at a check dam in Trabuco or Holy Jim Canyon.
Historian Esther Cramer, a great friend of Jim’s later in life, remembers visiting the Sleeper family when they were both children. But she didn’t actually meet Jim until much later. During her visits, he was always out exploring the Santa Ana Mountains. The history bug had bitten Jim while he was still in grammar school, and he loved to be out in the canyons where the sense of early California was still alive and well.

“When I was 13,” Jim later wrote, “I went to work as a copy boy on the old Santa Ana Independent… a Democratic weekly edited by A.B. Berry, whom everyone called “The Colonel.” At the time, there were only two Democrats in Orange County. I came well recommended for the job. My grandfather was the other one.”

While still in Junior High, Jim’s grandfather introduced him to our first true county historian, Terry E. Stephenson, who looked at Jim’s early efforts at writing history and pronounced them “really quite good.” Through his grandfather, Jim also met such early Orange County luminaries as J. E. Pleasants, James Irvine, Andrew Joplin, Hamilton Cotton and C. C. Chapman.

Jim was encouraged to attend a meeting of the Orange County Historical Society, where Stephenson introduced him around. Jim was active in the society for more than 70 years. In 1970, he served as OCHS’s president. He was also the co-founder (with friend Lindy Curry) of the society's County Courier newsletter, and was still on the Editorial Board of the Orange Countiana historical journal at the time of his death.

At age 17, Jim completed his first book, called Shocking Reports from the Electric Eel. It was written, he later said, “in a style somewhere in between Robert Benchley and St. Thomas Aquinas. While it didn’t have much to do with Orange County history, the eight people who bought copies have a real treasure.”

Jim graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1945, then spent two years in the Army Air Force, “defending democracy from behind a Smith Corona.” He worked at one newspaper or another until he left for college at age 20. He developed not only an understanding of the mechanics of printing and design, but also a greater affinity for writing.

On his 21st birthday, in 1948, he paid $800 for a cabin in Holy Jim Canyon and a lease on the National Forest land it stood on. For most of his life, he was the most prominent resident of this remote and rustic corner of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Jim earned a masters degree in classical literature from Occidental College. He’d intended to become a short story writer, but by the time he graduated most of the magazines that published short stories had folded. Once again, he was drawn back toward his old love, history.
Jim as a newly minted Orange Coast College instructor, 1953
But history for its own sake doesn't always pay the bills, so Jim also taught "dumbbell English and journalism" at Orange Coast College, wrote newspaper articles and radio scripts, and worked off and on as a Forest Ranger in the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest.

"Well, after I left the Forest Service," Jim said, "I went back to school for a couple more years – this time to soak up ancient history. In eight years of college I never read a book later than the 16th century, so you can see how well prepared I was to become an Orange County historian. I also minored in pre-Columbian civilizations, which killed off any interest whatsoever in our local Indians. Sorry about that."

Instead, he had a continuing fascination with the people and cultures of Central and South America, and made many trips through the jungles, exploring old ruins and lost cities.

To float the first of these trips, he took a job as speechwriter for Hubert Eaton, the founder and general manager of Forest Lawn memorial parks.

Somewhere amid all these adventures, when he had a teaching job at Fullerton High School, Jim met the love of his life, a young teacher named Nola Fox. They married in 1965.

“I’ve concluded that the only bright things I ever did in my life were to marry an English teacher and buy a house before the interest rates went up. After looking at the weeds in my front yard, I am surer about the English teacher.”
Jim (right) photographs Jim Liebig, Don Meadows, Fay Irwin, and Tom Talbert at the 70th Anniversary of Irvine Park, in Oct. 1967.
Soon thereafter, Jim got a plum job as staff historian for the Irvine Company -- when the Irvine family was still involved in the company. It was during his four years at that post when Jim's reputation as an excellent local historian really solidified. In his capable hands, the Irvine Company's PR newsletter, The Rancho San Joaquin Gazette (and to a slightly lesser extent, the Irvine Ranch Newsletter) became a fount of well-researched and engagingly written history. He also contributed articles to local magazines and newspapers that provided new insights into the history of Orange County.

Because he broke so much new (old) ground -- rather than simply recycling earlier history books -- people were sometimes inclined to question his version of events. But Jim's research was always solid.

“Those unfamiliar with Orange County’s whimsical history are inclined to huff: ‘Sleeper never lets the facts get in the way of a good yarn.’ Good yarns I trust they are, but they are also woven from facts," he wrote. "Local history doesn’t have to be believable to be true!”

Or as he summarized it in his oft-quoted motto: “When it comes to local history, the first liar doesn’t stand a chance.”
Jim with preservationist Adeline Walker at the dedication of the Old Courthouse as a State Historic Landmark in 1970
Jim also addressed the concern that the humor in his work might throw the content into question: “If my treatment seems a bit jocular, the facts are no less true. One of the curses of our culture is that one is not taken seriously unless one writes seriously.”

 But happily, Jim didn't take himself too seriously. “Anyone who writes history must own up to the fact that it boils down to a judicious combination of banditry, lard, and well-turned transitional phrases,” he once said. Referencing one of his Almanac articles, he admitted that “Anyone who can write three pages on apricot pits has got to be weird.”

In 1969, Jim set off on his own as a full time freelance historian. He had his own office, letterhead -- the whole schmeer. In this capacity, he served as a consultant or adviser for the Rancho Mission Viejo Co., the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, at least 20 historical societies, and nearly as many libraries. He was also a popular (though frequently reluctant) lecturer, and often served as an expert witness in trials where questions of land and history came up.

More memorably, Jim also wrote around 2,000 local history articles, and a number of must-have books. None of these books had short titles. All of them are classics.
O.C. Historical Commissioners (L to R) Don Dobmeier, Mr. Chilcote, Esther Cramer, and Jim Sleeper, in 1976.
His first major effort as a free-lance author was Jim Sleeper's Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities, published in 1971 (the first of three editions). His other books included Bears to Briquets: A History of Irvine Park 1897-1997; Turn The Rascals Out!: The Life and Times of Orange County's Fighting Editor, Dan M. Baker; A Boy’s Book of Bear Stories (Not For Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains; Portrait from the Past: A Historical Profile of Orange County's Old County Courthouse, 1901-1979; and Great Movies Shot in Orange County That Will Live Forever (Or At Least Until 1934).

He was also reporter, editor and publisher of some Xeroxed "newspapers" for his neighbors and friends, including the Canyon Wren.

Over time, he amassed "the largest private collection of Orange County-ana in Orange County, including historical materials, old newspapers, old books, etc. I've indexed newspapers from virtually 1870, when the first newspaper began in what is now Orange County."

In his later years, Jim -- a long-time pipe smoker -- developed serious cancer. Although the disease and treatment took a physical toll, his spirit remained strong. Jim once said he resisted death for the same reason he resisted other kinds of change: It was "the untested novelty of it" that bothered him.
Jim shares old photos of Irvine Ranch with Mike Boeck, Phil Brigandi and me at the hanging tree in 2008
 In 2008, after his health had improved a little, I invited Jim and Phil Brigandi along on a tour of historic sites on restricted Irvine Ranch Conservancy land. What an amazing day that was! Curiously, the TV crew that had invited me to tag along had no interest in interviewing Jim, who knew that land better than any person alive. (In fact, the only time they addressed any of us historians on camera was to "shush" us when we were talking in the background.) But Phil and I were the winners that day. We learned more about the hanging tree in Precitas Canyon, the C-135 crash on Lomas Ridge, Cañada de los Bueyes, and ancient Indian sites by simply hanging back and listening to Jim.

Never one to give up, Jim beat back cancer twice. But in his last couple years his health declined. However, even a week before his death, fading somewhere in and out of awareness, he still had moments where his irascible sense of humor, intelligence, concern for friends, and interest in local history were on full display. Jim was Jim to the end.
Buck Bean of Rancho Mission Viejo talks with Nola and Jim Sleeper at the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society BBQ in 2010.
And that meant Jim's trademark curiosity was intact too.

"Did you ever see a tube," he asked me, "with a light shining at the end of it?"

"No," I said. "When have you seen that, Jim?"

"I think it's when I'm dreaming," he replied. "I try to wave off the light, and it flickers like a candle for a moment, but comes right back. It's like looking down a tunnel."

He didn't seem the least bit afraid. He was just very, very curious and perhaps a little irritated that he hadn't been able to figure it out yet. I knew that look. When something made Jim curious, it was likely to become his next big project and adventure.
(Big thanks to Phil Brigandi for helping fill in some gaps in this article, and more importantly, for introducing me to Jim and Nola almost 10 years ago.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Don't know what to do Saturday? It's Museum Day!

Want to visit or do research in the Orange County Archives or to check out the Old Courthouse Museum, but don't have time during the week? Well, Museum Day, this Saturday, Sept. 29, from 10am to 4pm, is a rare chance to do both on a weekend.  

Special tours of both the museum and the Archives (both located inside the Old Orange County Courthouse, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana) will be available. Admission is free, but you might want to bring quarters for the parking meters.
The beautifully restored Howe-Waffle House Museum.
A number of other historic sites around Orange County will also participate in Museum Day, throwing their doors open, free to the public, including the Victorian Howe-Waffle House (just across the street from the Old Courthouse), the Heritage Museum of Orange County, and Mission San Juan Capistrano. Some sites will require a ticket to enter, which is available free on the Museum Day website at

The Howe-Waffle House will also offer historical walking tours of Downtown Santa Ana, a viewing of rare film footage of Babe Ruth in Orange County (at about 1pm), and a book signing by Baseball In Orange County author Chris Epting. (Call 714-547-9645 to reserve a spot for the walking tour.)
Find the history of your house, family, or community at the O.C. Archives.
 I, of course, will be giving "backstage tours" and answering questions at the Orange County Archives. So if you decide to go "heritage hopping" on Saturday, I hope you'll stop by and say hello.