Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Orange County logo

A circa 1960s decal of the Orange County logo.
The much-used Orange County logo, with three oranges in the foreground and fields and mountains in the background, is a mystery. It seems I'm asked about its origins every year or two, which usually leads to a long email or phone conversation, or, in one case, to an article in Orange Coast magazine. Usually it's someone in government asking, but queries have also come from my readers and from groups that use some version of the logo in their own emblems. Often, they want to know if it's legal to use it. (I'm not a lawyer, but speaking as a mere mortal I can't see the harm in it. And since it's been used by many groups and individuals for many purposes over many decades, it might be difficult to copyright it at this late date.)

I hope this post will either stave off the next identical round of questioning or (better yet) inspire someone with MORE of the story to come forward.
1948 version of the County logo.
The earliest use of the logo I’m aware of (so far) is on the cover of a 1948 book of County Ordinances. (Shown above.) In that version, one of the mountains in the background is pretty clearly Old Saddleback – a detail that’s usually screwed-up in later versions. The text in the ring surrounding the artwork reads “County of Orange, California,” in a font that seems more a product of the 1930s than the late 1940s. Of course, it’s possible the artist just wasn’t up with the times.
Tustin's City Seal -- Which came first?
As historian Phil Brigandi points out, the logo has design elements reminiscent of the old Irvine Ranch logo and the Tustin city seal. (Shown above.) But that may just be a coincidence.

Dylan Almendral of the Santa Ana Public Library's History Room makes the excellent point that the county logo also bears some striking similarities to the medal issued to Orange County veterans of World War I.  It certainly could have played a role in inspiring the later design.
"Victory medal" issued to local veterans after World War I.
Although the county logo appears on county government letterhead, publications, vehicles, etc., it has never been officially adopted. It even appears on the center of our county flag, which was officially adopted in 1968. Meanwhile, the official county seal (shown below) remains a single orange with three leaves, as approved at the very first Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 5, 1889. (I have yet to see an attractive colorized version of the seal. Most have the orange looking like an angry meatball.)

County seals have legal significance and are distinct from other kinds of logos or emblems.
The venerable Orange County seal -- Still in use where legally required.
Since nobody really owns the Orange County logo, it shows up in the damnedest places. In recent years, I’ve seen our County logo tattooed on the heads of gang members, appropriated as a corporate logo for sandbag manufacturer, carved into wood as the logo for the Orange County Woodcarver's Club, and sold on hats and shirts in the display window of a Santa Ana head shop. It is nothing if not versatile.
The O.C. Fire Authority logo better represents the foothills, but replaces farms with the sea, skyscrapers, and housing tracts.
It's an attractive image when well executed. But it's often "improved" or "streamlined" by ham-fisted would-be artists. Strangely,  one of the places where most versions -- including the original -- miss the mark is in the representation of Old Saddleback. Any Orange Countian knows those twin peaks like the back of their own hand, but these illustrations usually fail to capture their distinctive profile.
A particularly unfortunate version, with doggy-doo-like mountains.
Happily, around 2017 and 2018, I started to notice some of the crummier versions of the logo being replaced with better ones in both government and civilian use. Either my years of kvetching finally had some impact, or perhaps folks just have better design sense these days. Either way, the restoration/improvement of the old logo is welcome. It's pretty attractive when rendered properly.

Update - Aug. 23, 2023: 
In May 2023, the Orange County Board of Supervisors adopted "the Official OC Brand Merchandising and Marketing Plan" which (according to the pitch) would "provide opportunities to pursue merchandising, marketing, sponsorships and revenue partnerships with private sector organizations, businesses, and non-profit organizations to support programs and events administered by the County of Orange, including the Trademark License Agreement with 10th Hole Associates, Inc. which will permit the sale of County branded merchandise at Salt Creek Beach."

Today, I received an email that may reveal the fruit of their efforts. The missive included an attached event poster featuring a new "Official Orange County Brand." 
New "brand" and the event flyer on which it appeared, Aug. 2023.
The email stated that on "August 24th, the [County] CEO’s office will be part of the OC Park’s Summer Concert Series at Salt Creek Beach [in Dana Point] where we’ll be bringing along our latest wave of Official OC Brand merchandise designs, printed on high-quality tees, long sleeves, crewneck sweaters and die-cut stickers." (For what it's worth, the headliner for the concert was Flashback Heart Attack with Tina Tara as the opening act.) 

As far as I can tell, this is the first public unveiling of this new logo, which is strikingly reminiscent of the County Seal from 1889. At this point, the new "brand" just seems to be for merchandise. Is it meant to usurp the roll of the classic 1940s logo? If so, will it succeed? Time will tell.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Working as a local historian

Fourth Street, Santa Ana, Decoration Day (Memorial Day), 1891.
A while ago, I got an email from a history student named Tim. He had a series of questions for me about "being a public historian," and I tried to answer them the best I new how. I thought I'd repost my response here in case anyone else is interested in such things.


Let me give your questions a shot. I will begin, however, with the caveat that all I can do is answer for myself. People approach this kind of work in many ways, and generally I can only speak for myself and speak from my own philosophy.

- What do public historians do?

I’m not particularly religious, but I think the easiest parallel to what *I* do (and what I think others in this field SHOULD do) is to act as a sort of “history evangelist,” generating and sharing accurate and interesting local history to a population that knows too little about the subject. I say “accurate” because there’s PLENTY of half-baked local history being foisted off on the public in the form of badly research newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries, etc, etc. And I say “interesting” because you have to do your evangelizing in a way that *reaches* people. The best research and most groundbreaking work will be utterly wasted if doesn’t capture the public’s interest. You have to identify the audiences where your work will make the most positive impact and then figure out how best to engage those audiences. When I really got started in earnest in this field in the late 1990s, websites were clearly the way to go, so I built one. Later, blogs were the thing, so I started one. Now social media is the thing, so I’m trying to figure out how best to generate content that will work well on FaceBook (maybe short videos?). Along the way, I’ve done tours, written articles for journals (another smaller audience) and magazines, I’ve lectured extensively (mostly to community groups with an expressed interest in local history, rather than just being cheap entertainment for the Rotary Club), and tried to raise public awareness of local history by working on the board of the Orange County Historical Society.

And when I’ve seen a need, I’ve started non-profit groups specifically with the idea of letting other people run them. Sometimes a community of people who care about preserving local history just haven’t figured out they’re a community yet, and you can do some good just by being the catalyst and bringing the right people together.

So half your goal is generating meaningful, interesting and accurate historical content (and hopefully covering some new ground from time to time), and half is getting it out there into the world where it will do some good. How you choose to accomplish those goals is up to each historian.

Of course, you’ll also need a job that provides you with at least enough money for food and shelter.  Unlike *religious* evangelists, you don’t get to pass around a collection plate. Ideally, the job that pays your bills will dovetail with and compliment your work as a public historian. Here’s where I think I lucked out. I got a job working at the County Archives, where, among other things, I get to help OTHER people use our records to uncover the histories of their families, homes, or communities. In a way, I’m being a bit of a “history enabler,” -- Teaching members of the general public to be their own public historians (albeit with a narrow focus) and also actively helping them with aspects of research that can’t be taught in the short period of time that’s often available for a particular project.

Other public historians find work in museums, libraries, archives, etc.  Others teach. Still others end up in seemingly unrelated fields and do their history work in their spare time.

I think some of our best local historians have been those with a strong background in (and gift for) writing. Journalists and PR people (who usually have training as journalists) often make good public historians. The good ones already know how to dig out the facts, conduct interviews, do research, “get the scoop,” and communicate well in writing. Of course, its not all journalists and PR folks in public history, but there’s certainly a connection or trend there that’s worth noting.

Just roughly, one of the things good public historians do that’s different from other historians is that we tend to focus on the individuals or families or communities rather than on the sort of big, sweeping stuff that’s already been rehashed a million times. The world won’t benefit much from yet ANOTHER historian milking the big picture of the Civil War to try to get something new out of it. The world will benefit even less from an academic historian who wants to revisit the Civil War simply as a means of grinding some modern-day political axe (either their own or their professor’s). But there is value, for instance, in researching and telling the story of a previously ignored person (Civil War vet or not) who changed their community or industry or world in some way.

For example,… I wrote an article about the man who built and ran a hotel that was the hub of Orange County social and business life during the 1960s and 1970s. I wrote about the former Parks Superintendent of Anaheim – a fascinating guy whose gift for hybridizing plants gave us the Boysenberry and who helped Anaheim retain its sense of community at a time when the city was growing by leaps and bounds. I wrote another article about a small group of Los Angelenos who fought to create an all-black beach club at a time when only white people were allowed on most  L.A. beaches. It’s not like writing about Sherman’s March through Georgia or like writing about the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty.  It’s more about acknowledging that the myriad “average Joes” alive in those time periods were ALSO shaping our world and that that understanding society and individuals of all classes and from all angles gives a better picture of reality than once again returning, without a larger context, to the rehashing of generals and emperors.

- What important contributions do they make to their communities?

As America becomes more homogeneous (with an Applebee’s and a Walmart in every town) local history gives people a sense of place, a sense of community, and a certain amount of pride. At one level, people are more desperate than ever to have real-world connections to the place they live. Just one example: When people know the history of their homes – both the architecture and past owners – they tend to take better care of those homes, put more effort into restoring them, and connect with others in the community who are doing the same. This leads to improved neighborhoods, more community involvement, civic pride, more taxes generated for the city because of increased property values, etc. And that’s just one of the more obvious and tangible benefits. Likewise, awareness and appreciated of community history (perpetrated by local historians) led to places like Downtown Orange becoming not only a central part of the community’s identity, but also a thriving economic engine, whereas LACK of awareness and appreciated of community history led to the destruction of Anaheim’s entire historic downtown in the 1980s, leading to vacant lots and a zone of economic malaise that is only recently has started to show signs of turning around. 

Sometimes the historian’s important contribution is simply to debunk earlier legends or poorly-executed history that has placed false narratives in the minds of the public. People can learn from the past to make better decisions for the future, but only if they REALLY understand the past. Sometimes the important thing is to set the record straight because truth is important and should ultimately win out over falsehoods. Not that any historian can be perfect or universally comprehensive, but the goal is always to strive toward a more accurate depiction of the truth.

- What are some ethical issues you face as a historian?

Sometimes it would be very expedient to grossly oversimplify a topic to better please an editor’s length requirements or to make your work more easily digestible. But one must be careful about that. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, that’s probably good. But beware the moment when you find that the only way to turn your 600 word article into a 300 word article is by leaving your readers with an inaccurate (not just incomplete) impression of  your subject.

Also, avoid the allure of getting lazy. It’s true that most people will know almost nothing about your topic and that you could get away with cutting corners, using a Wikipedia entries as though they were valid sources, repeating hearsay, or cribbing from secondary sources you’d don’t entirely trust. No one beyond a few local historians will ever know or notice. But by perpetuating old bad information, you ensure that the next generation will have one more bad source to muddy the water. All you have as a historian is your reputation for accuracy. Once that’s called into question, your entire body of work (sometimes a lifetime’s worth) is thrown into doubt and becomes less valuable.

Another ethical issue is the question of what *kind* of historian you want to be: A hoarder or a sharer. I find that in the long run sharing what I know and what I have access to (for instance, photos or materials in my own files at home) with fellow historians is a big plus. The local history community is a small one, and we all have to stick together and help each other whenever possible. Even if someone is writing on a subject that I ALSO want to write about someday, I prefer to share what I have and know with them. They will undoubtedly take a different angle that I would have, leaving plenty for me to write about. Moreover, they will have added to the current scholarship on the topic at hand, providing me with slightly wider shoulders to stand on when I get around to writing about the same topic. Basically, it’s like we learned in Kindergarten: “Sharing is nice.”

Oh, and whether you’re using photos or information from other sources, always give credit where credit is due.

- What are some professional issues you face as a historian?

Low pay is pretty endemic in the history world. You won’t get rich doing this sort of work, but it makes a difference in the world, you meet a lot of wonderful people, and it beats the hell out of spending your life in one of those “veal fattening pen” cubicles in an office tower somewhere.  You should be a historian only if it brings you a lot of satisfaction and /or joy. If it’s just a paycheck to you, I recommend getting a job at Costco or something instead. (I hear they treat their employees well.)

Another issue is that you’ll undoubtedly spend SOME time working for or with folks who don’t understand what you do. That can cause a certain amount of stress. Many folks in the history world have to *explain* what they do to people who should already know.

- What do you see the role of public historian being?

We’re researchers, educators, and (in our best moments) defenders of our heritage and the truth.

- What was one of the most fulfilling Public History projects you worked on and why?

For me, the most fulfilling parts of my work as an archivist are when I can help someone find the information they need, especially when that information ends up being an interesting story. As a local historian, I suppose I most enjoy tackling a subject that hasn’t been written about before and then watching the story unfold as I do more and more research. The “aha” moment is pretty rewarding, and you get a lot of those.

I’ve also found, much to my surprise, that I greatly enjoy teaching local history through public speaking appearances. Telling stories and getting immediate interactive feedback is, again, extremely rewarding.

- In doing public history, what have you learned about people and interacting with people?

People say they aren’t interested in history, but they lie. Almost everyone is interested in SOME kind of history. To borrow a line from Phil Brigandi: If someone says they don’t like history, ask them what they ARE interested in.  They’ll tell you something like “baseball” and then will begin to tell you about the history of baseball (or whatever their interest might be). The trick is to find out what PARTS of history they ARE interested in. And local history has the advantage of being relatable because it’s all about our own backyards. You may have hated history class is school, but learning stories about your own neighborhood is a whole different thing.

On the issue of interacting with people, I would also say that a healthy dose of extroversion is helpful in this field. You need to be able to cold call people who MIGHT be the descendants of people you’re studying and then engage them in conversations. You need to communicate with librarians and other historians, and students, and the public. If one doesn’t enjoy engaging with people, you might do better as doing something where having a public face isn’t so important.

- How are public historians and academic historians different?

I’m going to make some gross generalizations here because whole books could be written on this subject. And I’ll begin by pointing out that there are lots of exceptions to any rule and there are some EXCELLENT academic historians out there right now. In fact, I can think of a few right here in O.C. that I’m proud to know.

That said, I think academic historians GENERALLY are stuck catering to a comparatively narrow and homogeneous audience: Maybe a handful of professors or peers or perhaps the modest readership of an academic journal. And those academic audiences GENERALLY have certain fad topics or pet issues that must be checked off in order to meet with approval in that particular subculture.

I do try to review academic sources (theses and other academic publications) that pertain to the subjects I’m working on. But more and more I find that such papers from recent decades TEND to be composed of recycled already-known information combined with whatever social or political opinions the student feels the academic faculty is most likely to agree with. This usually makes for a pretty thin gruel. An exception to this is when I need to access data from scientific academic publications, which tend to be more about data and less about proving allegiance to a subculture.

But again, I am speaking here in  very broad generalities.

Another difference I can point out is that academic historians probably generally have better pay, benefits, retirement plans, and built-in prestige (in many circles) than do public historians. So whatever kind of historian you want to be, it probably doesn’t hurt to have a few more letters after your name if possible. (Assuming you can afford the investment.)

- Why did you want to become a public historian?

Like so many of us, I didn’t know I was becoming a public historian. It just sort of happened based on my interests, skill set, and where life led me.

My high school photography teacher gave us an assignment to photograph a series of related things and make a display or mini-exhibit out of the images. It dawned on me that photographing old buildings in Downtown Huntington Beach (my hometown) might be interesting. I was excited to get started and a bit surprised when people started coming out of those buildings, asking what I was doing, and then telling me stories about their homes or family businesses or whatnot. I met a lot of interesting people that way and one introduced me to the City Historian, which was a job I didn’t know existed. The City Historian, Alicia Wentworth, showed me a bunch of the cool stuff in the city’s photo collection, and then hired me as her photographer to go out and expand that collection. (My first paying job.)

Later, in college, I was drawn to an opening as a docent at what’s now the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana. Giving tours and sharing history with groups of kids and adults was also very rewarding, but I didn’t ever think of it as a career path.

Later still, I found myself researching and documenting Orange County’s remaining Googie architecture in my free time – simply because the subject interested me. That led to working with Jane Newell at the Anaheim Heritage Center who wanted to build a record of Anaheim’s Googie for the benefit of future researchers. When I found out she’d learned about the subject based on the website I’d been assembling, it was quite a shock. It was the first time I realized that an ordinary guy with a camera, a willingness to do research and a way to communicate with the public could make a real difference! Here was a city project initiated because of something I’d been doing as a hobby! But again, I never saw this as a career – Just as something I did in my spare time.

But some years later, I found myself becoming less and less enamored of the career I HAD chosen – public relations and marketing. Although some clients I’d had were wonderful to work for and with, the lifestyle and the emotional rewards just weren’t there. Then, magically, the new County Archivist (and longtime public historian,) Phil Brigandi, called me out of the blue and offered me a job working for him. He knew I’d been doing this sort of work on my own for years and he needed an Assistant Archivist. Without asking about pay or much of anything else, I said yes! 

I guess if anything convinced me that this was my calling and my career, it was my five years of “apprenticeship” working for Phil. He was an amazing roll model and teacher. He showed me not only how local history works, but also why it’s important, what pitfalls to avoid, and how much can be accomplished. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. And I don’t think I could have replicated that kind of education in school. Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was the kind of work I SHOULD have been focused on from the start. I dove in with both feet and never looked back. Or to put it another way, I renounced evil, took my vow of poverty, committed myself to study, and went forth to spread the good word of Orange County history.

I hope this helps, Tim. I’ve probably prattled on for way too long here, but hopefully somewhere amidst all this I’ve also answered your questions. Feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.

All the best,


Wednesday, February 07, 2018

That warm glow

Do any of my esteemed readers remember watching atomic bombs explode from Orange County? Better yet, does anyone have photos to share? Because, you know, AMERICANS nuked America LONG before Kim Jong “Rocket Man” Un was even a twinkle in his deranged father’s eye.

From 1951 through 1962, one hundred above-ground nuclear detonations were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles from the Las Vegas strip. That was followed by 800-some underground tests from 1962 to 1992. 

Some tests were more noticeable in Southern California than others. For instance,... In the wee small hours of June 1, 1952, a detonation that was barely observable in nearby Las Vegas put on quite a show in Northern and Southern California. It lit up the night sky, rattled windows and doors, and gave off a rumble that bounced off clouds and and mountains. The Los Angeles Times reported that the test "alarmed thousands of Southland residents who mistook it for an earthquake or explosion. Some were awakened by the impact. Police and Sheriff's station call boards began buzzing frantically a few minutes before 5 a.m. as alarmed citizens sought an explanation..." 

The image above was taken Feb. 6, 1951, at 5:48 a.m., and shows reporter Jack Smith atop the roof of the Los Angeles Herald-Express building, pointing toward the largest (at that point) atomic explosion ever conducted at the Nevada Test Site -- about 240 mile away. This particular test explosion was part of the "Operation Ranger" series and was made by dropping an Mk-4, Type D bomb nicknamed "Baker 2" from a B-50D bomber. It exploded in the open air over Frenchman Flat.

So,... Do photos like this, taken in Orange County, exist?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Roller-coaster To Heaven

Aren't roller-coasters boring for angels?
Are the 1980s history yet? Some days I feel old enough that they must be. Anyway, I was flipping channels on the TV a while ago and suddenly found myself looking at the Knott's Berry Farm of my youth. It turned out to be an episode of the maudlin drama series, Highway To Heaven, created, directed, and starring Michael "Little Joe" Landon.
The episode first aired in 1986 and was titled, "Heaven On Earth." (How did we ever learn these things before IMDB?) In the episode, Mark (Victor French) meets a mother and her adorable daughter at Knott's one day. There's some cloying nonsense about the girl and her yellow balloon and then some friendly small talk with the mother. It's all very heartwarming. But of course, we haven't gotten to the mauldin part yet. (Cue sad music.)
Montezuma's Revenge was a more enjoyable ride in 1986. Less safety gear.
 Later, Mark and Jonathan (the angel played by Landon), pass by a car accident with two fatalities. The victims? The adorable mother and daughter, of course. This is heaped on top of an earlier tragedy (natch) where Mark observed another child die in a house fire. So now he's overcome with grief, which is dealt with in the sort of religion-as-woowoo-magic way you'd expect from an episode of this show. 
Sidekick Mark with Bud Hurlbut's Happy Sombreros in the background.
I only know about the woo-woo stuff thanks to IMDB, because, really,... I wasn't going to watch more of this show unless they STAYED at Knott's. And they didn't.

Growing up, I always thought the teacups-like ride (shown behind Mark here) was called the "Mexican Hat Dance." But it's actually the "Happy Sombreros," which doesn't seem like as good a name. Speaking of hats, shouldn't Mark be wearing and Anaheim Angels of Anaheim hat instead of an Oakland A's hat? Or would that be too on-the-nose? 
The "It" balloon's cousin, at the Fiesta Village Merry-Go-Round.
The Merry-Go-Round seen here was the first true amusement park ride at Knott's Berry Farm, opened in 1955 by concessionaire Bud Hurlbut. Bud would go on to become a major innovator in the amusement park world, inventing new ride concepts like the log flume ride, building/owning/operating most of the rides at Knott's, and later developing Castle Park in Riverside.
The Dragon Swing: The last ride Hurlbut built at Knott's.
Naturally, Michael Landon's enormous hair was not mussed even slightly by all the turbulent and exciting rides at Knott's. Angels use lots of "product" in their hair.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Leonard Zerlaut: The Wizard of Garden Grove

Leonard Zerlaut. Photo from The Criterion/Garden Grove Employee News, May 1988
You think we’d have heard about a genius local inventor who’d run several businesses simultaneously, held six patents, and invented technology that made possible the Disneyland Monorail system, the Seattle Space Needle, countless military and commercial aircraft, and the New York World Trade Center. It seems like we’d all have heard of such an Orange Countian, whose creative legacy spanned from the 1930s into the 2000s.

But too few have heard of Leonard Zerlaut.

Some time ago, I was researching the history of Little Saigon and was curious about what was located in that largely undeveloped area prior to it becoming the world’s largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam itself. One of the major businesses in that area back then turned out to be Leonard Precision Products Co. Starting with the obvious, I Googled “Leonard Precision Products” and found that the best “hit” I got was a reference on one of my favorite blogs: Stuff From The Park. Reading the blog post – which was about a photo stamped with the company’s name – I found that I myself was called out in the comments section!:

“I am hoping that Chris Jepsen (O.C. History Roundup) would chime in here with information on the company,” wrote Patrick.

Then I remembered a conversation I’d recently overheard (in passing) while running the Orange County Historical Society. For some reason, I remembered hearing someone say that the guy “who ran the Leonard machine shop was a real mechanical genius.”

That was it. I had to find out more about this “Leonard” fellow. (Sorry it took so long, Patrick.) Here is what I found:

Orange County machinist and inventor Leonard E. Zerlaut (1911-2003) may be best remembered professionally as the creator of tube processing procedures and equipment for airplane factories. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Zerlauts (like many Americans) heading for California, circa 1930.
 A 2000 article entitled, “A Creative Life: Leonard Zerlaut,” in a Garden Grove Historical Society (GGHS) newsletter, described his early life:

“Leonard Zerlaut was born in a farmhouse on his father’s 120 acre farm in Holton, Michigan in 1911. One of three children, he graduated from high school in 1928. Two weeks before graduation, he also graduated from the Chicago Electrical Engineering School located in Muskegon. He was able to accomplish this feat by taking correspondence courses. He then worked for the Steiner Electric Co. in Michigan.”

His father, Frank James Zerlaut, was farmer and prominent civic figure in west central Michigan when the Great Depression hit, in 1929. The bank foreclosed on the farm, which was sold at auction.

Frank took the family – wife Lola Grace and three children – to Southern California, where his sister lived.  Work was harder to find in California than they’d expected, and Frank and Leonard both worked at whatever odd jobs were available. In 1930, Frank and Lola bought the Ocean Inn hotel and restaurant at 138 E. Ocean (now Garden Grove Blvd.) in Garden Grove. Frank managed the hotel, and Losa ran the restaurant. But guests were too few and far between. The bank refused to cut them any slack, and soon the Ocean Inn was also lost to foreclosure.

In February 1933, beset with financial problems and ill health, Frank tied a gunnysack full of rocks to his waist and jumped off the still-under-construction Seal Beach jetty. He was dead at the age of 58.

The following month – in what seemed karmic retribution against the bank – the Ocean Inn was utterly destroyed in the great Long Beach Earthquake.

In the wake of his father’s death, the hard-working 22-year-old Leonard worked even harder. Already running a Garden Grove auto repair shop at Verano (now Euclid) and Ocean Ave.– he now went on to be the welder for the Chevrolet garage at Euclid (now Main St.) and Stanford Ave. and soon owned the business and lived on the second floor of the shop. Learning from his father’s troubles, he established a life-long policy of eschewing debt and paying cash on the barrelhead for anything he purchased. It served him well.
A Zerlaut's patent which grew out of his work on the monorail.
The 1930s were a busy time for Leonard Zerlaut. His business was growing by leaps and bounds, he received a patent for a welding procedure to bend pipes, he continued to expand into additional areas of machine work, and he served in the Garden Grove Volunteer Fire Department. And in 1934 he married Meta Rehme (1914-1999) of Costa Mesa – the daughter of pioneer Santa Ana blacksmith Fredrich Henry Rehme. They had their first child, Marilyn, in about 1939.

Zerlaut started a new business in 1940 – a machine shop called Leonard Precision Products Co. (sometimes referred to, early on, as the Zerlaut Machine Works) at Flower and Hanson Streets in Garden Grove. Within a year, newspapers reported that Zerlaut had sold parts and machinery to Henry Ford, aircraft companies, and the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, his shop manufactured tools and equipment for use in aircraft factories, among other things. Locally, he built the air raid siren for Garden Grove, which was placed on the grounds of the Garden Grove Water District. He also developed special equipment for stamping CO2 bottles. He would also go on to develop machines to bend chairs, make water heaters, and perform other industrial tasks. He developed a reputation for tackling whatever challenge or task was thrown his way.

A son, Frederick “Fred” Zerlaut, was born in 1942. And by the end of the war, Leonard also had two business partners: M. E. Wartnik and Robert L. Bedford.
Leonard Precision Products, ca 1950. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“Wartnik was an attorney from L.A. or Long Beach maybe. He had money to invest in the company, and he handled legal matters and guidance,” said Fred Zerlaut when I interviewed him in 2015. “Bob Bedford was Dad’s workmate at the shop. He was a Fullerton guy. He did a lot of the bookkeeping and stayed with the business until he retired and then died shortly afterward.”

According to the GGHS, for many years, Leonard Zerlaut “flew his own plane, which he used for both business and pleasure. He surprised the locals from time to time when he landed his plane on the small Midway airstrip on the south side of Bolsa Ave. and after checking to see the road was free of cars, he taxied his plane across the street to his business. There he loaded his plane with parts he had made and flew them to Rohr aircraft in San Diego. He also subcontracted work for Consolidated Aircraft, Ryan Aircraft, Vultee Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft.”

In 1949, as a civilian volunteer, Zerlaut became part of the Orange County Sheriff Department’s first aero squadron. At the direction of Sheriff Jim Musick, he was on standby to respond (in his small plane) during disasters, searching for downed planes, and other emergencies.

“He was a Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department and he served about twenty years,” said Fred. “His shop was right across the street from the Westminster Airport. He rented hangars at the northeast corner of Brookhurst and Bolsa from the Posts,” said Fred, referring to the Post Brothers, whose nearby farm equipment company famously constructed the world’s largest plow.
Zerlaut (third from left) and others in the Orange County Sheriff's first Aero Squadron, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy O.C. Sheriff's Dept.
As his business and civic responsibilities grew, so did Zerlaut’s family. In addition to their own two children, Leonard and Meta took in five foster daughters over the years.

Leonard Zerlaut was also involved in the local Rotary Club, and in the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America for many years. “He literally built the health lodge at Camp Ro-Ki-Li,” said Fred, referring to a large Scout camp sponsored by the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs. “And around 1979 he built the main meeting and mess hall [a.k.a. “the Barn”] at the Rancho Las Flores Scout camp at Camp Pendleton. He was later presented with the Silver Beaver Award for his service to the Scouts.”

According to longtime Scouter and historian Phil Brigandi, Zerlaut served on the Orange County Council’s “board of directors (or at least the advisory board) for more than 25 years, beginning in the 1950s. He was our vice president in 1954 and 1955, and our representative to the national council from 1956 to 1964. I knew several people who always spoke very highly of him.”

Zerlaut’s plane also proved useful in the early days of the big new scout camp at Lost Valley in San Diego County. “He flew in and out several times,” said Brigandi. “Folks who went with him tell me it was quite a thrill to use the meadow as an airstrip.”
Leonard Precision Products. Photo courtesy Westminster Historical Society.
The process of moving Leonard Precision Products to a new location at 9200 Bolsa Ave. (now in the City of Westminster) began in April 1952. With buildings full of heavy machine tools and many active contracts to be fulfilled, moving turned out to be a two-year process. (Eventually, he would have six buildings on this property.)

In 1953, at Wartnik’s suggestion, the business was split into three separate companies. Leonard Precision Products continued to build machines and tools for other manufacturers, and Tube Specialists of California used those machines and tools to make specialty tubing to order (mainly for aerospace). The third company, Zerlaut Realty Co., owned the land the other two businesses sat on.

In the 1950s, Zerlaut bought out Wartnik’s share of the business. Bedford stayed on, and Leonard’s younger brother, Maynard E. Zerlaut also was brought in as a partner.

Leonard Zerlaut held a total of six patents. These included a “tube-bending apparatus” in 1964, a “feeding system for a swaging or tapering apparatus” in 1966, and an “apparatus for the forming of concrete” in 1959. The last of these came about when his company was building the concrete track for the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail System. Zerlaut’s new steam pressure cure process for concrete allowed one new section of rail to be completed every day from each form.
Building Disneyland's monorail tracks and submarines. Courtesy Stuff From The Park.
Zerlaut, also built the machine that welded the steel for the Space Needle at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (1962), for New York Harbor’s double-decked Verrazano Narrows Bridge (1964), and for the New York World Trade Center.

“One of Leonard’s hydraulic machines could make 400 bends of tubes an hour, later increasing to 1800 bends an hour,” the GGHS tells us. “Midas Muffler bought one of his machines to make mufflers. Also, Quantas Airlines bought his equipment, which necessitated Leonard making trips to Melbourne, Australia to work with the company on how to use and replace the equipment he sold them. Additionally, a British company in Manchester used his equipment which meant frequent trips to England.”

Micro-midget race cars were popular in Southern California in the 1960s, and Zerlaut built one for Fred. These tiny race cars were something like a modern go cart, but with real suspension systems. Hugging the ground, and with the engine roaring only inches from the driver ear, these little cars gave the illusion of going much faster than they actually did (which was plenty fast enough). The Zerlauts’ father and son team traveled all over to compete in races, eventually taking home prizes from the national competition in Selma, Alabama.

Leonard Zerlaut also built a dune buggy, which the family towed all over the U.S. and Mexico behind their motor home. The buggy is now owned by his grandson, Leonard.
Zerlaut's Micro-Midget Racer. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“My dad was pretty easy going,” said Fred Zerlaut. “He had a pleasant personality and never cursed. He was a church Christian, but not an adamant, every-Sunday guy. … His employees liked him and everyone would get together for picnics. He treated people fairly, and he treated everyone the same. He would hire whoever seemed most qualified for the job at hand. Race and color weren’t important to him.”

Zerlaut sold Leonard Precision Products and Tube Specialists of California to Conrac Corp in 1967. (Conrac was purchased by machinery manufacturer PHI in 1985.)

Shortly thereafter, engineer Homer Eaton -- who’d helped create the electronics for Zerlaut’s popular tube-bending machine – asked Leonard, Fred, and three others if they’d like to join forces with him to create a computer-numerical controlled (CNC) measuring system for tube bending. The plan for the new Eaton Leonard Co. was to build it up, give it a good start, and then sell it after seven years. Leonard came out of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it retirement to help get the new business off the ground. It was located near the sugar factory in South Santa Ana. Leonard was most active and hands-on from 1972 through 1975, while the business was being built. But once it had a firm foundation under it, he stepped away from it more and more. By 1980, when Eaton Leonard was sold to the Kole, Kravis & Roberts investment group, he was only coming in to the shop for occasional meetings. Still, it was only when the sale closed that he found himself truly retired.

Eaton Leonard is now international and still produces precision tube-bending machines and other “tube forming automation for a broad array of fabricated products.”

In addition to following in his father’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer, Frederick Zerlaut served as a pilot in the Vietnam War and now plays tuba in the Coastal Community Band. He also owns one of John Philip Sousa’s original sousaphones.

Marilyn Zerlaut (now De Boynton) also inherited some of her father’s creative and technical talents. When she wasn’t busy being a mom, she worked at a division of Corning Glass and was a bookkeeper for engineering companies. She has also made highly detailed miniatures, including an impressive model of the Hale House at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles.

In retirement, Leonard Zerlaut spent a good deal of his free time volunteering with the Garden Grove Historical Society, particularly in the 1980s restoration of the town’s 1926 La France fire engine, which he had once used as a volunteer firefighter. According to the GGHS, he also “restored the old bandsaw… removed all the windows from the Ware-Stanley house, re-glazed and replaced them. He rebuilt the electric shoe repair equipment in the shoe shop, restored the old Mormon hand cart… installed the plumbing in the schoolhouse, restored the lathe in the blacksmith shop. An extraordinarily creative individual, Leonard Zerlaut has shown he is capable of building almost anything.”

According to longtime Garden Grover Terry Thomas, Zerlaut’s gift for quickly grasping new ideas never waned: “When desktop computers first came out, he got one right away and did great with it.”

Meta Zerlaut passed away after an extended illness in 1999.
The Asian Garden Mall, also known as Phước Lộc Thọ, was built in 1986.
Since 1987, the site of the old Leonard Precision Products complex at 9200 Bolsa Ave., in Westminster, has been home to the Asian Garden Mall – the commercial heart of busy Little Saigon. It’s impossible to even imagine taxiing an airplane across the street anymore.

Leonard Zerlaut died of natural causes in Orange County at age 92 in 2003. “Gifted with a fine mind and good hands, he did not seek personal recognition for his accomplishments,” noted his obituary in the Orange County Register. “All who knew him will long remember his gentle ways and giving spirit.”