Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Morally Iffy in Early Laguna Hills

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

Louis Franklin “Lou” Laramore was born in Los Angeles in 1923. The son of a bond salesman, he played football for Whittier College and ended up married and divorced at least a few times. By age 31 he was already developing a large housing tract at Magnolia Ave and Crescent in Anaheim. It’s unknown whether this was his first subdivision project, but it certainly would not be his last.
Colonial, English, Hawaiian, Storybook, Western and Modern designs were available in the Eastgate development (Long Beach Press-Telegram)
In late 1961, Laramore testified he had paid a bribe of $24,000 to the mayor and councilmembers in Westminster to stop the City's attempts to annex the Eastgate area (near Knott Ave. and Chapman Ave.), where Laramore was building 2,500 homes. Garden Grove was trying to annex the same area, and the battle between cities was holding up the project, costing Laramore about $25,000 a month. He was granted immunity for his testimony, but five former Westminster officials served jail time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After voters repeatedly rejected their bid to kill the airport at the polls, the developers put it on the ballot yet again, this time promising that MCAS El Toro would become a Great Park. Of course, the Great Park was destined to mainly be “more Irvine,” with residential and commercial development. But the lie served its purpose, with developers and their consultant friends set to reap the rewards.

Moral indeed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

L.M. Cox, Tomorrowland & Santa Ana Diesel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Cox planes in Tomorrowland. (Photo courtesy Davelandweb.com)
With business booming, L.M. Cox Manufacturing moved to a new factory at 1505 E. Warner Ave. in 1963. Meanwhile, Roy's longtime machinist and business partner, Mark Mier, was hired away by NASA to help them develop miniaturized machine parts for the space program.
The Cox factory on Warner Ave., circa 1968. (Courtesy Rob Richardson Collection, Orange County Archives)
Meanwhile, the old Cox Manufacturing complex on Poinsettia St. passed through a number of hands, including the Chemo Wholesale Supply Co., until finally becoming Santa Ana Diesel around 1975.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 01, 2019

La Habra's Monkey Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you help Modjeska?

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

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

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

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