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.”


Anonymous said...

Mr.Wilksdidnotbuildthemonkeyisland@the BiblicalZoo. He erected buildings & bought giraffes,elephants, orangutans,gibbons&chimps among other animals.I visited the zoo in jerusalem with him in 1962. He did build Monkey Island on Imperial hi way across from his ranch. He had a row boat so the monkeys could be fed. I guess I will have to search property records. Hard to do without an address for all the property he bought on Imperial from 39 in the late 40s early 50s.

Chris Jepsen said...

I will check the property records. It would not be the first time the newspapers (which were mostly my source for all this) got things repeatedly wrong. Thanks.

Chris Jepsen said...

Okay, corrections/update posted. Thank you for your help.

Anonymous said...

I am John Wilks niece and Pat Reilly's cousin. I remember several times going to the ranch as a kid, feeding the little pigs, eating watermelon, and watching my cousin Gordon riding an ostrich. Those were special times that I look back on.

Monkey Island was very real as we watched them playing and sad to see it go. Uncle John had many visions and his life was too short. MH

Unknown said...

John Edward Wilks was my grandfather. I am grateful that you wrote this story as Grandpa's ranch in Orange County was a wonderful place. He was an animal lover and trainer, among his many other gifts. "Toby", the Dalmatian, was taught to jump rope (hose) among other "tricks". My Cousin, Steve, could gallop the pair of white horses named " Lightening and Thunder" with his bare feet, one on each of the horses backs. I was able to take an Ostrich egg home to Montana for my schoolmates to see.

Grandpa was friends with Mr. Walt Disney and we went with him to Disneyland when it was first opened. Wow! So long ago as you have figured out by now.

Uptown Chevrolet had floats in the Tournament of Roses parades for several years and my whole family rode on one featuring a "Surrey with a Fringe on Top" going to Sunday School. I will never forget picking out our complete Victorian clothing costumes from the Western Costume company in Hollywood! Thanks for the Memories, Chris!

He was a horseman and civic leader and a contributor to many worthy Christian endeavors, as well as helping the newly formed nation of Israel. Thanks for the picture of the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.

Unknown said...

I lake was directly across the street of our house where I grew up in the barrio of Alta Vista
It was awesome we would cross the two lane imperial highway to go bust the ranch.
I was there when they drained the lake

Unknown said...

Type o
I lived directly across the street from the lake and
We would cross imperial to visit the ranch

Unknown said...

I was there when they drained the lake back in the late 50’s early early 60’s.
Idaho and Euclid ended on imperial hwy.

Great memories living there