Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A few words on Orange County rancho maps...

A friend recently asked me for a few cursory thoughts on local rancho maps. I thought I'd post part of my reply here, as it may be helpful to someone else someday.

The more artistic and fanciful Orange County rancho maps -- some of which were distributed as posters by title insurance companies -- are attractive and people love them. (The image below, also posted at, is an example of one that's historically important more because it was created as a WPA project than because of its accuracy.) These are the rancho maps people see most often. They are good teaching tools and are generally relatively modern.

But these "pretty" maps usually aren't terribly helpful for determining exactly where the rancho lines were. For that, the best readily-available map is the fold-out one that came in the back of the early editions of the little "Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Orange County" booklet by W. W. Robinson. Robinson was not only an excellent historian, but also happened to be the vice president of the Title Insurance & Trust Co., which published the booklet. (Shown at the top of this post. Also see
Then there are the individual rancho maps filed with Los Angeles County (before O.C. separated from L.A.) which are sort of like tract maps on steroids. To a surveyor, these are the most accurate -- But how many of us can read surveyor-ese? And how many of their original reference points still stand? That said, they provide some interesting insights including landmarks that help define the rancho boundaries, including adobes, creeks, lakes, and the points where significant roads entered and left the rancho. They don't show as much detail in the center of the ranchos, as such detail doesn't help define the boundaries. Copies of these maps are available in the L.A. Maps series at the Orange County Archives.

Providing less survey data but much greater historical gee-whiz factor are the diseño maps, which were used by the Lands Commission to help identify lands claimed by the rancho owners. (See Often of particular note on these maps are early place names and evokative illustrations of natural features.

Friday, May 29, 2020

A bit of perspective...

Today I saw a comment on Facebook from one of our Westminster history buffs, which read, "I've been going through issues of The Anaheim Gazette from 1870-1880.. It was the only paper in what would be OC at the time. People are going to find out the paper was decidedly anti-capitalist at the time. They were overtly sympathetic to Socialism. The popularity of The Grange testifies to this sentiment being widespread at the time, especially in Westminster. Local historians will not like this, guaranteed."

My reply: 

It's not really relevant whether today's historians like or dislike what happened in the past. We like finding out "the rest of the story," regardless. The past was what it was, and the point is to dig out, contextualize, and TELL the stories. Considering all the stories you've dug out and shared, you yourself are a local historian, and I suspect you're not upset by any of this. (The past was no less complicated and contradictory than the present.)

I'd also point out that local historians already KNOW this stuff. The original city council of my own hometown of Huntington Beach was *entirely* composed of socialists. It was rather in vogue at the time. (Later, there was a Klan majority. H.B. didn't recall them the way Anaheim did.)

There are indeed folks who might highlight this sort of thing entirely out of context, purely for the shock value (a disingenuous/easy way to get attention), but I don't know any actual historians doing that.

Conversely, there are folks who also *use* history as a Chamber of Commerce P.R. tool and will try to squelch anything that doesn't fit their brochure copy. That's also pretty pathetic and I don't see many local historians doing that either.

One final point about early newspapers: Yes, most of them had strong biases toward one political bent or another and they admitted those biases up front. Folks subscribed to one paper over another based on their political views. I'm not sure the modern B.S. conceit of media being "unbiased" has done the media or the public any favors.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Virtual Avocado Festival at SCREC

Want to know more about avocados and their history in Southern California? Of course you do! So check out the UC South Coast Research & Extension Center's virtual Avocado Festival, June 22 -27, 2020. For information about the week's festivities, contests, and giveaways, visit

Of particular interest to me us a presentation by Homestead Museum Director Paul Spitzzeri entitled "The Hanging Gardens of Babylon in Southern California: Edwin G. Hart and the Avocado Tracts of Hacienda Heights and La Habra Heights, 1910-1930," which will be presented online on Wednesday, June 10th from 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm.

As greater Los Angeles experienced waves of growth and development booms in the first few decades of 1900s, a figure, little known today, played a pivotal role in developing the “avocado subdivision.”  Edwin G. Hart, a real estate developer and avocado pioneer and promoter, created the communities of North Whittier Heights, renamed Hacienda Heights in the early 1960s, and La Habra Heights, with avocado growing as a major element of both.  Paul R. Spitzzeri, director of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, will give a PowerPoint-illustrated presentation on Hart and these subdivisions during a twenty-year period when the avocado began to become a household name in the region.

Paul has worked at the Homestead Museum since 1988. He has a B. A. and M. A. in History from California State University, Fullerton and has written on California history for such journals as California History, Southern California Quarterly, California Legal History and Journal of the West, and in the anthologies Law in the Western United States, Encyclopedia of Immigration and Migration in the American West, and Icons of the American West. His biography on the Workman and Temple families is an Award of Merit winner from the American Association for State and Local History.

Please register at:

Friday, May 22, 2020

Head hunting

Henry William Head
For some strange reason, I've been contacted in the last week by three separate people from three separate places who are all researching the pioneer Head family of the Santa Ana/Garden Grove area. It seems that at least some of the interest is driven by 1896 state senate candidate Henry William (H.W.) Head's early involvement in the Ku Klux Klan rather than anything else the family may have accomplished after establishing themselves in Orange County. Sadly, H.W. Head's Klan membership in the years after the Civil War isn't much of a surprise, considering he was an old Confederate and of course a Democrat.

Head and some of his fellow Confederate vets were indeed among the rather broad coalition of many citizens (including Republicans and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners) who worked together over many years to win Orange County's independence from Los Angeles.

His son, Horace Caldwell (H. C.) Head, became one of Orange County's leading lawyers and served for a time as District Attorney. There's more than a little information about the family to be found. And for whatever reason, the Heads are suddenly a hot topic.

Before even more people ask, I figure I'll just post some of my advice on tracking down the Heads right here on my blog. But first, here's what H. C. wrote about his father in Dr. C.D. Ball's Orange County Medical History in 1926:

"HEAD, HENRY WILLIAM, was one of the pioneer physicians of the territory that is now known as Orange County. He was born in Obion County, Tennessee, on the first day of January, 1840. His father was a country doctor of the old school, his grandfather was a pioneer of the new territory of Tennessee, and his great-grandfather was a Virginian and a lieutenant in Washington's army of patriots during the War of Revolution.

"Dr. Head had just finished his academic training and had started to study law when the Civil War interrupted his studies. He at once enlisted and served four years in the Confederate Army, and was captain of his company at the end of the war. When he returned to his home his father asked him when he was going to resume his study of law. His reply was that for four years he had seen so much of human misery and suffering that he had determined to study medicine and do what he could to alleviate the ills of humanity. Accordingly, he entered Nashville Medical College, then one of the leading medical schools of the country, and which afterwards became and now is the medical department of Vanderbilt University at Nashville. He was graduated in 1868 and at once commenced the practice of medicine in his native county of Obion in Tennessee. There he was married and two of his children were born. His practice was extensive and laborious and the climate severe and unhealthful, so that in a few years his health was impaired, and in 1876, he moved with his wife and two children to California, locating on a farm about four miles northwest of Santa Ana. It was his intention to retire from practice and follow farming, but at that time there were very few doctors in the country and he could not ignore the call of affliction. His credentials were presented and he was duly licensed to practice his profession in this State (Certificate 478). For a number of years his chief occupation was the practice of medicine, with farming and activity in political and public affairs as side lines. There are grandparents now living in Orange County whose advent into this world was assisted by Dr. Head. There were no hospitals here in those early days, and like all the pioneer practitioners he had to be a combination of doctor, surgeon, oculist and dentist.

"Dr. Head retired from practice a number of years ago, and moved to Santa Ana, where he spent the last years of his life busy in peaceful contentment. He was blessed with a family of seven children and a number of grandchildren. On December 5, 1919, he passed to his reward. He was laid to rest in the old Santa Ana cemetery, beside the grave of his father, Dr. Horace Head, who was known to the early settlers as "the old Doctor," though he did not engage in practice after coming to California. 

"Dr. Head was a Democrat -- served one term (the 26th Session) in the State Assembly."

Anyway, what follows are some additional suggestions on where to look for more information about the Heads. Writing about them isn't in my top ten "things to do," but it seems to be so for other folks. And even if you don't give two hoots about the Heads, you may spot a few general resources that may be useful in your own projects. Here's a small smattering of potential resources for Head hunters,...

1)     Check the “mug books” for the area, including the two Orange County history volumes by Samuel Armor (1911 and 1921) and J. M. Guinn (1901), and the three-volume set by Adalina Pleasants.

2)      H. C. Head wrote a little pamphlet in 1939 entitled “The History of Garden Grove.” I’m not sure if it includes any info you’re looking for, but I believe they have copies at for sale at the Garden Grove Historical Society.

3)      Which brings me to my next point,… the Garden Grove Historical Society. The Head family was fairly significant to the town’s early history, so they may have something in their impressive archives.

4)      Local historian Dr. Leroy Doig also wrote a trilogy of books about the history of Garden Grove that may be working taking a look at. I’m not sure how/if he deals with the Head family.

5)      Horace Caldwell Head also wrote a 1942 booklet, About Some of the Heads. It seems the Orange County Historical Society has a copy (although it will be a while before those records are accessible again), as does the Sherman Library and the History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library.

6)      Writer Gustavo Arellano points out that a 1916 pamphlet entitled The Ku Klux Klan is also available to researchers in the Santa Ana History Room. In it, the pamphlet's author, Annie Cooper Burton, wrote, “...I have been most fortunate in having Captain H. W. Head . . . now a popular physician of Santa Ana, California, a former Grand Cyclops of one of the Nashville dens, to draw upon for material.” The pamphlet includes information about the Klan from Head ad a photo of him in his robes.

7)      Of course, the contemporary newspapers are usually one of the best resources. The Los Angeles Times is available on from their first issue on, and covers a good deal of Orange County-area news. also features the Santa Ana Register from 1906 through the beginning of WWII which might yield something. For earlier Orange County papers, I suggest the Santa Ana Evening Blade, which is available on microfilm at the Santa Ana Public Library. Many of the early Anaheim papers are also available at the Anaheim Heritage Center and shed light on some very early local history. Some of the early Anaheim papers are also digitized by an amazing volunteer at It'd also be worth checking Chronicling America and

8)     Historian Stephanie George rightly suggests contacting the Sherman Library, which "just accepted a huge personal research collection from our friend, the late Phil Brigandi, who may have kept a file on Head. Although the collection isn't processed yet, Phil kept immaculate files and Paul may be able to see what Phil may have kept, if anything. And, who knows, maybe the Sherman has something."

9)      Steph, who's also an amazing genealogist, additionally suggested checking the files at the Orange County California Genealogical Society's library in Huntington Beach.

10)     Also check in with the Civil War Roundtable of Orange County and see what they have in their files.

If you have more suggestions, dear readers, feel free to post them in the comments below.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Glenn L. Martin

James Irvine II (left) and Glenn L Martin, circa 1913
Locals who remember the last half of the 20th century know Orange County was a major hub for America’s aerospace design and manufacturing industry. Fewer know that the father of that industry built and flew his first planes here.
Born in Iowa in 1886 to Clarence and Arminta “Minta” Martin, Glenn Luther Martin was raised in rural Kansas and showed an early mechanical aptitude with farm equipment. He later became fascinated with constructing box kites, which taught him about aerodynamics, precision craftsmanship, and – by selling kites to other kids – business. He later worked in a bicycle shop, gaining still more mechanical skills, before attending Kansas Wesleyan University for a couple years.  When he was still a young man, his mother developed health problems that inspired her to move to warm and sunny California. Her family, including noted mama’s boy Glenn, followed her to Santa Ana.

Working with auto mechanics in a vacant Santa Ana church building, Martin was only the third American to design, construct, and fly his own airplane. Around 1909 he built his first plane but destroyed it during an attempted flight from the top of Red Hill in Tustin. His second plane soon followed, in which he managed to make a more successful short flight.

In 1912, he completed the construction of a seaplane and flew it from Newport Bay (now Newport Harbor) to Catalina Island and back. It was the first water-to-water flight and broke the record for over-water flight.
GlennMartin's 1912 water-to-water flight
That same year, he founded the Glenn L. Martin Co. and moved his plane-building operations to Los Angeles. There, here he had a brief partnership with the Wright brothers before successfully continuing on his own. 

Martin even had a brief film career, starring in A Girl of Yesterday (1915) with Mary Pickford. He was more than prepared for his scenes as an accomplished young pilot, but he had to be arm-twisted into kissing a girl on camera.

Over the years, he employed many future innovators, entrepreneurs and stars of the aerospace industry, including William Boeing, James S. McDonnell and Donald Douglas. His company also built more than 80 kinds of aircraft, from the MB-1 bomber of World War I, to the B-10 bomber of the 1930s, to the iconic China Clipper flying boats. Martin later helped lead the country into the Space Age, building missiles, spacecraft and cutting-edge electronics. 

Glenn Martin died in Baltimore in 1955, but his company kept marching along. In 1961, the Glenn L. Martin Co. merged with American-Marietta Corp., becoming Martin Marietta. After another merger with Lockheed in 1995, it became the Lockheed Martin Corp. As of 2014, this global company, based in Maryland, was the world's largest defense contractor.

And to think it all started in an abandoned Santa Ana church!

Thursday, May 07, 2020

United Presbyterian Church of Santa Ana burns

113 E. Santa Ana Blvd., as it appeared in 2011. (Photo by author)
I'm very sad to report that the historic United Presbyterian Church (built 1911, dedicated 1912) on Santa Ana Boulevard and Bush St. in Santa Ana burned down early this morning.

The original congregation moved out in the late 1960s and moved to Prospect Ave. at 17th St. The old building served for many years as the practice hall for the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. Over a decade ago, there was an attempt to turn it into the O.C. Natural History Museum -- but that group lost the building for taxes. More recently, writes Santa Ana preservationist Tim Rush, "it was purchased by an architect and his wife in Irvine. They fought for some years a losing battle to the homeless who broke into the building and trashed it on a very regular basis. And now this final insult to the building."

This is what happens when historic buildings are neglected.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

James H. Cox (1847-1934) of Fountain Valley

James H. Cox Elementary School, Fountain Valley
Fountain Valley local historian Dann Gibb is looking for photos of the namesake of James H. Cox Elementary School. No photos of Mr. Cox have yet come to light, but perhaps you can help.

James Hubert Cox and his twin brother, Samuel, were born in 1847 in Nailsea, Somerset, England to Isaac and Hannah Cox. The family arrived in the U.S. in 1856 or 1861, and farmed near Fremont, Iowa. Hannah died in 1897, and Isaac followed a year later. By 1900, James had moved to Orange County, California, and in 1903 he married Sara Laurina “Lennie” Christ in the town of Talbert (now Fountain Valley). James was a farmer, growing alfalfa and sugar beets. By 1917, he’d also planted some of the first lima bean fields in the area -- a crop that later became key to the local economy. In 1907, he banded together with his neighbors to petition for the inclusion of their farmlands in the Talbert Drainage District.

In early 1923, Cox got into the dairy business, purchasing twelve cows. It was a bit ironic, as he'd had trouble in the past with neighbors' cows breaking onto his property and damaging his alfalfa fields. As the saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

His house, west of the village of Talbert and near Talbert Ave., was finally wired for electricity in December 1925.

According to James H. Cox Elementary School’s website, Cox “played a critical role in creating jobs and connecting community members through his ten-acre agricultural farm and mail delivery service.”

James and Lennie had eight children over 39 years. James died in Orange County after a prolonged illness on Sept. 8, 1934, at the age of 87 and is buried at Westminster Memorial Park.

Construction of the James H. Cox Elementary School at 17615 Los Jardines East began January 13, 1969, with plans to open in September of that same year. But progress was slowed significantly by one of the rainiest seasons Orange County had seen in decades, followed by labor strikes. Ultimately, the school was dedicated in March 1970.

The school was designed for an enrollment of 780 students and featured the then-popular but ultimately disastrous "open classroom" plan. As in many Fountain Valley schools, interior walls were soon added to make actual education possible.

Many Fountain Valley schools are named for local farmers and many feature portraits of those farmers in their office. Cox, for some reason, does not, and the search is on for any kind of images of James Hubert Cox. If you have any leads or if you know more about Mr. Cox's life story please leave a comment or send me an email.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Harry Houdini in Santa Ana?

Harry Houdini in 1907 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Did history's most famous magician, Harry Houdini, nearly lose his life in a stunt in Orange County? Although such an incident doesn't appear in local newspapers or lore, Houdini himself said it happened. 

In a 1925 article in Collier’s magazine (Vol. 75, #16, April 18, 1925, p 20), entitled, "When Magic Didn’t Work,” Houdini wrote about four instances where luck rather than skill kept him from dying in the performance of a stunt. One of these tales took place in Santa Ana.

“Out in Los Angeles eight years ago I made a bet that I could be manacled and buried alive six feet below the surface and get back to the land of the living without aid," wrote Houdini. "The only condition I made was that the burial should be graded, first going under one foot of soil, then two, and so on. A party of us left Los Angeles at dawn and motored over the road to Santa Ana. I knew something of the geology of those parts, and I knew that surface vegetation was nothing but beard bristle on sandy soil."

One wonders how Houdini could have known much about Santa Ana's geology. In any case, the description of sandy soil sounds more to me like something along the Garden Grove side of the Santa Ana River. Of course, there was plenty of unincorporated territory all around the region that could have been called Santa Ana back then. 

"I was duly manacled in the graded graves," Houdini continued, "making my way out (hand and ankle free) from the shallower graves, but finding a little difficulty with the four-foot and five-foot plantings.

“Somebody urged me not to try the six-foot grave, but, as i(s) always the way of a mystifier who makes any pretense of wisdom, I had devoted more time to practice than my friend imagined. They remanacled me and the extra foot of soil was dug up. I was buried and soil dumped down on me expeditiously, as stipulated.

“The shallower interments had accustomed me to the darkness and deafness of  burial, yet the knowledge that I was six feet under sod -- the legal requirement for corpses -- gave me the first thrill of horror I had ever experienced in my career as a journeyman daredevil.

“The momentary scare -- the irretrievable mistake of all daredevils -- nearly cost me my life, for it caused me to waste a fraction of breath when every fraction was needed to pull through. I kept the sand loose about my body so that I could work dexterously. I did. But as I clawed and kneed the earth, my strength began to fail. Then I made another mistake. I yelled. Or at least, I attempted to, and the last remnants of my self-possession left me. Then instinct  stepped in to the rescue. With my last reserve I fought through, more sand than air entering my nostrils. The sunlight came like a blinding blessing and my friends about the grave said that, chalky pale and wildeyed as I was, I presented the perfect imitation of a dead man rising. 

“The next time I’m buried," Houdini concluded, "I will not be alive, if I can help it.”

Did this actually happen in Santa Ana? Did Houdini ever even visit Santa Ana?
Houdini escaping a different coffin at a later date. (Library of Congress)
Houdini expert and historian John Cox, who has compiled a week-by-week chronology of Houdini’s life, told me, “I have nothing concrete. On Dec. 13, 1915 a newspaper reported that Houdini ‘will take a run down to San Diego today.’ That's the only reference to him heading south of L.A. at that time. I also have a clipping dated April 15, 1919 referencing him doing a Buried Alive stunt, but this is five days before he arrives in L.A.”

Writes Cox, “...In his diary [Houdini] just says [the Buried Alive stunt] was ‘near Hollywood.’ And, infuriatingly, we have the diary entry but no one seems to know what diary it comes from! … Yes, the lack of any newspaper account anywhere is frustrating. But not surprising as it appears to have been private test and not a publicity stunt. And it didn't go well, so nothing to brag about. But if it wasn't for the diary entry, I would be inclined to believe HH made it up for the 1925 Collier's piece, as he had made up several other ‘close call’ stories.

“The press wanted stories of close calls and when things went wrong," said Cox. "But the truth was Houdini really didn't have many close calls. He was far too prepared and professional. So he would whip up an exciting story. Him being trapped under the ice is his real masterpiece.” 

So was the story entirely fabricated?

A couple weeks after our initial conversation, Cox managed to dig up more clues. Most significantly, he discovered a short but potentially relevant article in the May 16, 1919 edition of the Los Angeles Times. This, combined with his extensive knowledge of Houdini's life and habits, indicates to Cox that the near-disastrous burial actually did take place -- but probably in Santa Monica rather than Santa Ana. He lays out his evidence and "aha moments" in a post on his excellent blog: Wild About Harry. (Go read it.)

In a separate post on Facebook, Cox said he suspects Houdini just mixed up the names of the two cities when writing the story six years after the fact: "Leave it to a New Yorker to confuse Santa Ana and Santa Monica." 

When disappointment was expressed at the likelihood that Santa Ana was out of the picture, Cox responded, "Well, it's not 100%. And you know how things go with Houdini history, it could turn back your way!"

That Harry's still full of surprises.

Special thanks to Julie Perlin Lee, Executive Director of the Catalina Island Museum, who brought this story to my attention, and to John Cox for being so patient with all my questions and doing so much great research.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The sinking of the Pilgrim

The Pilgrim, sinking. Photo taken 3-29-2020 by Eric Plunkett.
This morning I awoke to the sad news that the 1945 replica of the Brig Pilgrim, which has long graced Dana Point Harbor, is sinking.

Ocean Institute president Dr. Wendy Marshall wrote an open letter, which read, in part,...
"We are very sad to announce that Pilgrim, our beloved vessel that has served as an inspiring real-world classroom to hundreds of thousands of students and visitors, keeled overnight in her slip on our dock, rendering her useful life over.

"As part of our maintenance process, Pilgrim undergoes out-of-the water and underwater inspections. In 2016 she was hauled out for survey and repairs and in October 2019, we began a fund to support the haul out and repair scheduled to take place in January 2020. The haul out was postponed until June due to overload at the yard. Meanwhile, Ocean Institute maintained our certifications and the United States Coast Guard issued a Certificate of Inspection (COI) in December and again in February, allowing our dockside programs to continue. Unfortunately, Pilgrim keeled on March 29th and is incapacitated beyond repair."
The Pilgrim is a symbol of not just the Ocean Institute, but of Dana Point Harbor, and the City of Dana Point itself. Imagining a Dana Point without the Pilgrim is like imagining a Huntington Beach without a pier or Hollywood without its Hollywood sign. 

At one level, I'm glad this didn't happen until after the passing of Dana Point's primary cheerleader and local historian, Doris Walker. This would have been heartbreaking to her. On the other hand, if she were still with us, I know she'd ALREADY be out going door to door raising money to rebuild the ship.
1800s illustration of the original Brig Pilgrim.
For what it's worth, the original Brig Pilgrim, which brought Richard Henry Dana to California, was built in 1825 and did not survive nearly as long as the replica has.

"I read of her total loss at sea by fire off the coast of North Carolina," wrote Dana. 
In a later addendum to Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, the author's son wrote, "On the records of the United States Custom House at Boston is this epitaph, 'Brig Pilgrim, owner, R. Haley, surrender of transfer 30 June 1856, broken up at Key West.' Is it not romantic and appropriate that this vessel, so associated with the then Mexican-Spanish coast of California, should have left her bones on the coast of the once Spanish colony of Florida?"

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Dr. Ross' dog food is doggone good!"

In 1921 the old defunct Los Alamitos sugar plant was leased to the Dr. Ross Dog Food Co. Before you ask,... NO, the Los Alamitos Race Track did not yet exist, and horse meat in the dog food came from wild horses, not from thoroughbreds who came in last.

However, Dr. W. J. Ross was indeed creative when it came to sourcing cheap protein. Prior to going bankrupt in the Great Depression, Ross purchased boats to catch sea lions as a source of meat for his pet food. It's unclear exactly how far he got with that plan. The new owners of the Dr. Ross brand -- who also produced Skippy Dog Food -- used more conventional contents.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Willard Intermediate School, Santa Ana

Frances E. Willard Junior High School, Santa Ana, circa 1940s.
In discussing the recent passing of local history buff Ken Leavens with his friend, John Sorenson, the topic of Willard Intermediate School inevitably came up. Ken taught there for over 30 years.

“Ken collected information on Willard in the form of the student newsletter and other informational sources,” said John, who also related a number of historical facts Ken has mentioned. “In the early 1970s, Santa Ana began to replace its pre-1933 buildings to meet current earthquake standards,” John said. “[Ken] commented to me on the problems they had in bringing down the old bell tower.”
Willard's original location, in the old Santa Ana High School building on Main..
In 1985, Ken wrote a brief history of the school, which now appears on their Santa Ana Unified School District’s website and which I’ve reproduced below:

A Short History of Willard Intermediate School
By Kenneth Leavens
In 1912, Santa Ana’s first junior high school opened at Ninth and Main Streets. It was housed in the old high school building which had been built in 1900. This first junior high was known simply as Santa Ana Junior High School. In 1922, a new junior high school, Julia C. Lathrop, opened on south Main Street.

The old junior high school was renamed Frances E. Willard Junior High School after the popular abolitionist who spoke out against the evils of alcohol and also championed the rights of women, helping win them the right to vote. The first meeting of the faculty was held on September 8, 1923. Willard’s first principal was William S. Kellogg. Willard remained at Ninth and Main Streets until June of 1931, when the old building was condemned.

The new Willard Junior High School was designed by the architecture firm of Allison and Allison.  It was demolished in June/July 1971.

A new building of Spanish design opened on the present site in September, 1931. It contained a beautiful auditorium and cafeteria. The first principal of the new school was Lyle B. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell was principal of Willard for 26 years (1929-1955), and the school had only seven principals in its first 62 years.

During the 1970-71 school year, the second Willard building was also condemned for not meeting earthquake safety codes. The school was closed suddenly on a Friday and re-opened on a Monday on a half-day session at Santa Ana High School. The following two years were spent in bungalows on the athletic field until the current building was opened in September, 1973 when the school re-opened on Ross Street it became an intermediate school with grades 6-7-8 (rather than 7-8-9).

The new Willard Intermediate School opened in September 1973.  It was designed by the Blu Rock Partnership; its sister school Lathrop Intermediate was built at the same time and is virtually identical.

In the spirit of continuing improvement of facilities and education at Willard, the current building and facilities are being renovated, with plans for a new two story structure to replace the bungalows, all new technology and science labs, and an all-weather track and artificial turf field.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Yes, I'm still a 12-year-old at heart

I was doing some property research this morning and stumbled across this in the Aug. 8, 1955 Pomona Progress Bulletin:
Jolly Neighbors Set Beach Outing
A wiener roast is planned by the Jolly Neighbors Club for Wednesday, at 11 a.m. at the home of Mrs. Esther Schmekel, 735 Main St., Huntington Beach. Members are to provide their own wieners and buns. Further information may be obtained from Mrs. Henry Keister, Ly. 2-5319.
Wait. Let me get this straight... 

Schmekels and Keisters need members to bring weiners and buns

I initially thought this must be a joke played on the newspaper editor. But no. Huntington Beach mayor Marcus M. McCallen sold the house at that address to Charles and Esther Schmekel on Dec. 13, 1943. And a quick check shows that Henry and Hertha Keister were well-known residents of Pomona. As Brigandi used to say, "I never make this stuff up, because I don't have to."

Ken Leavens (1933-2019)

Ken Leavens at the Old Orange County Courthouse (Photo by author)
I’ve just learned of the passing of Ken Leavens on May 12, 2019. It appears there was no obituary in the newspapers, nor an announcment of a service. But make no mistake,... Kenneth Sidney Leavens impacted many lives, including his countless students, his friends, and the whole Orange County historical community.

Ken Leavens was born January 26, 1933 in Ventura County. “Ken’s education started in a small rural school house (one or two rooms?) along Highway 126 in Santa Paula," writes Ken's friend, John Sorenson. "The red painted school house was still standing as a historical site when I visited Santa Paula in 2013.”

During World War II, Ken lived with his grandparents in Missouri. He later returned to California and graduated from Valencia High School in 1951.

“Ken had two sisters and a brother," said Sorenson. "His mother, Aurelia, was about twenty at the time of Ken’s birth. Aurelia lived into her late 90s in a care facility in Long Beach. His brother also resided in Long Beach. One sister lived in Santa Paula, the other in Placentia."

Interested in music from an early age, Ken graduated from Orange County State College (which later became Cal State Fullerton) with a B.A. in music in 1961. He worked his way through school,  employed at an auto parts manufacturing facility in the Fullerton area. Soon after graduating, he began his long career teaching music at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

"One of his duties was the marching band," said Sorenson, "a task he had for about twenty years. Taking additional classes, he qualified to be a history teacher for his last fifteen years. Whether he taught any music classes during this time, I just don’t know."

“Mr. Leavens was the director of the Willard Intermediate Boys' Choir,” writes Santa Ana historian Rob Richardson, who praised Ken's leadership. “He led us through some especially challenging pieces such as the choral Missa Brevis in D by Benjamin Britten.  I still have the record our choir made in 1973-74. I was a member of the choir from 1973 to 1975. [Mr. Leavens] built on the strong foundation of performing arts in the Santa Ana Unified School District for many generations.”
Ken as an Orange County State College graduate, 1961.
Ken never seemed excited to be in the limelight, but he sometimes appeared with the Willard choir in local televised performances. He also occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the Calendar or Arts section of the Los Angeles Times, sharing his insights on music. In one such letter, published Sunday, Nov. 11, 1984, Ken responded to a recent article by the Times' classical music critic Daniel Cariaga:
"Bravo!! Jeffrey Kahane [of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra] has dared to play a piano concerto that is not on the approved repertoire list of Daniel Cariaga. If you remember your 1950 freshman music history class 1-A, you know what the approved list is: the German-speaking composers, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahams. Tolerated: Schumann. All other Romantic period composers who composed for the piano have no substance. Unfortunately, 'no substance' seems to be code words for 'not chic.' Certainly, Daniel Cariaga's dismissal of Saint Saens Forth Piano Concerto as a 'mayonnaise sandwich' can hardly be taken as a scholarly analysis of a work that Paderewski and Cortot championed."
Ken retired in 1995 after more than 34 years at Willard, (although he occasionally returned as a substitute teacher). The school’s loss was the historical community’s gain. Ken becane very active in numerous historical organizations and had leadership roles in several, including the Orange County Historical Society where he served as a board member and society historian and made numerous friends.

“I met Ken while serving on the board of the Orange County Historical Society about 1995,” writes Sorenson. “Later we served on the Old Courthouse Museum Society and as members of the Santa Ana Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. … Ken and I really got to know each other as we assembled the newsletter for the Old Courthouse Society. Three times a year, we talked on many subjects.

"Ken was very devoted to music and made many visits to the Hollywood Bowl and the Segerstrom Music Hall. On one trip to the Hollywood Bowl around 2005, he broke his hip. For many weeks he was in a hospital in Hollywood. Out of respect and compassion for a friend, I made trips from Irvine to Hollywood on every Saturday to visit him in his bed. The recovery period was long and hard. Ken emerged with one leg slightly shorter than the other. He wore special shoes for the balance of his life.”   

For years, the highlight of the Orange County Historical Society's board meetings was Ken reading his responses to historical queries from the public. He was a natural at historical research and worked hard to answer each question – even if it meant spending days driving around from institution to institution, digging through old newspapers and microfilm and paying for parking and gas on his own nickel. His dedication to getting the facts straight and helping total strangers was remarkable.

“He was still on the OCHS board when I joined it and I enjoyed speaking with him immensely,” said Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board Chair Kathie Schey. “I was saddened when he decided to hang up his hat with regard to public queries. There was much discussion about how this work he contributed could be replaced and I remember the consensus being that it simply could not. His passing is another real loss to the history community.”

As a board member, Ken was always even-tempered, friendly, intelligent, and a voice of reason. It was impossible not to like the man. Health problems mostly kept him at home in the last few years and his presence has already been greatly missed. Now, unfortunately, we’ll be missing him in perpetuity.

Ken passed away in the same Fullerton home he’d lived in since 1956. “Ken was a very private person and his death was a sudden event even to his siblings,” writes Sorenson.  

Farewell and thank you for all you've done, Ken.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Shooby dooby down to Ruby's

Ruby's high school senior yearbook photo, 1940.
Ruby Cavanaugh of North Tustin was the inspiration, namesake and mascot for her son’s chain of Ruby’s Diner restaurants.

Ruby Fern Michael was born July 29, 1922, in Jefferson City, Missouri to Edwin and Victoria Michael. In 1936, the Michaels moved to Southern California. Ruby attended John C. Freemont High School in South Los Angeles.

“At 18, she met Douglas Clide Cavanaugh, a U.S. Navy veteran, who shared her love of swing music and dancing,” wrote Paul Hodgins in the Orange County Register. “Ruby and Doug married in 1944 and had two children, Doug Jr. and Jane.” Later, the family moved to a two-story tract house on a cul-de-sac (13571 Whembly Dr.) in North Tustin. Ruby would live there for nearly fifty years.
A family photo, with Ruby on the right.
Doug Jr. and his business partner and fellow Foothill High School grad Ralph Kosmides started Ruby’s Diner in 1982 on the Balboa Pier. Doug was jogging past an empty run-down bait shop on the end of the pier one day when the idea occurred to him to open a 1940s-style diner. He asked his mom if he could name the place after her, and she immediately said no. He ignored her and Ruby was more than a little surprised when she came to the grand opening and saw her name lit up in neon. The restaurant’s logo, drawn by a Balboa artist, is based on Ruby’s high school cheerleading photo.
A later photo of Ruby holding a photo of her younger self.
On the first day of business -- December 7, 1982 – Doug and Ralph worked the grill and cash register and made $63. The place grew in popularity, and in 1987 they opened a second Ruby’s at the end of the Seal Beach Pier. Ruby’s became the next in a long tradition of Orange County restaurants that grew into large and successful chains. By Spring 2019, Ruby's Diner had 32 locations, including 26 in Southern California.
Ruby died in Orange County on December 27, 2015. An estate sale soon followed, and a number of items were purchased by Lisa Baldwin of A & P Antiques in Downtown Orange. I purchased a few of these items (show in the photo above) from Lisa’s shop simply for their attachment to Ruby Cavanaugh. I picked out a plate and cookbook for their association with food, and a bright and colorful scarf which seemed to say something about her personality. I donated these items and added a current menu from the Ruby's Diner chain to the Orange County Historical Society at their annual Show & Tell program in December.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Phil Brigandi: Orange County Archivist

In the wake of Phil Brigandi's death, the Orange County Historical Society presented a tribute to him on Jan. 9, 2020, focusing on his Orange County historical work. At least 300 people attended. Each of the five speakers that night (Mark Hall-Patton, Art Hansen, myself, Stephanie George and Eric Plunkett) focused on a different segement of Phil's life and work, combined with other favorite memories. This was my contribution -- focusing primarily on Phil's time as County Archivist. My more comprehensive tribute to Phil and his life is posted here.

I first met Phil Brigandi in 2003, when he was the newly minted Orange County Archivist. I’d been trying to get into the Archives for years to do research, but it had closed in the wake of the County bankruptcy. The County Library handed the Archives over to the County Clerk-Recorder's Office, which didn't immediately reopen the place either. But in Spring 2003, Tom Daly was elected the new Clerk-Recorder and he made re-staffing the Archives and providing access to these publically-owned records one of his first priorities. During the search for a new archivist, Jim Sleeper told Tom that Phil was more than ready to return from his 13-years of exile in Hemet.

Phil had done some work at UCI’s Special Collections and had some training in the technical/library science end of archival practice, which added to his already vast understanding of Orange County history and how the records could be best utilized. He was the perfect man for the job.

I visited the Archives the first week it was reopened and met Phil when he was just figuring out what he had. The library folks had left no finding aids or clues – Just room after room of often cryptically-marked boxes. Within minutes of meeting me, Phil took me on a tour through the stacks. We peered into boxes, trying to figure out what was where – a process we would repeat for years until we got most of it reasonably organized and labeled. We probably talked for an hour or so, and then I sat down with some files he’d pulled for me on Googie architecture and early Santa Ana attorneys.  It was a good day and I enjoyed talking history with Phil, but figured that was it until the next time I had research to do.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from him saying, “This is not a one-person job, and it isn’t working to have random county employees assigned as my assistant. I need someone who cares about this stuff and who wants to learn. How’d you like to come work for me?” 

I didn’t ask what it paid or what the hours were. I just said yes. And I’ve been there ever since. I’d been doing local history projects since high school but never imagined that a paying gig might exist. 

The five years I worked for Phil were the best education I could have received anywhere. And I’m not talking about the basic archival practice stuff, although I learned that too. This was not a file clerk job, and as Phil often told me, “You’re doing the exact same job as me – just playing the tune in a different key.” Phil taught me how everything fit together. He taught historical context. He taught me how to see the physical environment around us with the eyes of a historian and to look for details others would miss. He taught me not just how to be a historian but also why. 

He showed me how to process collections, create finding aids, handle materials, encapsulate documents, read topo maps and conduct reference interviews. He taught me to keep my ear to the ground for historical materials that needed to be saved. He taught me that thoughtful accuracy was always infinitely more important than meeting an arbitrary deadline. And he taught me that sharing materials and knowledge was the only way to fly – as opposed to hoarding it or putting up barriers to public access. More than once he told me, “Treating something like a precious treasure and making it inaccessible isn’t much better than treating it like trash.” 

He also taught me that the individual historians, the old families, the historical institutions like the Archives, and the historical societies like OCHS were all intertwined and interdependent on one another as part of a larger historical community. They might somehow survive independent of one another, but none would ever really succeed or be relevant without the others. “Local history,” he often said, “is a small pond.” And the bigger the pond, the more patrons, the more people helping each other, the more forward momentum for everyone, and the more visibility for the kind of historical endeavors that make Archives worth having in the first place.

Phil approached history as a calling, not just a job or even a career. Getting paid for the work was, at most, an afterthought. Phil realized he had a gift and he used that gift to preserve history for future generations, spread the gospel of community, and help others. Like most of us, he was happiest doing what he did best.
Phil was not just a great mentor, but also the best boss you could ever hope to have. Too many government employees operate primarily from a place of fear and over-reverence for the fickle whims of elected officials. Phil, on the other hand, had a healthy disregard for such nonsense and ran the Archives for the betterment of the County, the public, and local history.

Our desks were about five feet apart and we more or less had a running conversation at all times, no matter what we were working on. Every day was interesting – in a good way. Having worked in the gulag-like veal fattening pens of corporate Irvine, this was so refreshing. It was a delight to come to work every day and our patrons were the main beneficiaries of our positive attitudes.

Phil brought in about 40 collections to the Archives, including such gems at the Knott’s Berry Farm Collection, a century-worth of naturalization records, the County’s bankruptcy records, the records of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station reuse battle, and the papers of historian and court reporter Lecil Slayback and industrialist Adolph Schope.

As Archivist, Phil was a jack of all trades and master of most. Whatever the task at hand, Phil dove right in – From sorting records to installing map cases to helping patrons make sense of arcane records that somehow held the answers to their questions.

And he made everything fun. As he liked to say, “Too many people mistake being serious for being solemn.” He was deadly serious about his work, but he was hardly ever solemn. The Orange County Archives was a fun place to be, good work was being done, stress levels were near zero, Phil was sharing his brilliance with anyone who needed a hand, and researchers always told us how much they looked forward to their visits. It was truly a golden age, and I was so lucky to have been part of it.

An 2004 L.A. Times article hinted at the flavor of things, describing how Phil approached his work “with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning,” and how “with smiles, the archivist and his assistant, Chris Jepsen, interrupt each other as they tell of a recent visit from [a patron] in search of clues about her grandparents.”

Thanks to his sense of humor, even the most mindless of tasks – like a full day of reordering jumbled records to match old indices – could end up being fun. We did just that one day, and made a game of reading off funny names as we came to them. Once one of us read the name, the other had to briefly describe the person who should have such a name. By the end of an entire day we were nearly done with the project, having organized many boxes of documents, but we were really tired and acting accordingly punchy.  One of the last names I came to was “Fanny Sparks,” which I almost couldn’t say out loud because I was already laughing. But Phil made out what I’d said and immediately announced that Fanny Sparks was “one of the side effects listed on the warning labels of Olestra potato chips.” We both laughed until we were actually in pain. We had to go to separate rooms out of earshot of each other so we wouldn’t keep egging each other on. It probably took a good twenty minutes to stop laughing over that stupid joke and maybe the whole evening to recover. But we’d whipped through another large project – accurately and in a short period of time – and we’d had a hell of a time doing it. Things were like that with Phil.

Phil never lost track of the underlying reasons the Archives existed and he made pragmatic decisions based on a great deal of knowledge, intelligence and not-so-common sense. He threw himself into his work wholeheartedly and was exceptionally good at his job. He was there for all the right reasons.

The Archives were also scrupulously tidy and well-organized on his watch. We always knew where everything was, and – except for the place we called “The Evil Closet” – any corner of the stacks was presentable for tours at any moment. His own apartment was similarly organized to the n-th degree. Again, he was the perfect guy to hire as Archivist.
Although he had his reasons, I never quite forgave Phil for leaving the Archives when he did. But Phil was – as his scouting friends like to point out – extremely stubborn. I spent about six months trying to talk him out of quitting. I pointed out that he had near total autonomy in how he ran the Archives and that the job gave him not only pay and medical benefits but also great visibility and a bully pulpit for local history. But once Phil made up his mind about something it was a done deal. Ultimately, he did the one thing he’d always told ME never to do: He jumped before he had a place to land.

Not a week goes by that I don’t wish Phil had stayed.  Every one of our longtime patrons felt the same. They were heartbroken and so was I. I can only imagine what the County Archives could have accomplished with him still on the team.

Happily, Phil and I remained close friends after he left. We went to the Postcard and Paper Shows together and stopped at a different classic L.A. restaurant for dinner each time. I helped him find homes for Jim Sleeper’s historical materials after Jim’s death. In some ways, he was the older brother I never had. He stopped by often for lunch and I called him often for advice. I probably saw him about once a week in addition to phone calls and emails. Sometimes more. And yet, I deeply regret not spending more time with him in the last few years. With personal matters absorbing much of my time recently, our late night Del Taco brainstorming sessions and weekend expeditions to historic sites or postcard shows were effectively on hiatus. I thought they’d resume when my life calmed down a bit.

Instead, not only am I – like all of us – left grieving – But I’m also left with the shocking realization that the entire map of Orange County historical work has changed completely. No major research project was complete without touching base with Phil to see what he had in the file. He was the one I sent people to with so many questions on so many topics where there simply was no point in turning to any other source. And in the back of my mind, while doing my own writing, I always considered – would this pass muster with Phil? I will always try to hold myself to that standard – but I will never again know if I’ve met it.

Phil conspired with so many of us on so many projects. It’s hard to imagine who else will share our enthusiasm so thoroughly, engage us so thoughtfully, or inspire us to do our best work. Even as we did our own work, he remained our litmus test, gold standard, map, sounding board and ready volunteer.

When I met Phil, there was still a whole pantheon of great local historians we could look up to, from Esther Cramer and Jim Sleeper to Doris Walker and Barbara Milkovich. I was proud to help with whatever meager additions I could bring to table, but I hardly felt essential. But the ranks of those giants dwindled rapidly, and at a relatively young age Phil found himself in the unlikely position of elder statesman. Of course, he was up to the job.

But now, a few of us who are even younger than Phil now face the unthinkable: WE are the ones left holding the torch Phil was handed by Don Meadows and Jim Sleeper and which Terry Stephenson in turn once passed to them. We cannot replace these giants. There will never be another Phil Brigandi. But because we share his mission and because we love him, we will do all we can to keep the flame burning and eventually pass it to yet another generation. In the meanwhile, we have work to do: The work of local history -- The research, the writing, the publishing, the speaking and the sharing. Phil Brigandi isn’t going to do it for us, and neither is anyone else. It is good and rewarding work, but it is hard work nonetheless, and now more than ever we must support each other and our mission.
Photo taken at OCHS' tribute to Phil Brigandi, Jan. 9, 2020.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year!

A century ago: Mission San Juan Capistrano, Jan. 1920