Thursday, July 01, 2021

Farewell to the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce Building

The new Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce building, 1938.

Until just a few weeks ago, the 1938 headquarters of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce still stood -- largely ignored -- on the last remaining stub of Church Street, next to the old Santa Ana Y.M.C.A. building. It had been boarded up for many years. But until now, those with a keen eye for architecture occasionally still stopped and admired the remnants of its distinctive architecture.

The building's story began in 1937, when County Supervisor Steel H. Finley led the Board in not renewing the lease on the land underneath the Chamber’s old offices. When the County purchased the defunct tourist hotel, St. Ann’s Inn in 1931 as their Courthouse Annex, they had leased some land on the hotel’s grounds to the Chamber of Commerce to build their own headquarters. But in the depths of the Great Depression, the growing County Welfare Department needed more space and Finley didn’t think County government should operate with insufficient space just to accommodate one city’s Chamber of Commerce. 

But the Chamber – only recently out of debt from building their headquarters at St. Anne’s – was in no hurry to incur the expenses of finding a new home. They offered to move the building up on the lot to make room for new construction. They offered to sell the building to the County for a fair price. There was even some talk of letting the county use part of the building while the Chamber continued to use the rest. But the County wanted the Chamber off their property and were annoyed by the Chamber’s constant attempts to find a work-around. Although the County offered $3,500 to buy the old Chamber building, they threatened to revoke the offer if the Chamber continued to displease them. (Ultimately, the County paid and converted the building into offices for the Welfare Department.) 

Knowing they’d be evicted at the beginning of February 1938, the Chamber of Commerce made plans for a new facility. They arranged a 15-year lease from the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) on a piece of landscaped turf next to the Y.M.C.A. build at Church St. (now Civic Center Dr.) and Sycamore St.  A groundbreaking ceremony for the new building was held on January 1, 1938, and a building permit was pulled on January 6. Plans showed a 50-foot by 25-foot concrete building with three rooms. The architecture firm of Austin & Wildman (W. Horace Austin and H. C. Wildman) was hired to design the building an also to supervise its construction. The contractors were Stark and Schmid (Adolf G. Schmid and A.B. Stark). 

Groundbreaking (Santa Ana Regsiter, Jan. 6, 1938)

Austin & Wildman had offices in Long Beach and in Santa Ana’s Spurgeon Building. Their projects included some of the most impressive structures ever to grace Santa Ana, including the beautiful art-deco Emma L. French Building (1933) at 4th St. and Main (housing Montgomery Ward) and the Assyrian-themed City Hall (1935) at Third St. and Main. Among their other Santa Ana projects were the New Walker Theater (1936, behind City Hall), Pay-Less Market (1937, at Sycamore and 3rd St), Santa Ana Junior College, the Ludlum Carpet Cleaners Building (ca 1939 at 1622 S. Main), office buildings, and numerous school additions and remodels. They also remodeled the Café/See’s Candy building (1939) at Main and 3rd St – which remains a subdued but attractive landmark to this day.

Austin & Wildman also did a great deal of work in other Southern California communities, including Placentia’s City Hall (ca 1940), a theater in Garden Grove (ca 1940), the auditorium at Tustin Grammar School (1941), and the Uddo & Taormina Corp (a.k.a. Progresso) Cannery (1941) at 900 S. Grand in Buena Park. 

The new Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce building would be a little Streamline Moderne gem, tucked between “the Y” and Spurgeon Methodist Church. 

Compare this 2021 view to the 1930s view at the top of this post.

After spending a couple months in temporary quarters at 109 E. 5th St., the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce moved into their new art deco building at 209 Church Street on March 9,1938. The new facility’s cost, including furnishings, was $5,953. "Light and airy, the lounge of the present offices offers a pleasant retreat" opined the Santa Ana Register. 

For an organization which, among other things, extolled Santa Ana’s excellent weather and business climate, the Chamber’s new office opened, ironically, amid one of Orange County's worst-ever months of storms and flooding and in the middle of the Great Depression.  Still, the little building served them well for nine years of explosive change in Santa Ana. By the time the Chamber moved out in 1947, the Depression had come and gone, World War II had been fought and won, the local population had begun what would become a shocking expansion, and Orange County's entire economy had begun to move inexorably from agriculture to suburbia.

After the Chamber moved out, the Young Women’s Christian Association moved in for a short while. 

Throughout the 1950s the little building was occupied by the local office of the U.S. Selective Service System, with offices for draft boards 133, 134, and 135 -- a landmark of Orange County's involvement in the Korean War.

Chamber building, 2021 (Photo by author)

From at least the mid-1980s until at least 2021, the Y.M.C.A. building and presumably the Chamber building were vacant and left to decay. In 1992, the property was purchased by the City of Santa Ana. Since that time, numerous offers were made by non-profits, businesses, and government agencies to buy, restore, and repurpose the building. All of these offers were either turned down or fell through when costs to revamp the site proved higher than expected. As a smaller, auxiliary building, the old Chamber of Commerce office was usually little more than an afterthought in these various plans.

In early 2019, after the Orange County School for the Arts backed out of deal to acquire the Y.M.C.A. property, the Santa Ana City Council identified developer Caribou Industries as the best organization to receive the property. Caribou's plans call for adaptive reuse of the main Y.M.C.A. building as a boutique hotel, and for new construction on the site of the now-rotted-beyond-repair gymnasium. It appears that the Chamber of Commerce building wasn't part of the plan either, seeing as the little deco building has just disappeared. In fact, the space where the Chamber sat is needed for both a new ADA-compliant entrance (avoiding alterations to the beautiful south and east elevations of the Y.M.C.A.) and for an entry to the new building that will sit behind it. It's sad, but if this is what it takes to make the long-awaited restoration and adaptive reuse of the historic Y.M.C.A. feasible, then it will at least have given its life for a good cause. I'm hoping this will be like the old Uncle Wiggily board game: "Take one hop back and three hops forward." Let the Y.M.C.A. restoration (at long last) begin.

The empty spot where the Chamber building used to be. June 23, 2021.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Burbery's Truth (or,... Yogi’s Garden Grove Boo Boo)

Ad from the Los Angeles Evening Express, Oct. 3, 1925
Many colorful characters have passed through Orange County without staying. Although most of these folks didn’t leave a big local impact, it’s sometimes just interesting to know they were here. Among those was Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda and one of his more colorful followers. Among other things, Yogananda was a key figure in popularizing yoga in the West. He arrived in the U.S. from India in 1920 and, beginning in Boston, undertook a transcontinental speaking tour on the subject of Kriya Yoga. He then stayed in America and in 1925 founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles. There, he taught and promoted yoga and meditation. The Fellowship still has a significant presence in Southern California today.

According to the Santa Ana Register, on March 25, 1925 Yogananda was “acting as chauffeur to one of his followers, Mrs. Truth Burbery,” and crashed into and wrecked the car of farm worker and teamster William C. Showalter at 17th St. (now Westminster Ave.) and Bolsa Rd. (now Brookhurst), in Garden Grove. Showalter’s wife, Josephine, was injured. (“Court Notes,” Register, May 20, 1925, page 3.) The Showalters sued for $3,000.

So, what do we know about the less-famous people involved in the car wreck?

William Showalter (1871-1966) was a typical Orange Countian of his day – a transplant from the Midwest (Ohio), who found work in the local agricultural economy. Since arriving, he’d been a farmer, a laborer, and as a teamster for a tomato seed company. He and his wife, Josephine Lottie (Rickel) Showalter had at least nine children. Nothing surprising for a rural family. 

Approximate site of the accident, as seen today.

Truth Burbery, by contrast, was full of surprises. She was born Gertrud Clara Boehmer in Memel, Germany on Sept 23, 1877. A high school graduate with no college, she still cut quite a path for herself.  

In 1903 she married Sergeant Major James Burbery, a gunnery instructor, in Heathcote Valley, New Zealand. Somewhere along the line, she adopted the name Truth, which one must admit is catchier than Gertrud. James died in Wellington, New Zealand two days before Christmas 1915.

Truth arrived in the U.S. on March 23, 1917, coming to California by way of Sydney, Australia and then Hawaii aboard the vessels Tahiti and Sonoma. She identified her occupation on the ship manifest as "Secretary of a Religious Movement". 

In the 1910s and ‘20s, Burbery taught "the psychology of your name and birth date, love, marriage and divorce. Life's master positions." She spent 1918 and 1919 in North Carolina, where her ads in Asheville newspapers read, "Mothers, help your children into their right vocations in life. Learn the ancient science of numerology. Complete system can be learned in six lessons. Interviews daily. 29 Vance Street."

Ad from the San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 6, 1921

But she spent much of the 1920s in California, putting on programs as a “psychologist” specializing in "personal and impersonal life: cosmic and individual vibrations." She also began to be known as a bohemian artist, creating paintings and illustrations.

In 1924, she published a book, Hindu Dietetics for Body Building: Including the Nervous and Glandular Systems.

She dedicated this book to a "teacher" (identified only as S.C.) who translated the recipes from Bengali and "so made it possible for the Western world to benefit by a clean wholesome, pure and nourishing diet".

The book also calls out the specific benefits of many foods. Orange Countians will no doubt be glad to know, for instance, that oranges are “good for the voice; to correct asthma and shortness of breath. The juice increases bodily temperature. The bitter skin decreases fever. The dried skin of oranges chewed the first thing in the morning will act on the salivary glands, inducing new flow of healthy saliva... Orange seeds are useful in cases of piles or vomiting."

Blurb from the San Francisco Call, Nov. 5, 1921

In 1925 – the same year as car wreck – Burbery contributed an illustration of New Zealand’s Dusky Sound to the very first issue of East West Magazine, published by Yogananda in Los Angeles.

Burbery settled into a new home in San Francisco in Oct. 1925. Aside from a year spent away in 1927, she spent much of the rest of her life in San Francisco. She was naturalized there on Groundhog Day, 1931, and finally had her name legally changed to Truth Burbery. Among other things, she taught art and worked as a nurse. 

Another disciple of Yogananda, Sri Durga Mata (the former Florina Dufour), mentioned in her autobiography an instance of the guru having lunch with Burbery while on a trip to San Francisco in late 1936. Burbery was also still attending Self-Realization Fellowship events through at least 1937.

From perhaps the late 1930s until the time she died of cancer on May 2, 1942, Burbery was employed by the WPA Arts and Crafts Project in San Francisco. Her memorial was led not by a maharishi or guru, but -- curiously enough -- by a Rosicrucian mystic.

In any case, it all goes to show that you never know who you'll run into in streets of Garden Grove.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A bit of Boola Boola at Huntington Harbour

Architect William L. Pereira (L) with his Master Plan for Huntington Harbour, Sept. 6, 1961. Pete Douglas (R) looks on. (USC Libraries Special Collections)
Q: I notice that both Davenport Island and a number of streets near Trader Joe’s in Huntington Harbour -- Branford, Calhoun, Pierson, Silliman, Trumball, Saybrook, Morse and Stiles -- all have names relating to the residential colleges that serve as Yale's undergraduate dormitories. Why?

A: Lewis W. “Pete” Douglas. Jr. (1924-2014), president of Christiana Oil Corp. (which developed Huntington Harbour) was a 1948 Yale grad. 

Pete Douglas’ father was the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James (U.K.), a banker and an Arizona cattle rancher. Pete grew up both on the East Coast (New York) and the West (Arizona). He attended Groton Boarding School in Massachusetts and went to Yale (where he was in the Davenport residential college,) but paused his college career to serve as a Navigator-Bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he returned to Yale.

In many ways, Pete Douglas had much in common with a fellow member of Yale’s class of 1948: George H. W. Bush.

Douglas at Huntington Harbor, 1961 (Los Angeles Times)

Unlike Bush, however, Douglas took a lax attitude toward education. “I majored in English and history but mostly in poker,” he later recalled. Even later in life, newspapers described him as “seemingly flippant” and “light-hearted.” After graduating, he had no real plan but ended up working (in another Bush parallel) in the Texas oil industry. But he would go on to show that one doesn't have to be serious to be serious.

In 1952, he formed the Christiana Oil Co. with the help of Eastern investors. The company stumbled for a few years but went public in 1956. The business didn’t start breaking even until he began to diversify – purchasing interests in companies that dealt in title insurance, broadcasting and real estate development.

Among those real estate developments was a project turning 860 acres of swamps and sloughs at the former Lomita Gun Club into a residential marina near Sunset Beach, California. Douglas started planning the project in 1960 and hired reknowned architect and planner William L. Pereira to create the master plan for this new "Huntington Harbour." Some of the initial areas were developed and sold by the mid-1960s. Considering the scope of the project, progress was surprisingly swift. 

Douglas stepped down as president of the Christiana Oil Corporation in 1964, having, as City of Huntington Beach Archivist Kathie Schey puts it, "pooped out in terms of interest." 

Some of the portions of the Harbour developed after that point -- like Trinidad Island -- were subbed out to a number of other capable developers. 

Official logo for Huntington Harbour.

According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “In 1964, Pete formed privately held real estate development firm, Douglas Development, but reentered the energy business founding Stanley Energy in 1985. Unwilling to retire, both intellectually and physically, Pete remained active, involved and engaged until his death. He was a dedicated philanthropist and active member of his community, offering his time as a trustee to multiple schools, director of hospitals, and also serving on the Governing Board of HealthOne. Mr. Douglas served as a Commissioner of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in President George H.W. Bush's administration. Pete was especially committed to the First American Corporation where he acted as a director from 1961 to 2013. An avid lover of the arts, Pete received the Mary Belle Grant Award in 2006, an honor he cherished. However, his greatest passions were his family and friends with whom he built lasting connections, based on humility, compassion, and humor.”

Today Huntington Harbour is part of the City of Huntington Beach and is home to about 3,500 residents. Curiously, Davenport Island – the only one of Huntington Harbour’s five man-made Islands with a Yale-inspired name – includes none of the aforementioned Yale-inspired street names. However, Davenport Island does feature Kitten Circle and Sea Witch Lane -- neither of which sound  very Ivy League nor very serious.

Davenport Island, Huntington Harbour (Courtesy City of Huntington Beach)

[Thanks to Tirzah Lowe, Stephen Updegrove and Kathie Schey for their input on this article.]

Friday, June 18, 2021

O.C. pioneer Alfred Hawley: Free love cultist, socialist, gun dealer and baseball benefactor

Alfred & Elizabeth Hawley (From Spencer Olin's 1979 article)

Pioneers were hardly ever the "Ma and Pa Ingalls" stereotypes we all know from television. One example is colorful Santa Ana and Newport Beach pioneer Alfred E. Hawley, whose tale covers some unexpected ground. 

Hawley was born in Cambridge, Vermont in 1847. When his mother died, he moved with his father to Oneida, New York. While attending school there, he met Elizabeth Mallery who later became his wife. Soon after marriage, he went into manufacturing and became superintendent of the Wescot Chuck Co. in Oneida (making lathes and drill chucks).

In both Vermont and New York, “we heard glowing accounts of this land of promise" in Southern California, Alfred told the Santa Ana Register in 1923. "Eventually this was what brought me west. Originally, I came out on a visit. I liked it so well, I went back home, closed my affairs, and came west to stay. I have never regretted my decision. The fishing is good, the people are good, business is good, and Santa Ana is the best ever. What more could I ask?"

His account left out some interesting details. For instance, Alfred was among the “Townerites” – a dissident faction of the Oneida Perfectionists' "Bible communist," free-love, utopian community. This group had come west to Santa Ana under the leadership of J. W. Towner who became a key figure in the creation of Orange County and was the county's first Superior Court judge.

"Prior to their departure from New York, the Townerites had carefully formulated a plan for acquiring land in California," wrote Spencer Olin, Jr. in his article, "Bible Communism and the Origins of Orange County" (California History, Vol. LVIII, 1979). "Towner probably drafted the article of agreement dated September 1881, which made Julius Hawley, Roswell B. Hawley, Alfred E. Hawley, Frederick A. Marks, Martha J. Marks, Edwin S. Nash, Charlotte S. Reid, and William A. Hinds copartners for the purpose of purchasing land. . . . By combining their limited financial resources . . . [they] were able to raise $26,200 for purchasing a substantial block of land soon after their arrival in Santa Ana. The 458-acre Ross tract near the western boundary of the city was purchased and then divided among the copartners.”

Alfred Hawley also bought land for himself around Santa Ana as early as 1882, but did not move into the area until 1887. 

A later photo of A. E. Hawley.

In Santa Ana, Hawley experienced firsthand a bit of the old “Wild West” before it faded away. Jack rabbits and packs of coyotes could be on downtown streets. Election nights were marked by bonfires and street fights. "Fourth street, notorious for its saloons, was a dusty thoroughfare in summer [and] a veritable sea of mud in winter,” he later recalled. “In the block where I had my little shack, purchased in the '80s, there were at least five saloons. The grogshops, doing a flourishing business, got many a dollar of the hard-earned wages of the men who were struggling to put Santa Ana on the map."

Upon arrival in Santa Ana, Hawley bought a small stock of sporting goods from J. P. Hutchens (another former Oneida Perfectionist) and then opened his own gun and sporting goods shop on the north side of Fourth St., downtown. The shop moved to various locations around the business district over the years as new buildings or better rent became available. Most of the locations were on 4th Street, but its final location was at 305 N. Sycamore St. 

At some point, he built a baseball diamond on the back of his lot, which served as a home to the team he sponsored: the Santa Ana Yellow Sox. Notably, the team’s 1906-1908 lineup included Walter "Big Train" Johnson of Olinda, who went on to become the greatest pitcher who’d ever played the game. It’s said that another of Hawley’s Yellow Sox was Arnold "Chick" Gandil who is now best remembered as the ringleader of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal.

Hawley also acted as the promoter of the West 9th Street Baseball Park -- another early baseball diamond in Orange County. Naturally, more interest in sports meant more customers buying sports equipment.

The vast majority of sales at Hawley’s sporting goods shop were innocuous enough. But sometimes guns ended up in the wrong hands, as in one incident he later described: “It was not unusual for a man to come in and ask for a weapon, and we thought nothing of this incident at the time. In a very short time, however, that man, using the same weapon, walked down Fourth Street and killed an inoffensive Mexican."

The Hawleys moved to Newport Beach in August 1888, during the town’s early development boom, and built about eight houses there – most of which they rented out. Meanwhile, they continued to maintain the sporting goods business in Santa Ana. 

Walter Johnson (center row, third from left) among his fellow Santa Ana Yellow Sox.  (Floyd H. Mitchell Collection) 

Hawley was a prominent member of the Socialist Party in Orange County and wrote a regular column for the Santa Ana Blade. He ran for the Fifth District seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisor in 1906. However, he received only 37 of the 849 votes cast and came in a distant third to winner George W. Angle.

Throughout the 1920s, Hawley was often consulted when people wanted to know what Santa Ana was like in the early years. He retired from his store in 1926, turning the business over to his son, Otto J. Hawley. Alfred  Hawley died after an extended period of illness, in 1930.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Do Utility Boxes Dream of Electric Sheep?

Author Philip K. Dick's last home was a Santa Ana condo at 408 E. Civic Center Dr. (between St. Joseph Church and the Ebell Club). As of this month, there's now an odd but colorful tribute to him just a couple blocks away at the corner of Civic Center Dr. and Main Street. The tribute comes in the form of a utility box, decorated as part of the city Arts & Culture Office's Utility Box Art Program. 

This piece of public art was created by Brennan Roach, who is a co-founder of the Santa Ana Literary Association.

Philip K. Dick's last home, at the French Park Plaza condos.
It features a portrait of Dick and is covered in reproductions of pages from his books. It also includes the words, "If you think this universe is bad, you should see some of the others," based on Dick's 1977 lecture, "If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.”

The obverse of the utility box reads, "In 1972, Philip K Dick moved to Santa Ana where he spent the last 10 years of his life. During this time he wrote some of his most important works, 'A Scanner Darkly,' 'VALIS,' and 'The Transmigration of Timothy Archer."

The author died in 1982, just months away from the release of the film Blade Runner (and adaptation of one of his stories), which would eventually make his name known by the masses.

Dick's papers are held at CSU Fullerton's Special Collections. Click here to learn more. 

I would have liked to shoot a few more photos of the utility box, but my attempts were sidelined by a character who waked up and started agressively annoying me with nonsensical questions. She was probably just operating in one of those alternate universes.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Haster Field, Bolsa Grande, Garden Grove Park & Atlantis Play Center

Aerial view of Haster Field, 1947. Current street names in blue. (Courtesy OC Survey)

The most interesting thing about farmland that became a Navy airfield should, by all rights, be the story of that airfield. But such is not the case with Garden Grove’s Haster Field -- wedged between Westminster Ave. and the 22 Freeway, east of Magnolia Ave. – which went on to a still more colorful existence. 

Richard P. "Dick" Haster was a born in Hillegom, Holland in 1890 and came to America with his family in 1907, finally settling in Orange County in 1915. He served in World War I and seems to have been naturalized around 1919. Once back from the war, Haster gradually became one of the more prominent ranchers in the Garden Grove/Anaheim area, growing citrus, lima beans, walnuts, and likely other crops as well. In October of 1929, he married Esther Magdalen Nausbaum, who worked at the First National Bank of Garden Grove.

Richard Haster, 1955

During the Great Depression, Haster leased some of his unused land to tomato growers. He also sold twenty acres of citrus groves along Lampson Ave. to E. D. White of Santa Ana. But it was not enough, and in March 1941, the Hasters went bankrupt. 

But somehow, they managed to hang onto some of their farmland. Two years later, on Aug 18, 1943, Dick Haster sold at least 230 acres to the Navy Dept. for $225 an acre, plus $175 an acre for crops then on the property. The government gave him no choice but to sell, but it was probably a blessing under the circumstances. 

Detail of 1943 chart showing NAS Los Alamitos and its outlying fields. Haster Farm Field is marked as 11005. (Image courtesy Abandoned & Little Known Airfields)

Like Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, the new Naval Outlying Air Field (NOSF) Haster Farm Field (a.k.a. Haster Field) was to be an auxiliary base to Naval Air Station Los Alamitos. However, its official status as a flight training field only lasted for ninety days before the Navy abandoned it. No Navy aircraft ever landed there.  

Once the war was over, the federal government took many years to sort out the disposal or reuse of its many now-abandoned properties. In 1949, Haster (who then lived at 9222 Trask Ave.) repurchased ten acres of his old land from the government and leased another other 220 acres from them for agriculture. He also allowed civilian pilots to use the old Navy runway. The tiny “airport” was home to a handful of small private aircraft and about six Civil Air Patrol planes.

Garden Grove Park, 2021. (Photo by author)

Dick Haster served on the Orange County Planning Commission until mid-1955, when he seems to have made a number of life changes. Around the same time, he sold the ten acres of Haster Field he owned outright and moved to Santa Ana.

By September 1956, the Navy was looking to get rid of the 110 acres of Haster Field that Haster has been renting as farmland. Initially, they offered to sell it back to Haster. Having heard this news, Louis Lake (Garden Grove’s first mayor) came to Haster, hoping to negotiate a deal to buy twenty acres for a park should Haster reacquire the land.

But rather than selling to Haster, on January 19, 1957, the General Services Administration gave initial approval for the sale of “the forty-acre wartime auxiliary landing strip” directly to the newly minted City of Garden Grove. City Attorney Willard Pool had gone to Washington, D.C. and negotiated at length to get the land. deal. The agreement was not finalized until Garden Grove sorted out its contentious incorporation election in court and could then bargain as a municipality. After a long round of litigation, on May 29, 1957 the courts decided that the election was legitimate and that Garden Grove was, in fact, a city. 

Bolsa Grande High School, 2021 (Photo by author)

A deal with the GSA became effective in August. In addition to selling the land for a park, the government gave twenty acres to the Garden Grove High School District, twenty more to the elementary school district, and eighteen acres to the State for a right-of-way strip adjacent to the planned 22 Freeway. The elementary school district offered its twenty acres to the high school district so that there would be enough space for a new high school. 

The Soka Cherry Tree Grove was planted at Garden Grove Park in 2013.

A month later, two Beverly Hills general contractors, Guy Gadbois and Stanley Anderson, won an auction to purchase another 58.32 acres of the former Haster Field. They would build tract housing adjacent to the park and school properties.

1950s tract housing on the old Haster Field. This example on Linnert St.

In February 1959, development of Garden Grove Park began, starting with the grading and "conditioning" of the land and the installation of a sprinkler system. The city budgeted $98,000 for the first phases of the park's development. The whole project was slated to be spread out over five years. That same year, construction began on Bolsa Grande High School.

Sea serpent slide, Atlantis Play Center

In the early 1960s the Garden Grove Junior Women’s Civic Club forwarded an idea which was enthusiastically taken up by Garden Grove’s first director of parks, V.E. "Gene" Rotsch. The concept was an enclosed, single-entrance playground within the park, where “adults are not allowed without kids, and kids are not allowed without adults.” Its theme would be the Lost City of Atlantis, with the buildings and playgrounds featuring undersea motifs.  This park-within-a-park was made possible through the support of the city and donations from twenty-nine individuals and organizations. 

Entrance to Atlantis Play Center, 2021 (Photo by author)

Parks Superintendent Jack Wallin and his crews built out the park grounds and turned to Benjamin Dominguez (1894-1974), a folk artist and master of creative concrete work, to create custom concrete animals and play equipment. Dominguez had already created acclaimed zoo enclosure and playgrounds throughout Mexico and the American West. He turned Atlantis Play Park into one of his whimsical and unforgettable “make believe parks.” Here, Dominguez’ works were not merely part of the landscape, they WERE the landscape. His contributions included such unique elements as a long sea serpent slide that winds down a hill, giant starfish, coral reef waterfalls, and a large opened-mouth whale whose tongue is a slide for children. A few of Atlantis’ many other features include a pod of dolphins, a “sunken” Viking longship and a lost “Palace of Kronos” to explore.

Atlantis Play Center (Courtesy Friends of La Laguna)
A costumed man playing the role of King Neptune oversaw the dedication of Atlantis Play Park on July 4, 1963, saying, "Forthwith, this kingdom of joy and happiness will be ruled by the children of today. May the reign of childhood be long and happy."

Dick Haster died in 1979. By then his “field” had served the Navy, private pilots, the Civil Air Patrol, hundreds of housing tract residents, thousands of Bolsa Grande students, and the countless thousands who’d enjoyed Garden Grove Park and Atlantis Play Park. Today, the land continues to serve the community well.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Teaching certificate, 1911

Q: What can you tell me about this document recently up for sale on eBay?

A: First of all, this is a teaching certificate, allowing one to teach in Orange County. 

Mabel Elizabeth Brown was born in Fairfield, Illinois in 1888. She lived with her widowed mother, Ada C. Brown (816 West St.) and graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1906. From there, she went to school in Claremont/Pomona and then on to take graduate classes at Cal Berkeley in 1910. Once finished, she was hired to teach English and music at Huntington Beach High School in 1911. Within a year or two she married mining engineer Dana Winston Leeke (1885-1961) and his work took them to Hol-gol, Korea, where their daughter, Ada Ethel Leeke was born in 1914. By 1920 they were living in Ontario, California. They would spend the rest of their lives in Southern California. Mabel Brown died in San Diego County in 1972. 

Richard P. Mitchell, who signed this certificate, served as County Superintendent of Schools  for twenty-two years (1908-1931). He was born in Garden Grove in 1875, and graduated from the Los Angeles State Normal School (UCLA). 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Magnolia Park and the Wakehams of Orange County

Modern view of Magnolia Park, Garden Grove

Unassuming little Magnolia Park in Garden Grove was once the home of Ernest Alfred Wakeham (1887-1950), an early Orange County rancher of pioneer stock who contributed greatly to agriculture and education in the Garden Grove area.

His father, Hubert Henry Wakeham (1843-1888), was a native of Plympton St. Mary, England who came to Canada, then Illinois, and then finally to California around 1867. He came to the Orange County area (then still part of Los Angeles County) in 1870 and bought a 120-acre parcel of empty land in Gospel Swamp, south of Santa Ana. He turned the raw land into a productive ranch, which was ultimately passed down through several generations of Wakehams. Over time, he also purchased additional farmland in the region. He met and married Elizabeth Sarah Helmer (1855–1937) while visiting England in 1877 and brought her back to his ranch where they raised six children. 

Hubert and Elizabeth Wakeham

Hubert died in 1888. According to a biography in J. M. Guinn’s 1902 history of Orange County, “the responsibility of educating the children has fallen upon his faithful wife and helpmate, and the Mrs. Wakeham is due not only the credit of making noble men and women of her children, but also managing the affairs of her husband as to keep the estate intact and in splendid condition. She is well known in the neighborhood… and is a member of the Presbyterian Church.”

The oldest of the children, Hubert Laurence Wakeham, began running the ranch when he was old enough, and would go on to grow sugar beets, lima beans, and alfalfa, and to operate a dairy. The Wakeham family remained prominent in the Orange County dairy industry until the late 1930s. 

Home of H. H. Wakeham, Gospel Swamp, circa the 1870s.

The youngest of Hubert and Elizabeth’s sons, Ernest A. Wakeham, inherited forty acres of rich Gospel Swamp land when he came of age. He married Myrtle C. Cole (1886–1954) of Santa Ana in 1908 and the first of their children, Jack, was born in 1909. Likely in 1915 or after, Ernest and his family moved to Oceanside for a while, and by the late 1910s they were living at Roberts Island, near Stockton. 

In 1922, Myrtle’s real estate wheeler-dealer father, David G. Cole, purchased twenty acres of Valencia orange groves on the outskirts of Garden Grove and arranged for his son-in-law, Ernest, to manage the property. Moving back to Orange County from Stockton, Ernest also purchased an additional thirty acres of Valencia groves at the northeast corner of Magnolia St. and Orangewood Ave., where they also built a two-story home for themselves. The latter property, at 11402 Magnolia St., is now the site of Magnolia Park.

Ernest A. Wakeham

While running a citrus ranch, Ernest also assisted in tending the dairy business his father had started as well as becoming involved in the betterment of local agriculture, schools, and the community in general. Ernest served as the vice-chairman of the dairy department of the State Farm Bureau. 

At various times, he also served as the president of numerous organizations including the California Milk Producers Association, the Associated Farmers of Orange County, the Garden Grove Lions Club, the Garden Grove Farm Center, and the Garden Grove Citrus Association. He was a member of the Alamitos Elementary School District board from 1922 to 1946 and also served on the Garden Grove Union High School District board for twenty years. 

Myrtle Wakeham

Ernest and Myrtle’s children were Jack Cole Wakeham (1909-1985), Alice D. Wakeham (1911-1999), Ernestine Wakeham (1913-1999), Marjorie Wakeham (1915-1997), J. Donald “Don” Wakeham (1919-1945), Terry David Wakeham (1922–1982), and Dahl Bert Wakeham (1925–1971). While all of their stories haven’t yet been researched, those that have been are noteworthy.

Jack Wakeham, followed in his father’s footsteps, serving for many years on the boards of the Alamitos Elementary School District and Garden Grove Union High School District. He was also the director of maintenance and operations for the nearby Savanna School District. He also served twice as president of the Native Sons of the Golden West. 

March 1943 comic strip featuring Don and Terry Wakeham failed to mention Don's fate

Don Wakeham served as a Navy pilot in World War II and was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Afterward, while on leave in Garden Grove, he talked his brother Terry into going to Navy Cadet Training rather than joining the Army. Don was then sent back to the Pacific theater, where he soon went M.I.A. and was presumed dead. 

His sister, Marjorie, was heartbroken, but became incredibly determined to do whenever she could for the war effort. She volunteered to become a Woman's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP), and completed her training in 1943. Throughout the war, she flew bombers, fighters, and other planes across the continent so that they could be shipped overseas to the theaters of war. After the war she returned home and worked for her father and as a bookkeeper for the Garden Grove Citrus Association. In 1951, during the Korean War, she was recalled to active duty in the Women's Air Force (WAF), and would spend a good deal of time in Japan. By 1952, she was commanding officer of the 4726th Women's Air Force Squadron out of Larson Air Force Base, in Washington State. She attained the rank of Major. 

Marjorie Wakeham, 1943. (Marjorie Wakeham Collection, National WASP WWII Museum)

Ernest Wakeham died in 1950. Myrtle followed in April 1954. Later that month, a new elementary school at Chapman Ave. near Beach Blvd. in Garden Grove – part of the Alamitos School District – was named Wakeham School in honor of Ernest A. Wakeham. (Go Wildcats!) Many of the Wakehams’ groves were sold for subdivision at about the same time.

In 1962, the City of Garden Grove paid the Wakeham estate $56,000 for 4.5 acres, including their home and surrounding citrus grove to create Magnolia Park. The city heavily remodeled the Wakeham home into a community center.  The family's pool was renovated to become a new public pool. 

Aerial view, Wakeham ranch, Garden Grove, July 7, 1955

In Sept 1963, the City Council authorized negotiations to purchase an additional 1.1 acres along Joyzelle St. to enlarge Magnolia Park to the north. And in September 1968 – after a heated debate – the Council approved the development of two lighted tennis courts (the first in the city) built atop a five-million-gallon water reservoir inside the park. This new addition also included landscaping and two handball courts and was dedicated in November 1972. 

Today, the Wakeham’s name is remembered through Wakeham School and a street named West Wakeham Place in the old Gospel Swamp area of Costa Mesa and South Santa Ana. There is also an East Wakeham Ave. in the Pacific Park neighborhood in Santa Ana, although the source of that name is less certain. 

Modern aerial view of Magnolia Park, Garden Grove

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

An unsolved mystery in early Huntington Beach

San Pedro Harbor, circa 1890. (Courtesy

In May 1891, a mysterious man with a gunshot wound was found dead on the shore at Shell Beach -- now called Huntington Beach. It was the first time that sparsely inhabited corner of Orange County made the newspapers in any significant way, and the details of the story inspire head-scratching.

Visitors to today's Huntington Beach were so few in that era that it took days for anyone to notice the body lying in the surf. It was discovered late in the day on May 14th, and a phone call was placed to Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy the following morning. Upon arrival, it was found that the dead man had a large bullet hole in his head. By later that same day, the body was in Anaheim, undergoing an autopsy by Coroner Frank Ey.

According to the Los Angeles Herald, "The deceased, when examined, had no air in the lungs whatever, one of the surest signs that dissolution must have taken place before the body reached the water."

The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported the man was "about 55 years of age. He had gray hair and whiskers, the latter trimmed close to the face. His weight was about one hundred and seventy pounds. The body was dressed in a blue suit of clothes and checked shirt. The hole in the head was made by a large-sized bullet, probably a Winchester Rifle ball. There was $65 on the body when it was found. The money was securely sewed with a fine wire in the pocket of the pants and so secreted as to have almost been overlooked by the Coroner. There is no clew as to the circumstances of the death or identity of the deceased."

Orange County Coroner Frank Ey. (Courtesy First American Corp)

In fact, the body was that of David Crockett, a baker with a hazy past. 

Around May fourth Crockett had arrived in San Pedro from Los Angeles and checked in at Proche's Hotel & Restaurant. He said he was from Sacramento, but that his relatives lived in Springfield, Illinois. While in town, he idled about and unsuccessfully searched for someone willing write out his will for him. Finding no takers, he returned to Los Angeles. 

On May 9th, he returned to San Pedro, went into a bank, and drew out an amount of cash. That evening, he asked a hotel clerk if she would write his will for him. When she refused, he said she would soon discover why he'd made the request. Hours later, Crockett's hat and coat (with about $6 left in the pockets) were found abandoned on a pile of lumber on the San Pedro Lumber Company wharf.

San Pedro locals presumed he had killed himself. Once in the water, unusually strong tides that night would have pulled him past Smith's Island and out of the bay, and the usual down-coast currents could easily have carried him to Shell Beach.

Less than a week later, Orange County, Sheriff Lacy and Santa Ana Constable Jack Landell were investigating their mystery victim, absolutely confident they had a case of homicide on their hands. They didn't make their suspicions public immediately, not wanting to tip off the killer. Soon, they were on the trail of a man who had been on Smith's Island (just inside the entrance to San Pedro Bay), but who had left by boat about the same time as Crockett's disappearance.

Orange County Sheriff Theophilus “Theo” Lacy

Meanwhile photographs of the dead man were distributed around Southern California, and soon a positive identification was made. 

Now the San Pedro authorities had a body to go with their supposed suicide. Likewise, the Orange County authorities switched tracks completely, dropped their murder investigation, and adopted the suicide theory wholeheartedly.

But more than 120 years later, some of the facts still don't seem to jibe. 

Perhaps the missing rifle and bullet ended up at the bottom of the bay. But how likely is it that Crockett shot himself in the head with a Winchester rifle? Not only would that be fairly awkward, but one would think the lengthy news articles concerning his suspected suicide would have made mention of him owning, buying, or carrying a hard-to-conceal rifle. 

And where did the gun and bullet go? Into the bay? 

And more importantly, how could a man die from a gunshot on a wharf, have time for all the last traces of air to leave his lungs, and only then fall into bay -- All without leaving anything more than a hat and coat behind as evidence? At the very least, there should have been blood on the wharf.

Certainly, Crockett was preparing for his own death. But was he planning suicide, or did he know someone was coming to kill him?

And most of all, what was the rest of Crockett's story?

Perhaps some intrepid historian will stumble across at least a few more of the answers someday.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Why is W. H. Spurgeon called “Uncle Billy?”

The ever-bewhiskered William H. Spurgeon

I was recently asked why local historians sometimes refer to Santa Ana’s founding father, William Henry Spurgeon (1829-1915), as “Uncle Billy.” 

“’Uncle Billy’ seems too familiar,” writes one of my favorite readers. “Contemporaries may have called him that (and he may have even encouraged it), but it just seems weird to be referring to him that way now.  At this point, there's not anyone alive who would have called him that.”

It's a fair point. But one might also point out that Spurgeon was (as a very public figure and politician) known by the public as Uncle Billy and was often referred to as such in the press. It’s a bit like folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who was widely known as “Grandma Moses” and who is still regularly referred to in that way almost sixty years after her death. Likewise, at least some contingent of locals have been calling William Spurgeon “Uncle Billy” since at least the early 1890s.

My aforementioned reader replies that it would at least be an improvement to refer to him as Uncle Billy Spurgeon -- not just Uncle Billy -- since he's not as nationally well known as Grandma Moses and thus requires additional identification. Again, a  fair point.

But let's take a step back and look at the man himself,...

W. H. Spurgeon was born in Kentucky, raised in Missouri, and first came to California in 1852 to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. He returned to Missouri in 1859 but in 1865 returned overland to California with his wife Martha, his parents, and other relatives. When Martha died in 1867 he returned to Missouri again before finally coming back to California for good in 1869.

The third structure to bear the title of The Spurgeon Building

In 1868 and 1869, farmer Jacob Ross, Sr. bought a few thousand acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana from the heirs of the Yorba family. Upon his return to California, Spurgeon and a business associate, Major Ward Bradford, were looking for a place to establish a new town. An engineer who’d worked on partitioning the Yorbas’ rancho extolled the merits of that land to Spurgeon. So, in October 1869, Spurgeon and Bradford purchased seventy four acres from Ross for $594. The mustard on the land grew so high that Spurgeon had to climb a sycamore tree to see the property on which he’d just spent most of his life savings.

Bradford briefly owned the west half of the land before selling his interest and moving out of the area. Spurgeon owned the east half and made big plans. But it was initially a rough, pioneer life. In 1872, Spurgeon married Jennie English, who later recalled moving into the first house in town, at Sycamore St. and Second St, "which as yet had no roof, no doors and no windows."

Spurgeon mapped out a 24-block town site, which he named Santa Ana in honor of the old rancho. The original town boundaries were First St., Spurgeon St., Seventh St. and West St. (now Broadway). A street adjacent to the tree Spurgeon had climbed was appropriately named Sycamore. 

As the town grew, Spurgeon remained its chief booster and benefactor. He built the first road into town, he sold lots at low prices to encourage newcomers, and he asked various businesses to relocate to Santa Ana. He also started the town’s first store, the First National Bank of Santa Ana, the Santa Ana Gas & Electric Co., and the Santa Ana post office, where he served as Postmaster. 

Mrs. William Spurgeon, III and William Spurgeon IV plant a sycamore near the site of the original climbed by Uncle Billy. Historian Jim Sleeper (left) looks on. (Oct. 1976)

Spurgeon dug the town’s first artesian well and founded the town’s water company. He built roads from Anaheim to Santa Ana and on to Tustin, as well as the first road from Santa Ana to the coast. 

He built the Spurgeon Building at Fourth and Sycamore (the first of several with that name) and finagled to get his town included on the stagecoach line. He then served as the town’s Wells Fargo agent. He also sat on the boards of the Santa Ana Land Improvement Co., the Santa Ana Valley Walnut Growers’ Association, and the Santa Ana & Newport Railroad, and served for three years as president of the critically important Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. (SAVI). 

Perhaps most critically, in the late 1870s Spurgeon convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to bring its Anaheim line down into Santa Ana, bypassing the rival communities of Orange and Tustin and ensuring Santa Ana’s continued growth and prosperity.

It also quickly became one of the area’s most important pollical movers and shakers. In 1877 and 1878 he served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the portion of the county that included Santa Ana.

When the City of Santa Ana incorporated in 1886, Spurgeon was the obvious choice as the town’s first mayor. The following year – despite being an ardent Democrat in the Republican-leaning 78th District – he was also elected to the State Assembly. Over the next few years, Spurgeon’s combined efforts with Republican James McFadden helped lead to the 1889 creation of the County of Orange. This new county had Santa Ana as its county seat and William H. Spurgeon as the chairman of its first Board of Supervisors. Later, Spurgeon sold land to the county (at a discount) for a courthouse, and Orange County’s government has been centered in that part of town ever since.

The Spurgeons with a giant rose bush, Santa Ana, 1913.

An early use of Spurgeon’s nickname, “Uncle Billy,” appeared in a June 25, 1892 Los Angeles Times article about a meeting of local Democrat party bigwigs. It mentions that “Uncle Billy Spurgeon was the unanimous choice . . . for grand marshal of the evening.” 

Two years later, the Los Angeles Herald (Aug 14, 1894) referred to “Uncle Billy” in an article about Santa Ana Democrats, and never even mentioned his full name, assuming readers would already know.

In fact, newspapers from the Anaheim Gazette to the Santa Ana Standard soon began frequently referring to him casually as Uncle Billy or Uncle Billy Spurgeon.

The reasoning behind the moniker isn’t spelled out in print until a 1907 biographical article in the Santa Ana Register, which cited many of the accomplishments of “Uncle Billy Spurgeon, as he is lovingly called by all who know him.”

Indeed, because of all his efforts – and perhaps also because of his personality – the citizens of the burgeoning City of Santa Ana came to feel a real affection and kinship for their energetic, resourceful, and benevolent patriarch. From those warm feelings, it seems, sprang the moniker “Uncle Billy.”

Those who have studied local history – from Carey McWilliams to Terry Stephenson to Phil Brigandi – have run across this nickname countless times in newspapers and pioneer accounts. Accordingly, their own works sometimes reference “Uncle Billy” as well.

I'll admit I've used the nickname myself -- a habit I picked up from Brigandi, who picked it up from from Jim Sleeper (and possibly Don Meadows), who, in turn, undoubtedly learned it from a wide array of old-timers. 

Is it one of those quirky local mannerism that helps tie us together as a community across the generations? Is it an ongoing tribute to an avuncular pioneer? Or is it just weird and inappropriate? 

You be the judge.

Friday, April 30, 2021

El Salvador Park, Santa Ana

A modern photo of the community center at El Salvador Park

Although not one of the City of Santa Ana’s oldest parks, El Salvador Park – located on what’s now West Civic Center Drive in the heart of the Artesia-Pilar barrio (a.k.a. Colonia Artesia) -- is among its most historic. 

Plans for the park began in the mid-1950s, and city documents from early 1956 refer to its location by the working title "Eighth and Artesia Park Site." By October the name was abbreviated to "Artesia Park." And by 1957, construction on the park was well under way.

At their April 1, 1957 meeting, the City Council not only approved more upgrades for Artesia Park but also (in a seemingly unrelated action) unanimously approved a resolution requested by the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, "endorsing and supporting the establishment of the 'People to People' Program with the City of Santa Ana, El Salvador." People-to-People was a sister-city-type program organized by the U.S. State Department, intended to foster friendship between nations. 

Almost a year later, at a Feb. 3, 1958 meeting, the Council made another decision about their under-development park: "…At the oral request of E. H. Armstrong, Chairman of the People to People Program, … Artesia Park was renamed El Salvador Park.” 

The same proclamation also stipulated that “March 2, 1958 be proclaimed as El Salvador Day, as would “the first Sunday of March of each year thereafter.” The Council also went “on record as officially recognizing the People to People Program,” and directed City staff to authorize the “purchase a bronze plaque and [to] place same in El Salvador Park."

In Fall 1958, the City of Santa Ana purchased the final parcel needed to develop El Salvador Park. They then hired the architectural firm of Finnegan & Wilde to design the community building and in Nov. 1959 hired the R. L. Steinmetz Co. to build it. In June 1960, the city took bids on the construction of a parking lot there. Things were clearly taking shape. 

By later that same year, (according to locals who remember it,) a young Edward "Ted" Kennedy used the new park as a venue for a political rally in support of his presidential candidate brother, John F. Kennedy.

By January 1961, events were being held somewhat regularly in the new community center, and in 1962 Steinmetz was hired again to add handball courts to the park.

But El Salvador Park was destined to be home to much more than sports, playgrounds, and the usual community center fare. Over the years, it would be a bustling hub of activity – both good and bad. Wedged between John C. Fremont Elementary School, the little Corner Grocery store, and rows of modest homes, the park was the scene of low-rider cruise nights, family reunions, and political and social events of varying degrees of significance. 

On Sept. 12, 1970, the park played host to a large march memorializing journalist and activist Ruben Salazar, who’d been killed a couple weeks earlier in East L.A. during a protest by the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. 

Two years later, in early June 1972, about 250 primarily Latino and Black students from local high schools and junior high schools ditched class and marched to the park to protest school conditions. Their demands included hiring faculty, administration, and staff that reflected “the ethnic makeup of the community;” the addition of community oversite to prevent “injustices,” and the implementation of various measures to limit the school’s ability to discipline students. Massive suspensions at Valley High School and Smedley Intermediate School had helped spark the unrest. Ironically, many of the students participating in the protest march were immediately disciplined (i.e. given suspensions).

Cesar Chavez at El Salvador Park, 1972.
 On Oct. 19,1972, Cesar Chavez, noted activist and director of United Farm Workers, gave a brief speech against state ballot Proposition 22 at a rally at El Salvador Park. The controversial proposition, as Chavez saw it, would have limited farm workers' rights to unionize or strike. (It was defeated at the polls the following month.) Chavez spoke in both Spanish and English. Soft drinks and tamales were served. (Local historian Manny Escamilla says Cesar Chavez also spoke at El Salvador Park once during the Delano Grape Strike, which took place between 1965 and 1970.)

Since at least the late 1960s, the park has also been known as a hub for crime – from arson to narcotics to murder. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the gang known as F-Troop and the Mexican Mafia controlled the park. Both the L.A. Times and the Santa Ana Police Department called it "one of Santa Ana's deadliest neighborhoods."

In 1992, El Salvador Park was the site of a gathering of 200 members of fifty warring local Mexican-American gangs, called by Mexican Mafia leader Peter "Sana" Ojeda (a.k.a. “The O.C. Godfather”). It was said to be a truce, but police surveillance discovered another agenda. Ojeda addressed those assembled and told them to end drive-by shootings and to demand "taxation" from neighborhood drug dealers. It turned out this meeting was just a test run. Because it proved successful for the Mexican Mafia, they soon held similar meetings across Southern California. It was a critical turning point in the rise of the Mexican Mafia, which made gang crime more efficient (if no less lethal), much less visible to the public, and less blatant a target for police and politicians. 

According to journalist Sam Quinones – who has long covered gangs in California – this event ultimately changed a number of things. First, property values in old gang neighborhood went up – a boon to working-class folks whose homes were suddenly worth more. Secondly, those higher prices drove people on society’s margins out of previously low-rent homes and into homelessness. But it also made the average person on the street safer from violent crime. At least on the surface, professionalizing gang activity helped clean up the streets. 

For a host of reasons, events in unassuming little El Salvador Park have played a significant role in the course of California's history.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Japanese in O.C.: A brief introduction

At work in Orange County's once-burgeoning celery industry.

One occasionally hears claims (often made by Angelenos) that “Orange County isn’t very diverse.” But anyone who's spent more than a weekend here could tell you differently. People have been coming here from all over the world since long before this land was Orange County. The Japanese are among those who arrived early, stayed, contributed significantly, and became part of the very fabric of the region. 

Although Japanese laborers came to Orange County as early as the 1880s, the greater influx arrived around 1900. Most were from agricultural areas of Japan south or west of Tokyo, and their skills and talents were needed in a young county whose economy hinged almost entirely on farming. Many Japanese immigrants began their lives in California as field workers and gradually became farmers in their own right. Within ten years they were doing most of the work in our lucrative celery fields, were leasing land as sharecroppers, and were introducing the area to crops like strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. In 1908, a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between Japan and the U.S. prohibited the immigration of more Japanese laborers, but allowed the wives (including “picture brides”), children and parents of those already here to come to the United States. Unlike the earlier influx of Chinese laborers, the Japanese started families here and put down roots. 

Garden Grove Japanese Language School, 1991 (Now demolished.)

Also unlike the Chinese, the Japanese-Americans (a.k.a. Nikkei) were not primarily clustered in just a few small neighborhoods. Although certain communities, like Talbert (Fountain Valley), had more Japanese residents than others, Nikkei could be found across much of Orange County. 

Instead of gathering in “Japantowns” the community was brought together through involvement in groups like Japanese farming associations, women’s clubs, sports clubs (for kendo, judo, baseball, etc.) and Japanese prefectural associations (based on which region of Japan one’s family hailed from). Children, although American-born, were sent to Japanese language schools in the afternoons or on Saturdays, to learn the language and culture of their ancestors. 

Dedication of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, Warner Ave., Dec. 9, 1934.

Churches were also extremely important factors in creating and maintaining a Nikkei community in Orange County. They were social and cultural hubs as well as spiritual ones. The earliest such churches here were the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church (in what’s now Huntington Beach), the Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church, and the Orange County Buddhist Church and Japanese Language School in Talbert. The ministers of these churches often also served in a broader community leadership role, providing advice and mediation on a wide variety of issues. (All three of these churches remain today, although both the Presbyterians and Methodists have removed the word “Japanese” from their names.)

In 1935, city and county leaders held a banquet in Santa Ana to honor their Nikkei friends and neighbors. Obviously, not all of Orange County's roughly 1,700 Japanese Americans attended. But representatives of five local Japanese organizations were on hand, as well as prominent local famers and Los Angeles’ Consul General of Japan. There was entertainment and traditional Japanese dance, but the real point of the evening – as driven home by one prominent speaker after another – was to underscore the growing friendship and interdependence between Orange County’s Anglo population and the once-seemingly-foreign Nikkei community. 

Japanese Community Center & School, Crystal Cove. Built 1932. Is "Cottage 34" today.

Only eight years later, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, President Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, which ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to be rounded up and forced into incarceration camps. (Most from Orange County were sent to Poston, Arizona.) In this flagrant and massive violation of civil liberties, about 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their homes and land, including about 1,900 Orange Countians. Most were U.S. citizens. In some cases, neighbors held their land, equipment and animals for them until they could return. Far more often, they lost their homes, businesses and farms forever. And while some returned to Orange County after the war, the community was never the same again. 

Those who did return found a rapidly changing region, with less agriculture and a booming population of newcomers who often looked upon the Japanese more as vanquished enemies than as old friends and neighbors. Still, the Japanese- American population grew to include some of the region’s most prominent individuals, from Superior Court judges to successful business owners to elected officials.    

Living quarters, Poston, Arizona, during World War II

After raising $50,000 amongst themselves, in 1970 a consortium of local Japanese-American families created a beautiful Japanese garden and tea house adjacent to the shining new symbol of Orange County government – the Orange County Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. Despite all that had happened to them, they presented this magnanimous gift in gratitude to the county and in honor of their pioneer parents and grandparents who helped build the county. 

Today, more than 31,000 people of Japanese descent live in Orange County. A small percentage of them are descended from our pioneer Nikkei families. And like most locals, too few fully appreciate the important role Japanese-Americans played in shaping and building Orange County. 

Japanese garden dedication, Santa Ana Civic Center, Nov. 15, 1970

[Author's note: My thanks to Patti Hirahara, Stephanie George, Blythe Wilson and Doug McIntosh for their help. For more on the history of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Orange County, see the book Sowing Dreams, Cultivating Lives : Nikkei Farmers in Pre-World War II Orange County by Stephanie George and Carlota Haider. For more about Wintersburg, see Mary Urashima's blog: Historic Wintersburg or her book of the same title. To dig even deeper and do your own research, visit the amazing collections at the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral & Public History at CSU Fullerton.]