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.]

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Santa Ana Winds still blow

Detail from a 1936 Orange County historical map by Gladyce Ashby and Fred Groos for the WPA. Note the PR-friendly term "Santana, which had only been in sporadic use for the Santa Ana winds for 14 years.
When Orange Countians brag to relatives “back east” about our perfect weather, we usually fail to mention our meteorological dirty little secret: The Santa Ana winds. This odd phenomenon is among Southern California’s most characteristic and most unpleasant features. The winds have such an impact that they permeate our history, folklore and popular culture: From Bad Religion’s 2004 hit “Los Angeles Is Burning," back to Richard Henry Dana’s 1836 complaint about a "violent northeaster" at San Pedro.

Historian Eric Plunkett points out a very early reference. In a letter dated Dec. 31, 1812, the Acting Commandant of the San Diego Presidio, Lt. Francisco Maria Ruiz, reported "winds from the northeast that caused great damage to the wheat crop" at San Juan Capistrano.

In early January 1847, Commodore Stockton and his troops camped at the mouth of Santa Ana Canyon and were beset by the winds, which, he wrote, "continued to blow violently [and] which the enemy should have taken advantage of to attack us. Our weapons were chiefly fire-arms; his the lance; ...In such a gale... the difficulty of loading our arms would have proven a serious matter."

The Santa Anas begin when high and low pressure systems are arranged in such a way that thin, high-altitude air is pushed rapidly down the southwestern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.  As the air descends it becomes more compressed, which both heats and dries the air. In short, it’s miserable.

These hot, sporadic gales from the northeast drive our worst wildfires, uproot trees, ravage crops, damage roofs, chap lips until they’re bloody, turn skin and eyes dry and itchy, send the allergic into paroxysms, and send asthmatics to the hospital. In the days before eucalyptus wind breaks, it was common for the Santa Anas to flatten whole structures, as they did with El Modena’s first Quaker church in 1887 and with one of Tustin’s still-under-construction blimp hangars in 1942. 
The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon (shown here around the 1910s), which runs from the east edge of Placentia to the west edge of Corona. The canyon, in turn, is named for the Santa Ana River running through it.
Some even believe that the dry winds have an effect on our personalities. Raymond Chandler, describing the Santa Ana winds in his 1938 short story “Red Wind,” wrote, “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” 

The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon where they blow with tremendous force and from whence they seem to emanate. The earliest published reference yet found to “Santa Ana winds” was in the January 7, 1871 edition of the Anaheim Gazette, which reported that potentially rain-bearing clouds had been "obliged to give way, and leave the field to the dry and major-curse bearing Santa Ana wind."
The Santa Ana winds have driven most of Orange County’s worst brushfires, including the terrible Laguna Beach Fire of Oct. 1993.
In fact, it was quite possibly the early pioneers of Anaheim who gave the wind its name. Orange County Historian Jim Sleeper once suggested as much. And certainly Anaheim would have enjoyed seeing the hated winds permanently connected to their rival city, Santa Ana.

Meanwhile, the people of the City of Santa Ana have never been pleased to have their name attached to such an unpleasant phenomenon. Alternate names have been applied over time, including devil winds, zantannas, northers, red winds or east winds. But no name ever replaced “Santa Ana.” 
Detail from 1929 map of Orange County by Jean Goodwin for the AAUW.
In 1887, the Santa Ana Herald’s editor began promoting the name “Riverside winds” as an alternative.  Sleeper pointed out that it really would have been a better name, since Santa Ana is “only a recipient and not the source of these flatulent blasts of Mother Nature.”

To this, Riverside County Historian Steve Lech responds, "The problem with this logic is that they don't originate here in Riverside either. Perhaps if [people] wanted to name them for their origin, the term 'Cajon Winds' or 'Mohave Winds' would be more apropos."
Sign on a basement door in the old O.C. Register building, Santa Ana (Author's photo)
The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and local real estate salesmen began complaining about the moniker “Santa Ana winds” as early as 1902. They were no doubt dismayed when the U.S. Weather Bureau finally codified the name by identifying the phenomenon as a “Santa Ana” wind in a 1903 book entitled Climatology of California.

But it wasn’t until 1922 that Santa Ana resident Cotton Mather (a descendant of THE Cotton Mather,) proposed changing the unpleasant wind’s name to Santana, to lessen its perceived connection to the city. He told the Santa Ana Register, erroneously, that santana is an Indian word meaning windstorm, and he encouraged local newspapers to start using the new name. 

Although most people continued to call the winds by their correct name, one occasionally still hears an unwitting reference to Mather’s “Santana” P.R. ploy. Santiago Charter (Middle) School in Orange even uses the "Santanas" -- represented as a tornado-like whirlwind -- as their mascot. 
Firefighters clear brush as the wind-driven Green River Fire (1948) bears down on a Silverado Canyon church.
Other attempts at obfuscating the source of winds' name have also been attempted, with less success. 

A 1958 article for Westways magazine, recalled that "another person held that the natives had known the wind as 'The Wind of the Evil Spirits,' because of its dryng effect on leaves, berries and nuts. Mission fathers equated 'evil spirits' with Satan and labeled the wind 'Satan's Wind.'" 

There was zero evidence for this theory, and nobody went for it.
Nellie Goff in the ruins of her wind-ravaged house, circa 1950s.
Yet another posited that the name had been given by the Portola Expedition of 1769. This was also dead wrong. The expedition was well-documented and there is no such mention in their journals of noteworthy winds. This tall tale did, however, tangentially brush against one element of truth: The priests in the expedition had named the Santa Ana Mountains while camped on St. Anne's feast day, and the expedition's soldiers had had later named the Santa Ana River for the mountains from which they thought it originated. Later, Santa Ana Canyon was named for the river, and eventually the winds were named for the canyon through which they frequently blew.

For thousands or maybe millions of years, the Santa Anas have blown violently a few times a year – primarily between October and March. But if it seems like the winds have become more frequent (albeit a bit less violent) in recent years, you may be onto something. Some scientists believe that climate change is not only expanding the Santa Ana wind “season,” but is also producing drier winds. Santa Ana conditions seem to be rapidly becoming the new normal.  If this keeps up, we may all have to move “back east” where the weather’s better.
Damage to oil derrick from Santa Ana winds (Courtesy Santa Ana Public Library)

[Parts of this article were drawn from several earlier articles by the author, which appeared in Orange Coast magazine, the OCHS’ County Courier, and the O.C. History Roundup blog. The article also appeared in a somewhat similar combined form later in the March 2018 County Connection newsletter.]

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Desert Jim Mine, Knott’s Berry Farm

The Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, 1940s.
 When Walter Knott opened his faux “Ghost Town” on his berry farm in 1941, one of the original points of interest was the Desert Jim Mine (a.k.a. Desert Jim's Diggin's) – a tableau located between the Ghost Town Grill and the Drug Store on the south side of Main Street. It appeared as if a deep mine shaft (actually a shallow hole) had been sunk between the two buildings, with a hoist and various equipment at the top. 

The scene was designed by Ghost Town’s first artist/designer Paul Swartz, but within a year or so it bore an explanatory panel designed by Swartz’s replacement, Knott’s longtime in-house artist Paul von Klieben. The panel read,…

"DESERT JIM'S DISCOVERY 80 YEARS AGO -- A tiny vein of high grade ore kept Jim hopefully working for 20 years, driving a 700-foot tunnel through solid rock -- Just enough gold to provide a living and toiling ever onward he dreamed of the riches the widening of that little vein would bring.

"The crude homemade wheelbarrow and the little dump car helped get the ore out. Sorted, the high grade carried to the arrastra down by a spring half a mile away was ground to powder from which the gold was extracted with quicksilver. This exhibit, arrastra, wheelbarrow, dump car, rocks, etc., depict a real mining venture 45 miles across the desert from what is now Baker, California.

"Picture the labor and patience required to get gold from the desert with the few crude tools used by Desert Jim. With this crude blower he made his own tools."

Paul von Klieben drawing from the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition, circa 1942.

This tableau in Knott’s Ghost Town reflected a very particular slice of California history. As the Gold Rush faded out, prospectors began looking farther and farther afield for better diggin’s. By the early 1860s, many were searching for gold and silver in the Mojave. But making a living there proved grueling. The logistics of bringing in water, fuel and other supplies were extremely difficult. High-quality ore was scarce, and the available equipment made mining slow and arduous. 

By the mid-1860s, the desert mining boom was already waning, with investors becoming more reticent and with Indian hostilities increasing. Then, starting around the 1880s, the yield from many of the remaining productive mines began to decrease.  The mines that survived were mostly large-scale operations.

A blurb about Knott’s Desert Jim Mine, printed in the December 1941 edition of Desert Magazine, stated that the "wheelbarrow, tiny dump cart and remaining tools" were all brought to Knott's from the original Desert Jim Mine site, "40 miles . . . from what is now Baker."

A small feature about the display in the Ghost Town News Souvenir Edition (published at Knott's Berry Farm, circa 1942) read, "Come on and I'll show you JIM'S MINE. That's a nice tribute to Jim. You know how some of them fellows get the fever -- just pack up and leave everything -- to hunt sudden riches. It says on the board that old Jim located enough gold to keep him going until he died. Well, we all have a right to pick our own way through life . . ."

The accompanying illustration by von Klieben later also decorated the menu of the adjacent Ghost Town Grill.

Paul Swartz hoists Walter Knott out of the Desert Jim Mine, Ghost Town, circa 1940.

Work to expand the Grill began in early 1953. According to the February 1953 issue of the Knotty Post employee magazine, the plan was to add seventy-five new seats to the restaurant and that "the space between the Grill and the Print Shop [the same building as the Drug Store] will be utilized as will a portion of the old Steak House kitchen behind the print shop."  At this time, von Klieben’s replacement, artist Otheto Weston, filled in the Desert Jim Mine and designed and built a new entrance for the restaurant. 

Attempts to locate the original circa 1860s-1880s Desert Jim Mine, forty to forty-five miles from Baker, have not yet panned out. But numerous clues, near misses, and possible leads for further research have come to light.

The only known/documented Desert Jim Mine I could find was near Surprise, Arizona, circa 1883, and seems unlikely to be the correct mine. 

Weston's plan for the new Ghost Town Grill entrance, displacing Desert Jim, 1953.
Three mines closer to the target: Jim, Jim #1 and Jim #2, appear to be roughly the correct distance from Baker (T 19/20 N, R 9 E, SBBM), and were located near what’s now the Kingston Range Wilderness nature preserve. However, these mines lack the “Desert” half of the “Desert Jim” name that would clinch the connection. 

Further muddying the waters, a good number of mines named “Lucky Jim” have also come and gone, including some in the Mojave. Indeed, in helping me search for the Desert Jim Mine, both desert mining historian Larry Vredenburgh and Ken Stack of Stack’s Liberty Ranch came up with “Lucky Jim” as the closest match. 

Stack found references to a Lucky Jim Mine, near Carbonate Peak in the Old Woman Mountains of San Bernardino County, about fifty miles southeast of Baker (34.57944 - 115.13583). This mine, he says, “was worked for just about twenty years,” matching the description on Knott’s Desert Jim Mine panel. “Seems it was abandoned in 1930, so the opportunity to pick up any scattered equipment would have been good for Knott.”
A tourist poses in Ghost Town. (Courtesy Eric Lynxwiler)
Vredenburgh found references to a “700 foot long” tunnel (also matching the panel’s description) at the “the Lucky [Jim] Mine owned by a J. E. Stevenson, located about thirteen miles southeast of Baker.” Note the substantially different distance from Baker.

Suffice it to say that the original mine’s exact name and location bear further investigation. 

But if, as Knott’s claimed, “Desert Jim” indeed worked his own little mine in the Mojave for twenty years, beginning around 1860 and ending around 1880, old Jim was undoubtedly a tenacious, rugged, and optimistic soul, active throughout the halcyon years (such as they were) of small-time prospectors working little claims in the California desert. 
Close-up of Jim's dump car. (Courtesy Chris Merritt) 
As such, the little scene was the perfect fit for Ghost Town, in which Walter Knott used the setting of a forgotten mining town to not only entertain the public but also promote the ideals of hard work, perseverance, entrepreneurism and independence.

[Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler and Chris Merritt for letting me pick their brains and photo collections; to Ken Stack, Eric Plunkett, and Larry Vredenburgh for searching through old mining reports and other dusty tomes for me; to Allen Palovik for the technical assist; and to Steve Lech and Nick Cataldo for pointing me toward additional clues.]

Friday, April 09, 2021

Orange County’s Last Train Robbery

Wanted poster for Orange County’s last train robber. (Courtesy UCI)
Although cattle and cowboys still roamed the hills of Orange County in the 1920s, the days of the “Wild West” were largely over. Covered wagons, Indian villages and shootouts in the streets were by then the stuff of Tom Mix movies. And certainly it was assumed that the era of train robbery was over.

But on Aug. 24, 1925, sometime between a 7:40 p.m. departure from Oceanside and an 8:42 p.m. arrival in Santa Ana, the baggage and mail car of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway’s Number 75 train became the scene of a robbery and murder. 

The bandit first climbed on top of the already-rolling car and pried open a ventilator. Express agent Elmer Ellsworth Campbell, 62, was inside. As Campbell looked up to see what the noise was, he was shot through the head from above. As the train rattled swiftly down the tracks, the criminal attached a rope ladder to the ventilator with army picket pins and climbed down next to the car’s door. While Campbell lay unconscious in a spreading pool of blood, the robber used a hatchet to break a window in the door and force entry. 

Although ruthless, the criminal had clearly never robbed a train before. Had he known his “business,” he would have been aware of which kinds of mail bags held items of potential value and which did not. Instead, he went through a lot of bags of worthless mail and never disturbed any bags of registered mail. He also came unprepared to blow open the car’s safe. 

Authorities later said the criminal probably expected to find a large shipment of gold from the San Diego back country headed for the San Francisco mint. Instead, he seems to have come away with $27 from an express company strong box. After taking the cash, he escaped through the far door of the car, either immediately upon arrival in Santa Ana or while still en route.
The Santa Fe (ATSF) depot in Oceanside, 1931. (Courtesy Kansas Historical Society)
As the train pulled into Santa Ana, the baggage master, Tim Hill, pointed out the rope ladder and broken window to telegrapher Frank Claypool. The two entered the car and discovered Campbell, unconscious but still alive. Soon the depot was awash in policemen and railroad detectives. Campbell was sent to Santa Ana Valley Hospital where he died several days later without ever having regained consciousness. 

Some stories indicate that more than $2,000 was taken from the mail sacks, but contemporary accounts indicate that the postmaster had no idea what was in the mail on the #75. He wasn’t even able to say with certainty that any mail had been taken.

Some speculated that two robbers had worked in tandem on the train and that at least one or two others had assisted in the planning and getaway stages of the crime. 

The Santa Fe Railroad and the American Railway Express Co. each offered thousand dollar rewards for the arrest and conviction of the assailants. Reward posters and embellished stories spread across the Southwest, with some newspapers even claiming that a $10,000 reward had been offered for the criminals, dead or alive. 

The public was understandably eager to provide “tips.” It began with reports from Riverside, Lake Elsinore, Santa Ana and San Onofre of a large dark-colored car racing through their respective towns late on the night of the robbery. Another tip led to the arrest of two known Los Angeles criminals and Santa Ana hairdresser Pearl Anderson, who were all later released.
The Santa Fe depot in Santa Ana, 1925. (Courtesy Rob Richardson)
Later, a supply sergeant at the Monterey Presidio – freshly arrested for trying to rob a theater safe – claimed his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Clarence Kennedy Aikin, was really the brains behind the Santa Fe robbery. The authorities in Monterey County were greatly excited about this breakthrough. The San Diego grand jury was looking forward to investigating as well. The press waited anxiously for a sensational trial. But the story fell apart almost immediately under the first attempts at investigation. Aikin was released from suspicion but resigned his commission, his reputation unjustly sullied by poor journalism.

Orange County’s last train robber was never found. 

[This article originally appeared in the Orange County Historical Society's County Courier in early 2019, and another version appeared later in the April 2019 edition of County Connection.]

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Historic Wintersburg update

The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church in 1910.

In the April 1 edition of Rafu Shimpo, former Assemblyman Warren Furutani wrote about some of those opposing the preservation of Historic Wintersburg – an important Japanese American historical site in Huntington Beach. While many of the pro-bulldozer crowd are driven by the usual greed or banal ignorance, some of the opposition to preservation is, he says, “based on a simmering and festering hate against Asians, specifically Japanese.”

He writes that because of Mary Urashima’s work to save Wintersburg, “she has become a ‘proxy’ target for the haters and racists that have come out from … the shadows to attack Mary. But in actuality the attacks are on the Japanese and Asian community. …Mary has received graphics and pictures depicting anti-Asian attitudes, old World War II-type anti-Japanese ads and one superimposing Mary’s face on a woman bound and placed on the railroad tracks... In other words, a death threat couched in an old-time graphic.”

Furutani calls on civic leaders and the general public to “…Shine a bright light on these cowardly actions by anonymous haters and racists. We can stand with Mary and the Wintersburg Project. The bright, warm light of the truth and exposing the festering hate that lingers just below the surface and right under our noses will drive these cowards back under the rocks from whence they came.”

I do not believe that there's a large number of people in Huntington Beach (despite recent smears against this city) who are racist. But after watching the Wintersburg battle for many years, I know that at least some of that kind of evil exists in our midst. And I know that even a relative handful of dregs can do a lot of harm and deserve to be called out for their egregious behavior. 

Yes, world history is full of racism (and other unfortunate isms) at every turn -- but it's most disheartening to see the study and preservation of local history subverted to serve modern racist purposes (or any other stupid social agenda). Local history is a search for the truth and can be a lot of fun, too. Seeing it bastardized and used as a tool to spread ignorance and grind axes is infuriating. And seeing Mary threatened is sad and extremely upsetting.


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Review: Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection, Vol. II

Ken Stack asked me to give him my thoughts on Volume II of his Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection book series, published last year. I thought it might be more useful to share my thoughts with my readers also. (Full disclosure: Ken is a friend of mine. But I don't think that's swayed my opinion of his work.)

In 2020, Knott's Berry Farm (barely) celebrated it's 100th year amid the COVID-19 lockdowns. As far as I can tell, the best Knott's souvenir one could have acquired during the centennial was Ken's beautiful new book. And if you have anything more than a faint interest in the history of Knott’s, you need this book. 

Ken has one of the most amazing collections of theme park material anywhere, and he makes the most of it here, showing off highlights of his photo, ephemera and artifact collections. There’s enough explanatory text to keep the newbies from getting confused, along with a sprinkling of newly unearthed facts, but it’s largely a *visual* feast. 

If you want to read a history of Knott’s, Ken points out, you should find a copy of Merritt and Lynxwiler’s Knott’s Preserved. (An observation with which I concur.) But if you want to take it the next step and are particularly fond of theme park eye candy, you need to check out Stack’s Liberty Ranch Collection.

The bulk of Volume II is about Knott’s Berry Farm, but there are also smaller sections of the California Alligator Farm (which stood across La Palma Ave. from Knott’s) and Movieland Wax Museum (which was just down the street), and Ken has drummed the best photos I’ve ever seen of these two lesser roadside attractions.  

But back to Knott’s,…

I’ve been working with the entire Knott’s Berry Farm and Bud Hurlbut Collections at the County Archives for well over a decade now, and I sometimes get to thinking I’ve seen everything there is to see on the subject. I clearly have not. Or at least I hadn’t until I picked up this book. There are detailed colored images showing previously seldom seen or completely unseen views of favorite attractions. Everything from a color(!) photo of the little devil who ran Knott’s “volcano,” to colorful hand-painted signs from the 1940s, to a montage of tourist snapshots that reminded me just how amazing Boot Hill was when I was a kid. But better still (from my perspective) are features that were new to me. For example: The lifelike miner working inside the gold mine (near today’s GhostRider), the interior view of the “peek-ins” in the long-gone Indian Village, and the patriotic “My Credo” cards handed out by Walter Knott at the opening of his replica of Independence Hall. 

There are some gems in this book that are worth the price of admission all by themselves, including the full transcript of the Covered Wagon Show (1941) and before-during-and-after photos of Ken’s restoration of artist Paul Von Klieben’s giant portrait of Geronimo (which once hung in the Knott’s Steakhouse). 

The book also cleared up some hazy areas of my Knott’s knowledge, even after all these years. The book includes, for instance, an early 1950s map of the “farm” that shows how pedestrian traffic flowed through the property in that era. Likewise, a photo spread on the short-lived buffalo corrals finally helped me pinpoint their location in my mind’s eye. In fact, I think any Knott’s fan will find a lot of “aha” moments in this book.

There were parts of the book that made me laugh – like the over-the-top 1940s promotional piece (on page six) by Ghost Town News publisher and ex-con Nichols Field Wilson, stumping for Knott’s Berry Place (pre-1947) with all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

And there were parts that I found rather touching, including Ken’s acknowledgement of the contributions of the late Phil Brigandi and John Waite. 

Every page of the book is full color. The printing is crisp and color-correct and the paper was clearly selected to show it all off. There’s a slight sheen to the black areas when held under bright light – but that’s an observation from someone who’s curious about print processes rather than a complaint. This is a quality product in more ways than one.

And curiously, the day after reading this book, I'm left with the feeling that I've actually just *been* to (an earlier incarnation of) Knott's Berry Farm. 

If I have any complaint about the book, it’s that I want more. (For example, I’d like the map of Jungle Island to be larger, so I can see more detail.) But more is, with any luck, coming in the form of Volume III someday. 

Both volumes I and II can be purchased through Ken’s website:

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Father O’Sullivan and the Spanish Flu in Capistrano

Socially distanced on Camino Capistrano, circa 1918. (Photo courtesy O.C. Archives)

San Juan Capistrano, famous for capitalizing on the romance of all things Spanish, found nothing romantic about the Spanish Influenza of 1918. The journals of Monsignor St. John O’Sullivan of Mission San Juan Capistrano provide a unique snapshot of the way the dreaded virus impacted this small Orange County community and other contemporary sources help flesh out the tale.

Even as the Great War raged across Europe, the “Spanish Influenza” (a.k.a. the grip, la grippe, or the 1918 Flu) ultimately infected about a third of the world’s population and killed at least fifty million people. (Keep in mind, the world population then was about 1.8 billion, compared to today’s 7.8 billion.) Cases of the Spanish flu began showing up in Southern California in mid-September 1918 and by mid-October the epidemic had a strong foothold in Orange County. By then, the County Hospital was closed to visitors, public gatherings were sparsely attended, and churches suspended services. Meanwhile, the County Jail acted like something of an incubator.

Each city was largely left to decide for themselves how best to combat the virus. Many promoted the use of gauze masks. Most closed their schools at least for a time, often continuing education via correspondence. Various schemes for quarantine were instituted.

The disease came through the region in three main waves – spring, fall and winter – and wreaked havoc each time. No area of the county was spared, but largely Hispanic communities like Delhi and San Juan Capistrano were particularly hard hit. 

Father St. John O’Sullivan (1874-1933) was directed to San Juan Capistrano from Arizona by Father Alfred Quetu in 1910. O’Sullivan suffered from tuberculosis, and a parish in a small sleepy town with a good climate seemed like something he might be able to manage in the time he had left. Hopes for his survival and his ability to accomplish anything were low. But O’Sullivan fell in love with the town, regained much of his strength, lived another 23 years, and profoundly changed San Juan Capistrano, its historic mission, and California forever.

Starting in a tent amid the ruins of the Old Mission (which hadn’t had a priest in residence since 1886), he gradually brought the place back to life – both as a church and as an important historic site. He restored the Serra Chapel, replaced weeds with gardens, rebuilt walls with his own hands, added a parish school, and methodically turned the old ruins back into Mission San Juan Capistrano.  He also wrote books about Capistrano and popularized the local legend of the swallows. Throughout the state, his work served as the model for how to preserve and restore the old California Missions.

O’Sullivan was also beloved locally as an excellent parish priest, a good citizen and a fine man. One part of that reputation, no doubt, came from his time assisting the community during the difficult months of the Spanish flu epidemic. 

Every day during the pandemic, Dr. Ruggles Allerton Cushman (1856-1954) – who lived in and had a busy practice in Santa Ana – would come down to San Juan Capistrano to tend to the ill. He would arrive at or before 10 o'clock each morning and meet O’Sullivan at the Mission. Together, they went from house to house, visiting the afflicted.

Newspapers gave daily death counts and case counts, although they were wildly inaccurate, leaving out many unreported cases, including quite a few of those living in the country between incorporated cities. Likewise, County death records fail to fully paint the picture, as the causes of death listed for many are listed as afflictions likely caused by a preceding case of influenza. For instance, while the causes of death for many during 1918 are listed clearly as “Influenza,” “Spanish Influenza,” ‘Pneumonia ‘Influenza,’” or “Lobar Pneumonia ‘Influenza,’” others are simply listed as “Pneumonia” or “Lobar Pneumonia,” leaving the underlying cause of the pneumonia in question. Sometimes, however, it's possible to make educated guesses, as in the case of Jennie Lopez, age 22, who died of “Lobar Pneumonia” on October 24, 1918, just a week after two members of her family died of “Pneumonia ‘Influenza’.”

Father St. John O'Sullivan

The whereabouts of O’Sullivan’s original journals are unknown, but luckily, famed ethnologist John Peabody Harrington transcribed his entries for 1918 and 1919 into his own notes. Notice that for each entry, O’Sullivan kept a running tally of cases in Capistrano and even went back to correct his own math at one point. A transcription of these entries follows in bold type, interspersed with other information (in italics) to provide context. By the time of the first of these entries, Santa Ana was the only large city in Orange County still “open.” Appropriately, the first entry tells how “la grippe” came to San Juan Capistrano:

Oct. 23, 1918 - Wednesday - The influenza appeared among walnut pickers in the orchard attended by Barns. A young man, Mexican, came on the stage from El Toro on Sunday afternoon last. The same night he was taken sick. Tuesday morning, Dr. Cushman was called from Santa Ana and found two others, a man and a woman also sick. This morning (Wednesday) two other men were sick in a neighboring tent. 

Have warned all to stay at home as much as possible. Saw trustees Woodward and Rosenbaum and they closed the school yesterday afternoon. Got them to close last Wednesday but they opened up again Monday. Asked Dan Salazar and he closed his pool room. No public mass Sunday or Sunday week, but about ten came anyway last Sunday.

By October. 26, two hundred and seventy-six cases of the Spanish Influenza had been reported to the County Health Officer, with most of those coming from "south" Orange County. (South Orange County was then considered anything south of about Katella Ave. in Anaheim) were in short supply at the County Hospital (now the site of UCI Medical Center) and patients sometimes had to be cared for by relatives or other volunteers. Doctors were also in shorter supply than usual, with several of them serving in the military during the war.

Oct. 29 - Tuesday - No public mass last Sunday - 1 at mass, except household. So far, the following had the influenza, all of them developed since last Friday, and as well as I can remember in the order named: Reginaldo Yorba, Librada Yorba, Fidel Yorba, Ernesto Salazar, John and George Hunn, Adela Ricardes, Cristin Garcia, Dan Garcia, Clemencia and Ventura Garcia, Dan Salazar, Mrs. [Magdalena] Salazar, Eduardo Salazar, Pete Rios. [Pete Rios] was brought to county hospital last night, and I learn by phone that [he] is in a dangerous condition this afternoon, 4 p.m.  Milo Stevens and family up the Trabuco are reported all down with the influenza. 

Miguel Aguilar is down with it. All the walnut house help are now sick with it except apparently Mr. Van der Leck. They are Miguel Aguilar, Fidel Yorba, Cristina Garcia (Mrs. "Slats" Watenburg), and Ventura and Clemencia Garcia [?], Adela [?].

By late October, the practice of quarantining flu-infected individuals and households was becoming significantly more common in Southern California. On October 29, the Santa Ana Register reported that 113 homes in Santa Ana were quarantined, public gatherings were prohibited, numerous local doctors were down ill, and there was little chance of the schools being reopened the following week. "Every bed in the County Hospital was filled. Nearly all of the new patients were Mexicans. The hospital has been going ahead heroically under heavy odds. With illness on the staff and the work very heavy, the hospital has been doing excellent work. Just at present there is a decided shortage in nurses... The most serious phase of the situation so far as getting the flu under control is the indifference and ignorance of a large share of the Mexican population. Many of the Mexicans resent quarantine keenly and use diverse means of breaking it. ...It is almost impossible to keep the Mexicans from visiting the sick. There is little question but that there are a good many more cases of influenza among the Mexicans than the doctors or health authorities know about. A large proportion of the deaths that have occurred have been among the Mexicans. Failure to take care of themselves, crowded and insanitary conditions in their homes ... makes the disease more deadly among them."

Oct. 30 - Dr. Cushman here last night. We visited nine houses: Salazar, 4 sick with the influenza. Yorbas, 3 sick. Andres Garcia 3, Filipe Garcia 2, Mike Aguilar 2, Hunn 2, Angel Caperon 1, Joe Ricardes 3, Santos Yorba 1 (doubtful), Vicente Oliveras 2, Salazars 1. 

Tonight, the doctor came again. At Mike Aguilar's, two more sick. At Caperons, one more. At Andres Garcia's, one more. Found John Lobo, wife and three children sick. This [makes] 37 cases among our people. Simmons and wife and one or two children sick.

Pete Rios taken to County hospital night before last from Milo Stevens up the Trabuco with [pneumonia] from the flu.

Vida Van der Leck returned from L.A. last Thursday just recovering from it. All the Olivares family of [Gasa?] seem to have had it and recovered.

Dr. R. A. Cushman

On Halloween the Santa Ana Register reported on a different kind of mask than those usually associated with the holiday: "Masks are rapidly disappearing in business houses. They have not been worn very extensively in this city, and some doctors maintain that there is more danger in their use by inexperienced people than without them. Proper sterilization is necessary to make the masks safe, and it is said that very few people take the proper precaution. Some are known to have taken a mask after boiling it and placed it in a bag in which soiled masks had been carried." The epidemic did nothing, however, to curtail trick-or-treating and other Halloween shenanigans.

Nov. 1 - Apparently no new cases yesterday, but today Dr. Cushman came in the afternoon to see Ubaldo Manriquez. I did not know the doctor was here until after he left. Immediately phoned for him. Vicente Olivares’ "Bill" down with it. Gracia Olivares, Clotilde Garcia, Beatriz Garcia, Tula de Rios, Delfina Rios, Florencia Rios, John Agular are those who fell sick today -- and Ubaldo Manriquez. Nine new cases. 37+9=46

Nov. 2 - Six new cases today. Jesus and Gabriel Caperon, Dona Balbineda and little David Yorba. Lillie is better. Two cases near Serra. Paul Bucheim and [the wife of one of the section house men got it.] 

The section house was where the men who ran the local railroad operations lived. Serra was the name for the old rail stop at Capistrano Beach.

Nov 3 - Sunday - New cases, Lenora, Juanita and Daniel Rios, and Beatrix Garcia. Joe Lopez, Rosa Aguilar and her two children Crescencia and the baby. 8=51=59

Nov. 4 - No new cases today that I know of.

Nov. 5 - Fe Ramos, Octavia Ochoa, Sara de Belasquez, Andres Garcia, Virginia Watenburg (age 4) - 5 new cases today. Baby of Pedro Harday died today but not of the influenza. Also Marcos, Rosa's little baby sick. 6+59=65

Nov. 6 - New cases: Joe Yorba, Josephine Rios, Grace Combs, Teodoro Olivares. 4+65=69

Nov. 7 - New cases: Joe Olivares and two children, Hortensia and baby. Rosenda de Ramos and Esperanza, Ramon Rios. Nieves de Sepulveda and baby. Lorenza de Manriquez. 11+65=76

Gave John Aguilar, who has developed pneumonia, all the sacraments. The war ended today and the bells were run to announce it by Albert Watenburg, Julian Aguilar and one other (false alarm).

"I can't see that the epidemic is letting up," Dr. C. D. Ball told the Register. "There are about twelve burials a day in the nearby cemetery. The south end of the county from Huntington Beach to San Juan Capistrano is rotten with it. I should say one-third of the houses have it." Dr. Cushman added, "I think it is wrong to quarantine heads of families. Families have been shut up, and no way to get food. There should be an inspector go to every quarantined family every day, and money appropriated to meet their wants. If it was cholera or smallpox, people would be wild. They are indifferent to this, it seems, yet it is a terrible disease--a terrible disease. I am not in favor of keeping the schools closed."

Federal health warning, Santa Ana Register, 10-17-1918

On November 7, the Orange County Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance No. 159. This emergency measure prohibited "the assembling and congregating of persons in public places, and public gatherings, without permission of the County Health Officer..." It called out such examples as "any public school, church, theater, pool or billiard room, dance hall, lodge room, club room or [public gatherings in] private homes out of incorporated municipalities." Violators could be fined up to $50 or jailed for up to 10 days.

Nov. 8 - New cases: Baby of Joe Olivares (Two others beside those recorded had it and recovered without doctor.) Francisco Ramos, Manuel Manriquez, Myrtle Combs. 6+76=82

False alarm about the end of the war.

Nov. 9 - New cases: Tom Ramos Sr., Tom Ramos Jr., Consuelo Stanfield, Margarita (Lopez), baby of Anita, Antonio. Mother and Anita had it and recovered without doctor. 82+8=90

Mrs. McHenry and oldest girl. 90+2=92

Nov. 10 - New cases: Clarence Mendelson, Aurilio Lopez. Newly found being sick some days. Delfina Sepulveda, Leguarda de Sepulveda, and eight at Jimenez. 12+92=104

Lillie Yorba had relapse - pneumonia. Mike Aguilar has bad interior left ear. Little Girl and wife of McHenry sick Friday 2+104=106.

Nov. 11 - War ended at 11 today French time. Brought Lilly to hospital today. Went with her in ambulance to County Hospital. Gave her sacraments. Did not visit all today. Only new cases I know of are Earl Stanfield and the grandmother, Refugio de Rios. 2+106=108. 

Found Candido Jimenez with pneumonia, fever 104°. Brought him and rest of family pills.

Nov. 12 - New cases: Jesus Maria Lopez, Jesusita. Baby boy at Lopez. Voila Keller de Aguilar, Gussie Mendelson, Willie Forbes, Jr., Guadalupe de Perez, Adela Lopez. Newly found, Francisca and Erolinda Jimenez. 10+108=118

Lilly reported better this evening. Lorenza de Manriquez and Candido Jimenez very sick. Mrs. McHenry had bad nose bleed this evening. Candido Jimenez had 104 2/5° this afternoon. Ten of them are sick.

By now there was a clear pattern throughout the county in which predominantly Mexican neighborhoods – which often held more family members and more generations per household – were being hit much harder by influenza than were predominately white neighborhoods. By mid-November, white parents in Santa Ana were requesting that any reopened schools be segregated with specific schools for the Mexicans. “This is a temporary adjustment,” reported the Register. “It is proposed to leave to the next school board the problem of a permanent adjustment.”

Fr. O'Sullivan in the Mission's Sacred Garden

Nov. 13 - New cases: Baby of Edonardo Perez, and he himself newly found, Eugene Arce. 3+118=121

Nov. 14 - New cases: William Forbes, Sr., and Francisca de Lopez. 2+121=123

Nov. 15 - Martin, Basilio and Theofila Perez, children. 3+123=126

Nov. 16 - Tiby Marquez, Mrs. William Forbes, Ysidro. 3+126=129. 

Gave Candida Jimenez all the sacraments this afternoon. Guadalupe de Perez had 105° fever at 3 P.M. Tom Jimenez came down from Camp Fremont this morning in answer to night letter I sent him. Took Richard Mendelson - only one in his house not sick - over to Juan Yorba's. Error in numbers, McHenrys recorded twice. 129-2=127

Nov. 17 - Sunday - Found no new cases today. Dr. Cushman here in evening to see Candido who is very low. Heart good, temperature 102°, but lungs almost filled up. Guadalupe de Perez very bad, 104°. Doctor advises taking her to the hospital. Lilly Yorba to leave hospital tomorrow and go to her brother Rudolph's house near Tustin. Candido died at 10:30 P.M.

Nov. 18 - Guadalupe de Perez went to the hospital today with pneumonia. Tiby was worse this morning and Joe Avila's little boy sick. Doctor came but could not get up to Avila's, 5 miles toward the [San Juan] Hot Springs on account of muddy roads and rain. He left medicine and I wrote out instructions and sent them up by Damien Rios, who went on horseback.

New cases: Mrs. Staffel, Pilar Lobo, and presumably Jose Avila's little boy. 3+127=130 cases to date.

By now, the incidence of new cases was beginning to diminish throughout the county.

Nov. 19 - No new cases. Joe Avila's baby has not flu. 130-1=129

Nov. 20 - No new cases. Guadalupe de Perez died.

Nov. 21 - No new cases. Tiby better 99.3°. Viola de Aguilar 99.3°. Yisidro Villa better. Buried Guadalupe de Perez who died at County Farm yesterday. 

The County Farm was the Orange County Hospital and Poor Farm. The Poor Farm provided housing and work for those who were unable to otherwise care for themselves. The adjacent County Hospital – at that time housed in a purpose-built 1914 neo-classical building -- cared for those who could not afford medical help elsewhere.

White Cross Drug Store ad, Santa Ana Register, 10-22-1918

Dec. 12 - Since recording the preceding the following [have] taken the influenza: Joe Avila, his wife Amelia, Henry Jose, Jr., Julian and the baby, Clarence James, Glenn Cook, his cousin about the same age (15), Mrs. Roy Cook. 9+129=138

Mrs. Roy Cook took sick this morning. Julian Aguilar had it and recovered without the doctor. 1+138=139

Dec. 22 - Sunday - Pedrito Oyharzabal sick with flu last Sunday, had pneumonia about four days. Yesterday at 5 P.M. Temp. 103 4/5°. Resp 40. Pulse 128. Better today. 

Bennie Forster, three in section house. Polly Lopera (Wilson), Mrs. Congdon and Jack Congdon 8+138=146

By the middle of December, many of Southern California’s bans on public gathering were lifted – just in time for the holidays. At Mission San Juan Capistrano’s heavily attended 8:00 a.m. Christmas morning Mass, the congregation presented O'Sullivan with a generous gift "in gratitude for his faithful work during the influenza epidemic." (Santa Ana Register, 12-27-1918)

Jan. 8 - Since last, the following have had the flu -- Walter Congdon, Antonio Saragosa, Dominga Saragosa and the mother (in section) 146+4=150. 

Teodoro Belardes very low with pneumonia.

Jan. 10 -- Teodosio Belardes died today.

Jan. 15 -- Marcos Forster, sick on the 13th. Modesta Rios and Filomena de Ricardes same day. Frank Rios yesterday. 4+150=154. Today Frank Rios 104°.

Here the transcription ends. It would be fascinating to know what else O’Sullivan may have noted in his journals in the waning days of the epidemic and, indeed, throughout the rest of his time in San Juan Capistrano. 

New infections decreased significantly throughout Southern California by February 1919 and gradually fizzled out during that spring. Some believe a smaller fourth wave also swept through in the winter and spring of 1920, although that is not well documented. 

The task remains for some historian to spend the countless days of research needed to develop a full accounting of those who died of Spanish Influenza in Orange County. Finding those who died of “influenza” in the death rolls is straightforward enough, albeit time consuming. However, it is much harder – if not impossible – to sort through the deaths caused by potentially related conditions, like pneumonia, and determine which cases were brought about by the flu. In truth, the local death count may never be fully known. Even less knowable is the scope of the devastation brought to the family and friends of those who died. 

But thanks to Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, we have a much better idea of how one small town coped during one of its darkest hours.

[Author’s note: Special thanks to Eric Plunkett for finding historical needles in historical haystacks and to Stephanie George for her helpful editing and suggestions. This article was originally written for the Orange County Historical Society and first appeared on a page relating to OCHS on the website of the Heritage Museum of Orange County.]

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Hermann’s Slug Farm, Midway City

An early incarnation of Sidney Slug joins (L to R) Roger Hermann, Mrs. Hermann, and members of the Midway City Chamber of Commerce for the farm’s grand opening in 1953. (Photo from Midway City Times)

What’s the key to a successful tourist attraction? If you said, “gobs of mucus” or “tiny critters that barely move,” you would be wrong. That is, you’d be wrong if Midway City’s late, not-so-lamented Hermann’s Slug Farm was any indicator. 

Opening in October 1953 and closing in November 1955, the “farm” featured not only dozens of species of slugs, but also smaller numbers of snails and worms. It was located on the east side of Highway 39 (Beach Blvd), south of at Hazard Ave. Billboards along the highway read “See the World’s Most Playful Slugs!” and featured smiling cartoon gastropods frolicking on the beach, playing volleyball, building sandcastles, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, the actual slugs participated in none of these activities. 

The slug farm was the brainchild of Roger S. Hermann, a limacologist who’d retired from teaching at UCLA and wanted to share his passion for shell-less gastropod mollusks with a wider audience. 

If nothing else, Hermann picked a good location. Highway 39 had been a key route from Los Angeles County to Orange County’s beaches for decades and had spawned numerous other popular roadside attractions. Land in Midway City was affordable and had a naturally high water table and rich moist soil conducive to a healthy slug population. 

Visitors entered Hermann’s Slug Farm through “The World’s Largest Slug” – a slug-shaped building designed and built by artist Claude Bell, whose studio was just up the road at Knott’s Berry Farm. This giant gunite slug also housed a small gift shop featuring a variety of items – from cigarette lighters to bottle openers – emblazoned with the images of real slugs or the farm’s cartoon mascot, Sidney Slug. Among the most memorable items in the store were colorful ceramic banks shaped like Sidney, which sell for over $150 on eBay today. The gift shop also sold worms for gardening and fishing, as well as slugs that hadn’t “made the cut” in the farm’s exhibits.

From the entrance building, a silver trail, painted on the concrete walkways, led visitors from one exhibit to the next. Slug-shaped signs described each exhibit, as did the “Fun Map” booklet handed out at the farm’s entrance.

A silver lapel pin, as sold in the gift shop.
“Be sure to visit again at feeding time!” read a large sign over the main slug enclosure. But it took half a day to watch the slugs devour even one good-sized leaf. 

“Some of the slugs and snails were trained to perform tricks, but they did so very slowly,” said Terry McGee who worked summers at the farm as a teenager, spraying the gastropods to keep them moist. “Most people didn’t have the patience for that.”

Twice-daily slug races also failed to draw large crowds. 

Perhaps the Slug Farm’s most well-remembered attraction was a small terrarium where a trained slug would play a tiny piano each time a guest placed a nickel into a coin slot. A series of hidden electrodes herded the slug back and forth across the keyboard. It took the slug half an hour to play a small snippet of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

But some just came to admire the surprisingly wide array of slug species. “The bright yellow banana slugs were probably our biggest hit,” said McGee.

The farm’s on-site snack shop, Gastropod Gastronomy, featured fried escargot on a stick and an assortment of hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream treats. As a safety precaution, no salt was available to customers.
Midway City briefly considered capitalizing on the Slug Farm by hosting a proposed annual Slug Fest and a Slug Parade before realizing the roadside attraction was a flop.

Indeed, Hermann’s Slug Farm never became popular. And business only got worse as new freeways pulled traffic off Highway 39 and as competition from other tourist attractions edged out “the little guy.” The slug farm closed for good on November 17, 1955, just four months after Disneyland opened its doors. 
Posted 4/1/2021