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.

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