Friday, September 16, 2022

The Blinking Owl, Santa Ana

Those nondescript doors in the yellow building (right) would become the entrance to The Blinking Owl about a decade after this photo was taken. (Courtesy SAPL)
Over the years -- even before the name was borrowed for Santa Ana's Blinking Owl Distillery -- I've received questions about The Blinking Owl, which was a bar at 312 N. Birch St, in Downtown Santa Ana. Rumor has it that a it featured "a mechanical sign of an owl with a moving eyelid that went up and down." But I've never found a photo of the place (or the sign) from the years The Blinking Owl existed: 1971 to about 1976.

The best we can do, so far, is a photo like the one above, which was shot circa the 1960s, nearly a decade before The Blinking Owl moved in. This view is from the middle of 4th St, looking south down Birch. You can see the corner of the beautiful West End Theatre on the left, the lush foliage of Birch Park in the background, and the yellow building (with two doors) that would eventually house The Blinking Owl.
Same view today. The building's a similar color, but partly obscured by a tree.
The building itself (which has been made to look like it's part of the larger building facing 4th St.) had a second story added to it in 1910 and served as a number of cafes throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1967 it was a bar called The Marquis Club. And in late 1970 it was Chick & Whiteys, owned by Chick Stober and Hollis J. Stober. Very little is known about The Blinking Owl bar that moved in after Chick and Whitey moved out.

Flash forward: The new Blinking Owl Distillery (no direct relation to the bar) opened not far from the Santa Ana municipal water tower and Barrio Logan in 2016. According to the distillery's website, "Brian and Robin Christenson, longtime Santa Ana residents, had heard stories of the midcentury (sic) 'Blinking Owl Bar' on the corner of Birch and Third Streets, known for an iconic owl sign that would blink. Inspired by the craft cocktail movement, the farm-to-table food movement, and current thriving craft distilleries, the husband and wife team saw an opportunity to bring a local distillery to the neighborhood, paying homage to the history of Santa Ana."

Naturally, the success of the distillery has only added to the public's interest in knowing something more about its namesake.  If you have memories, stories, photos, etc, relating to The Blinking Owl of the 1970s, please drop me a line.

Monday, August 29, 2022

A recent place name mystery: J G Island

J G Island outlined in red.
Does anyone know what the "J G" means in the placename "J G Island Beach?" The name refers to the "island" (really a peninsula) that was created next to the Santa Ana River's mouth in Huntington Beach around 1990 when the Talbert Channel outlet was rerouted. Most of the "island" is taken up by a Least Tern Preserve. This may be recent enough that someone out there will have a firsthand account of how it got the name "J G Island." 

For what it's worth, earlier names for the beach just north of the current river outlet (near Brookhurst) include Santiago, Celery, and my favorite: Nago. The beach there was particularly popular with local Japanese families in the early 20th Century.

Friday, August 19, 2022

A Lost Place Name: Cañada del Rodeo

Detail from a sligtly wonky 1912 oil map. (Courtesy Paul Spitzzeri)

Cañada del Rodeo (a.k.a. Rodeo Canyon) was an early name for a portion of or offshoot of Brea Canyon in the Puente Hills, bridging Orange and Los Angeles counties. The name Cañada del Rodeo appears on assorted mining maps and in surface water reports beginning at least as early as 1898 until at least 1917. The anglicized Rodeo Canyon name continued in use until at least 1946. This area was generally considered part of the Fullerton oil fields.  

"At the head of Rodeo Canyon, close to the divide, are several large granite boulders, which have weathered out of the sandstone," wrote Walter A. English, in Geology and Oil Resources of the Puente Hills Region, Southern California -- a 1926 USGS bulletin. "One of them is 10 feet in diameter. There are perhaps half a dozen bolders, all told. No small boulders or pebbles are clustered around the few large blocks, and the sandstone close to the boulders is not noticably different from the fine yellow sandstone elsewhere in the formation."

Map filed with Los Angeles County (DM6298-96)
In Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region (1930) the famed Olmstead Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Assoc. describe "the head of Rodeo Canyon" being "two miles east of Brea Canyon Road, where the route turns north, a rugged and picturesque gorge is encountered that will involve heavy construction."

There was both a Rodeo Oil Co. and a Rodeo Land & Water Co. operating in the Los Angeles area during the early years of the 20th century, which might suggest a couple possible sources for the canyon's name. But no direct connections have yet been made. 

Historian Paul Spitzzeri offers another educated guess: "“Rodeo” [also] means “detour,” so a sharp change in the topography of a canyon may be our best clue [to the source of  the canyon's name].  As the canyon and creek make the abrupt westward turn toward where Birch had his rich oil property, it could well be how this feature got its moniker." 

If you know anything definitive about the source of this old place name (or even have a good clue or lead), please drop me a line.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Holy Jim: The Canyon and the Man

Jim (right) with two fellow G.A.R. members, circa 1900.
A lot of flatlanders were left scratching their heads when fire authorities dubbed a 2018 wildfire in the Santa Ana Mountains "the Holy Fire." And four years later -- when "the Jim Fire" was in the news -- the new fire's name sounded almost as odd. But there was a good reason for the curious monikers. Both of these fires burned through a branch of Trabuco Canyon called Holy Jim Canyon. The question, of course, is "Who was Holy Jim and how did he get a canyon named after him?"

In 1888, decidedly unsaintly Union veteran James T. Smith (1841-1934) bought land in a remote canyon between Santiago Peak and Trabuco Creek. There he raised bees and lived with his wife, Hat. Although reasonably even-tempered, Smith swore frequently, loudly, longwindedly, creatively, and without regard for the company he was in. Smith, wrote historian Jim Sleeper, could “cuss the devil into a bottle and screw on the cap.”

Smith usually sported a hat with an upturned brim, a walrus moustache, a jacket with a big plug of tobacco in the pocket, and no shirt. He earned the nicknames "Greasy Jim" and, naturally, "Cussin' Jim." In 1900, government cartographers named the canyon for its best-known resident, but some prissy bureaucrat in Washington undoubtedly changed “Cussin’” to “Holy.” 

About eight years later, Smith retired to Santa Ana. As an old man, he’d get lost downtown and sheriff's deputies would give him a lift. Jim swore all the way home.

For more on Smith, see the article, On the Trail of Holy Jim Smith: The Man Behind the Legend, by the late great historian (and longtime Holy Jim Canyon resident) Jim Sleeper. It was published in the Orange County Genealogical Society Quarterly, v. 5, no. 1, March 1968. It also appeared in the Rancho San Joaquin Gazette around the same time.

[Part of today's article first appeared in the Feb. 2017 edition of the author's monthly "O.C. Answer Man" column in Orange Coast Magazine.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Spare a thought for Orange County’s bears

California grizzly (taxidermied) on display at the Old Orange County Courthouse in 2010 (Photo by author)

For the modern Orange Countian – trapped in a cycle of freeway commutes between condo, school, office, Starbucks and the grocery store – it may be hard to believe that this place was once home to great lumbering bears. Many are little aware of the truest earliest versions of this land, which has long since been capped with orange groves, oil wells, concrete, housing tracts, and shopping centers.  

To experience “old Orange County,” visit our back country: the canyons, wetlands, wilderness parks, and of course, the Santa Ana Mountains. In “the shadow of Old Saddleback” one can still find mountain lions, salamanders, mule deer, bats, snakes, badgers, golden eagles, woodpeckers, and innumerable other wild animals. Sycamores line our creeks, oaks grace our mountains and valleys, pines top the ridges, and the chaparral and coastal scrub brush give our rolling hills not just the look but also the distinct smell of Old California.

Some species that once roamed Orange County – like wolves, antelope, and California condors – are gone, but still survive elsewhere. Others, like saber-toothed cats and duck-billed dinosaurs are extinct. 

Notably, the Santa Ana Mountians were the last refuge of our state animal: The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus). These bears once roamed our flatlands until a growing human population made them head for the hills. The local Indians thought the deity Chinigchinich sent bears (which they called “Hunwutvum”) down from the mountains to punish people for their transgressions. 
A local citrus crate label, celebrating the grizzly bear.
Bears were a threat to livestock during the Mexican rancho era, and vaqueros made a sport of tracking and lassoing them prior to killing them or dragging them off to participate in gory bull and bear fights. In such fights, a bear and a long-horned bull were chained together in a corral or pit, and spectators would bet on which animal would survive. 

In the decades after California joined the Union, bears were still hunted – sometimes after attacks on livestock, apiaries, or people, and sometimes just for sport. Ultimately, even the mountains weren’t safe for the bears. 

The very last of Southern California’s (and quite possibly California's) grizzlies – a female, misleadingly nicknamed “Little Black Bear” – was shot somewhere above Holy Jim Canyon in 1908. The bear’s skin was displayed in the window of Turner’s Shoe Store in Downtown Santa Ana before being sent to the Smithsonian, along with the bear’s skull. (Turner’s was located at 121 W. 4th St. The display window faced Sycamore St. where Pizza Press is today in the Rankin Building. And yes, that’s only a few yards from the spot where Francisco Torres was lynched, 16 years earlier.) 

In 1975, while researching his excellent A Boys Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County historian Jim Sleeper contacted the Smithsonian for more information on Little Black Bear, but they could no longer locate the pelt or skull. Our last California grizzly had vanished completely. It seemed an especially sad ending to an already sad story.

Little Black Bear, photographed in 1908.

But in 2014, while assisting local naturalist Joel Robinson with research, Museum Specialist Esther Langan finally found our furry friend (the bear, not Joel) in a Maryland storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. So the story of Little Black Bear continues. And so, it would seem, may some of her cousins…

Although the last California grizzly died here over a century ago, hikers, game wardens, forest service employees, and even marines at Camp Pendleton have reported rare sightings of black bears (Ursus americanus) ever since. According to Sleeper, the bears occasionally seen in modern times are probably descended from escaped pets. One such bear, trained to ride a bicycle, escaped from its owner near Corona in 1973 and into the Santa Ana Mountains. 

In theory, black bears only live about thirty years in the wild. But err on the side of caution: If you hear a bicycle bell in the woods, run.

Local attorney E. E. Keech (right) and friend, bear hunting, circa 1900.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared first in Orange Coast magazine, then in the Dec. 2014 edition of the County Connection, and later in the O.C. Historical Society’s County Courier newsletter.)

Monday, July 18, 2022

Historical facts: Because truth matters

Clocktower of the historic Spurgeon Building, Santa Ana. (Photo by author)

A fellow historian (and all-around good guy) just sent me a link to James M. Banner, Jr's thought-provoking article "All History Is Revisionist History" in Humanities magazine (published by the NEH).

In one sense, of course, the headline is correct. There are always more facts to learn, or some new way to describe them more clearly or to provide more context. That's not really revisionist history. And finding previously untapped sources of contemporary information to shed new light on old stories is also not revisionist history, but rather is the heart of historical work itself.

But I strongly disagree with this article’s claims that, 1) Facts are meaningless in and of themselves, 2) Bringing the historian’s personal biases to bear on said facts is the only way to make them relevant, and 3) There’s such a thing as “different truths.” Let me take those one at a time,...

1) Facts are of primary importance. If one is actually contributing something useful (rather than just regurgitating and offering an opinion), it means one has been dredging up newly-discovered, long-overlooked or neglected facts. At minimum, it means bringing together various *known* facts to assemble a storyline that had not previously been assembled, thereby adding value. 

2) Much like a journalist (or should I say like the journalists of certain publications of old), the goal should be to suppress our biases to the extent possible and tell the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the subject at hand. As imperfect humans, this goal may not be 100% attainable, but that is indeed the goal. It is worth the effort. The idea that we should try to make our biases and modern attitudes part of the story is foolish and does a tremendous disservice to our field. We can never write a perfect description of any episode in history – but the task at hand is to get as close as we can. (If we can’t improve on what’s been done nor add new information, there’s not much point in even picking up a pen.) Many of the complaints I hear about “revisionist history” are rightly aimed at those who simply want to use/abuse history as a platform upon which to grind their own modern political axes. 

3) No less a philosopher than Oprah Winfrey popularized the term “your truth.” But in reality there is only THE truth. Any given statement can only be true, untrue, or so vague as to be meaningless. Again, the facts -- as closely as we can vet them -- are our guiding light. And if we goof we should admit it and make corrections when we can. Getting to as much of the truth as we can and presenting it in a straightforward way is not only enough, it's also the ideal. And if that weren't enough, the truth is usually makes for a far better story than any alternate version we might dream up. 

All this reminds me of something Robert Heinlein once wrote (about the present and future rather than the past, but still…): “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what ‘the stars foretell,’ avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable ‘verdict of history’ – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

I know the pressure is on for some history writers to bend things, cut corners, purposely ignore context, or drift into conjecture. These measures make it easier to gin up shock value, which in turn sells copy. It wins you pats on the back from others who are grinding the same ax you are. It can even give you street cred among certain academics who focus more on political orthodoxy than scholarship.

But being able to look at yourself in the mirror has advantages also.  So take your time, write for quality rather than quanitity, pull from the best sources available (with primary sources when possible), play the ball where it lies, and write it in a clear and engaging way so that someone may actually read it someday. Is that too much to hope for in the 2020s?

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

A Few O.C. Lawmen of the Late 1890s

I was recently contacted by Pete K., who just purchased this rare original print of a late-1890s photo of Orange County Sheriff Joseph Nichols and two of his deputies. The image is already known to those who have studied the history of Orange County law enforcement -- but an original print is still an exciting find.

Over the years, I've seen this image captioned with a variety of name IDs, dates, and so forth. Pete's print has this written on the back: “To Filipe Barante. Three of a kind. Joe Nichols, Nov. 23, 1897.” In another spot it is marked “F – de papa – S.A.” These inscriptions by Nichols provide both more clarity and new mysteries. 

Although "Felipe Barante and "F - de papa - S.A." don't ring any bells, the fact that Nichols signed it in 1897 puts to bed the long-held notion that the photo was taken in 1898.
Photocopy of the back of Pete's print of the photo.

Pete wanted to know a little something about the men in the photo. As I dug for information, I was surprised learn the degree to which these three men were connected to so many significant aspects and personalities of our early local history. Undoubtedly, there's much more to be learned about these three, but here's what I turned up so far:


Born in Indiana in August 1860, Joseph Clark “Joe” Nichols arrived in Orange County in the 1880s. While living in Anaheim in 1889, he married Mary Margaret Parker. Together, they would have three daughters: Marguerite Olive (1897-1941), Norma (1894-1989), and Henrietta (1895-1945).

J. C. Nichols served as Orange County’s third Sheriff, from 1895 to 1899 and was the first elected for a newly adopted four-year term. He is remembered for improving inmate record keeping, overseeing the completion of the jail on Courthouse Square (1896), and keeping increasing numbers of transients in check. Although generally well liked and having a well-funded campaign, he was defeated in the election of 1898 by Theo Lacy. His loss was largely due to the national sentiment of the moment, which skewed toward the Democratic Party and their “Free Silver” movement.  

After leaving office, Nichols had his own furniture store in Santa Ana. Around 1907 he and his family moved to Los Angeles where he went into the real estate business. He died in Los Angeles on April 27, 1950.


Born in Philadelphia in 1866, the oldest of the six children of James and Sally Landell, John W. Landell came to California with his family in the 1870s. He became an insurance salesman and something of a mover-and-shaker in the Anaheim area. He was City Marshal of Anaheim Township for five years circa 1890. (Some newspaper accounts cite him as Anaheim’s Justice of the Peace or Constable, but in he himself described his position as City Marshal in Samuel Armor’s 1921 History of Orange County.) After that, he went to Santa Ana where he worked as a Sheriff’s Deputy for four years. At some point early in his career, he also worked as a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy.

In April 1897 at what’s now Capistrano Beach (then called San-Juan-By-The Sea and later known as Serra), Landell married Soledad Cristina Pryor, daughter of ranchero Pablo Pryor and granddaughter of Don Juan Avila. They would have several children: Gladys (1908–1995), John Paul (1910–1994), and Charles (1901-1933).

Landell resigned his post in Santa Ana in December 1898 and the next month took the position of Justice of the Peace (J. P.) for San Juan Township (San Juan Capistrano area). He held that post for at least 12 years. Afterward, Landell and his wife briefly moved to San Diego, but quickly moved back to Capistrano Beach. He ran again for J.P. of San Juan in 1918 but lost the election. He then focused his attention on his ranch – primarily growing walnuts – and also opened an adjacent auto service station and convenience store. He also served as a member of the local school board. 

For most of the rest of his life, he filled in whenever any Orange County J.P. was away due to illness or travel. This included the period from August to December of 1924 when he filled in for Judge Cox of Santa Ana during the illness that would ultimately take Cox’ life. By 1930 Landell was again San Juan’s Justice of the Peace. 

He died in San Juan Capistrano on April 4, 1939 and is buried at Anaheim Cemetery.


N. A. Ulm was born August 10, 1869 in Jefferson County, Illinois. He arrived in Santa Ana in the late 1880s and married Nellie Jeanette Abercrombie on April 16, 1888. They would have several children: Earl (1890-1925), Nathan Lamar (1892-1957), and Audrey (1894-1960).

Nathan A. Ulm was manager of the Grand Opera House, proprietor of the Santa Ana Book Store, secretary of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, captain in Company L, 7th Regiment (Santa Ana’s National Guard Unit), founding secretary of the Santa Ana Merchants & Manufacturers Association, and generally a prominent figure in the community. Under Sheriff Joe Nichols, he served as the county’s jailer. In 1912, Ulm was part of the posse involved in the infamous 1912 shoot-out in Irvine with the “Tomato Springs Bandit.” 

In November 1913 – after a brief investigation --- the State Building & Loan Commissioner George Walker informed the Santa Ana Merchants & Manufacturers Association’s board that their books were short $15,000 to $17,000. Although the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was soon on the case, the Associations’ directors asked that a warrant not be issued Ulm’s immediate arrest but asked instead that he be watched. However, on November 19, Walker went to Ulm and collected the Association’s books from him. Four hours later, Ulm committed suicide by cyanide at his home at 818 E. 2nd Street. Later investigation showed that Ulm had been forging Association president C. D. Ball’s name to help obscure the missing money. The shortfall appeared to date back to 1906.

A few days after his suicide, the Santa Ana Armory Association -- of which Ulm was also secretary -- reviewed their books as well and found $2,500 had somehow gone missing. 

In many copies of the 1897 photo of the three lawmen, Ulm is certainly the least remembered today and his name is often misspelled in the caption. But his story certainly turned out to be a colorful one.

If you know more -- and specifically if you know more about "Filipe Barante" or the meaning of "F – de papa – S.A.," drop me a line via email or DM me on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Mystery book cover unmystified

When Phil Brigandi died in 2019, we (his historian friends) spent countless hours working to appropriately distribute his vast personal historical library and artifacts to the appropriate institutions. (Again, many thanks to his brothers for allowing us to do this.) Because we knew his areas of historical study, most items were fairly easy to identify. But there are certain items that have taken longer to puzzle out. For instance, when I found this front cover torn off an old hardbound book in his apartment, I had no idea of its significance. I *did* know that it must have SOME significance, or Phil wouldn’t have kept it. He was methodical about collecting and only kept things that were somehow relevant.

In this case, a bit of searching turned up information about Mr. Mason M. Fishback, who once owned the book this cover once, well, COVERED. 

Mason Fishback from the 1930 OUHS annual.

Mason McCloud Fishback was born in Marshall, Illinois on Feb. 1, 1878 to James and Orrel Fishback. He left Illinois for Orange County in the very early 1900s. He started as a history teacher at Orange Union High School (which was also Phil’s beloved alma mater) in 1906. In 1915 he married Lenore Rose, but she died in April 1917. The following year, while continuing to teach, he was given the additional responsibility of becoming the Boys’ Vice Principal for Orange High. He remained in that position for the rest of his life. 

During World War II Fishback led the successful effort at OUHS to raise enough funds by selling oranges to buy the Red Cross another ambulance to serve on the front lines. For this, he received a personal thank-you from President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1920, Mason married fellow Orange High teacher, Mabel Parker. According to the National Register of Historic Places application for Old Towne Orange, Mason had a new Dutch Colonial Revival home built for his bride at 284 N. Glassell Ave. in Orange, which was completed in 1921. 

A modern view of 284 N. Glassell Ave.

Mason was an authority on the life of Abraham Lincoln, and he was well-liked at work and in the community. In fact, at the time of his death, January 9, 1941, the Los Angeles Times referred to him as “the most popular man in the county.”

Luckily, the house at 284 N. Glassell still stands and is a perfect match for the house depicted on Fishback’s “Ex Libris” label. It appears the house is now the headquarters for the local law firms.

The Ex Libris labels themselves were undoubtedly created and placed in the books of Fishback’s personal library around the time of his death. As books were given to the city library, the church or friends, the labels would serve as a continuing memorial to Orange’s favorite vice principal.

Closeup of the label.
Now knowing that Fishback was such a well-known figure in Orange during his era, knowing his association with Orange High, and knowing that the house on the label is in historic Downtown Orange, it makes perfect sense that Phil would save this relic. He was, among other things, the great City of Orange historian. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

Johnny Eucalyptus

You may have wondered where California’s many eucalyptus trees came from. They are, after all, an Australian native. 

In the early 1850s, eccentric nurseryman John Gumm left his native Kentucky and started walking west -- alone – shortly after his childhood sweetheart, Jenny Mallee, rebuffed his proposal of marriage. In time, he would come to be known as Johnny Eucalyptus.

Unlike most who came to California then, he was not looking for gold. But along the trail he fell in with a group of would-be prospectors headed to California and traveled with them into the goldfields. There, he met, befriended, and briefly shared a tent with "Sidney Red," an Australian miner who had several large sacks of eucalyptus seeds with him. The seeds, Red said, were an insurance policy. If he failed to strike paydirt in the mines, he would plant a forest of fast-growing eucalyptus and grow rich selling lumber. But Red died in a mining accident and Johnny was left with the seeds. 

Eucalyptus in Southern Cailfornia (California State Library)

Soon, Johnny learned from another Australian that only old growth eucalyptus provided usable lumber, and that he’d have to wait centuries for any trees he’d planted to be commercially viable. Indeed, the wood split, warped and cracked readily. But Johnny didn’t care. He already envisioned what could be done with those seeds. He dreamed of beautifying all of California, bringing trees to a place that was often typified by grassy, marshy, scrub-brush-covered land. He thought no one would cut down his wonderful trees because they were useless as lumber or even as firewood.

Until the early 1890s, Johnny Eucalyptus traveled up and down the state on foot, scattering seeds as he went. In some places, however, he found people uprooting his trees, and so he devised a plan. From then on, he planted the trees in rows, immediately atop property lines and at the edges of roads, in the hope that people would hesitate to cut down a tree on land they weren't sure they owned.

(Courtesy Santa Clara University Library)

Some said Johnny was a genius, but he lived on the roadside, occasionally sleeping on someone’s floor for the night when they’d let him. They say the smell of eucalyptus about him – as much as his general eccentricity – was a likely reason he never married. A small, wiry man, he dressed in colorful road-worn clothes, had a long scraggly beard, and owned almost nothing. A vegetarian, he wore a eucalyptus-wood salad bowl on his head as he walked from town to town. But despite his odd appearance, he spoke eloquently of the eucalyptus’ beauty and utility.

According to Johnny, the trees provided medicinal benefits, although it’s unclear which benefits he espoused. However, the claims of the many opportunists who followed in his footsteps were better documented. According to “experts,” one part or another of the eucalyptus tree could cure (or at least mitigate) nearly any ailment. Keeping skin and teeth healthy, warding off insects, healing burns and ulcers, lowering fevers, alleviating cold symptoms, and curing arthritis and venereal disease are just a few examples. 

Trademark filing, 1896 (Calif. State Archives)

Johnny was often accompanied on his endless hikes through California by a host of curious woodland animals. But he only dreaded one creature: The koala bear. He feared they would one day appear in California and undo much of his hard work. Johnny was always on the lookout for them. 

Unlike most pioneers, Johnny carried no gun into the wilderness. However, he carried a huge Bible, with which he could physically beat down assailants or, obviously, koalas. 

John Gumm never got to do battle with the hated koalas. He spent the last months of his life in the little Orange County community of El Toro, where he convinced ranch owner Dwight Whiting to plant more than ninety varieties of eucalyptus on four hundred acres. Many of those trees remain today, as reflected in the “forest” half of El Toro’s new name, “Lake Forest.” In fact, rows and forests of Johnny Eucalyptus’ trees can still be  found all up and down the state.

Eucalyptus along State Highway, Tustin, circa 1930

According to his death certificate, Johnny died on March 23, 1895, from “bein’ plum wore out.” 

From the beautification of California’s landscape to the sinus-penetrating effects of Vicks VapoRub, Johnny – as one scholar put it – “brought folks a heap o’ happiness and never asked for any thanks.”

 His legend lives on.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Anaheim's Birthplace: Lütgens’ Hotel, San Francisco

John H. & Johanna Lütgens (Courtesy thoneybourne on

Anaheim, Orange County’s first incorporated city and one of California’s first “planned communities,” was actually born in San Francisco. Specifically, it was planned, named, and financially supported at meetings held at John Lütgens’ Hotel, on Montgomery St. across from the Russ House in what’s now the Financial District. Lütgens’ Hotel, as the San Francisco Chronicle later recalled, “was the favorite lodging-house of the better class of Germans.” And that – along with a smattering of immigrants from other European countries – is exactly who created Anaheim. Likewise, their host, hotelier John Henry (Johan Heinrich) Christian Lütgens had been born in Kiel, Germany in 1816 and was naturalized in San Francisco in 1856 – at the end of the California Gold Rush. 

The story of Anaheim's founding has been told many times before (including solid accounts from historian Leo J. Friis). But seldom, if ever, has Anaheim's actual birthplace been put in the spotlight.  

Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map, 1887, showing Lütgens’ Hotel.

The concept of Anaheim began when Los Angeles vintner John Fröhling and his San Francisco distributor, Charles Kohler, needed a more reliable supply of wine to sell. The two men, along with fellow German immigrant and wine dealer Otto Weyse, imagined a new cooperative vineyard colony in Southern California. They quickly enlisted Austrian-born surveyor and civil engineer George Hansen of Los Angeles. They made attorney Otmar Caler president of a group – composed primarily of other Bay Area Germans -- that would further organize and promote the colony. They called an organizational meeting for February 24, 1857 at Lütgens’ Hotel, during which they agreed to incorporate as the Los Angeles Vineyard Society. They also made Hansen superintendent and sent him south to find, purchase and prepare an appropriate piece of land. 

Seal of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

Four days after the organizational meeting, a second meeting was held at which officers and directors were chosen and twenty-seven shares of stock were sold at $250 each. Those who bought share were, again, mainly prominent Germans in the San Francisco area. The expense of the stock was somewhat hidden, as the investors each had to kick in the difference each time the stock prices were raised. 

From then on, monthly Board of Directors meetings were held at the hotel, always beginning promptly at 8:00 p.m. At the March 2, 1857 meeting, they appointed a finance committee. 

The board of the Vineyard Society included many (now) well known Anaheim pioneers. It also included John Lütgens.

George Hansen, father of Anaheim (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

By April, George Hansen was trying to cut deals with various major property owners in Southern California and was sending progress reports back to the board. After several false starts, Hansen found a good spot on the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana and found a willing seller in rancho owner Juan Pacifico Ontiveros who was looking to move north to the Santa Maria area. (Hansen knew the Ontiveros family, as he had surveyed their land a few years earlier.) Pending reimbursement by the Society, Frohling and Hansen paid Ontiveros, out of their own pockets, two dollars an acre for 1,165 acres.

Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

During the Jan. 13th, 1858 Society meeting at Lütgens’, members voted to give their colony the name Annaheim. (Later, the second “n” was dropped.) The moniker referenced their new home (“heim” in German) on the Santa Ana River and in the Santa Ana Valley. The name beat out two contenders: Annagau and Weinheim. Board member Theodore E. Schmidt likely suggested the winning name. At this meeting they also voted to increase their cumulative stock value to $50,000 as soon as the State Legislature amended the Incorporation Act to allow agricultural companies to incorporate. 

State Senator (and former Los Angeles mayor) Cameron E. Thom submitting just such an amendment to the legislature in 1859. The measure was opposed by some who feared large corporations would eventually accumulate huge areas of real estate. (The Daily Alta California opined that "this fear is an absurd one.") But a version of the bill amending the Incorporation Act ultimately became law.

Cameron E. Thom. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

On October 2, 1858, the following paid notice was printed in the Los Angeles Star:

"The members of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society are hereby notified by the undersigned, constituting a majority of the Board of Trustees thereof, that a meeting of the Stockholders will be held in this city [San Francisco], on Saturday Evening, October 23, 1858, at Lütgens' Hotel on Montgomery Street between Pine and Bush streets, for the object of increasing the Capital Stock of said Company to Sixty Thousand dollars... or each share to One Thousand Two Hundred Dollars...

C. C. KUCHEL, President

San Francisco, Cal... 1858"

At a general meeting on February 28, 1859, fifty building parcels in the center of Anaheim were distributed to Society members by drawing lots, with another fourteen parcels held in reserve by the Society. 

Map of the Anaheim "Mother Colony." (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

In advance of the arrival of the first colonists to Anaheim, later that year, Hansen began preparing the land for them. After obtaining rights to an easement across Bernardo Yorba’s adjacent ranch, Hansen built an irrigation ditch which brought water down from the river, and then laid out Anaheim on the same angle as the ditch. To this day, the heart of Anaheim still has this cockeyed orientation. Hansen divided the land into town lots and vineyard lots – all within the boundaries of North, South, East and West streets. He also oversaw the planting of 400,000 vines, as well as some fruit trees. Additionally, he planted willows all around the town’s perimeter, creating a living fence to keep out roaming animals. The “gates” in the fence along each side of town would become landmarks.   

By early spring, the new ditch was bringing Santa Ana River water into town and Anaheim’s vineyards were a bustling hub of activity.  

Plat map of early Anaheim. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

On June 23, 1859, the Society held a dinner at Lütgens’ Hotel in honor of their surveyor and vineyard superintendent, George Hansen. He had worked hard for them in Anaheim for two years and this was his first trip back to San Francisco. Hansen addressed the Society, reviewed their own history, caught them up on progress, and told them that their first 400 acres of vineyards were already flourishing. Everyone had a grand time, wine flowed freely, and the party finally broke up in the wee small hours of the morning.

At the Society’s monthly meeting at the hotel on September 12, 1859 they voted to increase share prices to $1,840, “and to make a distribution of the Vineyard lots among the shareholders of the Association." More shareholders announced that they planned to move down to Anaheim soon and make their permanent homes there.

West Center St. (now Lincoln Ave.), Downtown Anaheim, 1873. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

In December 1860, recognizing the colony’s rapid development, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors ordered that a new Anaheim Township be carved out of the old Santa Ana Township. Anaheim was already a well-established community. While Pierce’s Disease would wipe out Anaheim’s wine grape industry in the 1880s, growers would turn to other crops, like walnuts and citrus, and Anaheim’s growth continued. Today, it’s an internationally famous city of 350,000 residents.

Bottling wine at the Bullard Winery, Anaheim, circa 1885. (Courtesy Anaheim Public Library)

Lütgens’ Hotel was sold later in the 1860s and torn down in 1891 to make way for the construction of the Mills Building on the same site. Darius Ogden Mills had previously founded the National Gold Bank of D.O. Mills & Co., (the first bank west of the Rocky Mountains) and later helped found the Bank of California. He hired architects Burnham and Root of Chicago to design his Mills Building. 

The author in front of the Mills Building, Thanksgiving, 2021.

The steel-framed Mills Building survived the 1906 earthquake. Although the interior was damaged in the fire following the quake, it was restored to original condition in 1907.  Today, the Mills Building is San Francisco’s last example of the “Chicago school” of architecture, which features Richardson Romanesque elements. In the case of the Mills Building, these elements include a dramatic entrance arch facing Montgomery Street. The 22-story Mills Tower was added in 1932. 

The staircase in the Montgomery St. lobby – made of French “Jaune Fleuri marble” – is original.

In December 1868 – the same year in which his wife, Johanna, died -- John Lütgens opened a new Lütgens' Hotel with a partner, Mr. Lowrey (formerly of the Western House), on Post Street, above Kearny Street in San Francisco. Wine, of course, flowed freely at the grand opening.

Interior view, Mills Building, 2021 (Photo by author)

Perhaps inspired by memories of his old Vineyard Society friends, Lütgens spent a time as a liquor dealer later in life. In 1878, his liquor business was located at 233 Montgomery Ave. – just across the street from the original Lütgens’ Hotel. He died in San Francisco on June 23, 1899. Anaheim continued to flourish and has since largely forgotten John Lütgens and the exact location of its own birth.

View up Montgomery St. from the site of the old Lütgens Hotel, 2021. (Photo by author)

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Ilse Byrnes (1927-2022)

Ilse Byrnes leading an O.C. Historical Society tour at the Montanez Adobe, 2016. (Photo by author)

One of my heroes has passed: Ilse M. Byrnes. San Juan Capistrano would be a much lesser place and much of its rich heritage would already be long gone if not for her decades of hard work and tenacity. Her name should be remembered alongside Fr. St. John O'Sullivan when we speak of preservation in Orange County. I'm proud to have known her. 

Krista Nicholds of Preserve O.C. writes, "Ilse successfully nominated 16 sites in Orange County to the National or California Register [of Historic Places]- mostly in San Juan Capistrano, including her last in 2015, the SDG&E Substation building on Camino Capistrano which was facing imminent demolition and is still standing- but also Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach and Casa Romantica in San Clemente!!"

And that doesn't even take into account the many other historic sites that may not have ended up on state or national registers but which she also had a hand in protecting. She was also a great tour guide -- sharing her love and knowledge of her adopted hometown. (She was from Switzerland.)
Ilse with Jerry Nieblas in Capistrano, 2016.

She never did seem comfortable in the limelight and seemed to keep a low profile when not actively in the process of rattling people's cages. I can think of many meetings of the O.C. Historical Commission where she barely said a word. She saved her fire for when it would do the most good. That said, she was always one of the smartest people in any room she was in. 

Ilse held strong opinions and acted with conviction. Once she even threw a brontosaurus out of the Los Rios district! She objected to the giant concrete dinosaur in front of a local business in the otherwise well-curated historical district. There was a staring contest and the dinosaur lost. 

One of my favorite moments in Huell Howser's "California's Gold" TV series was when Ilse gave him a tour of Los Rios. She was being professional and polite, but I actually laughed out loud at some of her comments. I'm sure the subtext was entirely lost on Huell and 99.999% of his audience, but those who knew Ilse knew exactly what she was up to! 

In addition to her preservation work, Ilse was also an advocate for local equestrianism and helped establish San Juan Capistrano's excellent trail system.

Her husband, former San Juan Capistrano mayor Dr. Roy Byrnes, passed away in 2019

Like so many, I'm sad Ilse Byrnes is gone -- but I'm so glad she was here.