Wednesday, September 13, 2023

About those Al Capone stories in the Register and Orange Coast magazine...

Photoshopped image by Fr. Bill Krekelberg.
A lot of traffic has been driven here by coverage in the Orange County Register and Orange Coast magazine relating to my ORIGINAL ARTICLE about Al Capone and Rancho Santa Margarita. 

Want to attend my lecture on the same topic at the Orange County Historical Society this Thursday evening (9/14/2023)? CLICK HERE for details.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

OC/Q&A: South Santa Ana Edition

Diamond School, South Santa Ana, circa late 1890s.

Q: I've heard the name "Gospel Swamp" applied to areas from Huntington Beach to Garden Grove. Where was it actually located?

A: Today, every neighborhood with a puddle claims it was part of Gospel Swamp, because it's such a great nickname. However, contemporary records indicate that the name was originally and primarily applied to the marshy area at what's now the south end of Santa Ana -- from McFadden Ave. down through the South Coast Metro area. Soon, the name drifted over the Santa Ana River a bit, into parts of Fountain Valley. But no, the name did not apply to such far-flung locales as Westminster Garden Grove, or Huntington Beach. 

The name comes from the late 1800s, when frequent evangelist meetings were held for the benefit of the local farmers -- many of whom were Protestants from the South.  The locals began to call this rural area "Gospel Swamp" and its residents "Swamp Angels." 

Q: A few years ago, they added a big arch over Main Street, just north of Warner Ave., reading "Historic South Main Business District." How did it get there, and why is the area historic?

A: The arch was built in 2007 as part of a redevelopment project. For most of its history, largely Hispanic South Santa Ana centered around the Holly Sugar Factory on Dyer Road. The plant opened in 1912 and was demolished in 1983. Many local residents worked there, and other businesses sprang up to serve them.  

The arch itself is a replica of one that stood over Highway 101 near Chapman Ave. before the I-5 Freeway was built.

Q: Nothing says California like palm trees. Where’s the best place in O.C. to appreciate them?

A: South Coast Plaza has an amazing collection of well over 50 varieties of palm trees from all over the world, including rare ones like Howea belmoreana, Rhapis excelsa, and Dypsis leptocheilos. Rows of Cuban royal palms along Bear St. (56 in all) are the only such stands of this species between Florida and Hawaii. The Segerstrom family, who owns the mall, is fond (not frond) of palms and even planted an additional 100 trees to honor the centennial anniversary of their family's arrival in Orange County.

If you go on a palm jungle scavenger hunt, be sure to check every nook and cranny, including parking lots, road medians, and the wing formerly known as “Crystal Court.” Adventure awaits! But unlike most tropical safaris, you should worry more about texting drivers than venomous snakes.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

OC/Q&A: Wildlife Edition

A magic lantern slide image of a California condor, 1900 (Courtesy San Jose Public Library)

Q: Are there any California Condors in Orange County?

A: There have been no confirmed sightings of California condors in Orange County in about a century. But this largest of all North American birds - with a 10-foot wingspan - was once common here. In the 1980s the last 22 condors were captured for a breeding program. More than 200 are in the wild again, but they're still endangered. Once, the condors were decimated by poisoning by ranchers and hunting. Today, habitat destruction, lead poisoning (from eating bullet-riddled animal carcasses), power lines, and "green" wind turbines are their downfalls.  Still, they're rebounding, so watch the skies for enormous ugly birds.

Q: What are the strangest animals native to Orange County?

A: Not counting the two-legged kind? Well, historian Jim Sleeper passed along a story about blind fish that lived in the underground lakes and peat springs deep below what’s now Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, and the southern end of Santa Ana. (Not to be confused with the infamous “blind mullet” of Newport Harbor.) These fish were occasionally brought up from deep wells. No more than two inches long, the species had lived in total darkness for so long that it gradually de-evolved to having no eyes.

Frankly, the Fountain Valley Blind Fish makes a more memorable team name for Fountain Valley High School than the rather conventional Barons.   

Q: If possums aren't native to California, why are they in my yard?

A: The possum, a native of the Southeast, was first introduced into California near L.A., around 1890. Homesick Southerners continued to bring more possums into the state up through the 1930s, both as food and as a source of cheap fur. Often, possums escaped, and soon these adaptable and prolific omnivores ranged across much of the state. Around 1900, Santa Margarita Ranch superintendent Bill Magee introduced possums to the Santa Ana Mountains when he turned loose a pair he'd purchased from a circus in Capistrano. The marsupial in your persimmon tree is likely their distant relative.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

OC/Q&A: Weather Edition

Snow at Valencia High School, Placentia, 1949 (Courtesy Placentia Library District)

Q: Has Orange County ever had a snowfall that covered the whole county?

A: That last occurred on January 11, 1949. The foothills got about five inches of snow, but most of the county got less. Tustin historian Juanita Louvret writes, "You had to work hard to gather enough snow to make a decent snowman."

Still, Orange County looked like a winter wonderland, and almost everyone with a camera photographed their suddenly transformed neighborhoods.  

Prior to 1949, you have to go back to Jan. 12, 1882 to find a record of another significant snowfall here.

Widespread snowfall was reported by some locals March 1, 2023, but those better acquainted with cold weather recognized it as “graupel” -- tiny wads of slush, not snowflakes. The graupel melted almost instantly upon touching the ground.

Q: Was the 1938 Flood the worst in O.C.’s history?

A: In terms of deaths (more than 50) and property damage, 1938 was our worst natural disaster. But for sheer volume of water, January 1862 brought us the ultimate frog-strangler. Historian Jim Sleeper wrote that the peak flow through Santa Ana Canyon in 1862 was “320,000 cubic feet per second, compared with 100,000 in 1938...” The Western half of Orange County became an extension of the ocean for a while. Luckily, there was hardly anyone around in 1862 to complain about it.

Q: With no groundhogs in Orange County, what signs of nature predict our local weather?

A: Local Indians once believed that gophers relocating their burrows to higher ground was a sign of an approaching rainy season. According to historian Jim Sleeper, the early pioneers had innumerable "sure signs" -- from heavy acorn growth, to whales hugging the coast, to maple leaves all turning color at once. These methods were all as dependable as ol' Punxsutawney Phil. 

Monday, September 04, 2023

San Juan Capistrano, 1860-1960

Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1865 (Edward Vischer)
The 1860s started badly for the town of San Juan Capistrano and got worse. After horrible flooding and a smallpox epidemic came a terrible and lengthy drought that killed the cattle industry, the ranchos, and the economy.

In the wake of California becoming part of the United States, those who’d owned property under Mexican rule were forced to prove the legitimacy of that ownership before the California Land Commission, often followed by court appeals. To navigate the American legal system, the rancheros had to hire lawyers, who – in light of their concurrent problems – they could ill afford to pay. 
Gen. Andres Pico, circa 1850 (Courtesy Seaver Center)
And to drive the last nail into the coffin of the ranchos, state government targeted them with confiscatory taxes, attempting to break up these huge tracts of land to encourage subdivision and new development in Southern California. 

In response to the latter of these threats, Andreas Pico led an 1859 effort to break Southern California off from the state and make it a separate territory. This attempt was passed by both houses of state legislature and ratified by the counties but was shot down by the U.S. Congress. (Many of us south of the Tehachapi wished Pico had succeeded, as evidenced by at least 219 later attempts to do essentially the same thing.)
Map of California (detail), 1868 (A. C. Frey & Louis Nell)
As the Mission had once given way to the ranchos, so the ranchos gave way to a new era of diversified farming and new and dramatically more numerous residents including many European immigrants. 

Irrigation infrastructure was expanded to serve this larger patchwork of farms and ranches. While the raising of cattle and sheep continued, the range of agriculture expanded, with wheat and barley becoming two of the more important crops. 

And with Joel Congdon’s Capistrano walnut groves began an important new regional industry. The English walnut and later the Placentia walnut were staples of the Orange County economy until the 1930s when the groves were beset by blight. 

Marcos Forster and family (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
Marcos Forster, Juan Forster’s son, had managed to hang on to some of the family land and money and continued some semblance of the Rancho Era longer in Capistrano than in most of California. Marcos, with his barbeques, fiestas and horse races, was a connection between Old Capistrano and the new settlers – introducing the newcomers to the community’s roots and culture. 

In 1865, just three weeks before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation restoring ownership of some mission properties – including Mission San Juan Capistrano -- to the Catholic Church. Although the Church had petitioned for this, the ruined state of the California missions was such that they didn’t have the resources to restore them.
San Juan viewed from the hills west of Rio Trabuco, circa.1887. (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
But while the mission continued to erode away, the town grew. By 1877, San Juan had a schoolhouse, post office, telegraph office, a hotel, two stores, four saloons, and 40 or 50 homes. The primary building material was still adobe. The people of the town were generally poor, but farming jobs, home gardens and fertile soil meant most everyone had food and shelter. It was a peaceful town. 

As the 1880s railroad boom came to Southern California, existing towns like Los Angeles and San Diego grew rapidly, and many new towns like Aliso City (later called El Toro and then Lake Forest) and San Juan-by-the-Sea were born. But change in San Juan Capistrano came slowly. 
San Juan Capistrano's second Santa Fe depot, 1890s (Courtesy OC Parks)
The first notable change came in the late 1880s, with the addition of a railroad depot. Property values jumped and land speculation was rampant. The boom naturally went bust, but in its wake, the benefits of the railroad remained. Where the market for local farms had been limited to Southern California, now they could ship and sell to the whole country! This increased the value of farmland and improved the local economy significantly. 
Judge Richard Egan (Courtesy SJC Historical Soc.)
Arriving in town in 1868, Irishman and former Confederate blockade runner Richard Egan would soon become, as his friend Helena Modjeska dubbed him, the King of Capistrano. He was a surveyor and farmer and soon was also the Justice of the Peace, telegrapher, notary, land agent, school board member, county road commissioner, and a bestower of aid to those in need. He was a county supervisor in the early 1880s, and in 1889 he helped fix the boundary line for the new County of Orange. He was also a director and right-of-way agent of the Santa Fe Railroad and was instrumental in making sure the railroad came to San Juan. Everyone recognized Judge Egan as what the Spanish called the alcalde – the town’s key dignitary. In 1883 he built his two-story home, later dubbed Harmony Hall, which still stands as an important landmark on Camino Capistrano. 
Diseño map for Boca de la Playa, circa 1846. Clear as mud. (Courtesy Phil Brigandi)
By 1869, California was STILL sorting out who owned exactly what land. It was legally complicated, as the old Spanish and Mexican records and boundaries were often unclear. Pablo Pryor, owner of the Rancho Boca de la Playa, south of San Juan, sought to take advantage of the situation and fudge the boundaries, fraudulently expanding his rancho to include all of San Juan Capistrano. The people of San Juan understandably were furious. 
Fr. Joseph Mut (Courtesy SJC Historical Soc.)
Leading the charge to stop this scam were storekeeper Henry Charles (a Russian Jew) and Fr. Joseph Mut of the Mission. By 1870, Mut's lobbying and struggling on behalf of the poor people of San Juan succeeded. He was the "Sheriff Bart," to their Rock Ridge, saving the village from the landsharks. But he lived under a veil of threat the rest of his life, with Pryor's powerful friends making threats and even sending someone to attack him with a knife. In 1886 Mut was sent to Mission San Miguel, but there would be no new priest to take his place.
C. F. Lummis (center) at Mission San Juan Capistrano, circa 1904 (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
In 1895, the Landmarks Club, led by Out West magazine publisher Charles Fletcher Lummis, was formed with the purpose of preserving what remained of the mission ruins at San Diego, San Fernando, Pala, and San Juan Capistrano. They started their work in Capistrano, where they put on new roofs, repaired crumbling adobe, installed support beams on leaning walls, shored up the ruins of the Great Stone Church, and removed 400 tons of debris. Much of the actual work was done by Judge Egan. This was the first important step in the preservation and restoration process that continues even today at the mission. It also aligned nicely with the increasing popularity of the mission ruins as a tourist destination in the 1890s. 

The mission attracted artists, photographers, and the curious, and now it was easily accessed by train. From then on, tourism at the mission would only increase, becoming the central economic pillar of the town.
San Juan Hot Springs (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
Another local tourist attraction was the resort at San Juan Hot Springs, which opened in the 1880s outside of town in what’s now Caspers Park. Known and used by native people for centuries before the Spaniards arrived, the springs were considered a cure for all manner of ills. It was also a fine spot for camping. The resort proved popular and a store, swimming pool and dance hall were later added.
Monsignor St. John O'Sullivan, 1934 (Courtesy University of Southern California)
In 1910, Fr. St John O’Sullivan became the first resident priest at the mission since Fr. Mut in 1886. The Mission was still in ruins – albeit shored up the Landmarks Club – and not in use. O’Sullivan had been sent to serve a tiny parish with no church to maintain – an easy, peaceful job hand-selected for him because he was already dying of tuberculosis. 

But O’Sullivan was impressed by the mission which, like him, was still standing though a ragged shell of its old self. Like others, he saw it as a symbol of survival against all odds. Initially living in a tent, O’Sullivan began work to restore as much of the Mission as he could with his own two hands. Soon others saw what he was doing and began to help. Eventually, he began taking donations from visitors to help pay for further restoration. His first focus was the Serra Chapel, but eventually, his work could be seen everywhere.  
The Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
And as he worked, O’Sullivan’s tuberculosis went into remission and his strength returned. He saved the mission while the mission saved him. 

O’Sullivan taught others what he had learned, making possible the restoration of more of the California Missions. And his tremendous success was an inspiration not only to his community but to other mission towns throughout the state. O’Sullivan would work on his mission until his death in 1933. 

But O’Sullivan brought far more than a preservationist’s touch to San Juan Capistrano. He was also a remarkable parish priest and a profoundly spiritual and kind man. Anyone doubting his devotion to his community need only read his diary entries from 1918 -- the year the Spanish Flu swept through Capistrano. With his scarred lungs, O’Sullivan had even more to fear than most. But he made the rounds to the homes of the sick and dying every day, bringing a doctor down from Santa Ana to go with him. He assisted the doctor, prayed with families, performed the sacraments over the dying, and kept daily notes on the progress of every afflicted individual in town. It’s clear that he knew and cared for everyone in the village and they all knew and respected him. 
Postcard depicting swallows' mud nests at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Knowing his parishioners as well as he did, O’Sullivan was also able to collect and publish two volumes San Juan Capistrano’s rich folklore. Of these tales he popularized, the most famous would be of the story of the swallows’ annual return to Capistrano. That single story, as told by O’Sullivan (and then echoed by a hit song) did more to draw attention to the town and the mission than any marketing campaign ever could have. Soon, the whole country knew about this sleepy little town.

The early 20th century was a time of change for San Juan. Electricity, telephone service and paved streets all arrived, along with municipal water service downtown. A new school, a new hotel and a handful of other buildings were built out of materials other than adobe. 
Mission Pageant poster, 1924
Garnet Holme wrote a Mission Pageant which was performed each year as part of a celebration which ultimately evolved into today’s Swallows Day event. Capistrano High School’s first graduation, in 1923, featured one graduate. Citrus became a major local industry in the 1930s and ‘40s. And the early 1930s saw the opening of the Ortega Highway, connecting Capistrano to Lake Elsinore over the Santa Ana Mountains. 

The 1930s also saw a major awakening of local interest in San Juan Capistrano’s history. A good share of this was driven by the efforts of Alfonso Yorba (a.k.a. Chauncy Chalmers, a.k.a. Bruce Conde), who wrote a history column for the Coastline Dispatch
Tour guide at Mission San Juan Capistrano, circa 1930s (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
For this, and other reasons, the town woke up to the fact that historical tourism was its primary economic driver. It doubled-down on showcasing that history – not just at the Mission but throughout the town. They renamed streets to reflect their Spanish heritage and started preserving historic buildings beyond the mission walls. Preserving and marketing history would become a central theme in the community from then on. In the 1940s the Catholic diocese even purchased the property across the street from the mission to ensure that only structures reflecting the area’s historic nature would be built.
Chief Clarence Lobo
In 1946, Clarence Lobo became Chief of the Juaneno or Acjachemen native people. After generations of his people gradually fading from view and being absorbed into the larger population, Lobo brought attention to the tribe’s uniqueness, culture and history. He fought for native rights, tribal recognition by the government, and a better understanding among his own people of their roots. After many instances of traveling to meet government officials only to be ignored, he realized that he needed to LOOK like an Indian chief to get the attention of the white man. He adopted an elaborate headdress of the Sioux variety, along with the other colorful beadwork and trappings of plains Indians. Those who knew anything about California Indians snickered, but it worked. He was no longer ignored. Yet today, the tribe still fights for the same things Clarence Lobo worked for so many years ago.
Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, circa 1959 (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
After World War II, San Juan Capistrano’s primary issue became growth. On one hand, an expanding economy, more jobs, and more convenience were welcome. On the other hand, residents wanted their small sleepy town to remain a small sleepy town. But although the shift from agriculture to suburbia came more gradually to San Juan than to many other parts of Orange County, it was still inevitable. More businesses opened. More roads were paved. The town’s first housing tract was completed in 1950. 

And when the I-5 Freeway replaced Highway 101 in the late 1950s, many more tourists flocked into town than ever before, again underlining the critical nature of heritage tourism. More restoration work was done at the Mission and the Chamber of Commerce hired Western artist Otheta Weston (who also worked for Knott’s Berry Farm and helped restore the Gold Rush town of Columbia) to design facades for downtown buildings to better evoke Early California.   

As Orange County’s population boom set it, San Juan Capistrano grew with it – albeit with a bit of a lag and with a style all its own.
Aerial view of San Juan Capistrano, 1959 (Courtesy O.C. Archives)
In 1960, the town’s population was about 1,120. By 1980 it had grown to 18,956. And by 2000 San Juan Capistrano had 33,826 residents.

The town weathered this growth while consciously working to preserve the look, feel and atmosphere of a historic little mission town. Height restrictions were judiciously placed on new construction, Spanish Colonial architecture became the standard, over a third of the town’s open space was preserved, preservationists protected dozens of buildings and historic sites from destruction, and a law was passed prohibiting development above the ridgeline on the surrounding hills. Steps like these have retained San Juan Capistrano’s distinct sense of history and place, unique character, rustic atmosphere, multi-cultural roots, and a good share of its natural landscape. 

For all its historical ups and downs, San Juan has not only endured but thrived. In doing so, its shown that preserving a town’s history can provide a solid and meaningful foundation for the future. 
Orange County Historical Society members at Los Rios District, 2016 (Author's photo)

[Author's note: This article began as a 15-minute address before the Orange County Chapter of the American Planning Association at Mission San Juan Capistrano on August 31, 2023. It was preceded by a similar historical summary from Eric Plunkett spanning from 1769 to 1860 and was followed by yet another program by Jan Siegel discussing the years from 1960 to 2023 with an emphasis on preservation and planning issues. There is, of course, MUCH of San Juan's history that cannot be crammed into a 15-minute talk. Those hoping for a fuller picture of this and other eras of Capistrano’s history should begin by seeking out a copy of either of two similarly titled books by Pamela Hallan-Gibson: Two Hundred Years In San Juan Capistrano or the slightly more portable Dos Cientos Años en San Juan Capistrano.]

Friday, September 01, 2023

OC/Q&A: Agriculture Edition

Ocean View Mushroom Growers. (Photo courtesy Mary Urashima)
Q: I'm told Huntington Beach had an indoor mushroom farm. True?

A: There was, indeed, fungus among us. Ocean View Mushroom Growers had 36 dark, air-conditioned growing houses full of compost and mushrooms. The compost was made from a pungent blend of race track bedding, wine residue, cow belly and chicken manure, and pickers wore lighted miners’ helmets so they could work in near-darkness. Owner Victor Di Stefano, grew up around the mushroom business in Pennsylvania and, after serving part of his WWII Navy hitch in Southern California, decided to settle here and go into the business himself. By the mid-1950s he’d settled on a parcel on Golden West St., north of Ellis Ave. He had 220,000 square feet of growing space, and a good crop yielded five pounds of mushrooms per square foot. When the farm shut down in the 1980s, the city began a long battle to acquire the property. A lot of locals who were used to the farm’s smell had to hold their noses for the gross construction/development expenditures for the city Sports Complex that replaced it. 

Q: Was Orange County ever a wine region?

A: The padres at Mission San Juan Capistrano grew “mission grapes” for a dessert-type wine, some of the Ranchos had vines, and the Los Angeles Vineyard Society founded Anaheim in the 1850s as a vineyard and winemaking colony. But the industry ground to a halt in 1885, when a Pierce’s Disease wiped out most of the vines. But occasionally, hobbyists or entrepreneurs would make wine from non-local grapes. My favorite local label (not the wine, I just like the labels) was Trabuco Loud Mouth, made in Holy Jim Canyon until a 1980 brush fire destroyed the wine press. Today, a handful of local winemakers today include the Laguna Canyon Winery, Newport Beach Vineyards & Winery, Hamilton Oaks Vineyard in Trabuco Canyon, and the Pozzuoli Vineyard & Winery in Tustin. 

Q: Was the Hass avocado really developed in La Habra?

A: Almost. This most popular of all avocado varieties was developed by mailman Rudolph Hass (rhymes with the thing you sit on) in a small grove at his home in La Habra Heights, just over the border into Los Angeles County. All Hass avocado trees today descend from a single seed he planted there in 1926. Rudy's mail route was in La Habra, so some folks assumed his tree was located there too. The mother tree finally died and was cut down in 2002.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

OC/Q&A: Huntington Beach

Helme-Worthy House (right) and M.E. Helme Furniture Co. Building (left) prior the construction of The Strand.

Q: What are those old buildings that are now nearly surrounded by The Strand shopping center in Downtown Huntington Beach?

A: Those buildings are still owned and occupied by the descendants of the man who put them there: Matthew E. Helme, a furniture dealer, Socialist, and one of the town's original councilmen. His efforts helped bring paved roads, streetlights, a modern fire department, municipal gas and water systems, and cityhood to Huntington Beach. His house, at 6th and Walnut, was originally built at 5th St. and Euclid in Santa Ana around 1880. He used mules to roll the house on logs to its current location in 1903. The following year, he built the M.E. Helme Furniture Co. building behind the house. In a city that's bulldozed most of its history, it's heartwarming to know these buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places and are currently (if slowly) being restored.

Q: Why do locals call Golden West College "UBL?"

A: Until about 15 years ago, there was a large discount furniture store between the college and Edinger Avenue. "UBL" stands for "University Behind Levitz." Plenty of other institutions of higher learning have similarly cheeky nicknames. Santa Ana College is "UCSB:" the "University of California at Seventeenth and Bristol." And some say "UCI" stands for "Under Construction Indefinitely." Yours truly transferred from Tangerine Tech (Orange Coast College) to Cal State Disneyland (CSU Fullerton). 

Q: The Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade is great, but the crowds can be terrible. How do we solve this?

A:  We could take a tip from the Huntington Beach Fish Parade of 1926. The brainchild of City Councilman E. B. Stevens, this fishing-themed parade wound 85 miles through the county, reaching La Habra, Olive (the north end of Orange), and even over the county line into Norwalk.  The parade's bathing beauties, bigwigs, and bands -- all piled into open-topped vehicles -- were undoubtedly frazzled by the end of the day. But there were plenty of good seats available along the route. 

Friday, June 30, 2023

Unusual names from Orange County's past

Ulysses Goates, Knott's Berry Farm employee, 1950s.
Twenty years ago, I started keeping a list of some of the curious, colorful or unusual names I stumble across in directories, newspapers, etc, while researching Orange County history. Doing so has been purely for my own amusement, but I figure I might as well share a few of them here...

  • W. H. Tinklepaugh (Robbed the Fox Fullerton Theatre in 1929. Pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity)
  • Eltha Mustard, Geneva Mustard, and Biney Mustard (Family lived in Santa Ana, 1930s-'40s)
  • Carbon Petroleum Dubbs (Lived on Easter Hill, North Tustin)
  • Girtha Edith Ostrander (Mother of Sondra Myracle of Orange)
  • Euphrates Hare (Westminster pioneer)
  • Thelma Blackbeard (Lived in Newport Heights)
  • Gertie Gurney (Property owner in La Habra)
  • Noah Counts (La Habra resident)
  • Beaver Goodykoontz (WWI veteran from Villa Park area)
  • Ulysses S. Lemon (Longtime local newspaper publisher. Died in Fullerton in 1929)
  • Floddie Moan (Los Angeles resident and sister of Melchi W. Hart and Stella Organ)
  • Stella Organ (Daughter of Santa Ana's Harris Hart)
  • Dummer Kiah Trask (Lived 1860-1914. Trask Avenue is named for him.) 
  • Melvin C. Roach (Married in O.C. around 1928)
  • Rev. Myrna C. Cronic (Preached in Anaheim in 1939)
  • Dick Biggins (Acting Clerk of West Orange County Municipal Court, 1981)
  • Stephen A. Rumps (O.C. Sheriff's Deputy until Jan. 1983)
  • Farnum Phipps 
  • Minnie Clynick (Santa Ana resident, circa 1930s-1960s)
  • Delbert & Dimple Kerley (married couple, lived in Santa Ana in 1930s)
  • Thomas Twaddle (San Bernardino resident, as of 1890)
  • Noah Cheatum (Contractor working on San Clemente in 1962)
  • Fanny Sparks (Phil Brigandi observed, "That's one of the side effects of Olestra.")

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Furniture from the Trabuco Adobe

Trabuco Adobe ruins, circa 1930s. Now inside the boundaries of O'Neill Park.

People often come to me with "old stuff." When I can't immediately tell if I'm being offered trash or treasure, I tend to grab the item in question and figure it out later. Over the years, I've saved some important things that way. But sometimes the answers don't come easily. Here's a case where a group of artifacts which finally proved to be a mixed bag of relatively significant items mixed with one particular artifact that may yet prove to be downright amazing. Or not.

In 2019, archaeologist Holly "Sonny" (Windolph) Shelton of Grand Junction, Colorado contacted Mission San Juan Capistrano with an offer to donate four pieces of furniture which had been removed from the historic Trabuco Adobe about a century earlier. This adobe had been an estancia for the Mission and its ruins, located on the Rancho Santa Margarita side of O'Neil Park, are a reminder of what was perhaps the earliest "permanent" building in Orange County outside of San Juan Capistrano. Theoretically, this furniture could have dated back as early as the Mission Era. And even if it wasn't that early, it's association with the Trabuco Adobe alone made the furniture historically interesting.

The Mission turned down Shelton's offer. So on August 28, 2021, Shelton emailed the same offer to the Historical Parks division of OC Parks: 

She wrote, “During the late 1930s or 1940s my grandfather, Leo Windolph of San Juan Capistrano, purchased a parcel of land in Trabuco Canyon, in an area now encompassed by O'Neill Regional Park. Several deteriorating adobe structures were situated on the property.”

Painting of Trabuco Adobe ruins, circa 1920s by Anne Robinson

The only adobe structure there at that time was the Trabuco Adobe. And indeed, further research has shown that her family was farming that part of the Plano Trabuco (where the adobe is located) in the early 20th Century. 

The adobe, Shelton continued, “had previously been used by Mission San Juan Capistrano . . . and still held a number of mission-related antiquities such as ornate candlesticks, Santos, and other items. In addition, there were several pieces of furniture, all constructed by hand of wood and wrought iron . . .  Mr. Windolph felt these articles belonged to the Church and contacted a Father at the Mission who did come and took all but the furniture back to San Juan Capistrano Mission.” [See entry re Windolph, in Talbert's Historical Volume & Reference Works, Vol. 3, pg 687]

Here, the family lore becomes a little hazy, but none of the important information conflicts with the known historical facts about the furniture itself. Some details, however, are missing from the story. 

For instance, a key turning point seems to have come when the roof was torn off the Trabuco Adobe in the early 1920s to provide tile for Fr. St. John O’Sullivan’s restoration of the Mission’s Serra Chapel. Either the furniture was removed at that point and put into storage (perhaps in a nearby barn) or it was left, as Shelton suggests, still in situ until the 1930s or 1940s. The degree of weathering on most of the furniture suggests the former. 

Portion of the Trabuco Adobe ruins, inside a wood shelter, 2012 (Photo by author)

“Eventually, of the aforementioned furniture,” Shelton wrote, “I inherited two high-backed chairs and a large table and bench. . . As I have no heirs or family and feel the items should not remain in Colorado, it is my intention to return them to an entity located as close to their place of origin as soon as possible. As the Mission has declined my offer I am pursuing other alternatives. . .”

“. . . Approximate sizes are: Table 5ft L x 3ft W x 3ft high; bench 5ft L x 1.5ft W x 1.5ft high; chairs 4.5 feet high at back and 2ft wide. Condition: As they are quite old but have been indoors, the wood is slightly weathered but structurally sound, wrought iron in good condition, leather sling seat, and back of chair #1 professionally replaced from a pattern of the original leather which was so old it had begun to crumble. Chair #2 is all wood. The bench has been stained and sealed but is reversible.”

The refinished "Chair #1" (Photo by author)

OC Parks also rejected the offer but kindly passed the email along to the Orange County Archives, which unfortunately is not in the business of accepting such large artifacts. County Archivist Susan Berumen then passed Shelton's email along to me.

I accepted the furniture myself with the idea to study it, pull together as much information as possible about it, and then carefully find an appropriate home (or homes) for it. 

In September 2021, Shelton’s brother, Doug Windolph -- at great inconvenience to himself -- delivered the furniture to me at a predetermined storage site in Orange County. 

Six-foot table with moving straps still around it. (Photo by author)

Soon it became clear that two of the pieces – the table and the bench -- were definitely not from the Mission Era. Historian Eric Plunkett suggested measuring the furniture, and indeed the table and bench measured neatly in feet and inches rather than Spanish varas and fractions of varas. 

Moreover, the table and bench were carefully crafted to look like mortise and tenon construction but were actually held together with hidden nuts and bolts. And finally, the furniture was not built of woods that were readily available in Early California and the wrought iron supports showed a level of sophistication uncommon on the rugged frontier. The table and bench were likely built as “Mission Revival” pieces circa 1900-1920. They were probably purchased during that time and added to the Trabuco Adobe with an eye toward having it appear “at home” in such a structure. 

Six-foot long bench. (Photo by author)

The refinished chair with leather sling seat is likely also from the early 20th Century, although it’s harder to tell for certain. It may be early, but the fact that it was refinished makes it difficult to tell a great deal more about it. 

That said, the table, bench and refinished chair’s century-old connection to the Trabuco Adobe make ALL of this furniture historically significant, regardless of its exact age. Very few artifacts from this early estancia survive, from any era. Moreover, they still look – as intended – right at home in an adobe structure and accurately depict the style of furniture one would have seen in Southern California during the Mission Era. Thus, being simultaneously historical artifacts AND historical reproductions, in mid-2022 I offered them to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, which graciously accepted. At the time, they were restoring/rebuilding a historic adobe in the Los Rios District as part of their museum and I asked that these pieces be “displayed for educational purposes, and interpreted through signage that reflects the history of the Trabuco Adobe.” 

"Chair #2" (Photo by author)

The fourth piece of furniture – still under study and not donated with the rest – is what Shelton identified as Chair #2. This chair is in rougher condition than the rest of the furniture and has clearly had a couple pieces (including the seat) replaced at some point in the past. But this chair bears many indications of being very early. It has traces of paint seemingly consistent with the Spanish/Mexican Colonial era. It features no obvious measurements in feet or inches, but numerous measurements in fractions of varas. 

Also, Chair #2 is made of pine or fir, which would have been the only lumber available locally prior to expanding trade in the 1830s. The construction techniques – aside from the aforementioned replaced pieces and two holes that seem to have been drilled at a later date -- are consistent with the Mission Era as well. (Admittedly, such furniture has often been replicated by others over the generations.) A number of historians have provided their observations regarding the chair so far, including longtime Rancho Los Cerritos curator Steve Iverson, who also happens to be a master woodworker. 

Detail from "Chair #2" (Photo by author)
There is still a hope that a few more experts to weigh in on this chair. To that end, it has been moved to another location in Orange County which not only provides better temperature and humidity conditions for the chair but also provides easier access for said experts to assess the piece. 

Meanwhile, the reappearance of this collection of furniture has led Eric Plunkett to do additional original research into the Trabuco Adobe as well as the story of furniture manufacturing at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Among his earliest findings were the fact that the Trabuco Adobe is older than most thought and that it was used initially for shepherds rather than vaqueros. He has also learned exactly who the master carpenter was at the mission and the names of the neophytes he trained. (See The Trabuco Adobe: The Oldest Adobe Outside of Capistrano in O.C.?

Delivery day! (L to R) Chris Jepsen, Eric Plunkett, Sandra Windolph, Doug Windolph. Sept. 19, 2021

Monday, April 24, 2023

JoAn Burdick Gottlieb (1934-2023)

JoAn Burdick at the Calico Saloon, Knott's Berry Farm, June 1954

My introduction to JoAn Burdick Gottlieb was a single remarkable photograph. 

Soon after I was hired as the Assistant Archivist at the Orange County Archives, in 2003, we became the repository of Knott’s Berry Farm’s historical materials. In trying to identify, date and organize the thousands of photos we pulled from every nook and cranny of the Farm, I needed to identify the places, things, and especially the people depicted therein. 

Naturally, among the photos of Knott’s Ghost Town were countless images of grizzled prospectors, train robbers, square-jawed sheriffs, bartenders, and high-kicking can-can dancers. Almost all of these images made Ghost Town itself the focus of attention. All except for one 1954 photo of a tall beautiful can-can dancer standing atop the bar in the Calico Saloon. That dancer – wearing a snazzier costume than the ones Knott’s usually supplied – was clearly the sole focus of the photo and Ghost Town just happened to be the backdrop. The dancer’s name turned out to be JoAn Burdick. 

Most of the Ghost Town crew from that era were long gone by then, and I didn’t make an effort to track her down. Instead, she found me. 

(L to R) The author with JoAn and her dear friends Kathy and Bill Couture at the Orange County Historical Society, Feb. 7, 2019.
As a local historian who's always looking for contacts and clues, I've joined every Orange County history group I can find on Facebook. One day – several months after finding the can-can photo – I spotted a post from “JoAn Burdick Gottleib” in J’aime Rubio’s Anaheim History group. I can’t remember the subject of the post, but I recognized the name. I contacted JoAn and we talked about her years at Knott’s and many other stories about her life. I liked her immediately. 

If JoAn never told you about the high points of her life, many other tributes since her death have done fair job: Dancing, pageants, parades, Knott’s Berry Farm, Las Vegas, celebrities, her beloved Bernie, her dance and baton twirling school, motherhood, friends, and community volunteer work.  But with all due respect to her many accomplishments, they aren’t the reason her passing generates such an avalanche of fond tributes. 

Why then? 

Because JoAn enthusiastically brought love and a glowing positive attitude to any room she entered. Because she fully immersed herself in being an active part of the community. (Something that her wonderful friends Kathy and Bill Couture helped facilitate in her later years.) And because she was a cheerleader for so many of us – sincerely and effusively telling us we were doing a great job and gushing about our successes to anyone who would listen. And no, I'm not just talking about me. I Everyone needs a JoAn or two in their lives.

Halloween, 2021 at the Anaheim Public Library.

In the years after we met, JoAn and her friends became regulars at meetings of the Orange County Historical Society, where I serve as president and program chair. She was also a regular at the Anaheim Historical Society which had a lot of overlap with another of her favorite community organizations, the Anaheim Halloween Parade. (Causes that are close to my heart as well.) Having played a role in the parade during its halcyon years, in the 2010s she played an even more active role as the parade was revived from the brink of death and once again made a charming and vital part of the community.

JoAn’s passing drew immediate tributes from dozens of individuals on social media, from community organizations, and even the City of Anaheim itself. A memorial I attended turned out to be a semi-secret event because the organizers knew that a publicly-announced memorial would bring out half the city, overwhelm the Anaheim Ebell Clubhouse, and possibly draw unwanted attention from the Fire Marshall. As it was, there were still maybe 175 people there. After a short memorial program and lunch, JoAn’s friends and family – one at a time -- volunteered their memories of her. Altogether, it went on for three hours. It easily could have gone on longer, but I assume the Ebell ladies wanted their hall back eventually.  

I doubt I'll ever light up a room the way JoAn did. And I'll certainly never be able to twirl three batons at once while marching down Broadway. But I hope a little of what made JoAn special has rubbed off on everyone who knew her -- including me.

JoAn speaks at the Orange County Historical Society, 2019. (Photo by author)

Author's note: JoAn passed in January 2023, so this post arrives awfully late. It was written for inclusion in a booklet full of tributes to JoAn being assembled by a mutual friend. Ultimately, that project did not move forward, so -- considering what a fixture JoAn had become in the local history community in recent years -- I thought it appropriate to post it here instead. This little article is in no way intended to serve as a proper obituary, covering the breadth and depth of her life experiences. Rather, it's just a reflection of the JoAn that *I* knew. I will leave other stories to those who know those stories better.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

A Bit of Hawaii and Financial Skulduggery on Clay Ave.

I stumbled across this row of Hawaiian-themed apartment buildings last week while taking a walk north of Yorktown Ave. and west of Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. Located at 704-732 Clay Ave between Beach and Florida St. (in Block A of Tract 837) the construction on the buildings was completed in 1965 -- around the peak of the Tiki or Polynesian Pop craze that swept America.

The standout features of these buildings are the multiple variations of the "Dickey Roof" design. This type of roof was introduced in 1926 by Hawaiian architect Charles W. Dickey and was based on the grass roof of King Kamehameha V's Waikiki beach house.

Another telltale sign of the buildings' island inspiration are the remnants of their original subtropical landscaping, including banana trees and bird of paradise plants. 

Developer Eagle Enterprises, Inc., based in Garden Grove, purchased the land from Edgar R. "Ned" Hill & Dora A. Hill of Newport Beach in October 1963. Dora was the first woman to serve as mayor of Newport Beach. Ned had been in the boat building business and was the founder and president of a local bank.

Ribbon cutting for another Eagle Enterprises project, Tustin Acres, April 9, 1964. L to R: Ward Wilsey; Norbert Moffatt, representing Lieut. Governor Glenn M. Anderson; Tustin mayor George Doney; Woodrow Wilsey; Tustin councilman Jerry Mack; Ernest Wilsey (Tustin News photo)

Eagle Enterprises was operated by three brothers: Ward Maurice Wilsey, vice president; P. I. Woodrow Wilsey, advisor; and Ernest Reginald Wilsey, Jr., president. It appears that each owned a 1/3 interest in the business.

Construction on the apartments got underway in 1964, but by June of that year both the Gene Robinson Building Co. and Cal-Western Cabinet Co. (a.k.a. Lawrence E. Green) took out mechanics' liens against Eagle. Then it went from bad to worse. Eagle defaulted on its loans and the property was foreclosed on by the Costa Mesa Savings & Loan Association. Eagle Enterprises went bankrupt in 1965. The Savings & Loan had the work on the buildings completed by contractor Charles R. Swenson, who finished on Aug. 9, 1965.

At the end of 1966 the Savings & Loan -- recently renamed Mariners Savings & Loan Association -- sold the row of Clay Ave. apartment buildings to Donald L. & Carolyn J. Arritt. In 1967, the Arritts in turn deeded half interest in the lots to Howard V. & Waneta M. Mathews. 

But the Wilsey brothers still weren't out of trouble. In 1970, a federal grand jury investigated the Wilseys and the defunct Eagle Enterprises and then idicted Ward and Woodrow for a number of crimes. The charges against Woodrow were more relatively minor (failure to file income taxes) and seem to have been dropped or dealt with through fines. 

However, in 1971 Ward Wilsey was convicted not only of failing to report about $56,000 in income tax, but also filing false statements with federal saving and loan associations during 1963, 1964 and 1965. He'd also diverted corporate funds into his own pockets, billed several federal savings and loans for consulting work he never actually performed, and hid records from IRS agents. "Most of the apartment developments begun by Wilsey were foreclosed by the savings and loan associations involved," recalled The Tustin News (3-18-1972) upon his conviction. He was sentenced to ten months in jail and a $4,000 fine. 

On July 10, 1975, the Arritt and Mathews families sold all the apartment buildings to George M. & Mary E. Heisick. It was the Heisicks, in 1976, who "broke up the set" and began to sell of the lots individually to a variety of new owners. From then on, each building would pass through a variety of different owners' hands, independent of the other buildings. 

Did this row of apartment buildings once have additional Polynesian decor and theming? Were there Tikis amidst the landscaping? Did the complex once have a name like "The Aloha Apartments" or "The Hana Kiki?" Did some of the rooves feature outrigger beams which have since been bobbed? Any of these would not be a surprise, but so far no additional information has come to light. If you know more about this intriguing row of buildings, let me know.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Solve the Mystery of Henry Serrano's Door

Do you have information about this door, which was given by Henry Serrano (of the pioneer Serrano family) to a respected historian and archaeologist I'll call "J" sometime around the 1980s? Henry passed away long ago. J probably knows the door's story, but a recent stroke has made communication extremely difficult. J has also moved out of Southern California and took the door along, but would now like to see it returned to Orange County.

The wood door has carvings of initials, horses, other animals, and dates that range from 1885 to 1890. It is delicate with age and use and is held in a custom-built plywood box for protection. The measurements of the door (encased within its protective frame) are 73” tall by 36” wide.

We'd love to see the door displayed at the Serrano Adobe in Lake Forest's Heritage Hill Historical Park, if appropriate. When that possibility was mentioned, J nodded vigorously, indicated that the Serrano Adobe was indeed the right place for the door. But OC Historical Parks (which owns/operates the adobe) quite correctly requires more provenance than simply "this came from someone in the Serrano family" before accepting an artifact. Which means all of us (including, perhaps, you) need to band together to share/research more information about it.

The reason that J got to know and become friends with Henry Serrano is because J assisted (the late) Jim Brock of Archaeological Advisory Group and/or (the late) Mark Roeder, paleontologist, with a site survey that also involved Henry's input.

I'll try to track that property and survey down and perhaps some of the other people involved in it, to see if the door is mentioned. But that may be a long shot. 

I'm hoping some member of the Serrano family, or the Saddleback Area Historical Society. or a random El Toro old-timer, or SOMEONE will step forward and say, "Sure! I remember Uncle Henry telling me about this door and where it came from!" 

As an artifact, it's a wonderful, functional piece of everyday life that's made dramatically more interesting by the folk-art carvings and inscriptions added to it.

So, if you know the story of the door, or part of its story, or if you think you might know who DOES know the story, please drop me a line at CJepsen at socal dot rr dot com or through my Facebook page. We have volunteers ready to bring this great artifact back to Orange County and its rightful home -- but we have to figure out what that rightful home is.