Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Suspicious historians

I just stumbled across this Tustin Police blotter item in the Tustin News from Aug. 31, 1989: "Police investigate the report of a suspicious person in a vehicle at 235 South A Street. The woman in the car is studying Tustin's history." 

Haven't ALL local historians and preservationists been stopped many times for the "weird" behavior of documenting historic sites?  Ha!

Anyway, the classic California Bungalow in question here was built by Paul and Mary Anderson in 1922. And the "suspicious" woman was undoubtedly one of the volunteers working on the 1990 City of Tustin Historical Survey (which is a resource I use often now, thanks to Guy Ball sending me a copy). I'd bet money the suspicious woman was local historian Carol Jordan, who did a tremendous amount of work on that survey. Carol's now 95 and still great company. Had lunch with her a few weeks ago.

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

O.C. 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 mid-to-late 1800s, when the population of that rural area skewed toward Southerners, Democrats, and pious holy-rollers. The area also featured an unusually high concentration of preachers. According to the late historian Phil Brigandi, it was George Lynch who coined the name "Gospel Swamp" immediately after attending a sermon by fellow pioneer Rev. Isaac Hickey. Soon the name was in general use. The more urbane Santa Ana residents began referring to the area's residents as "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 considered 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 fifty 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

O.C. 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

O.C. 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

O.C. 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.