Saturday, April 27, 2024

O.C. Q&A: West County Edition

Mayor Jack de Vries, City Manager Burt Wesenberg, a dairy cow (name unknown), and Assistant City Clerk Susan Guertin toast the incorporation of Dairyland in 1955.

Q:  What (and where) was Dairyland?

A:  The city we now call La Palma was originally called Dairyland and was created to keep cows in and people out. 

After WWII, suburban growth pushed many dairies out of Los Angeles County and into rural areas like west Orange County. When suburban sprawl (quickly) caught up with them once more, the resettled dairymen fought being pushed out again. 

In 1955, (the same year another D-land opened in Orange County) they incorporated the city of Dairyland, with ordinances against residential development. The ploy was short-lived. In 1965, the city's first tract homes were built and voters changed the town's name to La Palma, after La Palma Ave. The cows were soon sent packing.

Q:  When did Stanton become a city?

A:  Which time? Stanton became a city twice. 

The folks neighboring the rail stop of Benedict banded together in 1911 to keep out a proposed sewer facility for Anaheim. With the help of local politico and developer Philip A. Stanton  --  who also founded Huntington Beach and Seal Beach -- they formed the City of Stanton and told Anaheim where to put their stink. In 1924, with the threat long passed, they found that running a city was sort of a bother and disincorporated. 

Stanton didn't bother becoming a city again until 1956, when Orange County was growing by leaps and bounds. Locals realized that if they didn't form their own city (again), they would soon be gobbled up by a neighboring city and lose local control.

Q:  How did the City of Cypress get its name?

A:  The town took its name from the Cypress School District – founded in 1896 – which, according to the late great historian Phil Brigandi, was simply named for the then-popular ornamental tree. 

But Cypress could have easily ended up with another name. In the early years, some called it Waterville, highlighting the area’s many artesian wells. And in 1927, there was briefly talk of changing the name to Lindbergh, in honor of the celebrity aviator. 

With the local dairy industry’s dramatic growth after World War II, the town followed in neighboring Dairyland's footsteps and incorporated as Dairy City in 1956. To nearly everyone’s relief, it was soon re-renamed Cypress.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

O.C. Q&A: South County Edition

Crime scene: Monarch Bay Plaza (shown in 1966). Note United California Bank on the right.

Q:   What was Orange County’s biggest bank heist?

A:  It was a doozy! Here’s the story as told by local historian and former Dana Point mayor Carlos Olvera: President Richard Nixon once talked labor leader Jimmy Hoffa into paying $3 million for a pardon to get out of prison. Once freed, Hoffa wanted his money back. And he knew Nixon had it in safe deposit boxes at United California Bank at Monarch Bay Plaza – now part of Dana Point. A group of thieves from Ohio was enlisted to rob the bank, get Hoffa’s money back, and help themselves to any other loot. 

The crooks cut through the bank’s roof and vault ceiling on Friday night, March 24, 1972 and spent three nights busting into about 500 safety deposit boxes. They took an estimated $30 million.  Accounting for inflation, it was the largest bank heist in U.S. history.

The burglars were later caught and served time. But Hoffa reportedly got about a third of his money back.

Q:  What's the story on the iconic Taj Majal Building in Laguna Hills?

A:  It began as the headquarters of the Rossmoor Corp. -- developers of the Leisure World communities -- which architects Burke, Kober & Nicholais also designed. When the four-story neoclassical contemporary structure at 23521 Paseo De Valencia was built in 1964, it stood out like a sore thumb amid grassy plains and understated tile roofs. The locals soon dubbed it "the Taj Mahal," and the name stuck.  

In 1968, investment broker Joseph Dulaney bought the building, but lost it when his business unraveled. The FBI determined Dulaney was a con man who'd duped nuns and scores of Leisure World residents. Dulaney disappeared, hopscotching around the globe. He was captured in Curacao, but the case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The building's current owners have officially renamed it the Taj Mahal Medical Center.

Q:  Grandma’s sure white swallows perched on her head at Mission San Juan Capistrano. White swallows!?!

A:  Capistrano’s famed cliff swallows are usually AWOL, so visitors often misidentify any small birds as the expected swallows. The real cliff swallows have iridescent blue backs and crowns, buff colored bodies, red chins, brown wings, and brown tails that are not forked. Local marketing materials create confusion by often depicting fork-tailed barn swallows – a different species altogether. 

But for decades the Mission contributed to the bird-related confusion by providing guests with bird feed for flocks of white doves (i.e. glorified pigeons). Countless thousands of tourists took proto-selfies with the doves and later marked their snapshots, “Swallows at Capistrano.” Before the Mission stopped selling bird feed, seagulls also horned in on the action. But even the tourists didn’t mistake the squawking, web-footed gulls for swallows.

Q:  How did the city of Rancho Santa Margarita get such a long name?

A:  It wasn't their first choice. It was dubbed "Santa Margarita" during its development in the 1980s, in honor of the old Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. But the existing town of Santa Margarita (founded 1889) near Atascadero defended their unique identity. The battle ended amicably. 

"We have every right to use the name Santa Margarita," wrote Orange County developer Tony Moiso to a San Luis Obispo County Supervisor, "However, we do recognize the worry you have voiced on behalf of [your local] residents. I have modified our postal application to request a Rancho Santa Margarita mailing address." Today, Santa Margarita's population is less than 1,260 and Rancho Santa Margarita's is 47,949.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

A brief history of citrus in Orange County, California

Citrus shipping crates featured colorful brand labels, each represented specific packers, fruit sizes, and levels of quality.

There was no citrus industry here when the name “Orange County” was first suggested, but we eventually more than lived up to our name. Orange County’s Valencia oranges reached a peak of 77,000 acres in production in 1948. We also grew lemons, grapefruit and other citrus here. But for much of our history, the sunny orange defined us, promoted us, and drove our economy. 

The gardens at Mission San Juan Capistrano were probably home to Orange County’s first orange tree, beginning in the late 1700s. But oranges didn’t make an impact here until 1870, when Anaheim Justice of the Peace William Hardin planted the seeds from two barrels of rotten Tahitian oranges and began to sell the resulting trees.

Charles C. Chapman: Father of the Valencia.

Our first Australian navel orange trees were imported and planted near Orange by Patterson Bowers in 1873. But it was the arrival of the Valencia orange – a native of the Azores – that proved the most important for Orange County’s future. 

The first Valencia grove in Orange County was planted in 1875 by Richard H. Gilman on the site of today’s California State University Fullerton. Soon, Sheldon Littlefield – who later served as one of our first County Supervisors – planted another grove east of Fullerton. In 1895, Littlefield’s grove was purchased by Charles C. Chapman, whose marketing and agricultural acumen, along with the natural sweetness and juiciness of the fruit, brought the Valencia to prominence.

The arrival of the railroads was critical to the growth of the citrus industry.

Various influences bolstered the growth of our citrus industry. For instance, wine grape growers, whose vines had been devastated by Pierce’s Disease, were looking for a new crop to grow just as oranges were coming to the fore. And the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s created a national market for locally grown fruit.

Citrus packing houses began to open across Orange County, often tied to cooperative associations of growers like the Anaheim Orange & Lemon Association or the Yorba Linda Citrus Association. Each local association was an important institution, providing not just agricultural infrastructure, marketing, political clout, and a bit of financial stability for growers, but also a sense of community.

An orange packing house in Fullerton, early 1900s.

The most important of these organizations was the regional Southern California Fruit Exchange – eventually known as Sunkist. They provided their members with scientific advice, astonishingly effective national advertising, and modern packing plants. They persuaded Americans that Valencias were the best type of oranges, and that oranges were healthy and good for everyday eating – not just an exotic oddity. Beginning with a 1916 ad in the Saturday Evening Post, Sunkist also convinced Americans that the previously overlooked juice of oranges was the perfect drink to accompany breakfast.

Idealized scenes of a sunny, happy, prosperous, healthy Southern California accompanied Sunkist’s vast marketing campaigns, and contributed greatly to migration from other parts of the country. California promoted the orange while the orange promoted California.

Chinese orange pickers, Santa Ana, circa 1895.

For more than half a century, citrus provided a good life for many, and provided a living – directly or indirectly – to most Orange Countians. Locals either worked with citrus or did business with those who did. The industry, and particularly the Valencia orange, transformed and defined much of the landscape and permeated many aspects of daily life. When the trees bloomed, their sweet fresh scent hung over the county. And when frost threatened the trees, orchard heaters or “smudge pots” darkened the skies and left a layer of black soot on everything.

Changes in the citrus market were always front-page news, and the annual Orange County Valencia Orange Show in Anaheim (1920-1931) was one of the biggest events on the calendar. Healthy citrus sales even helped buffer us from the effects of the Great Depression. On the other hand, a well-timed labor action, like the 1936 citrus strike, could cause serious community-wide panic.

Packing house crew, Santa Ana-Tustin Mutual Citrus Assoc., circa 1940.

In the early years, Japanese and Chinese laborers did much of the local citrus work. But from the mid-1910s on, most of the laborers were from Mexico or of Mexican descent. Many Hispanic neighborhoods, camps and colonias sprang up near packing houses and among the groves, bringing with them cultural traditions that were new to many Orange Countians. 

The years following WWII saw Orange County’s landscape and economy shift rapidly from agriculture to suburbia. The population expanded at a shocking rate, from only 175,000 in 1946, to 703,925 in 1960, to 1,420,386 by 1970.  Accordingly, demand skyrocketed for more housing developments, roads, schools, shopping centers, etc. Orange trees gave way to concrete and stucco. But new development was only one of several reasons for the long slow death or Orange County’s citrus industry. 

The annual California Valencia Orange Show (1921-1931) was a huge regional event. This postcard depicts the show's grounds in Anaheim in 1926.

By that time, the tristeza virus or “quick decline” was already attacking Valencia trees throughout Southern California. Spread by aphids, the disease killed as many as 243,920 of Orange County’s trees in a single year. A new grafting combination was discovered that was immune to the disease, but it required the expensive tearing-out of the old groves, replanting, grafting, and patiently waiting for new trees to reach maturity. For five to eight years there would be no crop to harvest.

Adding insult to injury, local land began to be taxed on its “highest and best use.” In other words, farmland was suddenly taxed as though it were residential or commercial property. After paying their taxes, the already besieged citrus growers made almost no profit, making buy-out offers from developers tempting or even necessary.

Standpipe, smudge pot and sickly trees make way for housing, 1967.

Today, only a few small, (often sickly) specimen orange groves remain, as reminders of our past. The last of Orange County’s 45 packing houses, the Villa Park Orchards Association, moved to Ventura County in 2006. In places, one can still see the old lines of eucalyptus – which once provided citrus groves with shelter from the wind – now standing along the edges of roads or housing tracts. 

But the orange left its mark on Orange County. The industry gave us the framework on which many of our still-vibrant communities were built. Some of our streets bear the names of growers, fruit varieties and packing houses. And the long-term investment and attention groves require gave us a tendency toward cautiousness, patience and thrift, and an aversion to fixing things that aren’t broken. 

Mature orange groves, Placentia area, June1961.

But perhaps most of all, citrus gave Orange County its image and identity as a healthy, happy, sunny spot where success grew on trees.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Newport Nautical Edition

The historic Balboa Island Ferry, Newport Harbor, 2012. (Photo by author)

Q:  What was the first boat built in Newport Beach?

A:  Ill-starred entrepreneur Edward J. Abbott built a small steamboat, The Last Chance, for sightseeing excursions in 1892. But strangely, its longest journey would be over land.

The Last Chance was declared unseaworthy, but Abbott used it to haul tourists around Newport Bay for a couple years before it was grounded. In 1894, he hauled the boat inland, over unpaved roads, using a team of eight horses. The boat came right up Santa Ana’s Main Street and was then loaded on a train car. From there, it traveled through Santa Ana Canyon and then circuitously through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties before being offloaded at Elsinore Junction and dragged (probably by mules) to Lake Elsinore. Historian Jim Sleeper speculated that Abbott, who died shortly thereafter, may have succumbed to injuries incurred during the move. The rickety boat survived a bit longer than Abbott, ferrying tourists around the lake.

Q:  What’s the origin of the Balboa Island Ferry?

A:  The ferry service is older than you think. In the early 1900s, real estate developers underwrote temporary ferry services from Balboa (the end of the Pacific Electric trolley line from Los Angeles), to the latest subdivisions around Newport Bay. Only the Balboa Island Ferry proved useful enough to survive. 

Attempts at ferry service to Balboa Island had been made since 1906, but the first supposedly regular service – a rowboat with a single-cylinder engine and dedicated landings – came in 1909. In 1919, island lots began selling better and Joseph A. Beek took over and improved ferry operations. 

Beek’s first little boats were for people, not vehicles. But they could push an automobile-laden barge. It wasn’t until 1922 that cars could be driven directly onto a larger ferry. Today, the ferry – still run by the Beek family – transports about 1.5 million passengers annually. 

Although a busy Saturday night might include a lot of passengers who are just on their way for a Balboa Bar or frozen banana, the ferry is also important. In fact, during times like the recent closure of the Balboa Island Bridge, the ferry becomes the only way for the 6,000 people who live on the island to reach their homes or for customers to reach the many businesses there. It also serves as a faster way for many residents of the Balboa Peninsula to reach the mainland.

The Beeks make little to no money operating the ferry and are happy to break even. They provide it as a service to their community. 

Q:  How long have gondolas plied the waters of Newport Harbor?

A:  Around 1905, real estate promoter Abbott Kinney brought gondolier Giovanna “John” Scarpa from Venice, Italy to traverse the canals of newly developed Venice, California. A couple years later, John moved to Newport Beach, where couples happily paid him for romantic rides through the bay while he sang Italian love songs. 

Remembering the water carnivals of his homeland, in 1908 Scarpa enlisted eight rowboats and canoes to join him for a nighttime, lantern-lit boat parade. It marked the birth of the traditions later known as the Tournament of Lights and the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. The boat parade is still held annually, and you can still hire a gondola any time for a romantic evening with your sweetie.