Thursday, February 08, 2018

Working as a local historian

Fourth Street, Santa Ana, Decoration Day (Memorial Day), 1891.
A while ago, I got an email from a history student named Tim. He had a series of questions for me about "being a public historian," and I tried to answer them the best I new how. I thought I'd repost my response here in case anyone else is interested in such things.

Tim,

Let me give your questions a shot. I will begin, however, with the caveat that all I can do is answer for myself. People approach this kind of work in many ways, and generally I can only speak for myself and speak from my own philosophy.

- What do public historians do?

I’m not particularly religious, but I think the easiest parallel to what *I* do (and what I think others in this field SHOULD do) is to act as a sort of “history evangelist,” generating and sharing accurate and interesting local history to a population that knows too little about the subject. I say “accurate” because there’s PLENTY of half-baked local history being foisted off on the public in the form of badly research newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries, etc, etc. And I say “interesting” because you have to do your evangelizing in a way that *reaches* people. The best research and most groundbreaking work will be utterly wasted if doesn’t capture the public’s interest. You have to identify the audiences where your work will make the most positive impact and then figure out how best to engage those audiences. When I really got started in earnest in this field in the late 1990s, websites were clearly the way to go, so I built one. Later, blogs were the thing, so I started one. Now social media is the thing, so I’m trying to figure out how best to generate content that will work well on FaceBook (maybe short videos?). Along the way, I’ve done tours, written articles for journals (another smaller audience) and magazines, I’ve lectured extensively (mostly to community groups with an expressed interest in local history, rather than just being cheap entertainment for the Rotary Club), and tried to raise public awareness of local history by working on the board of the Orange County Historical Society.

And when I’ve seen a need, I’ve started non-profit groups specifically with the idea of letting other people run them. Sometimes a community of people who care about preserving local history just haven’t figured out they’re a community yet, and you can do some good just by being the catalyst and bringing the right people together.

So half your goal is generating meaningful, interesting and accurate historical content (and hopefully covering some new ground from time to time), and half is getting it out there into the world where it will do some good. How you choose to accomplish those goals is up to each historian.

Of course, you’ll also need a job that provides you with at least enough money for food and shelter.  Unlike *religious* evangelists, you don’t get to pass around a collection plate. Ideally, the job that pays your bills will dovetail with and compliment your work as a public historian. Here’s where I think I lucked out. I got a job working at the County Archives, where, among other things, I get to help OTHER people use our records to uncover the histories of their families, homes, or communities. In a way, I’m being a bit of a “history enabler,” -- Teaching members of the general public to be their own public historians (albeit with a narrow focus) and also actively helping them with aspects of research that can’t be taught in the short period of time that’s often available for a particular project.

Other public historians find work in museums, libraries, archives, etc.  Others teach. Still others end up in seemingly unrelated fields and do their history work in their spare time.

I think some of our best local historians have been those with a strong background in (and gift for) writing. Journalists and PR people (who usually have training as journalists) often make good public historians. The good ones already know how to dig out the facts, conduct interviews, do research, “get the scoop,” and communicate well in writing. Of course, its not all journalists and PR folks in public history, but there’s certainly a connection or trend there that’s worth noting.

Just roughly, one of the things good public historians do that’s different from other historians is that we tend to focus on the individuals or families or communities rather than on the sort of big, sweeping stuff that’s already been rehashed a million times. The world won’t benefit much from yet ANOTHER historian milking the big picture of the Civil War to try to get something new out of it. The world will benefit even less from an academic historian who wants to revisit the Civil War simply as a means of grinding some modern-day political axe (either their own or their professor’s). But there is value, for instance, in researching and telling the story of a previously ignored person (Civil War vet or not) who changed their community or industry or world in some way.

For example,… I wrote an article about the man who built and ran a hotel that was the hub of Orange County social and business life during the 1960s and 1970s. I wrote about the former Parks Superintendent of Anaheim – a fascinating guy whose gift for hybridizing plants gave us the Boysenberry and who helped Anaheim retain its sense of community at a time when the city was growing by leaps and bounds. I wrote another article about a small group of Los Angelenos who fought to create an all-black beach club at a time when only white people were allowed on most  L.A. beaches. It’s not like writing about Sherman’s March through Georgia or like writing about the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty.  It’s more about acknowledging that the myriad “average Joes” alive in those time periods were ALSO shaping our world and that that understanding society and individuals of all classes and from all angles gives a better picture of reality than once again returning, without a larger context, to the rehashing of generals and emperors.

- What important contributions do they make to their communities?

As America becomes more homogeneous (with an Applebee’s and a Walmart in every town) local history gives people a sense of place, a sense of community, and a certain amount of pride. At one level, people are more desperate than ever to have real-world connections to the place they live. Just one example: When people know the history of their homes – both the architecture and past owners – they tend to take better care of those homes, put more effort into restoring them, and connect with others in the community who are doing the same. This leads to improved neighborhoods, more community involvement, civic pride, more taxes generated for the city because of increased property values, etc. And that’s just one of the more obvious and tangible benefits. Likewise, awareness and appreciated of community history (perpetrated by local historians) led to places like Downtown Orange becoming not only a central part of the community’s identity, but also a thriving economic engine, whereas LACK of awareness and appreciated of community history led to the destruction of Anaheim’s entire historic downtown in the 1980s, leading to vacant lots and a zone of economic malaise that is only recently has started to show signs of turning around. 

Sometimes the historian’s important contribution is simply to debunk earlier legends or poorly-executed history that has placed false narratives in the minds of the public. People can learn from the past to make better decisions for the future, but only if they REALLY understand the past. Sometimes the important thing is to set the record straight because truth is important and should ultimately win out over falsehoods. Not that any historian can be perfect or universally comprehensive, but the goal is always to strive toward a more accurate depiction of the truth.

- What are some ethical issues you face as a historian?

Sometimes it would be very expedient to grossly oversimplify a topic to better please an editor’s length requirements or to make your work more easily digestible. But one must be careful about that. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, that’s probably good. But beware the moment when you find that the only way to turn your 600 word article into a 300 word article is by leaving your readers with an inaccurate (not just incomplete) impression of  your subject.

Also, avoid the allure of getting lazy. It’s true that most people will know almost nothing about your topic and that you could get away with cutting corners, using a Wikipedia entries as though they were valid sources, repeating hearsay, or cribbing from secondary sources you’d don’t entirely trust. No one beyond a few local historians will ever know or notice. But by perpetuating old bad information, you ensure that the next generation will have one more bad source to muddy the water. All you have as a historian is your reputation for accuracy. Once that’s called into question, your entire body of work (sometimes a lifetime’s worth) is thrown into doubt and becomes less valuable.

Another ethical issue is the question of what *kind* of historian you want to be: A hoarder or a sharer. I find that in the long run sharing what I know and what I have access to (for instance, photos or materials in my own files at home) with fellow historians is a big plus. The local history community is a small one, and we all have to stick together and help each other whenever possible. Even if someone is writing on a subject that I ALSO want to write about someday, I prefer to share what I have and know with them. They will undoubtedly take a different angle that I would have, leaving plenty for me to write about. Moreover, they will have added to the current scholarship on the topic at hand, providing me with slightly wider shoulders to stand on when I get around to writing about the same topic. Basically, it’s like we learned in Kindergarten: “Sharing is nice.”

Oh, and whether you’re using photos or information from other sources, always give credit where credit is due.

- What are some professional issues you face as a historian?

Low pay is pretty endemic in the history world. You won’t get rich doing this sort of work, but it makes a difference in the world, you meet a lot of wonderful people, and it beats the hell out of spending your life in one of those “veal fattening pen” cubicles in an office tower somewhere.  You should be a historian only if it brings you a lot of satisfaction and /or joy. If it’s just a paycheck to you, I recommend getting a job at Costco or something instead. (I hear they treat their employees well.)

Another issue is that you’ll undoubtedly spend SOME time working for or with folks who don’t understand what you do. That can cause a certain amount of stress. Many folks in the history world have to *explain* what they do to people who should already know.

- What do you see the role of public historian being?

We’re researchers, educators, and (in our best moments) defenders of our heritage and the truth.

- What was one of the most fulfilling Public History projects you worked on and why?

For me, the most fulfilling parts of my work as an archivist are when I can help someone find the information they need, especially when that information ends up being an interesting story. As a local historian, I suppose I most enjoy tackling a subject that hasn’t been written about before and then watching the story unfold as I do more and more research. The “aha” moment is pretty rewarding, and you get a lot of those.

I’ve also found, much to my surprise, that I greatly enjoy teaching local history through public speaking appearances. Telling stories and getting immediate interactive feedback is, again, extremely rewarding.

- In doing public history, what have you learned about people and interacting with people?

People say they aren’t interested in history, but they lie. Almost everyone is interested in SOME kind of history. To borrow a line from Phil Brigandi: If someone says they don’t like history, ask them what they ARE interested in.  They’ll tell you something like “baseball” and then will begin to tell you about the history of baseball (or whatever their interest might be). The trick is to find out what PARTS of history they ARE interested in. And local history has the advantage of being relatable because it’s all about our own backyards. You may have hated history class is school, but learning stories about your own neighborhood is a whole different thing.

On the issue of interacting with people, I would also say that a healthy dose of extroversion is helpful in this field. You need to be able to cold call people who MIGHT be the descendants of people you’re studying and then engage them in conversations. You need to communicate with librarians and other historians, and students, and the public. If one doesn’t enjoy engaging with people, you might do better as doing something where having a public face isn’t so important.

- How are public historians and academic historians different?

I’m going to make some gross generalizations here because whole books could be written on this subject. And I’ll begin by pointing out that there are lots of exceptions to any rule and there are some EXCELLENT academic historians out there right now. In fact, I can think of a few right here in O.C. that I’m proud to know.

That said, I think academic historians GENERALLY are stuck catering to a comparatively narrow and homogeneous audience: Maybe a handful of professors or peers or perhaps the modest readership of an academic journal. And those academic audiences GENERALLY have certain fad topics or pet issues that must be checked off in order to meet with approval in that particular subculture.

I do try to review academic sources (theses and other academic publications) that pertain to the subjects I’m working on. But more and more I find that such papers from recent decades TEND to be composed of recycled already-known information combined with whatever social or political opinions the student feels the academic faculty is most likely to agree with. This usually makes for a pretty thin gruel. An exception to this is when I need to access data from scientific academic publications, which tend to be more about data and less about proving allegiance to a subculture.

But again, I am speaking here in  very broad generalities.

Another difference I can point out is that academic historians probably generally have better pay, benefits, retirement plans, and built-in prestige (in many circles) than do public historians. So whatever kind of historian you want to be, it probably doesn’t hurt to have a few more letters after your name if possible. (Assuming you can afford the investment.)

- Why did you want to become a public historian?

Like so many of us, I didn’t know I was becoming a public historian. It just sort of happened based on my interests, skill set, and where life led me.

My high school photography teacher gave us an assignment to photograph a series of related things and make a display or mini-exhibit out of the images. It dawned on me that photographing old buildings in Downtown Huntington Beach (my hometown) might be interesting. I was excited to get started and a bit surprised when people started coming out of those buildings, asking what I was doing, and then telling me stories about their homes or family businesses or whatnot. I met a lot of interesting people that way and one introduced me to the City Historian, which was a job I didn’t know existed. The City Historian, Alicia Wentworth, showed me a bunch of the cool stuff in the city’s photo collection, and then hired me as her photographer to go out and expand that collection. (My first paying job.)

Later, in college, I was drawn to an opening as a docent at what’s now the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana. Giving tours and sharing history with groups of kids and adults was also very rewarding, but I didn’t ever think of it as a career path.

Later still, I found myself researching and documenting Orange County’s remaining Googie architecture in my free time – simply because the subject interested me. That led to working with Jane Newell at the Anaheim Heritage Center who wanted to build a record of Anaheim’s Googie for the benefit of future researchers. When I found out she’d learned about the subject based on the website I’d been assembling, it was quite a shock. It was the first time I realized that an ordinary guy with a camera, a willingness to do research and a way to communicate with the public could make a real difference! Here was a city project initiated because of something I’d been doing as a hobby! But again, I never saw this as a career – Just as something I did in my spare time.

But some years later, I found myself becoming less and less enamored of the career I HAD chosen – public relations and marketing. Although some clients I’d had were wonderful to work for and with, the lifestyle and the emotional rewards just weren’t there. Then, magically, the new County Archivist (and longtime public historian,) Phil Brigandi, called me out of the blue and offered me a job working for him. He knew I’d been doing this sort of work on my own for years and he needed an Assistant Archivist. Without asking about pay or much of anything else, I said yes! 

I guess if anything convinced me that this was my calling and my career, it was my five years of “apprenticeship” working for Phil. He was an amazing roll model and teacher. He showed me not only how local history works, but also why it’s important, what pitfalls to avoid, and how much can be accomplished. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. And I don’t think I could have replicated that kind of education in school. Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was the kind of work I SHOULD have been focused on from the start. I dove in with both feet and never looked back. Or to put it another way, I renounced evil, took my vow of poverty, committed myself to study, and went forth to spread the good word of Orange County history.

I hope this helps, Tim. I’ve probably prattled on for way too long here, but hopefully somewhere amidst all this I’ve also answered your questions. Feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.

All the best,

Chris

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

That warm glow

Does anyone remember watching atomic bombs explode from Orange County? Better yet, does anyone have photos to share? Because, you know, AMERICANS nuked Americans LONG before Kim Jong “Rocket Man” Un was even a twinkle in his deranged father’s eye.

From 1951 through 1962, one hundred above-ground nuclear detonations were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles from the Las Vegas strip. That was followed by 800-some underground tests from 1962 to 1992. The bright flash in the sky created by the above-ground tests could be seen in Southern California, but so far I have yet to find any photos of this phenomenon taken in Orange County.

The image above was taken Feb. 6, 1951, at 5:48 a.m., and shows reporter Jack Smith atop the roof of the Los Angeles Herald-Express building, pointing toward the largest (at that point) atomic explosion ever conducted at the Nevada Test Site -- about 240 mile away. This particular test explosion was part of the "Operation Ranger" series and was made by dropping an Mk-4, Type D bomb nicknamed "Baker 2" from a B-50D bomber. It exploded in the open air over Frenchman Flat.

So,... Do photos like this, taken in Orange County, exist?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Roller-coaster To Heaven

Aren't roller-coasters boring for angels?
Are the 1980s history yet? Some days I feel old enough that they must be. Anyway, I was flipping channels on the TV a while ago and suddenly found myself looking at the Knott's Berry Farm of my youth. It turned out to be an episode of the maudlin drama series, Highway To Heaven, created, directed, and starring Michael "Little Joe" Landon.
The episode first aired in 1986 and was titled, "Heaven On Earth." (How did we ever learn these things before IMDB?) In the episode, Mark (Victor French) meets a mother and her adorable daughter at Knott's one day. There's some cloying nonsense about the girl and her yellow balloon and then some friendly small talk with the mother. It's all very heartwarming. But of course, we haven't gotten to the mauldin part yet. (Cue sad music.)
Montezuma's Revenge was a more enjoyable ride in 1986. Less safety gear.
 Later, Mark and Jonathan (the angel played by Landon), pass by a car accident with two fatalities. The victims? The adorable mother and daughter, of course. This is heaped on top of an earlier tragedy (natch) where Mark observed another child die in a house fire. So now he's overcome with grief, which is dealt with in the sort of religion-as-woowoo-magic way you'd expect from an episode of this show. 
Sidekick Mark with Bud Hurlbut's Happy Sombreros in the background.
I only know about the woo-woo stuff thanks to IMDB, because, really,... I wasn't going to watch more of this show unless they STAYED at Knott's. And they didn't.

Growing up, I always thought the teacups-like ride (shown behind Mark here) was called the "Mexican Hat Dance." But it's actually the "Happy Sombreros," which doesn't seem like as good a name. Speaking of hats, shouldn't Mark be wearing and Anaheim Angels of Anaheim hat instead of an Oakland A's hat? Or would that be too on-the-nose? 
The "It" balloon's cousin, at the Fiesta Village Merry-Go-Round.
The Merry-Go-Round seen here was the first true amusement park ride at Knott's Berry Farm, opened in 1955 by concessionaire Bud Hurlbut. Bud would go on to become a major innovator in the amusement park world, inventing new ride concepts like the log flume ride, building/owning/operating most of the rides at Knott's, and later developing Castle Park in Riverside.
The Dragon Swing: The last ride Hurlbut built at Knott's.
Naturally, Michael Landon's enormous hair was not mussed even slightly by all the turbulent and exciting rides at Knott's. Angels use lots of "product" in their hair.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Leonard Zerlaut: The Wizard of Garden Grove

Leonard Zerlaut. Photo from The Criterion/Garden Grove Employee News, May 1988
You think we’d have heard about a genius local inventor who’d run several businesses simultaneously, held six patents, and invented technology that made possible the Disneyland Monorail system, the Seattle Space Needle, countless military and commercial aircraft, and the New York World Trade Center. It seems like we’d all have heard of such an Orange Countian, whose creative legacy spanned from the 1930s into the 2000s.

But too few have heard of Leonard Zerlaut.

Some time ago, I was researching the history of Little Saigon and was curious about what was located in that largely undeveloped area prior to it becoming the world’s largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam itself. One of the major businesses in that area back then turned out to be Leonard Precision Products Co. Starting with the obvious, I Googled “Leonard Precision Products” and found that the best “hit” I got was a reference on one of my favorite blogs: Stuff From The Park. Reading the blog post – which was about a photo stamped with the company’s name – I found that I myself was called out in the comments section!:

“I am hoping that Chris Jepsen (O.C. History Roundup) would chime in here with information on the company,” wrote Patrick.

Then I remembered a conversation I’d recently overheard (in passing) while running the Orange County Historical Society. For some reason, I remembered hearing someone say that the guy “who ran the Leonard machine shop was a real mechanical genius.”

That was it. I had to find out more about this “Leonard” fellow. (Sorry it took so long, Patrick.) Here is what I found:

Orange County machinist and inventor Leonard E. Zerlaut (1911-2003) may be best remembered professionally as the creator of tube processing procedures and equipment for airplane factories. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Zerlauts (like many Americans) heading for California, circa 1930.
 A 2000 article entitled, “A Creative Life: Leonard Zerlaut,” in a Garden Grove Historical Society (GGHS) newsletter, described his early life:

“Leonard Zerlaut was born in a farmhouse on his father’s 120 acre farm in Holton, Michigan in 1911. One of three children, he graduated from high school in 1928. Two weeks before graduation, he also graduated from the Chicago Electrical Engineering School located in Muskegon. He was able to accomplish this feat by taking correspondence courses. He then worked for the Steiner Electric Co. in Michigan.”

His father, Frank James Zerlaut, was farmer and prominent civic figure in west central Michigan when the Great Depression hit, in 1929. The bank foreclosed on the farm, which was sold at auction.

Frank took the family – wife Lola Grace and three children – to Southern California, where his sister lived.  Work was harder to find in California than they’d expected, and Frank and Leonard both worked at whatever odd jobs were available. In 1930, Frank and Lola bought the Ocean Inn hotel and restaurant at 138 E. Ocean (now Garden Grove Blvd.) in Garden Grove. Frank managed the hotel, and Losa ran the restaurant. But guests were too few and far between. The bank refused to cut them any slack, and soon the Ocean Inn was also lost to foreclosure.

In February 1933, beset with financial problems and ill health, Frank tied a gunnysack full of rocks to his waist and jumped off the still-under-construction Seal Beach jetty. He was dead at the age of 58.

The following month – in what seemed karmic retribution against the bank – the Ocean Inn was utterly destroyed in the great Long Beach Earthquake.

In the wake of his father’s death, the hard-working 22-year-old Leonard worked even harder. Already running a Garden Grove auto repair shop at Verano (now Euclid) and Ocean Ave.– he now went on to be the welder for the Chevrolet garage at Euclid (now Main St.) and Stanford Ave. and soon owned the business and lived on the second floor of the shop. Learning from his father’s troubles, he established a life-long policy of eschewing debt and paying cash on the barrelhead for anything he purchased. It served him well.
A Zerlaut's patent which grew out of his work on the monorail.
The 1930s were a busy time for Leonard Zerlaut. His business was growing by leaps and bounds, he received a patent for a welding procedure to bend pipes, he continued to expand into additional areas of machine work, and he served in the Garden Grove Volunteer Fire Department. And in 1934 he married Meta Rehme (1914-1999) of Costa Mesa – the daughter of pioneer Santa Ana blacksmith Fredrich Henry Rehme. They had their first child, Marilyn, in about 1939.

Zerlaut started a new business in 1940 – a machine shop called Leonard Precision Products Co. (sometimes referred to, early on, as the Zerlaut Machine Works) at Flower and Hanson Streets in Garden Grove. Within a year, newspapers reported that Zerlaut had sold parts and machinery to Henry Ford, aircraft companies, and the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, his shop manufactured tools and equipment for use in aircraft factories, among other things. Locally, he built the air raid siren for Garden Grove, which was placed on the grounds of the Garden Grove Water District. He also developed special equipment for stamping CO2 bottles. He would also go on to develop machines to bend chairs, make water heaters, and perform other industrial tasks. He developed a reputation for tackling whatever challenge or task was thrown his way.

A son, Frederick “Fred” Zerlaut, was born in 1942. And by the end of the war, Leonard also had two business partners: M. E. Wartnik and Robert L. Bedford.
Leonard Precision Products, ca 1950. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“Wartnik was an attorney from L.A. or Long Beach maybe. He had money to invest in the company, and he handled legal matters and guidance,” said Fred Zerlaut when I interviewed him in 2015. “Bob Bedford was Dad’s workmate at the shop. He was a Fullerton guy. He did a lot of the bookkeeping and stayed with the business until he retired and then died shortly afterward.”

According to the GGHS, for many years, Leonard Zerlaut “flew his own plane, which he used for both business and pleasure. He surprised the locals from time to time when he landed his plane on the small Midway airstrip on the south side of Bolsa Ave. and after checking to see the road was free of cars, he taxied his plane across the street to his business. There he loaded his plane with parts he had made and flew them to Rohr aircraft in San Diego. He also subcontracted work for Consolidated Aircraft, Ryan Aircraft, Vultee Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft.”

In 1949, as a civilian volunteer, Zerlaut became part of the Orange County Sheriff Department’s first aero squadron. At the direction of Sheriff Jim Musick, he was on standby to respond (in his small plane) during disasters, searching for downed planes, and other emergencies.

“He was a Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department and he served about twenty years,” said Fred. “His shop was right across the street from the Westminster Airport. He rented hangars at the northeast corner of Brookhurst and Bolsa from the Posts,” said Fred, referring to the Post Brothers, whose nearby farm equipment company famously constructed the world’s largest plow.
Zerlaut (third from left) and others in the Orange County Sheriff's first Aero Squadron, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy O.C. Sheriff's Dept.
As his business and civic responsibilities grew, so did Zerlaut’s family. In addition to their own two children, Leonard and Meta took in five foster daughters over the years.

Leonard Zerlaut was also involved in the local Rotary Club, and in the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America for many years. “He literally built the health lodge at Camp Ro-Ki-Li,” said Fred, referring to a large Scout camp sponsored by the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs. “And around 1979 he built the main meeting and mess hall [a.k.a. “the Barn”] at the Rancho Las Flores Scout camp at Camp Pendleton. He was later presented with the Silver Beaver Award for his service to the Scouts.”

According to longtime Scouter and historian Phil Brigandi, Zerlaut served on the Orange County Council’s “board of directors (or at least the advisory board) for more than 25 years, beginning in the 1950s. He was our vice president in 1954 and 1955, and our representative to the national council from 1956 to 1964. I knew several people who always spoke very highly of him.”

Zerlaut’s plane also proved useful in the early days of the big new scout camp at Lost Valley in San Diego County. “He flew in and out several times,” said Brigandi. “Folks who went with him tell me it was quite a thrill to use the meadow as an airstrip.”
Leonard Precision Products. Photo courtesy Westminster Historical Society.
The process of moving Leonard Precision Products to a new location at 9200 Bolsa Ave. (now in the City of Westminster) began in April 1952. With buildings full of heavy machine tools and many active contracts to be fulfilled, moving turned out to be a two-year process. (Eventually, he would have six buildings on this property.)

In 1953, at Wartnik’s suggestion, the business was split into three separate companies. Leonard Precision Products continued to build machines and tools for other manufacturers, and Tube Specialists of California used those machines and tools to make specialty tubing to order (mainly for aerospace). The third company, Zerlaut Realty Co., owned the land the other two businesses sat on.

In the 1950s, Zerlaut bought out Wartnik’s share of the business. Bedford stayed on, and Leonard’s younger brother, Maynard E. Zerlaut also was brought in as a partner.

Leonard Zerlaut held a total of six patents. These included a “tube-bending apparatus” in 1964, a “feeding system for a swaging or tapering apparatus” in 1966, and an “apparatus for the forming of concrete” in 1959. The last of these came about when his company was building the concrete track for the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail System. Zerlaut’s new steam pressure cure process for concrete allowed one new section of rail to be completed every day from each form.
Building Disneyland's monorail tracks and submarines. Courtesy Stuff From The Park.
Zerlaut, also built the machine that welded the steel for the Space Needle at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (1962), for New York Harbor’s double-decked Verrazano Narrows Bridge (1964), and for the New York World Trade Center.

“One of Leonard’s hydraulic machines could make 400 bends of tubes an hour, later increasing to 1800 bends an hour,” the GGHS tells us. “Midas Muffler bought one of his machines to make mufflers. Also, Quantas Airlines bought his equipment, which necessitated Leonard making trips to Melbourne, Australia to work with the company on how to use and replace the equipment he sold them. Additionally, a British company in Manchester used his equipment which meant frequent trips to England.”

Micro-midget race cars were popular in Southern California in the 1960s, and Zerlaut built one for Fred. These tiny race cars were something like a modern go cart, but with real suspension systems. Hugging the ground, and with the engine roaring only inches from the driver ear, these little cars gave the illusion of going much faster than they actually did (which was plenty fast enough). The Zerlauts’ father and son team traveled all over to compete in races, eventually taking home prizes from the national competition in Selma, Alabama.

Leonard Zerlaut also built a dune buggy, which the family towed all over the U.S. and Mexico behind their motor home. The buggy is now owned by his grandson, Leonard.
Zerlaut's Micro-Midget Racer. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“My dad was pretty easy going,” said Fred Zerlaut. “He had a pleasant personality and never cursed. He was a church Christian, but not an adamant, every-Sunday guy. … His employees liked him and everyone would get together for picnics. He treated people fairly, and he treated everyone the same. He would hire whoever seemed most qualified for the job at hand. Race and color weren’t important to him.”

Zerlaut sold Leonard Precision Products and Tube Specialists of California to Conrac Corp in 1967. (Conrac was purchased by machinery manufacturer PHI in 1985.)

Shortly thereafter, engineer Homer Eaton -- who’d helped create the electronics for Zerlaut’s popular tube-bending machine – asked Leonard, Fred, and three others if they’d like to join forces with him to create a computer-numerical controlled (CNC) measuring system for tube bending. The plan for the new Eaton Leonard Co. was to build it up, give it a good start, and then sell it after seven years. Leonard came out of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it retirement to help get the new business off the ground. It was located near the sugar factory in South Santa Ana. Leonard was most active and hands-on from 1972 through 1975, while the business was being built. But once it had a firm foundation under it, he stepped away from it more and more. By 1980, when Eaton Leonard was sold to the Kole, Kravis & Roberts investment group, he was only coming in to the shop for occasional meetings. Still, it was only when the sale closed that he found himself truly retired.

Eaton Leonard is now international and still produces precision tube-bending machines and other “tube forming automation for a broad array of fabricated products.”

In addition to following in his father’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer, Frederick Zerlaut served as a pilot in the Vietnam War and now plays tuba in the Coastal Community Band. He also owns one of John Philip Sousa’s original sousaphones.

Marilyn Zerlaut (now De Boynton) also inherited some of her father’s creative and technical talents. When she wasn’t busy being a mom, she worked at a division of Corning Glass and was a bookkeeper for engineering companies. She has also made highly detailed miniatures, including an impressive model of the Hale House at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles.

In retirement, Leonard Zerlaut spent a good deal of his free time volunteering with the Garden Grove Historical Society, particularly in the 1980s restoration of the town’s 1926 La France fire engine, which he had once used as a volunteer firefighter. According to the GGHS, he also “restored the old bandsaw… removed all the windows from the Ware-Stanley house, re-glazed and replaced them. He rebuilt the electric shoe repair equipment in the shoe shop, restored the old Mormon hand cart… installed the plumbing in the schoolhouse, restored the lathe in the blacksmith shop. An extraordinarily creative individual, Leonard Zerlaut has shown he is capable of building almost anything.”

According to longtime Garden Grover Terry Thomas, Zerlaut’s gift for quickly grasping new ideas never waned: “When desktop computers first came out, he got one right away and did great with it.”

Meta Zerlaut passed away after an extended illness in 1999.
The Asian Garden Mall, also known as Phước Lộc Thọ, was built in 1986.
Since 1987, the site of the old Leonard Precision Products complex at 9200 Bolsa Ave., in Westminster, has been home to the Asian Garden Mall – the commercial heart of busy Little Saigon. It’s impossible to even imagine taxiing an airplane across the street anymore.

Leonard Zerlaut died of natural causes in Orange County at age 92 in 2003. “Gifted with a fine mind and good hands, he did not seek personal recognition for his accomplishments,” noted his obituary in the Orange County Register. “All who knew him will long remember his gentle ways and giving spirit.”

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Orange County Hospital and Poor House: The Early Years

An early Orange County Hospital ambulance. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)
The goals of providing our poorest citizens with health care and shelter have been with Orange County since its birth in 1889. By then, each city (Anaheim, Santa Ana and Orange) already had a health department, guided by a local doctor. And the County of Orange – long before the state or federal government provided such social services – tried various methods to provide acute medical services for the poor on their limited budget. In the beginning, they rented a little space from local banker/investor Carey R. Smith for such purposes. Later, they paid Mrs. Silvia M. Klein to provide nursing care as needed.

In his memoirs, Dr. Herbert A. Johnson remembered the Board of Supervisors’ 1891 appointment of “Dr. J.P. Boyd as the first county physician and health officer. Dr. Boyd’s kindly nature and wide practical experience fitted him admirably for the position, yet he had but little equipment for its administration. There was no building one could designate in any way as a hospital, and the only place available for emergency cases was a room in the county jail. I imagine a sensitive moral indigent who had probably seen better days would not feel too happy over the County’s hospitality.”

In 1901, the County took a step toward improving the situation by renting an existing building on Second St. in Santa Ana that seemed perfectly suited to the purpose. It had a large lobby and a long hall with several small rooms off of it. The madam who’d been running the “hotel” – Mrs. Mary “Glass-eyed Mollie” Wright – made only one stipulation: that one room be set aside for her crippled, elderly father, “Mysterious Bill,” to live out his remaining years.

Dr. Johnson described the place as he saw it in 1903, with Mysterious Bill living “in a little shack… where he had two spare beds which the County could utilize if they were required.” Johnson said it was “a decided step forward” in the “accommodation of county patients.”
The County Hospital and Poor House, Fifth St. and Spurgeon St., Santa Ana , 1904 (Photo: O.C. Archives)
In 1904, the County upgraded again and began renting a charming green cottage at the corner of 5th and Spurgeon Streets in Santa Ana from real estate man W.G. Wells as a combination county hospital and poor house. (A poor house was an institution where paupers were maintained with public funds.) This property had twelve beds and featured beautiful gardens and apricot trees. But the very ill or seriously injured usually still had to be sent to private hospitals for more intensive care.

Since its inception, the County had maintained an “indigent fund,” out of which the Board of Supervisors could help individual locals who were down on their luck. Families were given $5 to $7 each month for each family member who qualified for assistance. Meanwhile, “tramps” – indigents coming into the area from elsewhere – fared less well: They were arrested for vagrancy and given two meals of bread and water each day. Rations improved on days when the Sheriff used them as free labor assisting with various County public works projects.

The addition of a poor house to the hospital filled a need for Orange Countians who couldn’t afford shelter and provided more specific kinds of help than did the indigent rolls.

One of the residents described his poor house experience in the Santa Ana Register in 1910: "You are admitted, the inmates give you a name of their own choosing, and you take your place among the other inmates... according to your qualities and the estimate of the people you are among.

...According to their physical ability, poor house inmates are very properly required to do a little work each day, excepting Sunday. Work makes them healthier, saves some county expense and keeps them in training and physically fit as far as possible, so that, opportunity offering, they may go out in to the world of business and affairs again and work for a living.”
An early plan for a new county hospital by architect Frederick Eley, circa 1913.
As early as 1906, the idea of a larger, permanent county hospital and poor farm (like a larger poor house complex where the residents produced agricultural products) was under discussion. In 1910 the old hospital was declared a nuisance and the Board of Supervisors began touring possible new locations. A new facility, near Chapman Ave. and today’s The City Drive, would not be completed until 1914, but it would go on to anchor a whole cluster of government facilities that now includes such diverse elements as Juvenile Hall, the Lamoreaux Justice Center, and OC Animal Care. The 1914 hospital on this site would go on to form the heart of what became the UCI Medical Center. But that’s a story for another time.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Who was the Houston in Houston Street?

1912 county plat map detail. East end of Houston St. in orange. (Color added).
Houston Street – once a notable thoroughfare through northern Orange County – was named for the pioneer Houston family, and probably more specifically for citrus rancher Joseph David Houston.

Built sometime between 1913 and 1925, Houston Street ran parallel to (and a bit south of) Orangethorpe Ave. Its western end was on the county line at Carmenita Rd. From there, it extended west to Hansen St. in the Buena Park/La Palma area. The road stopped at that point, but picked up again farther east at Manchester Ave. (the state highway) and continued eastward to its terminus at Euclid Ave. on today’s Fullerton/Anaheim border.

Joseph was born to William and Louise Houston in Centrailia, Illinois, around 1861. It appears that his family moved back and forth between Illinois and Kansas throughout his early years. In 1883, he married Eva Kennedy in Crawford, Kansas.  They had many children, including Rose, Cora, Minnie, Mamie, Eva and William. The family moved to Shiloh, Kansas and lived there for some years before following Joseph’s brother, Samuel S. Houston west to Fullerton in 1902.

Joseph came to own several parcels of land, including twenty acres near what became the southwest corner of Euclid and Houston Street, (about where the 91 Freeway crosses Euclid Ave. today,) and 450 acres in Riverside County. He served on the founding board of directors of the Fullerton Cooperative Orange Association, which was created in 1932. J.D. Houston died in Orange County on July 19, 1941 and is buried at Loma Vista Cemetery in Fullerton.
Photo from FindAGrave.com by Lesa Pfrommer
What remains of the family’s namesake road is now a string of unconnected segments of Houston Ave. in Fullerton and La Palma and Houston Street in Buena Park. These scattered pieces extend as far west as Harbor Blvd and as far east as Moody Street.

(I did this research at the request of my friends Ron and Elfriede Mac Iver, who are the City of La Palma's local historians. Unfortunately, I've misplaced their email address, so I'm sharing with everyone here.)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Santa Ana's Pacific Electric Railway Station, 1927

Alert reader and historian Rob Richardson sent the photo above and the accompanying article, "New Station Opened by the Pacific Electric Railway," from a 1927 issue of Electric Railway Journal. The last day of Pacific Electric service in Santa Ana was July 2, 1950. Santa Ana's P.E. station, at 426 E. Fourth St. was demolished in Spring of 1985 and is now the site of a Northgate Market. The 1927 article reads,...

"With fitting ceremonies, participated in by civic organizations and officials of the system, the Pacific Electric Railway, Los Angeles, Cal., opened a handsome freight and passenger station at Santa Ana, Cal. on June 18 [1927]. Exclusive of the land, it represents and expenditure of approximately $40,000. Of Spanish architecture, the new structure occupies a ground space of 70x250 ft.
 
"The waiting room is located in the front of the building, providing easy access to all trains; the office is in the middle, and the freight warehouse in the rear. The layout is so arranged as to provide a space in the rear between the station and the adjoining building, which provides ample room for vehicles using the freight loading platform. There is also an entrance from the rear platform to the main office that permits business to be transacted without the necessity of patrons making the customary trip from the warehouse, around the building, to the front entrance.
 
"Aside from the Pacific Electric station, the building will be occupied by the American Railway Express Company and a light refreshment parlor."

Freight warehouse behind the station, 1927. (Photo from Santa Ana Register)
Although the 1927 station is long gone, the older Pacific Electric Substation No 14, which generated electricity for the line, still stands at 802 E. 5th, Santa Ana, 1907.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

How Googie got its name

In discussing this exaggerated Modern form of architecture, people often ask where the name "Googie" came from. It came from a Los Angeles Coffee Shop called "Googie's" (next door to the famous Schwab's Pharmacy) which was designed by the great Modernist architect John Lautner. Architecture critic Douglas Haskell disliked the style intensely and wrote a cutting tounge-in-cheek article about it in the February 1952 issue of House and Home magazine. The name stuck, first as a perjorative, but later as simply a non-judgemental descriptor. For purposes of historical documentation, here is that article...

GOOGIE ARCHITECTURE
By Douglas Haskell
 
House and Home, Feb. 1952

“We call it Googie architecture,” said Professor Thrugg, “named after a remarkable restaurant in Los Angeles called Googie’s.

That’s one you should see. (Photo, above) It starts off on the level like any other building. But suddenly it breaks for the sky. The bright red roof of cellular steel decking suddenly tilts upward as if swung on a hinge, and the while building goes up with it like a rocket ramp. But there is another building next door. So the flight stops as suddenly as it began.

“It seems to symbolize life today,” sighed the Professor, “skyward aspiration blocked by Schwab’s Pharmacy.

“My Los Angeles companion saw it differently,” continued the Prof. “He said, ‘looks funny, but I guess the guy has the right to do it that way if it attracts attention to his business.’”

“Is it a commercial motive?” asked a student, getting out his notes. “Do you mean that Googie architecture is like Mother Goose -- night clubs and gas stations shaped like Cinderella slippers or old-ladies-who-lived-in-the-shoe or stucco pumpkins?”

“No,” replied the Prof., “this resemblance is superficial. Googie is mostly houses. And Googie goes deeper. You underestimate the seriousness of Googie. Think of it! – Googie is produced by architects, not by ambitious mechanics, and some of these architects starve for it. After all, they are working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has let them know what it expects from them.
I refer you to that great popular classic, The Fountainhead. You may recall that every building the mythical hero Roarke created struck his audience on the head like a thunderclap. Each was Original. Each was a Revelation. None resembled any building ever done before.

“So the Googie architect knows that somehow he has to surpass everybody if he can – and that includes Frank Lloyd Wright.

“You can see why Googie architecture then becomes Modern Architecture Uninhibited.”

“Do you mean then," asked the student, “that Googie is an art in which anything and everything goes?”

“So long as it is modern,” came back the Prof. “Googie can have string windows – but never 16-light colonial sash. It can have inverted triangle roofs but never a cornice. It may be decked out in what my Googie friends call ‘vertical or horizontal louvers’ but never in green shutters. The first rule of Googie is, ‘It can’t be orgiastic if it’s not organic.’”

“Does it have canons of form?”

“It does indeed. The first is that although it must look organic it must be abstract. If a house looks like mushrooms, they must be abstract mushrooms. If it looks like a bird, this must be a geometric bird. (Nothing so naïve as Mother Goose!) It’s better yet if the house has more than one theme: like an abstract mushroom surmounted by an abstract bird.

Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the Googie architect declares, ‘When the public can’t make it out, the artist is in harmony with himself.’”

“Does it have principles of construction?”

“Yes, Googie has set modern construction free. You may have noted for some time the trend in modern architecture to make light of gravity, to get playful with it. Googie goes farther: it ignores gravity altogether.
“In Googie whenever possible the building must hang from the sky. Where nature and engineering can’t accomplish this, art must help.

“You note, for example, that a good Googie architect has no fear of starting a heavy stone wall directly over a glass-filled void. Taking his cue from store front designers, he laughs at anybody whom this might make uncomfortable. He knows that nothing need appear to rest on anything else, least of all on the earth; in Googie architecture both the glass and the stone are conceived to float. It is strictly an architecture up in the air.

“Another Googie tenet is that just as three architectural themes mixed together are better than one, so two or three structural systems mixed together add to the interest of the occasion.”

“What about materials?”

“Ah, yes. You may have noted how they have multiplied in modern architecture. First only three materials were considered truly modern: steel, concrete and glass – especially glass. Now look at them all! Redwood and asbestos cement and glass block and plastics and plywood and more and more and more and more orchard stone! Need I expand the list? But Googie as I have said treats all issues with generous abandon. ‘Why throw the coal into the furnace?’ it asks. ‘Why not into the wall? Why not build with string? Why not use anything?…”

“What about equipment?” quickly interrupted the student.

“Same freedom. To the inventions of the modern engineer, Googie adds all of Popular Mechanics. Walls that are hinged and  roll out on casters, doors that disappear into the ground, overhead lights that cook the hamburger…”

“Stop! Wait!” cried the despairing student. “Just where in the name of Apollo can all this uninhibited incoherence lead?”

“Ah, well you might ask,” meditated Thrugg, stroking his chin. “Well you might ask. Modern architecture has set building free. For every one good way of building that there used to be, there are now three new ones, with more coming around the corner.
"Almost anything can be done and is being done – so what is there for young fellows trying to live up to The Fountainhead to do except create this spicy Googie goulash? Even so, they have brought modern architecture down from the mountains and set ordinary clients, ordinary people, free.”

“Is that good – having the people free?”

“No and yes. No, because the people have neither the education nor leaders to guide them. Caught between numbskull appraisers of the FHA on one side and Googie geniuses on the other, how can they know their way? There are no responsible critics in the middle!

“But again, yes, it is good, and for two reasons. One is that sometimes fantastically good ideas result from uninhibited experiment. The other is that Googie accustoms the people to expect strangeness, and make them the readier for those strange things yet to come which will truly make good sense.” Thrugg paused.

“Let me tell you a story. One hundred years ago in Spain was born a strange genius, Antoni Gaudi. He built cathedral towers that resembled weird plants and shocked everybody. Gaudi and his friends were interested in reproducing the more superficial appearance of nature – the beautiful lines of waves, the ever sensitive contours of leaves.

But Gaudi got people accustomed to looking away from the immediate past and toward nature. Soon a more deeply searching generation came. Beneath the changing leaves of plants they discerned the ever constant and ever geometric law of each plant’s growth; and beneath the changing waves the ever constant operations of dynamics. When their buildings were reading, applying these new principles, Gaudi’s fantastic strangeness had helped prepare the ground for this sensible strangeness.

“So something better than accidental discoveries might come even from Googie. It’s too bad our taste is so horrible; but it’s pretty good to have men free….”