Thursday, November 20, 2014

Marion Knott Montapert (1922-2014)

Marion Knott at 75th anniversary of her mother's restaurant, 6-13-2009.
Marion Knott Montapert, the last of Walter and Cordelia Knott's children  -- and the only one of their children to be born on their famous berry farm -- died  November 13.  Over the years, she went from selling rhubarb on street corners, to waiting tables in her mother's tea room, to managing Marion & Toni's Dress Shop with her sister, to being a key player in the planning and operations for one of the world's best-known theme parks. She put a fence around the park, added the Fiesta Village and Roaring 20s areas, and introduced rollercoasters. 

An obituary for her appears in the Orange County Register, and a shorter blurb about her passing appeared in the L.A. Times. I won't rehash them here, but I will share a few additional comments...
Marion Knott on "Boomerang" rollercoaster at Knott's Berry Farm, 1990.
When Phil Brigandi and I were bringing the enormous Knott's Berry Farm historical collection over to the Orange County Archives and were trying to organize and make sense of it all,  Marion Knott was a great resource. She not only answered a bunch of Phil's questions, but we also got the chance to scan some of her personal scrapbooks of the farm.

I did not meet her in person until 2009. She had not visited Knott's Berry Farm since the family sold it to Cedar Fair, and had sworn she'd never return. But for the 75th anniversary of  her mother's restaurant (Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant), she made an exception. She was very much afraid of what she would find. What would the new people have done to the place she and her parents and her siblings had built?

To her surprise, she was very pleased with what she found, and she said so publicly. She was very gracious and patient with all the people who wanted to meet her that day, including me.

Of course, I wasn't going to write about Marion Knott today, until I heard about her passing. I was going to write about the good news that has added a large portion of the old Santa Ana Register to their searchable database. One of my first searches after getting access to a account was to find the Register's earliest references to the Knott family after their arrival in Orange County.

The earliest Knott references, in the mid-1920s, are surprisingly not about the soon-to-be-famous berry farmer, Walter. Rather, they are about Cordelia Knott attending the Jolly Stitchers club of Buena Park, with baby Marion in tow. Today, of course, hardly a day goes by when the Knott name fails to appear in the paper. About 4,000 people a day enjoy the theme park that bears their name, and -- at least for now -- even more enjoy the line of jams and preserves they created. And the philanthropic work the Knott family continues to do in Orange County has had an enormous impact.
The Knott children: Toni, Russell, Virginia and little Marion, circa 1925.

At the time of her death, Marion Knott was next on the list of people to be approached for an interview for the Orange County Historical Society's oral history project. Let this be a lesson to all of us who do local history work: Always interview the older generation NOW, not later.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Election Day and Halloween are coming soon

Election Day has long had the indignity of falling soon after Halloween, providing obvious opportunities to recast political hobgoblins as "real" ones and to make comparisons between politicians and other unholy creatures. In this political cartoon from the Nov. 1, 1914 Los Angeles Times, California's reform-minded governor, Hiram Johnson, is bedeviled by a host of issues. Despite the frightening cast of characters around him here, Johnson easily won re-election two days later, getting nearly twice as many votes as the next runner-up.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A couple more scenes from O.C.'s 125th birthday

Fairgrounds, Aug. 1: Giant walking "fair foods" add gravitas to the national anthem.
In addition to the aforementioned museum exhibit, the well-attended birthday party/dinner, and the presentations before the Board of Supervisors, Orange County's quasquicentennial (125th birthday) has also been celebrated in a number of other ways. There was a day-long shin-dig in San Juan Capistrano (big on fun, short on history), a special program at the O.C. Fairgrounds on the County's actual birthday (Aug. 1st), a lecture before the Old Courthouse Museum Society, an article by Erika Ritchie in the Register, an event at Irvine Park sponsored by the O.C. Historical Commission, and (it would now appear) a forthcoming new edition of the book Visiting Orange County's Past.
Fairgrounds, Aug. 1: Jim Washburn celebrates with a little flag waving.
 I did not make it to all the events, but I was disappointed to see that a number of events with lots of potential ended up not being promoted. It's hard to have a party without people. Oh, well,... We'll have all our ducks in a row for O.C. 150th birthday, in 2039.

A few OC125 tchotchkes have emerged from this year's celebrations, including two very-limited-edition pins, official OC125 mason jars(!?) from OC Parks, and some OC125-branded postcards and bookmarks from the Orange County Archives. I think everyone who came up with stuff like this was essentially working with no budget, so this is pretty good for an off-beat anniversary like 125. Centennials and sesquicentennials are easier sells.
Phil Brigandi discusses O.C.'s 125th birthday at the Old Courthouse., 7-17-2014.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Vodie's bear, and Saturday doin's

Vodie's bear, Santa Ana, hours before moving to his new home at MONA.

Here's a run-down of some local history-related events happening this Saturday, Oct. 25:
  • The Los Angeles Archives Bazaar (which also includes Orange County) will be held at the beautiful Doheny Library at USC. This is a great place to learn about many, many historical archives, collections and libraries you never knew existed. If you have an interest in researching or writing Southern California history, you need to go.  
  • The Santa Ana Historic Preservation Society will hold their 17th Annual Historical Cemetery Tour. This year's theme is, "A Hot Time in Old Orange County Tonight; Santa Ana’s Firefighting History.” This is a popular event, and cemeteries are always an interesting "prop" for discussing the people who founded and built a community.
  • The Anaheim Halloween Parade -- which isn't about history, but which is certainly a historic Orange County tradition in its own right -- will once again ply the streets of Downtown Anaheim.
Between a busy summer, taking on some other writing duties, and being beset by endless computer problems (now finally resolved), this old blog has mostly been on hiatus. I'm going to start back by catching up on a few things I wanted to write about earlier. This is one of those stories,...
Happy Bear watched over 17th and Bristol.
In June, my fellow OCHS board member, Josh "Mr. Garden Grove" McIntosh, saw that the old Vodie's Alignment & Brakes on 17th St. in Santa Ana was being bulldozed. Within hours, he'd managed to halt the demolition of the iconic "Happy Bear"sign and promptly found a  new home for it at the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale! I love a preservation story with a happy end!

The story of the Happy Bear sign begins with brothers Will and Henry Damman, who invented an electric starter for the Model T in the 1910s. Although Henry Ford came up with his own version and ended their venture, the Dammans turned around and started the Bear Manufacturing Company, which built auto repair equipment. According to the Rock Island Preservation Society, "Bear equipment became the standard for diagnosis and repair of wheel, steering, and frame alignment.  Later, the company expanded [into] auto safety equipment of all types."

Beginning in the 1920s, Happy Bear's image appeared at innumerable mom-and-pop auto shops that used alignment equipment built by Bear Manufacturing. I'm told Bear Manufacturing would sometimes install a free bear sign for their customers at the same time they installed the alignment equipment in their shop and trained the staff on how to use it.

Happy Bear signs of different sizes were made, but Vodie's was one of the largest and -- at this late date -- among the best-preserved. Vodie's Alignment & Brakes was founded by Vodie Edgar Clemmons (1914-1997) of Garden Grove.

Happy Bear signs started disappearing from the American landscape in the 1960s and '70s. Bear Manufacturing became part of Automotive Diagnostics, and the brand faded away.

In 1973, the Grateful Dead used slight variations of the bear's likeness on the cover of their album "History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One." Soon, the bears were a symbol of the band, appearing on shirts, decals, etc. Deadhead lore says the bear was printed on blotter acid produced by soundman and "underground chemist" Owsley "Bear" Stanley before it appeared on the album cover. Deadhead lore also claims the bear was an old piece of clip-art that pre-dated even its use by Bear Manufacturing. (If anyone sees a pre-1920s use of the bear, let me know.)

Anyway, Santa Ana's Happy Bear, being an especially good example of Bear Manufacturing signage, was something MONA seemed very pleased to receive. Plans are being made to restore it and get the neon elements working again. 

Another Happy Bear sign (at another Vodie's) still stands at 9891 Garden Grove Blvd. in Garden Grove.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

125 years of L.A./O.C. sibling rivalry

Southern California citrus, as shown in Sunset Magazine, March 1911
The rumors are true. We were part of Los Angeles County until we split off, 125 years ago this month, to become Orange County.

We seceded for the usual reasons: It was too hard to get to the county seat to do business, all our tax money was spent in the “big city,” we had a strong enough economy to survive on our own, and we wanted the right of self-determination. L.A. wanted to hang onto us, not out of love and affection, but out of financial and political expediency. We’ve been wary of L.A. ever since.

Asked if he got to Los Angeles very often, Orange County’s “last rustic,” historian Jim Sleeper, once told a reporter, “Hell! I wouldn’t drive up there to watch Jesus Christ wrestle a grizzly bear!” (An L.A. newspaper printed the comment on their front page.)

For their part, Angelenos have invented an imaginary “Orange Curtain” dividing our counties, which I suppose explains why so many of them think they can’t venture south of Coyote Creek. Many also cling to the claim that there’s “no culture” down here, and therefore no reason to visit.
The old plaza in Los Angeles, circa 1869 -- our previous county seat.
For all our sibling rivalry, sometimes we're more like our older sister, Los Angeles, than we (or they) would like to admit. Still, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the fact that, 125 years ago, Mom and Dad gave us separate rooms.

Unlike Los Angeles, with its delusions adequacy, we're not accustomed to gloating and bragging. But since this month marks our 125th birthday, perhaps a bit of comparison is in order,...

Let me start by pointing out that the "HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH" is in Orange County! Really!

Also, Orange County is friendlier, cleaner, and less cramped than Los Angeles. We have better governance, air quality, public safety, school districts, parking, and water conservation. We enjoy cheaper gas, better drivers, a more user-friendly airport, and even a more interesting Spanish Mission. We have lower taxes and less violent crime. We call it a riot when kids get unruly and knock over trashcans in Huntington Beach.
Early 1920s Southern California postcard. (Images courtesy O. C. Archives)
Our freeways and streets are better designed, better maintained, and less congested than those in L.A. Our beaches are cleaner and more accessible. And with the exception of now-ubiquitous Home Owners Associations, we have a long tradition of defending the freedom of the individual.

And if that wasn’t enough, Sacramento clearly hates us – Which is perhaps the ultimate proof that we’re doing things right!

Feliz cumpleaƱos, Orange County. ¡Viva la independencia!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Orange County's 125th birthday continues

This eagle (sans color) appeared in the Santa Ana Standard in 1889, to mark county secession.
Although Orange County’s birthday was last Friday, the Board of Supervisors hosted a reception this morning and had some historical presentations at their regular meeting. It was, after all, exactly 125 years ago today - on Aug. 5, 1889 - that the very first Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting was held.
A scene from this morning's pre-meeting birthday reception.
Today, Phil Brigandi gave a talk on the politics of county separation, I gave a talk about our secession and our 125 years of progress, and Supervisor John Moorlach discussed the way in which California’s counties evolved. Moorlach, who’s been the biggest proponent of the “Quasquicentennial” celebration, also presented a birthday proclamation to the rest of the board.
I was graciously asked to speak at this morning's meeting by Orange County Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen.
Back at that first meeting, in 1889, the board met in a room above the Beatty Brothers Store, at Fourth St. and Sycamore, in Santa Ana. (I believe the Spurgeon Building now sits on that site.) It was ridiculously hot, and the men sweltered in their wool suits. That day, they arranged to buy supplies, rent office space, and have copies of relevant L.A. County assessments made. They also approved an official county seal. Supervisor Sheldon Littlefield, from Anaheim, wanted a bunch of (sour) grapes on the seal, but an orange with three leaves won out.
The chosen county seal design did not honor Anaheim's vintners.
Today’s event, by contrast, was delightfully well air-conditioned, dealt with the sorts of issues you'd expect in a county of 3.1 million residents, and was run as if they'd had 125 years of practice. I was glad to have been asked to be a small part of it. Watch for more “OC125” events in September and October.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Happy 125th Birthday, Orange County!

Created by County Surveyor S. H. Finley in Aug. 1889, this was the first official map of Orange County. (Courtesy the Library of Congress)
One hundred and twenty five years ago today, on Aug. 1, 1889, the southern portion of Los Angeles County broke away to become Orange County. This is our quasquicentennial -- an event marked by County government this afternoon with a small ceremony and birthday cupcakes at the Orange County Fair.

On the day Orange County separated, we had about 15,000 residents, three incorporated cities, and no paved roads. Our growth was slow and steady, reaching only 34,000 by 1910. But in the following decade, our population nearly doubled. In the roaring '20s, it doubled again, to 120,000.

Prior to WWII, Orange County was centered on agriculture. Many crops would do well and bring prosperity, taking advantage of our ideal climate and soil, until a disease would wipe them out and force us to find something new, beginning the cycle again. Along the way, we had enormous success with grapes, apricots, walnuts, celery, sugar beets, chili peppers, avocados, strawberries, beans, lemons, and, of course, the once-ubiquitous Valencia orange.

The manpower behind all that bounty was provided by a diverse population, including Americans, Mexicans, Germans, English, Japanese, Chinese, Basques, Indians, and the descendants of the Spanish Californios.

Our first half-century brought the Pacific Electric Railway, colleges, new cities,  highways, parks, floods, earthquakes, multiple oil booms, an airport, Knott's Berry Farm, and the aviation innovations of Glen Martin and others. Those decades saw the growth and development of our schools districts, churches, civic organizations, water management and other infrastructure.

With the Depression and the war, growth slowed, and it took more than two decades to double our population again. World War II brought us military bases, most notably at El Toro, Tustin, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and Costa Mesa.

Things went bananas in the postwar boom, and the population more than tripled between 1950 and 1960, reaching 700,000 - a number which was more than doubled just a decade later. A combination of the "quick decline" disease and demand for more housing brought an end to the age of orange groves and changed our landscape forever. The massive growth and development never stopped.

The last half of the 20th Century brought us Angels, Rams, Ducks, and Mickey Mouse. We became the home of megachurches, freeways, universities, modern venues for the arts, major tourism and aerospace industries, planned communities, a brush with municipal bankruptcy, and waves of immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Today we have 34 incorporated cities and a population of 3.1 million - a more than 22,000% increase since our founding. Orange County also has a cohesive sense of place, identity and community that our older sibling, Los Angeles, never will. Whether we're from San Clemente or La Habra, we're Orange Countians first, and we're proud of our home. We have done well with our independence.

Happy 125th Birthday, Orange County! You don't look a day over 100!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The "Gummo" of the Earp Brothers

People seem to think that the "wild and woolly West" didn't apply to Orange County. They're shocked to learn we had cowboys, Indians, shoot-outs in saloons, posses chasing horse thieves, and any other Old West cliche you care to mention. Admittedly, we weren't home to many of the big names from the history books, but we weren't exactly out of the picture either.

For instance, there's no record of famous lawman Wyatt Earp visiting Orange County, but some of his famous family definitely spent time here. Wyatt’s father, Nicholas, youngest brother, Warren, and other family members lived near Lake Elsinore and would sometimes find their way to the other side of the mountains. Warren did farm work for H.S. Pankey, in the Gospel Swamp area, south of Santa Ana. Warren wasn't with his brothers at the famous O.K. Corral shoot-out in 1881, but he helped Wyatt hunt down the man who killed their brother, Morgan. Warren was shot dead in 1900 during an argument with a cowboy at a saloon in Wilcox, Arizona.

It may be a thin thread connecting O.C. to the O.K. Corral,... But it's interesting that a thread exists at all.