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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Travel back to the year of Orange County's birth

From the exhibit: A scene at the Hotel Laguna, circa 1889.
An exhibit entitled "O.C. Circa 1889" is opening, just in time for the County's 125th birthday, at the Old Orange County Courthouse. It will launch with an opening reception on July 17th, 7pm-9pm, featuring a lecture by historian Phil Brigandi, who assembled the photos and information for the exhibit. Please RSVP by July 14 to 714-973-6607. The exhibit runs through Oct. 10th.
Visitors will get a chance to see what life was like here in 1889, the year Orange County broke away from Los Angeles to become its own county. Rare photos of local communities, family life, agriculture, transportation, schools, recreation, businesses and notable personalities are accompanied by information telling the story of Orange County's beginnings. I've gotten a sneak preview, and it looks fascinating! Hope to see you at the reception!
W. A. Connoly's blacksmith shop, Fullerton, 1889.
By the way, there's currently a small display about Orange County's agricultural history on the first floor of the Old Courthouse, courtesy the Orange County Archives. Stick your head in and say "hello" if you decide to stop by and check it out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Wintersburg secret revealed!

Mary Urashima leads a tour in the Furuta Barn at Wintersburg.
Wondering what the big Wintersburg announcement will be tomorrow? (Referenced in yesterday's post.) Wonder no more! The cat is out of the bag! See the National Trust's video announcement of America's 11 Most Endangered Historical Sites. Also, check out the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force Facebook page for additional information.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Huntington Beach, O.C.'s birthday & Key Ranch

Huntington Beach Pier, April 1906
This weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the first recorded instance of surfing in Orange County. (There's reason to suspect that it may have happened earlier without anyone writing it down.) In 1914, to celebrate the opening of Huntington Beach's new concrete pier (the old wood pier, shown above, had been damaged in storms), a whole weekend of festivities were planned. Among the assorted revelry was a demonstration of surf riding by George Freeth. This story has already gotten a lot of coverage elsewhere, so I won't flog it to death again here.

Speaking of Huntington Beach,... There will be several interconnected events on Tues., June 24, related to the Historic Wintersburg Preservation project. First there will be a national press conference at Huntington Beach City Hall with mayor Matt Harper and the Wintersburg Preservation Task Force. Apparently, it's "big news," but it's all super secret right now! Then, from  11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., 10% of your bill at The Red Table Restaurant (16821 Algonquin, in H.B. ) will go toward the preservation effort. At 6:30 there will be another big announcement at The Red Table regarding Wintersburg. Keep an eye on for more information.
Orange County's 125th Birthday Party, hosted by the O.C. Historical Society.
The big birthday party to kick off Orange County's 125th anniversary celebration was a big success! The ballroom at the historic Santa Ana Ebell Club was packed with historians, longtime residents, descendants of pioneers, two County Supervisors (Moorlach and Nguyen) and all sorts of other nice folks who are proud to call Orange County home. My thanks to everyone at the Orange County Historical Society who worked to make it a great evening!

I suppose this is old news now, but I haven't mention that the George Key House at Key Ranch Historical Park sustained some significant damage during the "La Habra Earthquake" in March. The historic building is still closed for assessment and repairs, but the surrounding park property is open by appointment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Arches

Wood panel from The Arches, carved by "C. Abel," and found in Costa Mesa.
Recently, I visited Normandy's New York Hardware Co. in Costa Mesa. It's a delightful place full of both modern hardware (doorknobs, hinges, etc.) and antique mall brick-a-brack. And what did I find there, but a number of old signs and decorative panels from one of Orange County's most historic restaurants: The Arches!

It began as a service station, built in 1925 on Pacific Coast Highway, at the intersection of Newport Blvd. in Newport Beach. This was the same year the highway opened between Huntington Beach and Newport.

Historian Phil Brigandi writes, "John Vilelle (1897-1981) built The Arches. Originally he had a partner named James Sturgeon, but he didn’t stay around long. Vilelle & Sturgeon ran the gas station, and their wives, Fern Vilelle and Anna Sturgeon [later] ran the restaurant."
One of several wood panels from The Arches seen at Normandy's.
Ten-year-old Victor Chatten named the place in a 1926 newspaper contest and won five dollars. Clearly, it was named for the Mediterranean arches on the front of the building. Later, a diner and and market were added. The diner would evolve and improve over the years.

"Not long after prohibition ended in 1933, Johnny Vilelle got a liquor license, and started serving cocktails." says Brigandi. He sites as 1941 ad bragging of "unexcelled Steak Dinners and Good Coffee. Cocktail Bar in connection" and a 1949 ad for "Steak, Chicken, Lobster in Season, Cocktails.”

In 1936,  a large bridge was built nearby, taking Newport Blvd. over the highway at what was then one of the most dangerous intersections in Orange County. Soon, the bridge was unofficially dubbed "Arches,"  and the name stuck. Soon, not just the business, but also the bridge and the surrounding area was known as The Arches. It was a landmark, and remains so today.
An early image of The Arches service station (left) and market/cafe (right)
The business went through multiple sets of hands, but the name was always retained. The import of Arches as a place on the map was at least as significant as The Arches as a specific business.

Eventually the service station disappeared. And what started as a diner eventually completed its transition into a high-end restaurant and watering hole for the well-heeled.  John Wayne, Shirley Temple, and other famous folk were regulars.

"By the early 1970s," Brigandi writes, "The Arches was being touted for its French food, and – if the old Orange County Illustrated magazine is to be believed – the bar had a reputation as a place for 'swingers.'"
A view of The Arches from across the highway, circa 1955.
Dan Marcheano bought the restaurant in 1982. He moved out in 2007 and new owners (Los Arcos Newport LLC) moved in, fully prepared to continue the tradition of The Arches.

But Marcheano took the name with him. After a certain amount of unpleasantness between the old and new owners, Marcheano opened a new "The Arches" in Cannery Village -- and then, when that didn't work -- to a location on Westcliff Dr. This forced the owners of the old location to come up with a new name. Keeping a big curlicued "A" on the beginning of their roadside sign maintained a familiar look, so the place became "A Restaurant."
The Arches shortly before its renovation into A Restaurant, 2008.
 The new owners also found that certain infrastructure issues probably hadn't been dealt with in many decades. The entire restaurant was jacked up into the air and new foundations and plumbing were installed.

Meanwhile, the new The Arches on Westcliff struggled and finally closed at the end of 2010.
Revisiting the old Latin maxim, "De gustibus non est disputandum."
A Restaurant seems to be flourishing. I hope this original location eventually reclaims the moniker that everyone still calls it anyway: The Arches. Regardless, the owners of A Restaurant might want to get their butts over to Normandy's New York Hardware and reappropriate some historic signage.
More relics of The Arches at Normandy's New York Hardware.