News Column

From burg to boon: O.C. marks 125 years

June 30, 2014

By Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register

June 30--Bill Gross gets animated when he recalls that his was among hundreds of young families vying for one of the coveted new Mission Viejo homes in the early 1970s.

Homes built by the O'Neill/Moiso family and Dean Homes on 10,000 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo ranchland became the first master-planned developments in South Orange County and sold like hotcakes. Hopeful homebuyers threw their names into a barrel and waited for hours on a huge dirt lot to be called to buy a home. The lottery drawings were such big events that the Saturday nightly news would broadcast the week's winners.

"When your name came out of the barrel, it was like a birthday, anniversary and Fourth of July all at once," said Gross, founder of Newport Beach-based Pimco, the world's largest bond trader.

Gross, his wife and children left behind an apartment in the San Bernardino Valley and lucked out, getting a 1,600-square-foot home near Marguerite Parkway in the newly created community. Each weekend they worked on the landscaping, putting in a lawn, bender board and a sprinkler system. On Saturdays, they'd drive to a nursery on El Toro Road and get marigolds, the flower of choice in Mission Viejo.

"It was all fresh and brand-new. I couldn't ask for a better beginning to a career," Gross said.

Gross, now 70, recently moved Pimco to a new, 21-floor tower at Fashion Island -- a location once part of the 100,000-acre Irvine family's cattle and sheep ranch. Gross, named Morningstar Fund Manager of the Decade for 2000-09, said Orange County contributed to the success he and Pimco have made in the financial world.

"When people think of sunshine and beaches, those are positives," Gross said. "It all sort of works together. If you're surrounded by a fresh, thriving county, it gives feedback to (new companies) as well."

Gross is among the visionaries with pioneering spirits who pursued unique and innovative endeavors that in 125 years have helped transform O.C., an area once known as southern Los Angeles County.

In 1889, O.C. seceded from Los Angeles County, and this year celebrates its 125th anniversary.

A real estate boom in the 1880s and a campaign advertising a "Mediterranean-like lifestyle" helped the county explode from its rural roots to its urban and suburban makeup. The county that began with 13,589 residents and three incorporated cities -- Anaheim in 1878, Santa Ana in 1886 and Orange in 1888 -- is the nation's sixth-largest with 3.1 million residents and 34 cities. Aliso Viejo, incorporated in 2001, is the newest.

Home to world-renowned Fortune 500 and 1,000 companies such as Ingram Micro, Allergan, Broadcom and Edwards Lifesciences and privately held Pacific Life, Kingston Technology and Vizio, O.C.'s image is no longer that of the "little spot between Los Angeles and San Diego."

With no megacity, there are cultural centers such as the tech world in Irvine and Newport Beach that lead some to dub the county Silicon Valley South. It's a place where Teslas are sold in malls and where the Oculus Rift developers just sealed a deal to sell for $2 billion.

Surf City USA -- aka Huntington Beach -- is home to the U.S. Open of Surfing and is known as the birthplace of surfing. With 42 miles of beaches, Orange County is known worldwide for its surf breaks -- Dana Point's Strand, Newport Beach's Wedge and Trestles near San Clemente.

Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm are huge tourist draws and are key in the county's $9.5 billion tourism sector, which includes whale-watching tours, ritzy destination resorts and large harbors for vessels like sailing boats and motor yachts.

THE EARLY DAYS

After nearly 20 years of fighting for secession, O.C. separated from Los Angeles County on Aug. 1, 1889. Separation was spurred by increasing frustration among residents in the Santa Ana Valley -- still dotted with dirt roads and a lack of infrastructure -- that taxes weren't being used to improve their area. On Aug. 5, Orange County'sBoard of Supervisors held its first meeting above Beatty Bros., a dry-goods store at Fourth and Sycamore streets in Santa Ana.

Items on the agenda: ordering office supplies and approving the new county seal -- an orange with three leaves. The county got its name not from the oranges grown here but from real estate promotions marketing it as a semitropical paradise where anything could grow.

The county grew quickly, first with dry farming of grains, barley and walnuts, as well as Fullerton'sValencia oranges. In 1910, there were 34,000 residents. The population doubled in the next decade, and then again in the 1920s, reaching 120,000.

"Nearly everything grew well here in 'Natures Prolific Wonderland,'" said Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society. "The manpower behind all the bounty was provided by a diverse population, including Americans, Mexicans, Germans, English, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Basques and the children of Spanish Californios."

With new cities stretching from San Clemente to Fullerton came colleges, churches, oil booms and highways. Then followed Knott's Berry Farm and the aviation innovations of Glenn Martin and his first flying operations at Main Street and Newport Boulevard, also on Irvine Ranch property. Among Martin's innovations: the first twin-engine American bomber.

MAKING A LIVING AND CREATING A VISION

Marion Knott, Walter and Cordelia Knott's last surviving child, remembers what it was like in the beginning. Her father, a sharecropper who came to O.C. from San Luis Rey, didn't come with the vision of pioneering what is now the 13th-most-visited amusement park in the nation.

"He came here to support a family," said Knott, 92. "They had three kids by then, and then I came along and I'm sure I wasn't expected. We lived in a small house that didn't have inside plumbing or water. We lived a primitive life."

Knott's farm started with 10 acres around 1920, and the family sold berries, jams and pies from a roadside stand. Marion Knott attended a three-room schoolhouse. Each room held three classes. There was an outhouse for boys and an outhouse for girls. When Walter Knott built a new home, he added an extra room he called a tea house. That's where his wife, Cordelia, started frying chicken to go along with berry pies, jams and jellies.

"My mother said, 'I'll do it for now but I don't really want to be in the restaurant business,'" Knott recalled. "It wasn't really us starting a restaurant, it was us doing what we could. We had all this traffic going by to Balboa and Newport Beach. It was a good place for them to stop."

The first guests ate in the family's home dining room. That's also where Marion Knott began waitressing in the summer after sixth grade. She made 25 cents and felt like a million. There were five tables when they started. Soon word spread, and the Knotts couldn't keep up with the demand. They added more dining rooms and expanded the menu. Soon they were serving 3,000 people per day, with some customers waiting two hours or longer for their tables.

That's when Walter Knott made the spot a destination for people to hang out and wait. He built Ghost Town, a place including history like Knott's grandmother's journey by covered wagon to California. As more people stopped in, Walter Knott built more attractions.

Now when Knott looks back at what her parents started, she's filled with pride. In 2020, the park will turn 100, and she expects it to flourish for another 100 years. She also likes what she sees at Disneyland -- a place she calls an "iconic thing no one could touch" when it opened in 1955. Disneyland, which in 2013 had 16.2 million guests, was built on 160 acres and now occupies 510 in Anaheim. It is the only theme park designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney.

"I think Knott's Berry Farm is here to stay," Knott said. "Lots of good it's done for everyone. I think my father was amazed. Who would have thought a little piece of ground would have turned into so much?"

THE DEPRESSION, MILITARY BASES

During the Depression, growth slowed in O.C. The population in 1950 was 216,000. With World War II came Marine Corps air stations in El Toro and Tustin and other military bases in Los Alamitos, Costa Mesa and Seal Beach. Shore defenses were set up at Bolsa Chica. In the postwar boom, the population in the county more than tripled between 1950 and 1960, hitting 700,000. In 1941 about 122,000 acres known as Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores and part of a 200,000-acre ranch owned by Richard O'Neill Sr. and James Flood was absorbed by the Marine Corps and became Camp Joseph H. Pendleton.

Mission Viejo in 1966 -- on 10,000 acres of rolling hills, scrub oak and cattle grassland -- was followed by cityhood among other south O.C. cities on both sides of I-5, the San Diego Freeway. Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Woods and Rancho Santa Margarita followed. By 1970, 1.42 million residents called O.C. home.

LATINO IMMIGRANTS

Throughout O.C. history, many of the immigrants came from Mexico.

Rueben Martinez, son of immigrants from Mexico who came to Arizona to work the copper mines, remembers going to a segregated school in Arizona. The teachers would quench his thirst for reading -- something that later would change his life. He moved to Los Angeles and went to barbering school while working at Bethlehem Steel. Then he struck out for O.C.

"My friends would say, 'Why are you moving to Orange County? It's a mostly white community,'" he said. "But I looked at it as opportunity."

He opened a hair salon called Design I at 2nd and Broadway in Santa Ana in 1975. Fourth Street was already a hub for Latinos. On weekends it flourished with families buying furniture and clothes and eating popular Mexican foods.

"It was a happy street; families felt at home," he said. "They felt like they had found a place that reminded them of places they came from in Mexico."

Martinez remembers people always looking to better themselves and creating opportunities for their children. The wanted better education and health care.

An avid reader, Martinez stocked newspapers and books written in English and Spanish at his barbershop. When books disappeared, he'd go to Tijuana and buy more. That's when he got the idea to open a bookstore. He started with 10 books, then 20 and then hundreds. The bookstore grew, and so did its notoriety. Martinez was written up in papers nationwide. It was the story of a barbershop that grew into a bookstore.

Now a fellow at Chapman University, he recruits Latino students.

"Education is freedom," said the 74-year-old Orange resident. "With a good education, you have a better life. I don't care where you come from -- African American or Mexican. If you believe in yourself, you can make it here."

LITTLE SAIGON, POLITICS

Immigrants also came from places like Korea and Vietnam. Westminster and Garden Grove are home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. The community, with Little Saigon as its cultural center, sprang up in the late 1970s. Bolsa Avenue is dotted with strip malls. There are cybercafes, specialty coffee shops and Vietnamese and Chinese grocers and restaurants. The community has its own TV and radio stations and Vietnamese-language newspapers.

"The growth of our Vietnamese American community has put O.C. on the map," said Chris Phan, councilman in Garden Grove. "Many tourists from the Far East, nationally and around the world visit Little Saigon for our amazing restaurants and cultural entertainment."

From a political standpoint, in the meantime, the county is known as the birthplace of Richard Nixon and the site of his Western White House in San Clemente. And in the 1970s, the county was the center of the conservative John Birch Society.

"It was a red county, and no Democrats could make headway," Gross recalls. "Politics changed as immigration changed. People like me coming here from other states. It was John Wayne territory. He had a boat on the harbor. People then would know of Orange County because of John Wayne."

O.C. was once touted as "America's most Republican county." Today, 15 counties in California have higher percentages of Republican voters.

Gross moved from Mission Viejo to Laguna Beach -- at first, way up with the cows overlooking Crescent Bay and across the fence from Emerald Bay, where he had always hoped to sneak in. Later he would move to Irvine Cove, just above the sparkling Pacific. He and his family have lived there for 25 years.

"I became known as 'Billy at the Beach' by Wall Street," Gross said. "There were lots of great beaches and surfing. With Pimco, it was good to be away from the group-think of Wall Street. Orange County may have been sort of a young fresh label, which may not have been good in the beginning. Bond investors don't like surfboard-riding people; they like stodgy old men behind their desks. Once they came, they stayed. Eventually it was a good selling point."

As Pimco, Pacific Life and other financial firms sprouted, O.C. didn't resemble downtown Los Angeles at 6th and Grand, but the county was gaining respect. Universities, hospitals and freeways were being built while developers -- notably Donald Bren'sIrvine Co. -- satisfied the need for homes, shopping centers, office buildings and even for preserving open space for the public's benefit.

"It became a county that could offer almost anything," Gross said.

MEGACHURCHES, SPORTS AND CULTURE

Internationally influential spiritual leaders such as the Rev. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest found a community served by many religions and many people thirsty for evangelicals. The Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch started their vision for a national religious broadcasting network in Costa Mesa in 1973. It is now the nation's largest religious network.

O.C.'s population was largely middle-class and family-oriented, with many looking for a church home, said Phil Brigandi, a historian who has published several books on the county.

"In 1979, while considering where to invest my life in starting a new church, I discovered that, at that time, Orange County was the fastest-growing county in America. That caught my attention," Warren said. "I figured that new communities would need new churches. Kay and I prayed about it, and we moved here with no members, no money and only a dream."

In his 34 years in ministry, Warren said he has seen significant change among the population and in people's values.

"When Kay and I started Saddleback Church in 1980, we were a young, mostly-white congregation, Warren said. "Our members now speak 67 languages and represent every racial, cultural, generational, educational, economic and even religious background. As Orange County diversified, the makeup of our church changed."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, in the meantime, has grown to be the 10th-largest diocese nationwide, with 1.2 million members. Catholic missionaries established the county's first residential community around Mission San Juan Capistrano. Catholics still celebrate Mass daily within the oldest standing structure in California, the Serra Chapel at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Over the decades, the diocese has evolved and has embraced its multicultural mission. The recent purchase of the Crystal Cathedral -- a historic place of Protestant worship -- makes it the most visible Catholic place of worship on the West Coast.

"The missionary and outreach spirit of the early history of the county and the church continue in the worship and life of so many ethnic communities, groups and families who have found their homes here in Orange County," said Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange. "They not only enrich both the civic communities in the geographical boundaries of the county, but they are witness to the life of the church universal. Their lives, enthusiasm and commitment to the common good continue to unite the faith and the civic communities in their concern for the residents of our county. Indeed, the Diocese of Orange has evolved as Orange County has, becoming a global center of culture, charity and faith. Our Catholic community remains strong and spiritually rich."

When professional sports teams like the California Angels (in 1966) came to O.C., the community's identity began to grow. The Los Angeles Rams brought the excitement of the NFL to Anaheim, where they played from 1980 to 1994. In 1993, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim brought professional hockey.

Mike Scioscia played for the Los Angeles Dodgers for 13 years. He became the Angels' manager in 1999 and brought O.C. its first World Series championship in 2002.

"I remember countless fans stopping me at Starbucks or pulling their cars over and saying, 'Thank you, you don't know what this means to my father or my grandfather,'" Scioscia said. "When that happened, I gained perspective of what a ballclub means to a community. When we won in 2002, I got a sense of accomplishment from people in the community. It opened my eyes to how Orange County has bonded with the Angels."

Scioscia said baseball builds community across races and demographics. It gives people something common to be passionate about.

"I see Angel hats all around Orange County now, and it wasn't always like that."

TV-DRIVEN IMAGE

O.C. is one of the best-known -- and yet least understood -- counties in America, Brigandi wrote in his latest book, "Orange County Chronicles."

"Too often, people who try to describe and dissect our county never seem to get beyond the glitzy image created by the media of Tuscan villas by the sea with waving palms outside and beautiful people inside," he said.

Outside O.C., the image is often pushed as "the home of the rich and the spectacularly rich" and is sometimes viewed through wealth and dysfunction in storylines from shows like "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

Brigandi points to other aspects of the county -- the suburban neighborhoods of Orange, the barrios of Santa Ana, the townhouses of Brea, the apartments of Anaheim and the planned communities of Irvine. It's Little Saigon, Little Texas, Los Rios in San Juan Capistrano, La Palma, La Habra and Silverado Canyon, he added.

By 2035, O.C. is expected to reach a population of 3.4 million.

"The challenge for Orange County is to hold on to a sense of community," Brigandi said. "We need to find ways to emphasize the things we all have in common, wherever we live in the county."

Contact the writer: 949-492-5152 or eritchie@ocregister.com or twitter.com/lagunaini

___

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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Source: Orange County Register (CA)


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