A piece of O.C. history lives on in Placentia’s Bradford House

The kids always knew to use the side or back doors to get into the house. After helping out with the farm chores near the orange groves, they dared not walk through the front door and foyer in dirty clothes.

Instead, they’d enter through the family parlor or the kitchen, both next to their father’s office, where he’d run his business as a citrus rancher.

More than 100 years later, the rotary phone he used to make calls and the burn marks on his desk from putting out cigarettes still remain.

The 6,000-square-foot Placentia estate, built in 1902, was originally home to Albert Sumner Bradford, his wife, Fannie, their four children and Fannie’s sister Ellen.

Today, the 15-room structure on 136 E. Palm Drive, known as the Bradford House, serves as a museum. It welcomes school tours, string quartet performances, weddings and those curious about north Orange County’s early history.

A large wooden table for kneading dough, a butter churn and a rocking chair occupy the kitchen. The dining room has a long table adorned with candlesticks, and green drapes cascade down tall windows that once captured a view of Bradford’s ranch.

In the upstairs bedrooms are, among other items, a pan that would store hot coals to warm the bed and a metal pick used to unlace the tightly wound shoe strings of the Bradford family’s boots.

The home is cared for by the Placentia Founders Society, a group that fought for the property’s preservation in the mid-’70s, when Placentia’s City Council contemplated demolishing it.

Since the Founders Society was formed in 1974, its mission has been to maintain the historical contents of the home, host community events and offer docent-led tours of the estate.

The family gave the house to the city in 1973, when preservation started to sound like a pretty good hedge against the shopping centers and other projects that were springing up in the area.

The last family member to own the house was Bradford’s son, Hartwell.

Hartwell’s daughter Irene “Rene” Kamin, who lives in nearby Yorba Linda, said there was an interest in keeping the house, so it was donated to the city.

During her childhood in Placentia, Kamin said, her father worked as a businessman mainly in Los Angeles, so she grew up in her uncle Warren Bradford’s home up the road from the historic house.

But Hartwell would return home once a week, which is when Kamin would see him and occasionally stay in the Bradford House.

“I don’t think he’d believe [the house] would ever become a museum,” Kamin said of her father. “Back then he was just living in it.”

“Perhaps we don’t know we’re a part of history,” Founders Society member Kay Pfaffle said, “until we’re gone.”

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Albert Bradford is known fondly by the Founders Society as the “Father of Placentia.”

Working alongside other members of the community, he became instrumental in supporting the opening of the local post office, Presbyterian church and newspaper and otherwise preparing the foundation of a city. Placentia was incorporated in 1926.

Bradford was born in 1860 in Maine. He grew up poor on a little New England farm, according to archival sources.

At age 27, he took a train to California because, according to some sources, the cold climate of Maine aggravated his asthma.

He sought after sunshine and later a job in the booming citrus industry of Orange County.

At the time of his move, he was married to Fannie and they had three kids: Elsie, Hartwell and Percy. Warren was born in 1893 in California.

In 1890, Bradford had saved enough money to send for his family and purchase 20 acres on what is now Palm Drive. He named his land Tesoro Ranch, meaning Treasure Ranch.

Twelve years later, his family’s house was built. The property would someday land on the National Register of Historic Places.

The forest-green, box-shaped house with attic windows peeking out of the roof has a porch that wraps around the front of the house.

Basement windows can be seen wedged between the stacked stones that form the base of the house.

It’s more common for East Coast homes to have basements, but Bradford built what he was used to seeing, a Bradford House docent said.

On a recent clear day, a line of pink could be seen across the foyer floor as the sunlight streamed through the stairway’s ruby red window, a fixture that museum docents believe Fannie Bradford wanted to rival that of Helena Modjeska’s now-historic house in Modjeska Canyon, about 30 miles away. Modjeska was a renowned actress.

An upstairs bedroom in the Bradford House is attached to a sunroom-type area, a space where Pfaffle suspects Bradford’s daughter Elsie slept because of her tuberculosis. Early 20th century society believed that cold temperatures could kill the bacterial disease.

But whether the family used the perceived remedy, it did not matter. Bradford’s only daughter died of tuberculosis in 1908.

Two years later, tragedy would strike the family again. Bradford’s wife, Fannie, died of peritonitis, an inflammation of the lining in the abdominal walls.

The Founders Society noted that Bradford threw himself into work after the deaths of his wife and daughter.

Two years after Elsie’s death, he formed Placentia National Bank, took part in laying out the town site, and made efforts to get the Santa Fe railroad a track from Fullerton to Atwood, a neighborhood in Placentia, to encourage more business development.

After Fannie’s death, Bradford had two water towers built on Chapman Avenue to allow water to be supplied to the town.

“We think of Bradford as having a lot of fortune, but he also had a lot of sadness,” Pfaffle said. “It’s possible that we may be benefiting from his misfortunes.”

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When the property was no longer in the Bradford family’s hands, a vote of the city’s five-member council in January 1976 would determine if the house would be demolished and a park developed in its place.

In a close call, two members voted “aye” while three voted “no,” according to city documents.

A measure on the ballot for the April municipal election of 1976 then asked Placentia residents if tax revenues should be used to preserve the house.

In pressing its case, the Founders Society held an open house at the Bradfords’ former home every weekend for the five weeks leading up to the vote. Almost 1,600 people toured the house, according to news articles.

But the measure failed.

“Everyone was afraid it was going to be torn down,” said Founders Society member Mary Castner, who was born and raised in Placentia. “It had been there for so long and it’s a treasured piece. We always tell the children that if they live in Placentia, the house belongs to them.”

The city agreed to lease the house to the Founders Society in 1977 while the group of history enthusiasts offered to provide the funds for the upkeep and insurance costs of the house, according to news articles.

“Our heritage is rich .… There’s a lot to be learned from history that could impart a better appreciation of what we have today,” Placentia Mayor Craig Green said.

“Some people don’t want to fly all the way to the Smithsonian to see what life was like back then. You come to the [Bradford] House and see how wide the porch is and how people would just sit out there and talk. It was simpler times.”

The Bradford House’s grand opening as a museum took place in 1978.

Today, the house’s upkeep is funded by Founders Society membership fees, fundraising activity and rent from tenants who stay in half of the upstairs level for $1,000 per month.

A tour from Glenknoll Elementary School in Yorba Linda last month brought dozens of third-graders to the property as part of their social studies curriculum.

Glenknoll teacher Judy Rees watched as her students observed the differences between early 20th century and modern-day technology.

A typewriter rests on an office desk instead of a computer. A wooden box in the kitchen had to be filled with ice since there were no refrigerators.

After 19 years of living in Placentia and driving through and around Bradford Avenue in the city, Rees finally found herself at the home of the street’s namesake, a place that will teach her students the history of their local community, she said.

A place that used to have horse-drawn carriages riding among the lines of palm trees now sees neighbors playing fetch with their dogs.

A place that is no longer inhabited by orange groves, but still keeps a piece of Placentia history wedged right between the suburban homes and shopping centers.

A place that Bradford purposefully built for his family, but unknowingly created to be enjoyed by the masses.

The Bradford House holds public tours from 2 to 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month, except for May. To schedule group tours, call (714) 993-2470. 

alexandra.chan@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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