Limas Losing Out : Progress Keeps Putting the Squeeze on Once-Abundant Bean Fields of Greenville
The demise of Greenville, a farming community now engulfed by the progress around it, might go unnoticed except among local history buffs and former residents.
Its once-abundant lima bean fields have dwindled to a few hundred acres, and today the only reminders of its existence are a sprawling, towered bean warehouse and an old country church on a two-lane street named after the settlement that once thrived there.
The bean fields now grow anachronistically in the shadow of condominiums, high-rise developments, industrial buildings and South Coast Plaza a mile away.
But the heart of Greenville is still intact, at the junction of Greenville Street and Alton Avenue in Santa Ana, just north of the Costa Mesa city limits.
“It never really was a town,” Orange County historian Jim Sleeper said. “Hamlet or village would certainly describe it a little bit better.”
Sleeper said the area has gone through a number of names, including McFadden Ranch, Williams ranch, Gospel Swamp, Newport, Old Newport, and finally Greenville.
At one time the designation Gospel Swamp included west Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, an area of peat bogs that provided rich farmland for the pioneers who settled the area. Sleeper said Gospel Swamp was “a jocular name applied by some of the young bucks” because the area residents, many of them transplanted Southern Confederates, were “a pretty churchy outfit.”
The area now is “one of the last remaining open spaces in our city,” said Robert Balen, acting planning manager for the City of Santa Ana.
“There have been proposals on and off over the past few years to develop that area,"Balen said. The land is all privately owned.
Jack Gouldcq, 72, manager of the Greenville Warehouse since 1955, said that when he first moved to the area, “there were beans in almost every direction you looked.” But the amount of beans the warehouse processes has dropped steadily over the past 30 years, from 83,000 sacks in 1955 to 10,000 in 1984.
As in the warehouse’s heyday, about 26 handpickers still process 300 to 1,000 sacks of beans a day, working eight-hour shifts until all the beans are done, Gould said. Now, however, the weeks of processing are fewer.
“We still (process beans) the old-fashioned way, by hand-picking them,” Gould said. At other lima bean warehouses, machines now do the work. But the switch to mechanization was never economically practical for Greenville.
Lorin Griset, 65, whose family moved to the area in 1898, said Greenville “never had a lot of people, just a lot of farms. The industrial developments didn’t occur until the 1960s, and the housing has been built largely within the last 10 years.”
Historian Sleeper said Greenville has produced some influential Orange County families and “several county fortunes.”
Former or current Greenville landowners include the Segerstroms, developers and part owners of South Coast Plaza; the Grisets (Daniel E. Griset is now mayor of Santa Ana); the Bears, for whom Bear Street is named, and the Borchards, Sleeper said.
“I was born there,” said Howard Bear, 74. “I was raised very close to it and my father was too. It was all open country then.”
Bear, now a resident of Tustin, said he still owns property in Greenville, and in the early 1960s had donated the land at Bear Street and MacArthur Boulevard for the Orange County headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America.
Harold Segerstrom, 56, said Greenville “was a very thriving community. The town was actually very large back in the early days.”
The Segerstrom family still farms about 220 acres of lima beans there, he said. Several years ago, the Segerstroms bought the Greenville Warehouse, which was founded by area farmers as a cooperative.
In the midst of the bean fields, at the corner of Greenville Street and Alton Avenue, sits the Greenville Country Church, built in 1876. It is the oldest Protestant church still in use in Orange County, said the Rev. J. B. Firth, minister there for the past 15 years.
“Today the church sits in the largest bean field in Orange County, so the name country church still fits it very well,” Firth said.
At one time, Sleeper said, the church was “the big rallying point of the town.”
“The public buildings were the church, the store, the old school and, of course, the bean warehouse,” he said.
Harry Dady, 89, pastor of the church during the 1960s and now a resident of Orange, said he once owned a farm where Harbor Boulevard is now.
“The area was known for its rich soil, but now that’s all covered up with concrete and asphalt,” Dady said. “I liked the old way better. I like to see things growing.”
A sanctuary, built in the early 1960s, stands adjacent to the church today, but the old A-frame building is still used as a Sunday school and nursery and for Friday night church services by a group of Russian Baptists, Firth said.
In five to 10 years, Segerstrom said, a portion of the land will be developed into homes and the rest into businesses.
Lima beans will continue to grow in the shadow of progress until, along with Greenville, they succumb to encroaching development.
And then, Sleeper said, Greenville will be “just one of those vanished towns.”