First Families Recall County's Good Old Days

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Want to concoct an evening of time travel? Gather more than 300 members of Orange County's oldest families, along with a handful of newcomers who only go back 40 years or so. Give them a chance to remember when, and to remember those who could remember even further back. Garnish with sepia photographs, sprinkle with a few futuristic facts and mix well.

That is what happened April 20 at the Orange County Pioneer Council's annual dinner at the Catch restaurant in Anaheim, as cocktail and dinner conversation carried guests through history.

In one corner of the room, for those listening to Dr. Dexter Ball, it was 1889, and Dr. C. D. Ball (Dexter's grandfather) had just set up his medical practice, one of the first in newly formed Orange County.

Across the room, it was 1942. Naval aviation cadet Jim Cooper took off from Los Alamitos and marveled at the view as he looked down at lima bean fields, walnut and citrus groves, ranches--and not much else.

A few feet to the left, it was 1965, and 9-year-old Steven Ball--C. D.'s great-grandson-- hurried to keep up with his father, Dr. John Ball, as they hiked through the wilderness of what is now Irvine.

Then, up at the podium, suddenly it was 2030, as speaker Jim Cooper--the same fellow who got a bird's-eye view of the county during World War II--used a plethora of facts to put together a vision of the county's future. In Cooper's 2030 scenario, 3.4 million people will live in Orange County, and old-timers will reminisce about 1988, when the average speed on the freeway during rush hour was 18 miles an hour.

The trip might not be such an adventure anywhere else, said Cooper, vice president of community affairs for KOCE-TV, Channel 50. "No piece of geography anywhere in the world has gone through so much change."

Some who reminisced longed for less hectic days. "I like change," said event chairwoman Jean Wahlberg. "But I miss the intimacy of the old days."

Others said they preferred things the way they are. "Our grandfather, Daniel Kraemer, bought 3,200 acres in 1865 for 39 cents an acre," said Lucy Frank Coniglio Lentz. "Later, it sold for $10,000 to $100,000 an acre. I like progress."

"It may sound stuffy, but I think it's important for the old-time Orange County people to maintain togetherness," said Marion Ball, widow of Dr. John Ball, who founded the council in 1981. "Otherwise, the history can get lost in the shuffle.

"It's just like preserving a fine antique," she said. And pioneer families--the council includes those who settled here before 1914--are indeed a rarity.

"It's hard enough to find a native Californian," she said.

The Ball family is being honored at this year's dinner for its 100 years of service to the county. Three of C. D. Ball's children followed him into medicine, as did four of his grandchildren, including Dr. Dexter Ball, a surgeon, and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Ball, who succeeded his cousin, John, as president of the council.

Wahlberg said the event's 90-minute social hour is considered a highlight by many regulars. "We want people to have a chance to get around the room and talk to people they haven't seen in a while," she said.

The council's purpose, Wahlberg said, "is to document those things that are going to be lost to us pretty soon. We meet once a year for this dinner--this is our sixth--but we're also putting together our own oral histories, working with the oral history department at Cal State Fullerton."

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