Celebrating Its 100th Year : A Frontier Dream Comes of Age for Orange County
One hundred years ago today, a bearded, one-eyed Civil War hero, erstwhile free love advocate and “Bible communist” by the name of James William Towner presided over the creation of Orange County, now a national symbol of American conservatism.
Towner had been a utopian visionary and socialist opponent of private property back East, where he had lived until his move to California seven years earlier. But in his new home, Santa Ana, he had become a landowner, an innovative farmer and the city attorney. And soon, elected Orange County’s first Superior Court judge, he would prove to be tough on crime as well.
His selection by the governor of California to organize the June 4 election, in which the southeastern corner of Los Angeles County seceded, was a perspicacious beginning for a county that would be torn for the next century by a twin impulse to provincial conformity and constant change.
What is now the premier theme park of the American dream, the largest base of conservative votes in the nation, the world’s 27th-strongest economy and one of its most important high-tech centers, was then a sleepy, cattle-grazing desert. But over ensuing decades it would shudder periodically in the throes of social revolution brought on by massive economic growth and counter-revolution fueled by the dislocation of entrenched classes and values.
In the process, the county would often be at war with itself as it attempted to define the frontier dream.
Was that dream represented by a cosmopolitan import like Towner and his “Townerite” followers or by the lynch mob that dragged a prisoner from his jail?
In the 1920s, was the county best represented by the energetic merchants of Anaheim, who sought to build a metropolitan center of commerce, or by the virulent Ku Klux Klan?
In the ‘50s, was its theme Disneyland, suggesting an America without conflict, or the John Birch Society, trumpeting the call to political Armageddon?
And now, is Orange County most clearly the new international headquarters of multinational corporations, or the last bastion of America First provincialism?
The journey from Towner’s Orange County with its 13,000 rural residents to the exploding 2-million-strong exurbanite center of today has not been a simple one, but there are some continuous, if quirky, lines to be followed. One is that the continual and massive change in the county’s population base has resulted in a constant reinvention of myth and place. The result has been a political leadership fitfully connected to the passions of the moment rather than to local history.
From its first days, the county has constantly redefined its history and standards in a way that no New England town, for example, would tolerate.
First in a Trend
And, in the spirit of the frontier, there is the easy assurance of each new generation of civic activists that the revision is the only one consistent with the traditions of the place.
In that sense, Towner, the displaced social visionary who presided over the county’s first election, was merely the first in a trend.
Historian Spencer Olin of the University of California at Irvine, who has documented the activities of Towner and other former “Bible communists” in Orange County, is not sure whether California Gov. Robert W. Waterman knew of Towner’s leading role in the Berlin Heights Free Love Community of Ohio or in New York State’s radical socialist community, Oneida, when he appointed Towner to the commission to organize the county. Or if Waterman knew that the Townerites, about 40 followers of this charismatic visionary, had collectively purchased major holdings in Santa Ana, including the land on which the Orange County Courthouse would later stand.
In the early 1880s, the local Santa Ana Weekly Standard had warned that the Townerites might be about creating a new Oneida, Mormon, or free love community and that “it will be a good idea for parents to keep their eyes on their daughters and husbands on their weak wives.” But that concern soon blew over.
The Townerites paid their taxes, farmed their land, developed new strains of citrus and designed Santa Ana’s sewer and water system. They might be a bit off, but they were white, Protestant, prosperous--and they belonged.
Most likely, Towner was simply taken by the governor for what he, by then, was--a respectable citizen, a pillar of a young, growing economy and a war hero who had lost his eye in the battle of Pea Ridge, Ark.
In any event, Towner was elected by his colleagues as chairman of the commission organizing the vote on a new county, and succeeded in uniting the politicians of the towns of Orange, Anaheim and Santa Ana--who had been squabbling over which community would become the county seat--long enough to stage Orange County’s first election. (Anaheim residents feared losing power to Santa Ana, with its three times larger population of 3,600.)
In the end, fewer than 3,000 citizens voted, but they approved the creation of the county by a 5-1 margin, and picked its first leaders, including Towner as Superior Court judge.
And so it came to pass that on June 4, 1889, the inhabitants of the southeastern end of Los Angeles County, mostly grouped around the excitable hamlet of Santa Ana, voted to secede, fulfilling the requirements of a bill that had cleared the state Legislature some three months earlier, largely as a result of bribes paid by resourceful Santa Ana merchants and farmers.
The best source on just how much the Legislature’s vote cost is still a 50-year-old University of Southern California master’s thesis by William W. Wieman, who was told by Santa Ana grocery store owner George Edger: “Hell, yes, we bought this county from the state Legislature for $10,000, and I went out and raised the money myself in two hours and it was a rainy morning at that.”
Estimate May Be Low
The Edger quote is now part of unquestioned Orange County folklore, but Wieman notes that Edger’s remark was made in an interview 35 years after the event and the old man’s estimate was probably low.
Later generations might not approve bribing the Legislature, but hustling government authorities has always been a favorite pastime in a county dependent upon real estate lawyering from the earliest subdivision of the Spanish land grants to the current pleading for zoning variances. In fact, the main argument for separating the County of Orange from Los Angeles County was that citizens could gain local control of the law.
Whatever the price, the Santa Ana lobbyists accomplished just that, creating a new Board of Supervisors and new courts while presenting their L.A. rivals with a fait accompli. The Los Angeles papers, including this one, opposed the secession, but in the end they bade farewell to what the Herald called “our wayward sister.”
There was some grumbling, but Orange County is by Western standards small--785 square miles--and most people in Los Angeles did not seem to notice their southern neighbors’ secession. What would one day be one of the hottest real estate markets in the world slipped out of their hands without much of a fight.
For the secessionists, the reasons for parting were clear and have a contemporary resonance. They were being taxed to help solve L.A’s problems, which they felt were not their own. And they hated the commute required to go complain about it. A trip on the once-a-day train to the Civic Center was costly ($2), lengthy and uncertain, and the more hectic life of the emerging metropolis had little they wanted as compensation.
In their southern colonies and small agricultural plots, they had ample work and commerce. And, as is still true today, when their hamlets grew too large, they moved further away from Los Angeles to even more rural residences.
Nevertheless, they were not hicks. From its first days, Orange County provided a model of modernization without urbanization. During most of its 100 years, the county has been plugged into the latest in scientific agriculture and transportation, even if artistic amenities were for a long time considerably less in evidence.
For excitement and escape, then as now, even relative sophisticates like Towner seemed drawn in their leisure hours to the wooden beach houses of Newport rather than to the attractions of teeming downtown Los Angeles. One of the few surviving photos of Towner depicts him, thin and serene in a proper two-piece bathing suit, in front of one such beach house, gazing out at the Pacific Ocean.
The first act of government, as described by county historian Jim Sleeper, was the sound of a deputy sheriff’s voice bellowing out in Towner’s law office, “Hear ye! Hear ye! The Superior Court of Orange County is now in session for the transaction of business.”
In his lively book on this period, Sleeper provides evidence that Towner, whatever his libertine social theories, and although a Democrat in “the sovereign Republican County of Orange,” was a tough law-and-order man.
The first felony conviction in the county was leveled by Judge Towner against the hapless Modesta Avila, “whose livelihood,” Sleeper wrote, “depended more on her charms than her wits.” Other historians regard Avila as a more heroic figure, who challenged the right of the Santa Fe railroad to run near her house. For the crime of spreading her laundry on the tracks and delaying a train, Towner sent Avila to San Quentin on a three-year stretch, where she died two years into her sentence.
But the judge was evidently not tough enough for the vigilantes who performed California’s last lynching, in 1892, rather than wait for him to return from a trip and try the murder case of one Francisco Torres.
In a portrait of the county’s leading newspaper editor of the time, Sleeper quotes his editorial, which essentially condoned the lynching, replete with the prevailing racism of the time:
“Torres was a low type of the Mexican race, and was evidently more Indian than white. True to his savage nature, he had no more regard for human life than for the merest trifle. The sooner such savages are exterminated the better for decent civilization.”
This example of an impulse for tough law and order to end in racism was not uncommon in the county’s history, which has been marked by a pugnacious provincialism, and by a desire to avoid the turbulence of the larger American culture by excluding the nation’s “problems” and “problem groups.”
The reign of the Anaheim klan is one example. In 1924, candidates sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan swept the municipal elections in Anaheim. The klan presence would extend throughout Orange County for the next decade, but the immediate effect in Anaheim was to send this growing citrus-trade town into an economic tailspin for a quarter of a century.
And it is still recalled as a major event. In a recent interview, Raymond Watson, Irvine Co. vice chairman, mentioned the klan legacy as a reason that blacks were not attracted to Orange County at the time he helped create the city of Irvine in the early 1970s. And Richard O’Neill, one of the county’s largest landowners and a leader of the Democratic Party, cited “the klan years” as a source of Orange County’s rightist image.
As often afterward in the county’s history, provincial preoccupation collided with modernizing forces to leave the area torn between its images as a reactionary backwater and a more cosmopolitan business center.
UC Irvine Report
This tension was outlined in a massive UC Irvine report by Leonard Moffitt in 1967. The campus was then in its infancy and its first chancellor, Daniel Aldrich, commissioned the study, circulated internally, to assess the temper of the community in which the school would operate. What emerged was a history of a society that moves inevitably toward urbanization while just as continuously resisting it.
Moffitt cited the Anaheim klan experience as an important manifestation of that contradiction: “In this milieu of growth expectations, Anaheim’s population doubled between 1919 and 1924. Businessmen had reason for optimism. BUT! Just when they had their first industrial concern lined up to come to Anaheim, something happened to make it locate elsewhere. Something happened which sent Anaheim into a quarter-century of stagnation.”
That something was the klan takeover. Although the klan was certainly white supremacist and restricted its membership to Protestants, it did not base its appeal on overt racism. The black and Jewish populations of the county were infinitesimal, and most of the Catholics were of Mexican origin and already living culturally apart from the mainstream. The klan, nationally, thrived on fighting against a presumed conspiracy of the powerful. It was difficult to make a case that anyone other than white Protestants had power in Orange County.
Instead, the klan turned to puritanism for its sense of moral rage and began by making a call for strict enforcement of Prohibition laws the heart of its program. It looked for Catholic conspiracies behind drunkenness and lawlessness and had a field day ballyhooing a rise in crime, despite evidence to the contrary, in cities like Fullerton, where some Catholics were in the elite.
In Anaheim, Prohibition pitted the original, often German, settlers, who were fond of their beer and wine, against newer arrivals from the Midwest who were more likely to heed the call of abstinence. The klan campaigned on this issue all over the county, but it was in Anaheim that it had its greatest success, sweeping all four council seats.
Virtually all the members of the Anaheim police force, including the chief, were klansmen. During that summer of 1924, between 10,000 and 20,000 klansmen descended on Anaheim (pop. 11,000) for the biggest klan rally ever held in the state.
“I remember hearing about how they had marched through the streets of Anaheim,” said O’Neill, the Democratic leader. “They were marching down the street and carrying rifles and guns.” If many of the marchers were from elsewhere--including the klan marching band of Santa Monica--the image of Orange County as rightist and paranoid had been cast.
The war on decadence and crime are recurring themes in Orange County life, but in the final analysis, the klan could go nowhere because it was at odds with modernization, indeed with capitalism. Prohibition could not withstand the onslaught of consumer sovereignty and it proved no more possible to police the speak-easies of Anaheim than the brothels of Seal Beach’s “joy zone.”
In a detailed dissertation for UCLA on the Orange County klan, Christopher Cocoltchos argues that klan members, like religious fundamentalists, were responding to the rapid social change in the area with a call for social rigidity. “The klan in northern Orange County sought to balance economic growth with a concern for a moral, character-developing, civic culture,” he writes, but it failed to understand that “growth, boosterism, and the drive toward a corporate economy were as much a part of the white Protestant cultural heritage as Prohibition.”
After 1924, a coalition of Anaheim’s elite and two major newspapers defeated klan candidates in election after election, but the town remained deeply divided and economically stagnant.
In the end, it was not elections but highways that changed Anaheim and Orange County. The new Santa Ana Freeway from Los Angeles was extended to Anaheim by 1951 and with it the start of a massive population and economic boom. The revival was certified in 1955 by the opening of Disneyland and was capped 11 years later by the move from Los Angeles of the California Angels, who outdrew the other American league teams in attendance during their first year.
That was when Anaheim finally realized the dream of its early boosters and surpassed Santa Ana as the county’s largest town. It was no wonder, given its history with the klan, that here, as in the rest of the county, most of the newcomers continued to be white and Protestant.
This tendency was reinforced in ensuing years as the wrenching fight over school busing in Los Angeles turned Orange County into a haven of white flight and shored up the conservative electoral base.
The conservative impulse in Orange County came early to be identified with Republicanism and in the 1920s, the GOP was getting more than three-quarters of the vote.
The Depression, which saw 15% welfare rates in the county, gave Franklin D. Roosevelt slim majorities in 1936 and ’40. But the vote has gone back to the Republicans ever since, except for Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s first gubernatorial campaign in 1975, when he was thought of as a fiscal conservative. The Democrats briefly enjoyed a majority in voter registration, but lost it when Brown appointed Edison Miller, a controversial anti-war former Vietnam POW, to the county Board of Supervisors in 1979.
Nevertheless, a number of serious academic studies have demonstrated that the county’s historic conservative electoral reputation is too simple a formulation. Liberal Republicans often did better than conservative ones. For example, Earl Warren in 1950 received three-quarters of the vote for governor and Dwight D. Eisenhower got nearly 70% in 1952, but Barry Goldwater, leader of the conservative movement, took only 55.8% in the 1964 presidential election. And in the 1950s, Orange County had a fairly moderate delegation to Sacramento.
Ideological contradictions, however, run deeper than is indicated in election results. The county has been “conservative” on taxation and on government spending for everything but freeways, but it is also often “libertarian” in its opposition to the public regulation of private morality.
These contradictory tendencies were summarized in the 1967 study commissioned by former UC Irvine President Aldrich, with particular reference to the Santa Ana Register (now the Orange County Register), which strongly espoused libertarian ideas.
“While some conservatives demand an escalated war in Vietnam, the Register prints editorials critical of the draft. While some conservatives carry ‘Support Your Local Police’ bumper stickers, the Register objects to government police supported by taxes. While some conservatives demand vigorous public support of morality, the Register recoils in horror at the thought of morality via legislation or administrative decree. While some conservatives want to preserve a small-town environment through city planning, the Register denounces zoning as outright socialism.”
The Register has since mellowed in its objection to virtually all government activity and now refers in its news stories to “public schools” instead of “the taxpayer-supported schools” as it once did. But last year its editorial page editor could still shock an Orange County Young Republican gathering by advocating the legalization of drugs at a time when the Republican Administration had made the war on drugs one of its key programs.
Conservatism, in the sense of preservation of rural, small-town values and certainties along with resistance to government intrusion, particularly from the federal government, has always struck a sympathetic chord in Orange County. But from the example of Towner and the Townerites on through the editorial policies of the Register it has also exhibited a libertarian preoccupation with individuality.
During most of the county’s history, these two tendencies seemed to coexist harmoniously enough. But, as the study for Aldrich documents, there were periodic breakdowns. The Ku Klux Klan experience, in the 1920s and ‘30s, was one example. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the John Birch Society proved to be another. And as with the klan, the Birch Society developed in resistance to the prospect of rapid economic and social change.
The dominant fact of life in the county since 1951, when the Santa Ana Freeway from Los Angeles came through, has been rampant growth--the growth of population, roads, factories, churches--you name it. And, once again, the tension between a desire to ride in the fast lane and the perceived need for a sturdy moral safety belt asserted itself in the form of another far-right political movement.
This time it was the Birch Society, which at its peak elected a congressman and had at least 6,000 members locally.
During that period, massive migration into the county--largely Midwestern Republicans, Southern Democrats and white-flight refugees from Los Angeles--reinforced the conservative trend. It was a time in which the county’s still-dominant agricultural base was being overwhelmed by suburban sprawl and during which housing tracts replaced lima bean fields and citrus groves. But prosperity, a largely homogeneous middle-class white population and relative security seemed to once again provide fertile ground for extremist movements.
The first target of the John Birch Society was a little-known school trustee in the Magnolia School District who was host to a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1955. As a result, three recall elections took place, and The Times reported that “soon the entire school district wobbled at the mere mention of the words ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate.”
This was the time of John G. Schmitz and Robert Peterson, who developed national reputations for being tough on communism, though the hunt for “reds” in Orange County was limited by a lack of game.
Peterson won the 1966 election for county superintendent of schools--a position he still holds--by capitalizing on a reputation developed through his tough-sounding courses on communism at Santa Ana College.
Schmitz was a Marine Corps captain at the El Toro base who parlayed lecture circuit appearances on the red menace into a political career as a state senator and later became a one-term U.S. congressman.
But with the erosion of the Cold War as an emotional organizing point for the right, once again external events overwhelmed local provincialism. This began in earnest with Richard M. Nixon’s visit to, and subsequent recognition of, Communist China in 1972. Nixon, who came from nearby Whittier, had impeccable conservative credentials, but his actions threw the John Birch Society, which was named after an early victim of Red China, into a tizzy.
Schmitz denounced Nixon’s trip to China as a betrayal and suggested that he stay there. Nixon returned the favor by finding a successful opponent for Schmitz’s congressional seat.
Eventually, as in the past, the extremists seemed to self-destruct. Schmitz, who had returned to the state Senate, became embroiled in enormously untidy domestic disputes and is once again a community college teacher, out of office and power.
In the post-Birch years, conservatism came to be identified almost exclusively with the much more centrist and solid figure of Ronald Reagan, who launched both of his successful presidential campaigns from Orange County. Nor did Reagan’s moderating of his domesticand foreign policy agenda, including his opening to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in any way mitigate his popularity here. The county seems periodically willing to cock an ear and even a respectful glance towards extremism, but quite easily settles back into moderation.
The distance between a Schmitz and a Reagan is comparable to that between the klan and the Anaheim business elite in an earlier period. And the question persists as to which represents the true conservative impulse that so heavily marks the Orange County experience.
Recently a group of scholars at UC Irvine and other California universities prepared a detailed study on the social transformation of Orange County since World War II, to be published next year, which, in part, attempts to answer that question. They emphasize that a persistent modernizing tendency has always been at odds with the traditional conservative impulse.
But now the modernizing tendency has become a full-blown embrace of a new economic syndrome; the information economy, dominated by multinational corporations with few regional ties, in which Orange County is a national leader. The UC Irvine School of Management boasts that Orange County “has the highest concentration of high-tech companies in the nation.”
A hundred years ago, when Towner arrived in Santa Ana from the far more cosmopolitan East, it was relatively easy to forget all of the wild new ideas he had encountered there. Settling into a secure and cohesive agricultural village, he could quickly absorb its prevalent values, which were then clearly defined.
Nowadays, however, the center of life in Orange County is represented by John Wayne Airport, which is undergoing a massive expansion, and the new office buildings and hotels that surround it make up the ever-changing village.
The county has become what UC Irvine historian Olin, in his chapter of the forthcoming campus study, calls “an epicenter for global capitalism,” in which the “small-scale farmers, local merchants, and manufacturers who previously wielded economic and political power” have been displaced.
This information economy attracts an increasingly sophisticated and often foreign-born work force. Its members owe their allegiance to a company that can whisk them and their families off on short notice to another branch thousands of miles away. This new milieu is not one that easily sustains provincial, conservative values and, as a result, contradictions continue to tug at Orange County’s political soul.
Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this report.