FOCUS : Historical District Keeps Past Alive

Clipboard researched by Kathie Bozanich, Elena Brunet and Dallas M. Jackson / Los Angeles Times; Graphics by Doris Shields / Los Angeles Times

No one would exactly call him the Donald Trump of the 19th Century--much to his dismay. But Columbus Tustin did all right in the end, though he didn't think so.

With dreams of grandeur, Tustin and business partner Nelson O. Stafford left the San Francisco Bay area in 1868 and headed south to speculate on real estate. For what would be considered a paltry down payment on a home in Orange County today (roughly $20,000), Tustin and Stafford bought 1,359 acres of land from the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana estate.

The following year, the two partners split. Stafford took the western 520 acres and Tustin was deeded sole ownership of the eastern 839 acres. The Northern California transplant was finally able to put all his energy, hopes and desire into building his dream--Tustin City. He envisioned it as a bustling metropolis that would be the hub of an embryonic Orange County.

Tustin mapped out his city-to-be with the precision of a mathematician tackling a complex algebra problem. He cut his fledgling metropolis into blocks of 300 square feet. The major thoroughfare was Main Street, and the north-south roads were letters of the alphabet, while the east-west roads were numbered.

Once the blueprint was made, the next step was to draw people to populate the city. With the promotional savvy of a P.T. Barnum, Tustin sweetened the deal with an enticement of free lots to any adventurous settlers who would build on the subdivided 50-by-150-foot parcels; he generously offered an entire block for a family with four or more children. Anyone who would start a church would receive $100.

By 1872, Tustin's dream was starting to take shape. There were enough people to start a school and to establish a commercial district; Dr. William Burgess Wall initiated the citrus industry when he planted his orchards in 1875. During the next few years the community grew, until eventually Tustin felt poised to kick his little town into a big city. The key, he thought, was the Southern Pacific Railroad. But his dream was not to be.

When the dust settled in 1878 after a fierce winner-take-all battle between Tustin and Santa Ana for a train station, Santa Ana emerged victorious when Tustin couldn't match the subsidy the railroad demanded. Santa Ana became the bustling metropolis, Tustin City was the bridesmaid, and Columbus died a frustrated, bitter man four years later.

Tustin never knew that while he had reached for the moon, he had still managed to land in the stars. In the decade following his death, the little town he founded prospered. By the turn of the century it boasted the L. Utt Pioneer Store, the Bank of Tustin, a doctor's office, a horse-drawn streetcar, a burgeoning citrus industry and the Tustin Water Works. In 1888, the Southern Pacific Railroad did indeed establish a terminal there.

It may not have been the evolution Tustin had hoped for, but his little village had assumed its own identity--as a simple, honest, agricultural community. It was that identity--along with the natural artesian wells, a mild climate, scenic mountains and the rich soil--that attracted a lot of folks from Northern California and the Midwest who just wanted to be good farmers and good neighbors. The city attracted a lot of migrant workers from Mexico for the same reason.

In fact, to underscore just how progressive Tustin was, migrant farm workers studied in school alongside the offspring of the landowners, as evidenced by a class picture of 1905 displayed in the Tustin Area Museum, a centerpiece of the Tustin Historical District.

"There were a number of Mexican children who attended Tustin School," says Carol Jordan, a historian and curator of the museum. "The schools were well integrated from the beginning. And when the children couldn't come to school, the teachers would conduct class in the walnut and apricot orchards."

Today the Historical District neighborhood still maintains that ethnic balance and harmony. It has also managed to retain a small-town atmosphere, despite the post-war land boom. It is the third-oldest city in the county, and the neighborhood reflects a certain pride in its heritage. Most of the original trees and foliage remain, along with a lot of the original homes.

Some of those original homes include those of heavyweight financier David Hewes (formerly of San Francisco). His house still stands today at 350 South B St. Hewes' best friends were railroad tycoons Leland Stanford and Henry Huntington, so it is no wonder he was able to donate the golden spike that marked the joining of the transcontinental railroad. He and his wife were instrumental in building the Tustin Presbyterian Church, which still holds services.

Sherman Stevens, with partners James Irvine and Ed Utt, owner of the Utt Juice Co., developed 1,000 acres on the Irvine Ranch. Stevens' ornate Victorian-style home at 228 W. Main St. has been designated a historical landmark, and is the star of an office complex that strives to preserve the architectural integrity of the neighborhood's earlier days.

In fact, "Olde Tustin," as the neighborhood is also called, is an area with abundant historical residences and commercial buildings of all kinds. An afternoon stroll through the shaded streets provides a glimpse into the past and the well-preserved dreams of the neighborhood's forefathers.

Population Total: (1989 est.) 3,134 1980-89 change: +17.6% Median Age: 33

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino): 73% Latino: 22% Black: 1% Other: 4%

By sex and age: MALES Median age: 30.7 years FEMALES Median age: 35.4 years

Income Per capita: $14,493 Median household: $21,875 Average household: $25,113

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 57% $25,000-49,999: 33% $50,000-74,999: 9% $75,000-$99,999: 1%

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World