FOCUS : Trees Have Roots in Placentia Grass Eaters Cult

On the surface, its an unpretentious neighborhood. Nothing to write home about. It's mostly an area of tract homes, a few small apartment complexes and a private community thrown in for good measure.

It's the kind of neighborhood where Norman Rockwell would have set up his canvas to capture towheaded boys charging down the streets on their bicycles, or a group of teen-age girls giggling and chatting as they walk home from school. It is an unaffected middle-class neighborhood where backboards sit precariously perched over garages, motor homes intermittently dot the streets and lawns are clipped weekly or biweekly by working families as time permits.

But it wasn't always that way. The only telltale sign of secrets past stands inconspicuously on the neatly trimmed greenbelt of a private residential street.

Sandwiched unceremoniously between the pool and tennis court are two macadamia nut trees documented by a bronze plaque embedded in a brick platform. They are the only living testimony of a bygone era and the existence of a colorful, mysterious cult known as the Placentia Grass Eaters.

In 1837, Spain granted 35,790 acres to Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. Through a series of transactions, the property ended up in the hands of a real estate firm, the Robinson Trust. In 1872, the trust gave one of its agents, Col. J.K. Tuffree, 662 acres as a wedding present.

Four years later, the colonel sold 24 acres of his land to George R. Hinde, the found of a religious colony which ate only raw vegetables and fruits on the theory that cooking destroys the spiritual essence of food, which they believed to be the clothing of the soul.

Legend has it that Hinde, a transplanted New Yorker, promptly set about erecting a huge, $10,000, two-story mansion in which all the members of the colony cohabited, but did not commingle. Of particular interest to lookers-on was the hulking, round turret tower. Rumor had it that all the rooms in the mansion were round, because round rooms supposedly would ward off evil spirits lurking in corners. So when Dr. Louis Schlesinger arrived from England to become president of the colony, he began to conjure up those spirits regularly and engage the group in seances and other strange spiritualist rites. It was little wonder that while they called themselves Sociatas Fraterna, the surrounding community dubbed them the Placentia Grass Eaters, and referred to them as freaks, faddists and spooks.

But whatever the townspeople thought of them in a religious context, they respected their green thumb and came from miles away to purchase their excess crops. In 1883, Walter (Thales) Lockwood, a former Shaker minister, took over both the cult and the property, and together with Hinde, began experimenting with grafting fruit and nut trees. It was Hinde who is credited with developing the Placentia perfection walnut, and the Hinde and Thales loquat also thrived in the sect's orchards.

Those two famous macadamias, which stand as a historical landmark, were the first such trees brought to California (circa 1884 by Hinde), along with litchi nut trees, so the colony could sell its produce to the Chinese community working in nearby celery fields and on the Pacific Railroad line.

Irrespective of the cult's historical savvy, the villagers still sensed there were strange goings-on within the cloistered community. And when a child in the colony died, chaos ensued.

A lawsuit was filed claiming the child had died of starvation, and rumors ran rampant that the cult surreptitiously buried its deceased members in unmarked graves by wrapping the body in a sheet, lowering it into a hole, dumping 100 pounds of quicklime over it along with some water and topping it off with fill dirt. A second suit was filed when the society not only failed to officially report births and deaths locally, but also refused to furnish pertinent information to federal census-takers.

In the final analysis, though, the townspeople could have simply sat back and let cultural evolution run its course. After all, a cult that doesn't commingle will eventually cease to mingle at all. When Thales died in 1921, the property was deeded to a woman who ran the colony with her son. However, the cult didn't prosper during the 1920's, and S. James Tuffree, an heir of the colonel's, bought the property back and demolished every one of the society's buildings in 1933. Alas, in doing so, he wiped out virtually every trace, memory or remnant of the Placentia Grass Eaters.

But life goes on. Today the neighborhood is a docile setting full of Kodak moments and Rockwellian images. But few would have ever known the folklore of the venturous vegetarians were it not for two macadamia nut trees swaying nonchalantly in the gentle Placentia breezes--as if nothing has ever happened.

Population Total: (1989 est.) 4,273 1980-89 change: +1.3% Median Age: 27.5

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino): 81% Latino: 8% Black: 3% Other: 8%

By sex and age: In hundreds MALES Median age: 27.7 years FEMALES Median age: 27.1 years

Income Per capita: $16,491 Median household: $34,212 Average household: $36,865

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 34% $25,000-49,999: 43% $50,000-74,999: 16% $75,000-$99,999: 5% $100,000 and more: 2%

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