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Pitcher Park and Old Towne: Windows Into Orange’s Past

<i> Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Whether you’re talking about year-old parks or century-old buildings, the city of Orange is Pitcher perfect.

Noon to 1: Pitcher Park is only three city lots, but it combines an arboretum, honey house and fire-and-farm museum. Laurence and Alice Pitcher donated the property to the city in 1988; Laurence’s parents originally purchased the property in 1912. The Pitchers’ barn and honey house were rebuilt before the park was dedicated in December, 1992.

There were improvements: The barn, which houses the museum, originally had an inch of space between the boards.

“It was a real real barn,” noted city recreation supervisor Pam Doss.

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The museum’s highlight is the 1907 hand-drawn ladder wagon; farm implements include a chicken grinder, margarine molds and a mousetrap designed by Laurence Pitcher. (Did you know it used to be illegal to sell margarine yellow? It’s naturally white.) Also displayed is a vintage missive intended to attract people to Orange: “six churches, no saloons, no slums, no poor people (and) all work who want to.”

The Orange County Beekeepers Assn. actually processes honey at the honey house. The Pitchers’ own honey extractor has more than 10 times the capacity of the modern machines there. Honeys can have strikingly different tastes and colors depending on the type of flowering tree near the hive. Among honeys recently available for tasting at the honey house were tupelo, buckwheat, macadamia, mesquite, ironbark, eucalyptus and star thistle. Leatherwood seemed bitter, avocado was heavenly, toyon was tart: “Not like honey at all, is it?” Doss said. A popular store-bought brand tasted dreadfully generic by comparison. (Artificially flavored honey sticks, including licorice, cinnamon and sour raspberry, were two for 25 cents; honey bears filled with local honey were $2.25.)

The park grounds boast old-style street lamps, stone tables inset with checkerboards, and 33 kinds of rare plants, mostly fruit-bearing trees such as cherimoya, guava, coffee, olive and loquat. There’s a huge banana tree and a 100-year-old pomegranate. You can see the smooth limb Laurence Pitcher grafted on to the ancient avocado trees. Orange’s green parrots feast on the park’s pecans.

Another fixture at the park, and also green, is Iggy, a 4 1/2-foot-long iguana with a humongous dewlap. Iggy, who comes to the park with owner Kurt Savage for about an hour each day, hopes to break into the movies. According to Savage, he’ll accept any role for a large iguana.

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1 to 1:45: For a perfect picnic at Pitcher Park, pick up a sandwich at P.J. Mead Books and Coffee. Or eat on P.J. Mead’s patio. The mural on the side of the restaurant recalls Seurat--you know, “Sunday in the Park With George”? Or eat inside and browse among the new and used books for sale.

Used hardcover and paperback books are half the original price, but they sold me a ‘70s hardcover that didn’t have a price for $1. (Fans of the Yaqui way of knowledge might say Carlos Castaneda’s “Journey to Ixtlan” is priceless anyway.)

For coffee, there’s a variety of espresso drinks (single, $1.25 to $2.50) and syrup-flavored steamers (starting at $1.50).

In addition to bagel turkey or tuna melts ($3.50), half a dozen sandwiches are offered at lunch, half of them vegetarian. Mediterranean Wrap ($4.50) has artichokes hearts, cucumbers, sprouts, tomatoes, onions, kasha and feta cheese wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla; a slice of turkey was added for 50 cents. Fresh baked muffins and crumb cakes are $1.25.

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In the gift shop are candles, teas and Orange Old Towne Preservation Calendars ($10).

1:45 to 3: Then go see the heart of Old Towne Orange, the Plaza Historic District, for yourself. The four-block commercial area is listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings; start at the Plaza loop and public park. (You can pick up a map at 326 E. Almond St., Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Lift your eyes off the street level and up to the cornices.

One of the most elaborate cornices in the area graces the Edwards Block (101-123 N. Glassell St.), built in 1905. The brick Schirm Bakery (114 N. Glassell St.) building opposite was erected in 1886, but it’s obviously been redone. You’ll recognize the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. (154 N. Glassell St.) offices, built in 1931, because the name is spelled out in brick; nearby (160-162 N. Glassell St.) is a spectacular frieze of sculpted lions.

The Ehlen and Grote Building (108-126 S. Glassell St.) has a cast-iron cornice and an advertising mural--"Owl Cigars 5"--in the alley south of the structure.

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The Elks Building (201-211 E. Chapman Ave.) was originally built for the Orange Odd Fellows, who couldn’t afford it. It’s the tallest building in the area and--oddly enough--it features Moorish designs.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

3-HOUR TOUR

1. Pitcher Park

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204 S. Cambridge St.

(714) 744-7272

Grounds open daylight hours. Honey House and Orange Fire Museum open first Sunday of each month, noon to 3 p.m.; tours for groups of 10 to 40 by appointment.

2. P.J. Mead

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135 S. Cambridge St.

(714) 997-5036

Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

3. Plaza Historic District

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Self-guided tour begins at Orange Plaza Park

Corner of Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street

(714) 744-7272

PARKING / BUSES

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Parking: There is street parking at all locations, and free parking in lots behind each quadrant of Orange Plaza.

Buses: OCTA Bus 54 runs east and west on Chapman Avenue; Bus 53 runs north and south on Glassell Street.

* Times Line(tm): 808-8463. To hear brief capsules of other “3-Hour Tours,” call TimesLine and press * 7150


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