Hale and Hearty at 100

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The County of Orange was just 8 years old when the fledgling Board of Supervisors recorded what became known as "The Gift Munificent" in the minutes for Oct. 11, 1897.

The supervisors unanimously moved that the Irvine Co., and specifically its then-president, James Irvine II, had granted 160 acres of land in Santiago Canyon "to hold forever as a public park, subject only to such conditions as will best secure to the people all the advantages of a pleasure resort, with none of the evils and exactions that frequently accompany such privileges."

In their own ornate wording, the supervisors thus ensured for all time that entrance to this "most generous gift" would be free of charge. The park is still free to those who enter on foot, but cars must pay a parking fee of $4.

That is not expected to stop thousands of automobiles from filling the regular and temporary satellite lots this weekend when the county throws Irvine Regional Park a 100th birthday party worthy of its rich history and esteemed forebears.

Park officials thoroughly researched state records and documented that the park, which had its name changed from Orange County Park in 1928, is the oldest regional park in the state, according to Tim Miller, the county's manager of harbors, beaches and parks. It attained federal status in 1983, when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The prospect of the historic gala has thrown most longtime residents into clouds of nostalgia. The tales and memories of life in the park have flowed from families rich and poor as the centennial weekend approaches.

But the history of Santiago Canyon naturally begins long before the time when James Irvine was the largest landowner in the region.

Before its christening as Orange County Park in 1897, the land had been a source of pleasure and succor to the Gabrielino tribe, soldiers, hunters, families, bears, bobcats, coyotes and a healthy variety of the nation's most beautiful birds. The oaks and sycamores that stand there, some nearly 400 years old, have given shade to encampments of patriots from the Spanish-American War, the Civil War and wars of more contemporary vintage.

The parkland, originally part of Don Teodosio Yorba's Mexican grant of Rancho Lomas de Santiago, was dubbed "the picnic grounds" by the German burghers who settled Anaheim in the mid-19th century. James Irvine bought out the rancho in 1876. After his death, his son, James Irvine II, made his munificent offer.

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Among the more significant of the centennial's activities will be the unveiling of a larger-than-life statue that will bring even the reclusive Irvines out in public to celebrate their heritage.

Set on a base constructed of the river rock that dominates the park's structures, the bronze statue depicts James Irvine II, who was known less formally as J.I. It will stand 8 feet tall. His two beloved hunting dogs will stand on either side of the philanthropist as he raises his rifle and face to look forever eastward--toward the Santa Ana winds. The $97,000 statue, commissioned by the Irvine family, will be visible from most of the park's main attractions.

The centennial will take off from there and thousands are expected to roll under the elegant, reconstructed entry gate that also will make its debut at the party.

"This is not just Irvine Park history," Miller said of the extravaganza. "This is Orange County's history."

Few would disagree.

Long before modern roads made the park easily accessible, families would pack up their wagons and carriages and spend a good part of the day just getting there, said Don Dobmeier of the Orange County Historical Commission.

As a social scene for the new county's 20,000 citizens, there wasn't much competition.

"There weren't any Knott's Berry Farms or Disneylands at that time," Dobmeier said.

Like those more modern amusements, a vital aspect of the park's heritage is its destination as a family getaway.

Miller remembers getting into the car with his grandparents in Torrance and driving for what seemed like endless hours to reach the park before the San Diego freeway was built.

"We would come here--and this is typical--we would stay here all day long and then drive back home," Miller said. "I know from the history of this park it has been a family tradition and a very important part of early Orange County history. It has served millions of people over the years."

William T. White III, grandson of James Irvine II, said he fondly remembers cruising the park's roads in hot-rod cars with his teenage friends and helping round up cattle on the ranch when he was a child.

The centennial will bring nearly all of the Irvine descendants to the site of their ancestor's gift this weekend for the huge gala, the largest public reunion the family has ever had, White said.

"It's kind of special," said White, 57, who traveled here from his Hawaii cattle ranch for the event. "It's brought everyone together. We all realize the importance of what James has done. He was quite a philanthropist. . . . The important thing is to try and honor James for the county and the community."

The guest of honor will be James II's granddaughter Kathryn "Katie" Lillard Wheeler, the only Irvine born in the Irvine Ranch house and an established philanthropist in her own right.

White and his siblings even rifled through their attics and put together an exhibit of old Irvine photographs, which will be displayed in the park's nature center for the centennial.

The park has changed little since his youth, White said, and the well-maintained trees would undoubtedly meet James II's high standards.

"No question, he would be extremely pleased," his grandson said.

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The unspoiled nature of the park is a key to its success, according to historians and county officials.

Once a carload of residents and visitors clears the last subdivision of homes just outside the park, they are in a rugged environment. It is an urban park that manages to transport visitors to a natural setting in a matter of minutes.

The park and its buildings have not remained unchanged over the century, although the county has been very protective of the trees and natural resources.

Acres were added until it had grown four-fold to its current 477 acres. A dance pavilion burned down but the original boathouse still stands, recently painted a startling salmon color that officials frantically insisted be toned down for the big weekend.

The woodsy terrain was irresistible to Hollywood, which filmed a host of movies there over the years. Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall walked its hills for the 1943 version of "Lassie Come Home" and both "Topper" films featured Cary Grant and Constance Bennett among its trees.

Local service clubs decided in the 1920s that the park's healthy air and water would help prevent tuberculosis in the county's less hardy youngsters, so they sponsored a health camp there until the Depression drained their coffers.

Costa Mesa resident Bob Shaw, one of the 122 children who lived in the park's health camp, still recalls being dropped off to be cared for by "Mother Meagher," the camp's public health nurse.

"I know it did a lot of good for me," said Shaw, who was a 49-pound anemic when he went there. "I'm still around 68 years later!"

In 1983, the county gave the park a $5-million overhaul.

The park's small zoo, which used to be a catch-all for any animal that lacked a home, has been transformed into a true representation of birds and animals native to the county, officials said.

It is that pristine environment that will be at the heart of the centennial weekend.

"Once you get back in the park, you can't see houses, you still have that rugged setting," Miller said. "That's what Irvine gave to this county."

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