History ... as Told by Real People

Times Staff Writer

W.S. Norman remembers when Brea was “just a wide place in the road.” In a broad, rumbling voice, barely audible over the hum of the reel-to-reel recorder playing his interview tape at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History, the former oil field truck driver recalls a 1920s boom town populated by “roughnecks,” ambitious “city dads” and bootleggers.

Then, without changing the level of his steady voice, the 80-year-old moves to another subject.

“Well, the Ku Klux Klan started out and everybody started joining, so I went ahead and joined them,” he says. “The first meeting we had was in old Puente. What it was, was some rapes had happened over there, and the law wouldn’t do anything about it.”

The Klan gathered at a suspected rapist’s house, Norman recalls, without mentioning the man’s race.


“So the Ku Klux Klan turned around and put a cross on there and a lot of rope around it; put some oil on it and lit it. About a week later, we heard that he moved.”

The previous 40 minutes of tape do not prepare the listener for this casual revelation. Norman doesn’t fit the image of a rabidly racist Klansman eager to proclaim white supremacy. In this 1982 interview, you hear only nonchalance, not anger or even guilt.

Historians might explain the range of personalities that donned the hood of the Ku Klux Klan, but nothing so immediately shows it than this 7-inch reel of acetate in which a genial-sounding grandfather recalls his occasional participation.

The oral history center has preserved more than 3,000 of these voices on tape in a rich repository of anecdotes about old-time Orange County. Although it is expensive to produce these oral histories -- transcribing an hour of tape costs about $1,000 -- center director Arthur Hansen said Orange County has a particular need for an archive of reminiscences.

“The thing about oral history in a place like Orange County is that it’s like the collective memory of the area,” Hansen said. “We’ve had a mania with development here. We’re so forward-looking that the past looks like it’s in the way. We just want to raze buildings and get on with it.”

Anxious that eyewitness accounts of turn-of-the-century Orange County and its daily rhythms would soon be lost, Cal State Fullerton history professor Gary Shumway began the project in 1968.

Though other universities might concentrate on high-profile politicians, Shumway wanted the stories most in danger of being forgotten.

“We wanted to capture the voices of the common people,” he said. “We wanted to get the stories of the Japanese Americans in the camps, the citrus growers in Placentia and the Native Americans coming in with Native American urbanization” after World War II.


So while history textbooks might overlook an ordinary woman like Lena Mae Thompson, the oral history center showcases Thompson’s extraordinarily long and lucid memory of Orange.

Though she was 86 by the time local historian Phil Brigandi interviewed her in 1978, Thompson never falters as she talks about how her papa bought his first ranch on Palmyra Street for $10 an acre, how she and her siblings used to make “head cheese” from pigs, and how “hicky” barefooted people used to live in the swampy area now known as Fountain Valley.

With a voice as sassy and bubbly as old-fashioned root beer, Thompson even whoops the cheer of her Orange High School class of 1911: “Hoop gee nanegy singee sangegy sackelty, bobbelty zip boom bah! Rozzelty, dozzelty nozzelty sozzelty, 1911, Rah! Rah! Rah!”

In the interests of filling in the gaps of history, some sources even talk about subjects they find uncomfortable, such as prostitution.


Clarence Nishizu, for example, describes an excursion with his cousin to a brothel in Santa Ana. Conscious that many Japanese American histories say nothing of the mostly male population’s diversions, “he wants to be polite but doesn’t want to diminish the truth of what happened,” said Hansen, Nishizu’s interviewer.

Without using any explicit language, Nishizu talks about driving to the house in a Model T and watching his cousin hurry into a house with “a determined look and zeal.” Ten years old at the time, Nishizu says he waited in the car, confused about why his cousin was taking so long.

“I did not know what it was all about,” Nishizu says. “Finally, about 30 minutes later he languidly and placidly walked back to the car. He sheepishly said to me, ‘It cost me $2.’ ”

Such little-discussed details of quotidian life make Cal State Fullerton’s archive “like gold” to Claremont Graduate University student Dan Cady.


He said that firsthand information about the subject of his doctoral dissertation -- petroleum workers in Orange County who migrated from the southeastern U.S. -- can be hard to come by.

“They’re young, transient and rowdy,” the 38-year-old said of his subject matter. “They’re not in the profile of people who write journals or books. They’re more likely to die of alcohol-related disorders when they’re 40.”

Becky Rockwell, a private investigator for Canyon Consultants in Durango, Colo., has also made extensive use of some Cal State Fullerton oral histories. Since 1992, Rockwell has been helping former uranium miners in Utah earn $150,000 in reparations from the federal government as part of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

“There were a lot of independent leasers, sometimes called ‘tramp miners,’ who would tramp from mine to mine,” Rockwell said. “Sometimes there’s no official documentation to prove that they had been employed or that they had been exposed to radiation except for what Gary [Shumway] went out and collected.”


Unfortunately, not every voice in the collection can be heard on tape. After some interviews were transcribed, tapes were reused or discarded, said Collections Curator Stephanie George. Some tapes have started to flake or stick to themselves. To minimize wear on the collection, George said, librarians introduce patrons to transcripts first.

While they look for a better medium to store the interviews, the center’s staff hopes to make the collection more accessible via the Internet. Full texts of some of the interviews as well as an index of holdings are available at the center’s Web site,

Luckily, Lena Mae Thompson’s drawling, inimitable voice can still be played in one of the center’s back rooms.

Listening one recent afternoon to Thompson ride out vowels, scrimp on consonants and smack her mouth for punctuation, George smiled:


“I hope everyone will become as enamored of these people as I have become. Wouldn’t you rather listen to these people tell their stories than watch TV?”