By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
It's hip nowadays to eat organic, but the eco movement is actually old hat in Orange County. Indeed, among the county's first celebrities was a cult of vegans that called itself the Societas Fraternia but who are better remembered as the Placentia Grass Eaters.
In 1876, Englishman George Risdale Hinde told friends that "spirits" commanded him to move to what's now Placentia with his family, build a 10-room mansion in which the rooms had no corners, and import trees from across the globe. Two years later, Dr. Louis Schlesinger moved in with the Hindes, and the men created the Societas Fraternia, which they claimed "would grow to great proportions and which would be superior to any society or sect in the world." The Societas became the talk of Orange County for its peculiar beliefs. Members were restricted to a fruit-and-vegetable diet, and that food couldn't be cooked, as Hinde claimed "cooking destroys the spirit essence which prevades everything in nature." Work was frowned upon because "as nature has provided everything actually necessary for man's existence, the necessity of continual toil does not exist." Add a belief in socialism and free love, and it wasn't long before the county fathers wanted the Societas Fraternia out.
Deliverance came in the form of a dead 1-year-old, whom Societas members reputedly only fed apple scrapings. Hinde and Schlesinger were tried in court for the child's murder. The subsequent trial drew national media coverage, but a jury dismissed the charges, according to Orange County historian emeritus Jim Sleeper, because "the publicity was detrimental to Placentia's claim as a haven of health."
This didn't stop the local press from dubbing the Societas the Placentia Grass Eaters and constantly haranguing them; the Santa Ana Standard opined in 1890, "A little wholesome hanging would be good for the entire community of frauds and fanatics." As a result, the Societas largely retreated from the public eye and became even more orthodox under the leadership of a new member: Walter Lockwood, who changed his name to Thales. Although Thales finally permitted members to cook food, he forbade members to attend school, leave the mansion's premises or even talk to outsiders when selling produce grown on the Societas' 24-acre property. The cult survived until Thales' death in 1921; their mansion was torn down about a decade later, at which time the remains of dead members were found on the property.
Nevertheless, the Societas Fraternia lives on. Placentia residents insist that ghosts still inhabit the former Societas property, which is now located on the corner of Placentia Avenue and Palm Drive. Thales and Hinde introduced the macadamia tree to California and developed varieties of walnuts and loquats—the Placentia Perfection and Thales, respectively—that are prized to this day. "Their example encouraged [early Orange County] settlers to experiment with adding new foods to their diet," wrote a contributor in the 1967 collection Rawhide and Orange Blossoms: Stories and Sketches of Early Orange County, "and through their contributions to subtropical fruit culture, the Thales Colony helped pave the way for the vast subtropical fruit and vegetables industries of Orange County."