What’s the Best Orange County History Book?

I’m going to be hawking books this weekend in downtown Anaheim (corner of Anaheim Boulevard and Center Street) as part of the Anaheim Historical Society’s annual home tour—and not just my critically-acclaimed-and-reviled (more on this next week) wannabe Carey McWilliams tome. Over the summer, I came into possession of about 27 boxes of Orange County history books, everything from old Grand Jury reports to church cookbooks to two extremely rare, extremely beat-up original copies of Terry Stephenson’s Shadows of Old Saddleback, one of the most beautifully written books ever published about our fair land. After pillaging the collection for my own library, I’m left with a lot of copies of books and got to unload them somehow.

In going through the boxes and also doing the research for my own humble screed, I came across a disturbing conclusion: Orange County scholarship is severely lacking. Not so much in municipal and pioneer histories, as local historical societies have done a good job documenting nearly every city and Yorba, albeit through orange-crate label glasses. But there is no definitive history of the county as a whole within a sole book, one that treats OC as an entity as opposed to many little islands, and that’s a problem if we ever want to be taken seriously in academia.

For instance, the current Orange County history course at UC Irvine is using Pamela Hallan-Gibson’s The Golden Promise: An Illustrated History of Orange County as its textbook. In keeping with my recent promise to behave and not belittle amateur historians, I’ll politely say this book is lacking. It has a lot of purty pictures and does a good effort at tracking county life from the Juaneños up to 2002, but the analysis is horribly wrong in some parts. Hallan-Gibson, for instance, writes that not many people agreed with the views of Congressman James "Barefoot Africans" Utt but doesn’t explain how he was elected to office again and again or why his constituents replaced him with the even-wackier John Schmitz upon Utt’s death. She even claims that Utt spurred divisions between Republicans, when really it was the cavemen going after moderates such as longtime Senator Thomas Kuchel from Anaheim and Richard Nixon during his gubernatorial run that spilled any real political blood during GOP intra-party fights. Besides, it’s hard to take a history seriously when the last section is devoted to companies who paid for a write-up—and Hallan-Gibson boasts of her friendship with Sheriff Brad Gates in her history of the Sheriff’s Department.

A better book is Steve Emmons’ Orange County: A History and Celebration.

It’s the only homegrown history book I’ve encountered that mentions the sagas of Joel Dvorman and the 1936 Citrus War, two key incidents in the county's modern-day history that got a lot of coverage in its day but next to nothing in county histories (Gilbert Gonzalez's masterful Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950, about King Citrus through the Latinos that fought and sustained it, being a key exception for the latter). Like Hallan-Gibson’s book, it has a lot of pictures; like my book, it’s broken up into themes. The only real problem with Orange County: A History and Celebration is that it jumps around a bit too much—plus, Emmons made the error of misidentifying Calvary Chapel head Chuck Smith as Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Bros. animator. Nevertheless, I’d recommend this book as a great overview—plus, it’s cheap when you can find it. (Abebooks.com has it for a buck!)

Another thrifty gem is Legacy: The Orange County Story, published in 1980 by the Orange County Register (then just the Register, and remember when the paper could afford to print glossy special publications that weren’t their laughable Best of Orange County?). The writing in this commemorative edition about Orange County’s past is elegant and well-researched, with a lot of pictures and contributions from local historians. But the Register being the Register, little to no mention of any of the nasty bits of the county, even the redeemable parts like the Klan and Mendez vs. Westminster.

Really, the best overall history of Orange County is also the most fatally flawed: Orange County Through Four Centuries by Leo Friis. A former Anaheim city attorney pictured above, Friis does a great job of covering the dates and pioneers of the past, how they formed into a whole (Friis even boasts of his book being the first to treat OC as OC), with little analysis because that’s not the point of his efforts. His is the earliest Orange County book where I can find a reference for Mendez vs. Westminster (although he doesn’t call it by that name), and even mentions the county’s brief flirtations with pachucos, Jamaicans and German POWs. No Citrus War, though.

The only problem with Friis’ book is that it was published in 1965, right as South County was opening up—indeed, the book ends with the coming UC Irvine. Friis’ heirs or the Orange County Historical Society should do a much-needed addendum to his excellent history.

Three others book to note: Post-Suburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right are must-haves in any serious Orange County student’s collection, but they deal with stuff that happened after the 1950s and largely miss out on the county's formative years. And I’ve yet to come across a copy of Don Meadows’ Orange County under Spain, Mexico, and the United States—it just might supersede Friis’ effort or be one of those horrible mug-shot history books that unfortunately define too much of Orange County's past.


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