History of the Orange County Historical Society

For nearly a century, the Orange County Historical Society (OCHS) has been a vital historical resource and an important part of the community. The Society was incorporated on May 28, 1919, “for the collection and preservation of all materials relating to the history of…Orange County; also for the discussion of historical subjects and for the mutual improvement of all its members…”.

The first meeting was held a month later, on June 26, 1919. The original directors were prominent civic leaders of the young county: Samuel Armor, one of our first county supervisors; H. Clay Kellogg, civil engineer; Nellie P. Tedford, Santa Ana civic leader and library trustee; Charles C. Chapman, citrus pioneer and philanthropist; Samuel M. Davis, lawyer and former O.C. District Attorney; and Dr. John L. Dryer and Dr. Charles D. Ball, physicians.

Dr. Ball was elected President, a position he held until 1934. Historians William McPherson and Terry E. Stephenson then traded the position of president back and forth until 1946.

The Society published several valuable volumes in those early years, including the Orange County History Series which contains some of the finest papers presented to the Society. The 1931 and 1932 editions were printed by the famed Fine Arts Press of the Santa Ana High School and Junior College. In 1939, a third volume appeared featuring additional, original research.

During its first few decades, OCHS was contacted to assist with the interpretation of archaeological sites, the planning of rancho-style fiestas, the organization of parades, and all manner of activities that involved or reflected local history. The Society even successfully petitioned the federal government to rename Sugarloaf Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains as Pleasants Peak, in honor of pioneer and Society member “Judge” J.E. Pleasants.

Speakers at the Society’s meetings included such luminaries as John P. Harrington, famed linguist and ethnologist; Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, who restored Mission San Juan Capistrano and led the way to the preservation of California’s Missions; Don Meadows, noted historian and biologist; Dr. F. W. Hodge, Director of the Southwest Museum; and Terry Stephenson, the editor of the Santa Ana Register and the eminent Orange County historian of his time.

The Society originally met at the Santa Ana Public Library and then at the Ebell Clubhouse. They also frequently convened at historic sites such as the Modjeska home and the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano. However, the hope was to find a permanent home for the organization, beginning with a failed attempt to purchase the McFadden House in Santa Ana.

That dream materialized when Society members Charles and Ada Bowers created a trust that left their home and their other assets to the City of Santa Ana to provide for a local museum. The trust stipulated that the Charles W. Bowers Memorial Museum was first and foremost to be a local history museum, that the Society should “be permitted to assist in the furnishing of displays, furniture and fixtures of the building,” and also that the Society be given “free use of the building for their meetings” in perpetuity. OCHS held their meeting at Bowers from October 1933 (two years before the museum opened to the public) until the early 2000s.

With the coming of World War II, few people had time for the Historical Society, and many of the early members had passed away. In 1946, the Orange County Historical Society became dormant.

The Orange County Historical Society was reestablished in 1961, with some of the original members joining newer county residents to continue the pursuit of exploring and documenting the history of Orange County. Most meetings were still held at the Bowers Museum, with annual dinners often held at the Santa Ana Elk’s Lodge. Since at least 1980, the Society’s “Season Kick-Off” meetings have been held at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar. Currently, most regular meetings are held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange.

Since its post-War revival, OCHS has hosted hundreds of speakers who have studied Orange County’s history, and some who have lived it first-hand. These diverse personalities included the likes of Glen Dawson, Joan Irvine Smith, Rev. Maynard Geiger, pioneer aviator Eddie Martin, historian Mark Hall-Patton, County Supervisor John Moorlach, Jay Johnstone of the Anaheim Angels, and architect Dion Neutra.

The Society’s roster of presidents during these same years has included such notable community figures as Judge Raymond Thompson, publisher J.J. Friis, County Recorder J. Wylie Carlyle, and eminent local historians like Jim Sleeper, Leo Friis and Esther Cramer.

Over the years, OCHS has sponsored history conferences in conjunction with California State University at Fullerton and Chapman University, as well as workshops, tours of historic sites, Orange County Fair exhibits, banquets honoring local pioneers, and treks to historic destinations. The Society also established the Terry E. Stephenson Award for outstanding work by historians, and the Friis-Pioneer Press Award which recognizes the work of student historians.

Publishing continued to be an important part of the Society’s mission, and many fine books appeared since the 1960s, including the landmark Centennial Bibliography of Orange County (1989), Don Meadows’ The House of Bernardo Yorba (1963), Wayne Gibson’s The Olive Mill (1975), and Virginia Carpenter’s Cañada de la Brea: Ghost Rancho (1978).

In 1973, the Society launched Orange Countiana, a journal of local history featuring articles on a wide variety of topics. Five volumes were published between 1973 and 1992. In 2010 Orange Countiana was revived as an annual publication, issued each fall.

Through the decades, the Society has also built a collection of historic photographs, books, and other material documenting the rich history of Orange County.

In 2010, OCHS undertook the creation of a Strategic Plan to define the Society’s direction and goals up through its centennial year of 2019. The plan calls for maintaining current traditions, getting back in touch with some old ones, and growth in new directions that will keep the Society a relevant and vital part of Orange County’s future.

But the future of the Society is ultimately dependent upon the wishes and dedication of its members. We hope you’ll be an integral part of our growth and development in the coming years.