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Richard Buffum

Father of Orange County Loses Some Mystery

February 22, 1987|Richard Buffum

The first mayor of Anaheim, Maj. Max Strobel, elected in 1870, was a colorful and mysterious man in many ways. The mystery has been heightened because nobody around the contemporary city, or the entire county, knows what he looked like.

The other day I had a conference phone call from Opal L. Kissinger and Elizabeth J. Schultz. I could tell they were excited about something. Between them, they tumbled out the story of the only known likeness of Strobel, a portrait lithograph, which has been hanging in a house in Fresno. It was in the possession of a descendant of Strobel.

Kissinger, who is curator of the Elizabeth Schultz Anaheim History Room in the public library there, drove to Fresno to obtain a copy of the picture owned by June Hord. Hord also furnished a Strobel family history, with many previously unknown facts about the major's swashbuckling life.

The portrait will be formally presented to the local history room by Hord at a ceremony on March 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. Then, at long last, the people of Anaheim will see a likeness of their first mayor and the man who led the first charge to separate from Los Angeles County, a battle taken up by others that eventually led to the creation of Orange County in 1889.

That year, on Aug. 1, Santa Ana rejoiced with parades, oratory, band music and fireworks. A great day it was for Santa Ana, chosen as the county seat, and also for the town of Orange, the name-giver.

The celebrating was somewhat less in Anaheim. As the oldest settlement in the townships that had seceded from Los Angeles County, it had been the metropolis of this region since 1857.

A group of Germans from the Rhineland and Hanover had established Anaheim as a highly successful farming colony. Its vineyard, a cooperative venture, had been the largest in the world, according to the late Idwal Jones of Laguna Beach, who is still regarded as one of the nation's greatest writers on wine.

Jones records that Maj. Maximilian Franz Otto von Strobel was in 1872 the editor and publisher of an Anaheim newspaper, "The People's Advocate," in which he had fostered the plan for a new county. The paper lasted only two years.

"But something had jammed, Destiny had slipped a cog. A malady of the grape, so little known that it was nameless, had withered in two seasons the glory of Anaheim's vineyard. But the colony had recouped at once by dividing it into building sites and orange groves. The era of the orange had started in Southern California, and the fruit was more profitable than the grape. These were changed times, but Anaheim had still its old prestige; it was still the metropolis," Jones wrote.

The new county that Strobel had plotted to see created was to be called Anaheim, with the old town as its capital. Strobel, of an aristocratic family in Bavaria, had turned up in Anaheim in 1865. A soldier, engineer, cartographer, linguist and orator, he was, in short, a man of parts. Before coming to Anaheim, he had joined John C. Fremont, and in buckskins had come West in Fremont's second expedition. He served with the fiery, unprincipled crusading editor William Walker of San Francisco as an insurrectionist in Nicaragua, saw the burning of Grenada, was arrested after Walker's defeat and abandoned a military career.

Among Strobel's many other ventures, he was involved in the development of the Brea Oil Field.

His last act was in London, where a syndicate agreed to buy from him as agent of James Lick (of the Lick Observatory) the island of Santa Catalina. His share of the asking price would have made Strobel a rich man. Lick had bought the island in 1867. But on the morning Strobel was to receive the check, he was found dead in his Threadneedle Street hotel. He was 46. The year was 1873.

His name and his appearance slipped into oblivion. He was barely mentioned by the new county's celebrants in 1889.

Now, you can understand why Kissinger and Schultz were thrilled over their find. The appearance of the father of Orange County has been resurrected.

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