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IRVINE PARK : Once Called 'The Picnic Grounds,' Historic Area Has Had Its Share of Odd and Memorable Events

November 26, 1987|STEVE EMMONS | Los Angeles Times

It is not the typical Orange County park.

A nun was fined for malicious mischief there. Indians marauded through its oak forests (but only during working hours). A zoo evolved because of the intelligence of the wild gray foxes.

Boys went there to train for health. Men went there to train for war. Children went there to ride the train.

Confederate soldiers gathered there for a reunion. On one occasion, literally half the population of Orange County congregated there for a single, patriotic ceremony.

In 1989, Orange County will be 100 years old, but Irvine Park is already much older--if you count the years when early trespassers from Anaheim called it "the Picnic Grounds."

Irvine Park, lying in Santiago Canyon at the end of Chapman Avenue just east of Orange, has grown in recent years, nearly tripling its area to 477 acres. Its newer sections have the modern look of wide, open lawns, new trees and scattered softball backstops.

But the center of the old park remains, and its ancient oaks, boating lake, war monuments, immense barbecue pits and picnic tables still can evoke the era of pipe fitters' picnics, brass band concerts and waltzing in the moonlight.

"You're still getting a third of a million people up there every year," said Jim Sleeper, an author who specializes in Orange County history. He added:

"Now admittedly, that is down from peaks of a half-million in earlier times. We're in the backyard barbecue and TV generation now. But it's still popular, probably because it still looks old and rustic--unlike most city and county parks, which are like camping in a tennis court."

Sleeper has made it his business to know about Irvine Park. His California Classics publishing company in Trabuco Canyon, which deals exclusively in Orange County history, has just issued "Bears to Briquets--Irvine Park, 1897-1997" to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the park becoming the first regional park in California.

The county Board of Supervisors formally accepted the gift of 160 acres of parkland on Oct. 11, 1897, but the park's history as a retreat extends decades before that, according to Sleeper.

On record are the earliest initials carved into its oaks: "T.L.C. 1841." The height of the initials suggests they were carved by someone on horseback, probably a Mexican, since the area was still a Mexican province back then.

(Fifty-seven years later, county supervisors passed an ordinance forbidding such defilement of the oaks, and they meant it. In 1903, fresh initials were traced to St. Catherine's Catholic Orphanage in Anaheim, whence a tearful Sister Buenaventa was hauled to court and fined $10 for malicious mischief. The fine nowadays is $500.)

The superiority of the area that became a park over the surrounding wilderness was explained in 1876 by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Polish author ("Quo Vadis") who explored the area and wrote:

This valley, embracing about two square miles, was not so overgrown with dense and tangled vegetation as the others. It was, in fact, a Versailles garden in the wilderness, embellished with marvelous bouquets of trees and shrubs almost as though contrived by the hand of a gardener-artist.

Ownership of this plot of beauty transferred in the usual way for that period in California:

God gave it to the King of Spain (according to the King of Spain), who lost it to the Republic of Mexico, which gave it as part of a huge land grant to a spendthrift Mexican don (Teodosio Yorba), who lost it as loan security to a shrewd Yankee trader (William Wolfskill), who in failing health sold it to a partnership of four sheep ranchers, three of whom were bought out by their silent partner, a Scot named James Irvine.

In 1892, the Irvine Ranch, constituting a fifth of Orange County's territory, passed into the hands of Irvine's son, astute but shy James Irvine Jr. or "J.I.," as he was known.

"Reflecting his Scottish heritage, Irvine's frugality became legendary. . .," wrote Sleeper. "Just as astonishing were some of his extravagances. If an oak intruded upon a projected road-widening, Irvine would reroute the road rather than remove the tree. Not surprisingly for a tree-lover, the Picnic Grounds became the pride of his barony, his personal retreat and the private playground of his children."

In April, 1897, J.I. offered to donate 160 acres in Santiago Canyon for a public park. The county Board of Supervisors took advantage of this unsolicited offer by taking the Picnic Grounds, the area J.I. was so fond of. They named it Orange County Park. Thirty-two years passed before it was renamed Irvine Park.

The few conditions J.I. imposed were iron clad and reflected his frugal, abstemious disposition. He insisted that no admission fee ever be charged and no sales of intoxicating beverages ever be permitted.

These edicts have been obeyed, pretty much. Strictly speaking, the $1.25 you pay nowadays to drive into the park is a parking fee, not an entrance fee. You can walk or cycle into the park for free.

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