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Celebrate! : Orange County's First 100 Years : Creating A County : The Incredible Odyssey Of The 'Father Of Orange County'

May 22, 1988|Bill Billiter

Herr Maximilian Franz Otto von Strobel--the father of Orange County--came to Anaheim in 1865 to try his hand at grape farming and wine making.

The village had been founded in 1857 by German colonists, whose name for their planned community was a mixture of Spanish and German: Ana , from the Spanish-named Santa Ana River that nourished the land, and heim , the German word for home.

The Home on the Santa Ana River.

A native of Munich, in the then-kingdom of Bavaria, Strobel's decision to settle in a German community was hardly remarkable. What set him apart from the other German colonists was his incredible odyssey before reaching the peaceful village on the Santa Ana River.

Strobel was born in 1826 and attended the University of Munich, taking a broad course of liberal studies. In 1848, he took part in a revolution that swept through most of Germany and was forced to flee Bavaria. He journeyed to England, to Canada, then to Washington, D.C., where in 1852 he secured a job as an apprentice engraver for the federal government.

In 1853, Strobel joined an exploratory and mapping expedition of what is now the upper Midwest. The expedition was led by Isaac Stevens, the governor of what was then called the Washington Territory. For some reason, Strobel had a falling out with the Stevens expedition and left, journeying south to Kansas, where he talked his way into a new exploratory trip being organized by Lt. Col. John Charles Fremont, the legendary "Pathfinder."

A journal of Fremont's fifth expedition notes that the former Army officer already had his full complement of men when Strobel approached the explorers at Shawnee Mission, Kan. Fremont said he had no need for him, but the stubborn Strobel kept talking, stressing the usefulness of his engraving skills in making maps. Fremont relented, and Strobel joined the expedition.

Events become fuzzy at this point.

Strobel apparently completed the Fremont expedition in Utah and journeyed to San Francisco. In 1855, he got caught up in the California-based schemes of William Walker, a soldier of fortune from Tennessee who had dreams of forming an American-dominated nation somewhere in Mexico or Nicaragua.

Strobel answered Walker's call for mercenaries to go with him to civil-war-torn Nicaragua. No record has been found of Strobel's rank or role in the so-called "Walker Filibuster," but Strobel referred to himself thereafter as "major." Walker allied himself with an insurgent faction, won key battles and ultimately took over as president--actually dictator--of Nicaragua. Walker and his remaining mercenaries fled in 1857 when the Nicaraguans turned on the Americans;whether Strobel left at that time is unclear.

Also during the 1850s, Strobel somehow--possibly through engineering skills learned during his University of Munich studies--ingratiated himself into Fremont's gold-mining operations in Mariposa County and gained a fraction of the mine's ownership, which he sold in 1861. That money apparently became the wherewithal for his purchase of land in the community of Anaheim.

In 1867, two years after coming to Anaheim, Strobel raised money to drill for oil. He correctly believed that a rich oil deposit was under the Brea Canyon area. But he was unable to drill deeply enough and missed the gushers found in the same area a few decades later.

In 1870, the California Legislature granted incorporation to the "town of Anaheim." The residents, still overwhelmingly first-generation German-Americans, elected their illustrious Herr Major Strobel the first mayor. And in the same year, Strobel took to Sacramento the petitions for county division he had been circulating since the previous year in Anaheim and other farm settlements of southeastern Los Angeles County.

Strobel failed in his bid to get the Legislature to vote for creation of a new county, and when his term as mayor of Anaheim was over, he moved on to other ventures.

He went to work for a land syndicate that proposed selling Santa Catalina Island to a group of British investors. Strobel sailed to London, and in early 1873 swung the deal for a then-astounding price of $1 million.

But the day the deal was to be closed, Strobel did not show up. "Search was made for him," wrote J.M. Guinn in his "Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California," published in 1902. "He was found in his room dead, dead on the very eve of success, for the sale of the island would have made him rich. Negotiations for the island were broken off by the death . . . . "

The father of Orange County died on Feb. 17, 1873, at age 47, alone and in cold, rainy London, far from the sunny land he had worked so hard to make into a separate political entity.

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