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Old Towne Changes Hit Home for 91-Year-Old

June 04, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When Ollie Kurtz moved into her house on Harwood Street in Orange as a 23-year-old newlywed, there was no gas, no electricity and no sewer system. Kurtz cooked on a wood-burning stove. At night she and her husband, Neale, lit kerosene lamps. And out in the back yard was a cesspool.

The year was 1919. The street out front was dirt, there were no sidewalks and the Kurtzes' 1910 Craftsman-style house eight blocks from the downtown plaza was on the edge of town.

At 91, after 69 years under the same roof, Kurtz has seen a lot of changes in what is now called Old Towne Orange.

Housing prices, for instance.

Kurtz doesn't remember the selling price of her two-bedroom house with a screened-in sleeping porch. But, she recalled, "they said we could have this house and two lots for $500 down and $15-a-month payments. My father just nearly had a fit to think we would pay that much money to buy a house."

Kurtz, who worked in a packinghouse packing and grading oranges before she got married, had managed to save $500. "I had $500, and my folks gave me a hundred dollars, and Neale's folks gave him a hundred dollars," she said.

If a $15-a-month house payment sounds sublime, consider that at the time Neale Kurtz was making $15 a week working in a tire shop vulcanizing tires. "When we got married they raised him to $18 a week," Kurtz said. "And we didn't work just five days a week; we worked Saturdays too."

Kurtz and her two daughters and sons-in-law--Ethel and Richard Burnette and Evelyn and Arnold Brown--were gathered in the living room of the old family home one afternoon to reminisce about the days when Old Towne was a lot younger and so were they.

Sitting in her favorite easy chair in the dimly lit living room, her cane at her side, Kurtz remembered the old days, a time when "everybody knew everybody's business but their own."

Kurtz, who wears hearing aids and is partially blind due to glaucoma, still takes short daily strolls up and down the block. She knows a few of the newer neighbors. But it is not like the old days when all the women on the block would be in their back yards every Monday--wash day--to hang up their clothes on the line and gossip with one another. Tuesdays, trash-burning day, they would pick up where they had left off on Monday.

Kurtz was born in Buena Park in 1896. When she was 6, she and her parents moved to a ranch in Olive (now part of Orange) where they grew oranges. A graduate of Orange Union High School, Kurtz did not go back to work at the packinghouse after she got married and began raising her family.

After working in the tire shop, Neale Kurtz worked at a rock crusher in nearby Santiago Creek. In the Depression, he started his own orchard pest control company, which he ran out of their home. That, Ollie Kurtz noted, is when they got their first telephone.

Over the years, she and her husband put in a fireplace and walled in the screen porch in back, but it is still basically the same house she moved into.

Kurtz, whose husband died in 1961, acknowledged that it does seem like a long time since she moved into the house.

"But I'd hate awful bad to move," she said. "I never did want to move. . . . The people were all friendly, basically, on this street."

Looking back, Kurtz remembered when a barley field and orange groves were in the block south of the house and she and Neale could tell who was coming down the street by each car's distinctive sound.

Growing up in the old house during the '20s and '30s, Brown and Burnette have many of their own memories.

"The most vivid thing I can remember is the 1933 Long Beach earthquake," Brown said. "We ran out the back door."

"I remember running back and seeing a rocking chair that was just rocking back and forth," Burnette said.

"I can remember most everybody had chickens," Brown said.

The Depression made a lasting impression on the two sisters. It was a time when their mother took in washing and boarders to earn extra money.

"She raised canaries one time," Burnette recalled.

"I think Pop found a job at 25 cents an hour digging a ditch," Brown said. "Everybody had their own garden. I think that's what kept us going through the Depression: gardens and the chickens."

As her daughters talked, Kurtz sat quietly and listened.

When they stopped, Burnette leaned forward and asked her mother, "Does anything else stand out?"

"Oh, I don't know, there's so many things that I loved," said Kurtz, her voice trailing off.

"Well," she said finally, "I'm glad I lived here, and I'm glad I've known the people I have known, and I often think about people that used to live here, whether they're alive or dead. But when you get to be 91 years old. . . ."

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