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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Personal Influences : Monkey Business

October 16, 1988|STEVE EMMONS | Emmons is a Times staff writer.

Joseph Edward Prentice was a teacher, lawyer, shoe salesman, horse trader, orange grower and eventually a millionaire financier who donated land for a city park--but only after officials promised to keep at least 50 simians on display there forever. And that was the origin of what is now the Santa Ana Zoo.

It isn't obvious, but Santa Ana has something in common with London, Toyko, Rio de Janeiro and Emporia, Kan.

It has a real zoo. Take the Santa Ana Freeway, turn off at First Street, and there it is--only 16 acres, but one of only three accredited zoos in Southern California.

How it got there is less a story of zoology than of Ed Prentice--teacher, lawyer, shoe salesman, horse trader, orange grower and eventually millionaire financier. His wealth, his fondness for sharp dealing, his love of practical joking--but mostly his affection for monkeys and his disaffection with Santa Ana city officials--made him one of the town's leading eccentrics.

In the 1920s, Prentice built a cage in the city's first park and put four monkeys in it, two of which soon escaped and threw the town into turmoil.

He lived in one of the city's great mansions and covered its tennis court with a 1 1/2-story cage for his pet monkeys.

He donated land for a city park, but only after city officials promised to keep at least 50 monkeys on display there forever.

He offered to donate more land and cash to expand the monkey menagerie into a large-animal zoo, but he was rebuffed. He publicly branded the City Council "knuckleheads" and wrote further public gifts out of his will.

Disappointed and disgusted, Prentice eventually moved from the city and died in Orange in 1959.

More than 20 years passed before Santa Ana, trying to gain a national image, upgraded and expanded the Prentice Park Zoo and had it accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

Does the spirit of Ed Prentice rest easily? Not according to his 43-year-old grandnephew, Joseph Robert Powell II, who still lives near the park.

The towering sign at the park's edge says "Santa Ana Zoo," not Prentice Park. "It seems like every time I go by it, I can hear him--I can feel him--going like this," Powell says, assuming a grimace of rage.

BORN DEC. 17, 1877, in tiny Sabetha, Kan., Joseph Edward (Ed) Prentice came from farmer stock. His father, Joseph Rollin Prentice, was a farmer and farm-equipment merchant who acquired Kansas wheat land whenever he could. He was building up a significant fortune, and he had the means to send Ed, his elder son, to college.

In 1896, at age 18, Ed Prentice taught school in Thayer County, Neb., for eight months. The following year he entered the University of Nebraska's college of law, and four years later he received his diploma.

During that period, he married Edith Richards, a small, frail-looking woman from Hebron, Neb., who eventually died childless at age 63. The couple moved to and from several Nebraska and Kansas towns, Prentice practicing law when he could and eventually resorting to selling shoes for a living.

It must have become plain to Prentice that riches were not waiting in a Kansas shoe store, so the couple moved to California, the well-promoted land of opportunity. After arriving in Santa Ana in 1912, he opened the Prentice Shoe Co. at 213 W. 4th St. and began looking for the path to his fortune.

With a farmer's familiarity with livestock, Prentice entered the horse and mule trade and apparently did well enough because he continued until 1924, when farm mechanization began to take hold. By then, however, he had found a more profitable use for his sharp horse-trading abilities: He began to loan money.

Prentice's mother was dividing among her six children the Kansas wheat land her late husband had acquired, but Ed Prentice told her he instead wanted money for investment in California. It appears he had it in hand by 1920, and together with what he himself had been able to save, he began a career in high-risk money lending.

"Most of the time he was loaning money to people who couldn't go to the bank and borrow it, principally second mortgages for speculators," says Jack Powell, a 75-year-old nephew of Prentice's who lives in Laguna Hills.

"So he was getting a better rate--6%, I think. You have to understand that 6% was big money in those days. The best you could get on savings was 1 1/2%."

The risks were significant. For one, "it was a lot easier to leave town and just disappear than it is today," says Powell. For another, if you held the second mortgage on a defaulted piece of property, you still couldn't get your hands on the land unless you could pay off the first mortgage. And Prentice, like his father, wanted land.

"That's why his deals were so particular," Powell says. "You see, if he was going to have to foreclose and cover first mortgages, he had to know when his money was coming back in. He was pyramiding his money and trying to make fewer but bigger loans instead of a lot of little ones.

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