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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Personal Influences : Swedish Rhapsody

October 16, 1988|LESLIE BERKMAN | Berkman is a Times business writer

The saga of four generations of Segerstroms--immigrants, laborers, farmers, developers, movers and shakers, friends of royalty, patrons of the arts.

Last April, the king and queen of Sweden came to Orange County to see Disneyland and visit the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a Swedish immigrant family that made good. So good, in fact, that the clan was introduced to King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia in a performing arts center with a main hall named for the family. And the royal visitors were the descendants' lunch guests at a private dining club in a commercial, industrial and office complex in Costa Mesa on land upon which the family once grew lima beans.

Today the Segerstroms--the family on friendly terms with Swedish royalty--find their name linked as patrons of the internationally renowned sculptors whose works decorate the grounds around the six high-rise office buildings of Costa Mesa's Town Center.

The Segerstroms developed those high-rises, including the 21-story, granite Center Tower--Orange County's tallest and probably most prestigious office building. And they are the creators and owners of South Coast Plaza, one of the most profitable and fashionable retail centers in Southern California. But glamour and affluence have come to the family only in the last few decades.

If my grandfather saw his family having lunch with the king and queen of Sweden, he would have been awed by the whole thing. It is sort of like a movie--something that could only happen in a script," says Ruth Ann Moriarty, granddaughter of Charles John (C.J.) Segerstrom, who in 1882 emigrated to the United States.

Moriarty, the history buff of the family, says that when C.J., his wife Bertha and their three eldest children arrived at Castle Garden, N.Y., after a stormy 14-day ocean voyage, they did not bear the Segerstrom name. Charles, born the son of Gustav Adolph Segerstrom, registered with the immigration authorities as Gustafson, the name that also was recorded on the boat passenger list, Moriarty says. (A common practice in Sweden at the time was for a son to add "son" to his father's first name to make a last name, hence, Gustaf-son.)

Sometime after their arrival, she says, the family changed its name back to Segerstrom. However, her brother Henry Segerstrom contends that the family's name never was Gustafson, pointing to an early family history and affidavit by his grandmother that referred to his grandfather as C.J. Segerstrom.

For 16 years, the young Segerstrom family lived in the Midwest, moving from Chicago to Prentice, Wis., to St. Paul, Minn., where C.J. was a railroad worker.

Life was hard. In later years, the eldest Segerstrom son, Charles, reminisced about how rain would drip through the roof of the Segerstrom house and how on one Fourth of July his father gave up his last dime to buy fireworks. Another son, Eric, would often tell his children about how, as a 3-year-old in Wisconsin, his fingers would bleed from pulling prairie grass that would be burned for heat.

In 1898, lured by reports from C.J.'s younger brother Henry, a bachelor living in Los Angeles, about greater opportunities and a more pleasant climate in the West, the Segerstrom family moved to Orange, where they leased 20 acres to grow apricots. Orange County's population at the time was only 15,000.

Then one day, while out in his wagon, C.J. Segerstrom saw what he wanted--land flat enough and rich enough to grow just about anything. It was located in an unincorporated area that now is part of Costa Mesa but then was called Greenville.

By then, the Segerstroms' 11th and last child, Harold, had been born. In all, there were five daughters and six sons.

The two eldest sons, Charles and Eric, stayed with their uncle in Los Angeles and later moved north to Sonora, where they made their marks in banking and the title insurance business. Charles, a lawyer, struck it rich in gold and tungsten mining. When he died in August, 1946, businesses in Sonora closed for two hours to show their respect.

The rest of the family leased and later bought 40 acres of fertile land in what is now Costa Mesa, where they raised alfalfa to feed cows and established a dairy. In time they bought a second dairy where South Coast Plaza now stands and increased their farm holdings to 2,500 acres. In 1915, they built the two-story farmhouse that still stands on Fairview Road next to the Segerstrom business offices constructed in 1962.

A family partnership was formed by all the male Segerstroms living on the Orange County farm, including C.J. and his sons--Anton, Harold, Fred and William. The latter two lived on the farm and remained bachelors. Anton and Harold raised families in Santa Ana and commuted daily to the farm.

While the men worked in the fields, the housework and cooking were handled by Bertha and the four daughters who never married: Christine, Ida, Clara and Ann.

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