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Rebuilding Appreciation for Old Farmhouses : Preservation: Where there once were thousands across the county, there now are only a few. The modern-day residents working to restore them say tract-house owners don't know what they're missing.

November 03, 1990|CLARK SHARON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The century was 10 years old when John Cook built his home among the walnut groves of southwest Anaheim. That year Cook was one of 34,436 people living in a farming county whose population--it was boldly predicted--would someday reach 100,000.

Local farm production included everything from chicken eggs to chili peppers. Harvests of cabbage, wheat, tomatoes and apricots would reach into the millions of pounds. Among the rich bounty was the produce from 1,347,425 fruit trees representing 10 different varieties. More than two-thirds of those trees bore the county's namesake crop.

Orange County was an agricultural promised land, and Cook's two-story, Colonial Revival mansion rose like a monument near the rural heart of it.

In 1910, there were 4,783 farms spread across the fertile county landscape. Scores of farmhouses sat among the orchards and fields. Most were single-story, clapboard structures, far less grand than Cook's great keep. But they were sturdy and practical, and they fit the purpose of the land.

Eighty years after John Cook moved his wife and three children into their new home on Walnut Street, agricultural Orange County has nearly been subdivided out of existence.

Today, local preservationists estimate that as few as 90 farm homes remain intact in a county where hundreds--if not thousands--were built between 1890 and the late 1920s.

"Most of the older houses people see today are not farm homes," said Diann Marsh, a Santa Ana artist and preservationist who has surveyed 2,500 historic houses throughout the county. "The old historic neighborhoods of cities like Santa Ana were for urban dwellers. The farm homes, on the other hand, stood out in the fields and orchards by themselves."

In a sense, they still do.

With their wood construction, large front porches, sense of individual style, and mature growths of trees and landscaping, the old farm homes have become architectural oddities among the efficient sameness of the modern suburb.

That any of the houses survive is due largely to the practice of developers in the late 1940s and 1950s of retaining the old structures and building new tract housing on the land around them. Orange trees from the original groves were often left in the back yards of many of the new mass-produced homes--a gesture that preserved a slim but real link with the land's agricultural past.

No more, Marsh says.

"Today there's the new and perfect idea," she said. "That's why people moved to Irvine and cities like it . . . because it's new and perfect."

The old farmhouses that dotted the countryside proved to be an affront to modern central planning. The land was scraped clean of its heritage, and a new urban order installed.

Marsh believes that, historically speaking, the county is lucky that the planned community arrived too late on the scene to completely wipe out the old farm dwellings. As it is, she says, the surviving homes are often crowded on lots a fraction of their original size.

But if the old homes have lost space, they have gained the value of being a rarity.

Marsh says that, increasingly, "people are discovering just how special these homes are. They specifically search out the old farm residences because they want to live in a home that not only has some history to it, but character as well."

Bill Flint of Santa Ana and his wife, Barbara, were seeking just such a house when they bought their Craftsman-style farm home seven years ago.

"I always feel that if you're going to move into one of these homes, you ought to spend as much time getting to know its history as possible because you're going to be a part of that history," Flint said.

The history of Flint's farm home can be traced to 1904 and a citrus grower named Christopher Peltzes. Back then the newly constructed house was headquarters for a farm operation that probably included walnut groves as well as orange trees. Today, it is surrounded by a neighborhood of custom homes.

"Actually, the Peltzes' home for years was just about the last house on the last road out of town in this area," Flint said.

Peltzes, his wife and three children apparently lived a quiet life among the orchards of rural Santa Ana. The country idyll came to an abrupt end in 1918, however, when the family car was struck by a train at a nearby track crossing, killing all five family members.

The house sat vacant for several years after the tragedy before it was bought by Judge Ray Billingsley, one of the signers of Orange County's Charter, according to Flint's research. The judge's son, Harlowe, a carpenter, lived in the house for more than 40 years.

Flint says the house was in "fairly good shape when we bought it. We haven't done a lot of restoration to it."

One of the special attractions of the home, he says, is a tract of orange trees bordering the property--one of the county's few remaining suburban groves. Flint believes that these trees were probably planted by either Peltzes or Billingsley as part of the original farm.

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