Chronicling a County's Quirks

Historian Assembles Facts, Chitchat in a Wry Almanac

December 8, 1982
Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times

Did you know that a Newport Beach ordinance once stated that "the distance between the bottom of a woman's swim skirt and kneecap must not exceed 10 inches" and that a 68-year-old man served as the official bathing suit inspector?

Were you aware that Orange County's population is greater than that of 16 states? That in 1976, 1,817 students at Huntington Beach High School set a world's record for the longest human chain of "lap sitters"? Or that there are 1,627 Indians, Eskimos and Aleutians living in Santa Ana?

Did you ever wonder when the Great Mealy Bug Infestation hit Orange County or when it rained so hard it was possible to row a boat from Newport to Santa Ana?

All this and much more is contained in Jim Sleeper's Third Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities (Ocusa Press, $5), 96 pages chock-full of facts, figures, photos, illustrations and, as the author says, "matters hitherto considered of such little consequence as to be overlooked" in previous volumes.

As in its past two incarnations, the third edition of the almanac is written in the irreverently wry manner that Sleeper fans have come to expect of Orange County's unofficial historian. (The book's dedication reads, "To Orange County's Redevelopment Agencies--who are removing local history faster than I can write it.")

The facts have been culled from Sleeper's 30-odd years as a full-and part-time historian, time spend wading through old newspapers, digging through historical documents and interviewing old-timers.

Although the book chronicles such historical "oddities" as the county's first marriage performed by a woman (Miss Bessie Mae Randall, knows as "the flapper evangelist," in 1925), the almanac's irregularity, as Sleeper says, is its greatest oddity.

Indeed, the first almanac was published in 1971, followed by a second volume in 1974.

The idea to write an almanac was inspired, in part, because of the constant phone calls Sleeper received from deadline-feverish reporters seeking the answer to some obscure point in county history such as: Where was the county's first hanging? (Two bandits in Presita Canyon, 1857.) Or: What was the hottest Sept. 14? (106 degrees in 1939.)

Actually, Sleeper admits, the almanac was written so much for the publics edification as his own. It saves time digging through his files or relying on memory when answering historical questions.

"The almanac is my Fibber McGee's closet, so to speak of what I want to remember," said Sleeper, 55, seated at the desk in the office of his Tustin home, an office filled with file cabinets, reference books, a stuffed owl, a brass spittoon and assorted other curiosities. His three dogs slept contentedly in various corners of the room.

The folksy historian, who is as unpretentious as the old tan cap he is likely to wear even indoors, also owns a cabin in an "undisclosed canyon" at the foot of Saddleback Mountain. He built it 34 years ago as a place to write.

Hundreds of Articles

"I go up there to get away from people," he said. "But I get just about as many visitors there as here. The charm is it doesn't have a telephone."

A writer since he began working as a copy boy for the old Santa Ana Independent at age 13, Sleeper over the years has churned out hundreds of historical articles and eight volumes on Orange County history, including "A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains" and "Great Movies Short in Orange County."

A former forest ranger and English teacher, Sleeper turned to full-time writing in 1970 after serving for several years as staff historian for the Irvine Co. His maiden effort as a free-lancer was the first Orange County Almanac.

"I had been contemplating it a long time." Sleeper explained. "The biggest thing I wanted to do was start chronological outline of Orange County history because people were always calling me up and I couldn't remember the dates."

"I suppose a lot of people look at me as a kind of walking file case of county curiosities."

The two sustaining features of the almanac are "The All-Time County Mercury and Rainfall Records" and the revised chronological history of Orange County (from 1789, when Capt. Gaspar de Portola led the first Spanish overland expedition through the area to 1982, when flames fanned by Santa Ana winds gutted 50 Anaheim buildings).

The remainder of the almanac, he said, "is Jim Sleeper's chitchat" on topics whose titles range Depression days and citrus labels to cooking curios and vanished wildlife.

Nature Stories

"For some reason," Sleeper noted, "what people like most are the animal and nature stories. Even the city people--particularly the city people, I guess."

Sleeper indicated that the almanac's author is among the oddities to be found in Orange County, "Anyone who can write three pages on apricot pits," he observed, "has got to be weird."

"Hopefully, anything I put in there will be of curiosity value." added Sleeper, who puts a lot of himself in his writing. "I'm kind of a kinky character who speaks his piece along the way."

Indeed, the almanac even includes a page titled "Puffs from the Ole' Almanaker, Opinions with so little merit that even the local newspapers refused to print them."

Some sample Sleeper-isms "We are all experts--especially when it comes to raising the neighbor's kids." Or, "Life's briefest moment is the time between reading the sign on the freeway and realizing that you just missed your off-ramp."

Sleeper is taking a breather now that the almanac is completed. It is available in many bookstores throughout the county and by mail order through California Classics, Box 2911, Trabuco Canyon 92678.

When he's "in gear," however, Sleeper said it's not uncommon for him to put in up to 15 hours a day writing and researching. And, like a '49er panning for gold, Sleeper still delights in uncovering new historical nuggets, many of which he gleans from old newspaper accounts.

In fact, over the years, he has indexed the bulk of Orange County's newspapers, beginning with the county's first, the Anaheim Gazette, which made its debut in 1870.

"I can't say I've indexed them all," he said. "We've had about 184 newspapers thus far, so there are a few of them I haven't done."

Sleeper maintains files on some 2,800 subjects that he researches in particular. He also has a biographical index of about 20,000 pioneer Orange County families.

"God, don't' tell that." Sleeper said, drawing on his pipe and chuckling, "people will be calling up asking the genealogy of their forebearers."

Sleeper's own roots run deep in Orange County. His grandfather, "Big Jim" Sleeper took out a barley lease on the Irvine Ranch in 1888 and later served as county assessor for 34 years.

His father, Boyd, was the first fire marshal in Santa Ana, where Sleeper was form in 1927. "Yeah," laughed Sleeper, "I'm a native daughter of the Golden West."

Having lived in Orange County for more than half a century, Sleeper obviously has witnessed dramatic changes over the years.

'Riding Backward'

'been against every one of them," he deadpanned, then grinned, "Hold the line on progress, yes. I'm like a man riding backward -- I'm more interested in where we've been than where we're going."

"I think I know where we're going anyway. That is one of the charms of history. If you're not comfortable with your current situation, you can pick out a period in history and dig in.

"Periodically," he noted wryly, "I have to step out of the 19th Century between books."

When Sleeper does step out of the past, he doesn't necessarily like what he sees around him.

"Of course, I grew up in a time with straight streets and square-cornered towns," he said. "I was down in Mission Viejo the other day, and I don't see how those people find their way home at night. Geez, it's building up down there."

Sleeper, whose wife describes him as "the last of the Victorians," said there are a number of things in the past that he misses. Street circus parades, for instance. And orange groves.

"I think the biggest change, perhaps the biggest loss, is that our towns used to be separate and distinct. They were divided by groves and fields. Each community had a distinct personality of its own and a sense of town pride. And there was a great deal of rivalry too. Now you can't tell where one town begins and one leaves off. So we are just one big town. You ask someone where they are from and they say, "Orange County."

And Orange County in the past, Sleeper believes, "was more interesting. Today we're really kind of rounded off like too many ball bearings."

"There Are So Many People"

Sleeper, whose historical research stops at WWII, finds that the first 200 years of Orange County history is much easier to cover than the last 30 years.

Not only were the towns separate and distinct, he said, but there were fewer people for a historian to content with. "Now there are so many people. The only prominent ones, of course, are the politicians. They're the only ones whose names hit the papers that anyone can vaguely identify. Hell, you don't even know your neighbors."

Because the county lacks the many colorful and individualistic personalities who populated the area in its early days, Sleeper contends that "future history is going to sound so institutional and impersonal."

"And it's hard to warm up to the products manufactured today, which are electronic components as opposed to a box of Valencia oranges."

Sleeper allowed, however, that future historians will have more than just newspapers and documents to give them an idea of the temper of our times.

Like the personalized license plate on the Cadillac he saw on the freeway: "Tustin VW." "The implication being," he said, "that the Cadillac's the working man's car in Tustin. That's an air we would not have put on 30 years ago.

Then there's the bumper sticker Sleeper saw that proclaimed, "I will give up my gun only when they pry it from my cold dead fingers--Tustin, Calif."

"Now that," Sleeper observed with a laugh, "is old Orange County."

The Historian's Task

Although he has been toiling in the county's historical vineyard for several decades now, Sleeper never grows weary of the labor.

"I think it's because they (historians) are still putting the pieces together and the aces are still showing up," he said. "The toughest thing is when you get three or four accounts that don't jibe.

It is the job of the historian to decide which is the most accurate account, he said, and "you're always filling in the blanks. The final vote is never in."

Typically, after one of his books has been published, he said, "people come out of the woodwork with lost photos, manuscripts and recollections. And you wonder at that point, 'Where were you when I needed you?' But if you waited for all the facts, you'd never get anything in print.

Sleeper, who is frequently asked to speak to history groups, plans to forgo the local "creamed chicken circuit" to promote his book this time around. Instead, he said, "I'll go out on the desert and look at cactus for a while. But I'll be back at the typewriter, I'm sure by mid-January."

Sleeper said he has "a couple of books in the hopper. Which I'll do next, I'm not quite sure." He indicated, however, that a fourth edition of Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities is on some distant horizon.

"I don't think so,' he said. "It's a nice grad bag--anything that doesn't fit anywhere else goes into the almanac."

Such as the "most venerable person ever to bask in O.C.'s sunshine." This was Mexico-born Martina de la Rosa, who died in 1933-- at the rip old age of 128.

Jim Sleeper - 1982


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