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Oranges and Oil - A Fullerton History

"There is a secret in building a town," George H. Amerige wrote in 1937. "Do you want to know what it is?"

"It takes a stiff backbone, a spirit of progressiveness and determination to win out, and a disposition that can stand all sorts of criticism."

George Amerige wrote from experience: Some 50 years earlier, he and his brother, Edward, set the foundations for one of Orange County's major cities.

In 1887, George and Edward Amerige founded Fullerton.

But Fullerton's story is much older than the Ameriges. It stretches back to prehistoric times when animals such as saber-toothed tigers and mammoths roamed the land. Bones of these first inhabitants have been found in Ralph B. Clark Regional Park in northwest Fullerton.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Orange County dates to as long ago as 17,000 years, which was the age determined by carbon dating of the famed "Laguna Woman," whose skull was discovered in Laguna Beach.

These early humans gradually gave way over the centuries to a peaceful tribe of Indians who were skilled in basket weaving. They were called "Gabrielinos" after the San Gabriel Mission, under whose protection they fell. A small Gabrielino village was once located at what is now Bastanchury Road and Malvern Avenue.

No one knows how long the Gabrielinos lived in the area or why they gradually began to fade from the landscape; however, they were on hand to greet the first European explorers who entered the area in 1769. These were the soldiers of Gaspar de Portola, sent by Spain to claim the land and bring Christianity to the Indians. The soldiers passed through the Fullerton area on their way to establish the San Gabriel Mission.

Maria Ontiveros and Juan Pacifico. The land that is now Fullerton was originally part of their rancho.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
By the 1830s, the face of the Fullerton landscape began to change. The broad unfettered expanses of mustard fields and cactus became part of the vast 35,000-acre land grant of Juan Pacifico Ontiveros, a Spanish soldier.

In 1848, California became part of the United States, triggering a rush of homesteaders, businessmen, and, with the discovery of gold in 1849, miners. Ontiveros began selling his Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana land to those newcomers, one of whom was Abel Stearns, a Massachusetts native. In the 1860s, Stearns, suffering a severe financial setback, saved his land from foreclosure by subdividing and selling it.

The des Granges Homestead. Otto des Granges was one of the area's first residents, arriving here in 1873.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
One of Stearns' first customers was Domingo Bastanchury, a Basque shepherd who purchased the majority of the rancho land in what is now northern Fullerton for his own sheep ranch. St. Jude Medical Center sits on land once part of the Bastanchury Ranch.

With the advent of the 1880s, Southern California was the scene of a "land boom" sparked by the area's growing prosperity and the promotional campaigns of the railroads. It is at this point that George and Edward Amerige join the Fullerton story.

The Ameriges were grain merchants in Malden, Mass., when, in 1886, they sold their business and headed west to investigate the land boom for themselves. Arriving first in San Francisco, they worked their way south, purchasing a fruit ranch in Sierra Madre.

George Amerige,
Founder of Fullerton

(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

Edward Amerige,
Founder of Fullerton

(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)
On a duck hunting vacation to the Westminster marshes near Anaheim in early 1887, the Ameriges overheard the "locals" talking about the hot news of the day - that the California Central Railroad, a subsidiary of Santa Fe, was looking for land. George H. Fullerton, president of the Pacific Land and Improvement Co., also a Santa Fe subsidiary, had been sent west specifically to purchase land for railroad right-of-way.

The Ameriges learned that a likely site for a town was located north of Anaheim. The brothers were so convinced of the potential of the area that they sold their Sierra Madre holdings and opened a real estate office in Anaheim. They then began negotiating for the land, arranging to buy 430 acres at a cost of approximately $68,000.

Discussions next began with Pacific Land and Improvement, with the Ameriges offering free right-of-way and half interest in the land if the railroad survey were altered to include the proposed townsite. With George Fullerton's assurance that the area would be included, the Ameriges purchased the 430 acres. On July 5, 1887, Edward Amerige drove a stake into a mustard field at what is now the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, and the townsite of Fullerton was born. The appreciative community voted to name the town in honor of its benefactor, George Fullerton.

George H. Fullerton, Railroad agent for whom the city was named.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)

George Amerige - Touring the new town site.
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

Intersection of Spadra (now Harbor) and Commonwealth circa 1890.
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

The McDermott Homestead - A pioneering Fullerton family.
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

Fullerton Grammer School, Class of 1899.
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

During its infancy, Fullerton was a typical western town. Railroad construction camps brought in a rough element, and early settlers often told of gunfights in the saloons. But, on the heels of the construction crews came the backbone of any community - families. And, with the families came the traditional stabilizing elements: banks; stores; a school - complete with its own horse and wagon transportation system for students; churches; and a library, the first of which was a shelf of books in William Starbuck's Gem Pharmacy.

Agriculture quickly became the new community's leading industry.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
Agriculture quickly became the new community's leading industry, with Fullerton packing houses shipping as much as $15 million in citrus crops in banner years. At one time, Fullerton boasted of having more orange groves than any other Orange County city. Today, however, it is estimated there are less than 50 acres of groves remaining in the city.

Charles C. Chapman
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)
A man who was to leave a significant mark on Fullerton was Charles Chapman, a retired Chicago publisher and a descendant of John Chapman, the legendary "Johnny Appleseed." In 1894, Chapman purchased a 350-acre orange orchard in east Fullerton, which he named Santa Ysabel Ranch. He then set about revolutionizing the citrus industry by championing the cause of the Valencia orange, which, because of its keeping qualities and late ripening period, proved an ideal summer orange. Farmers throughout the area copied Chapman's lead, resulting in an enormous economic boom.

While Fullerton's wealth for many years had been measured in terms of agriculture, another resource was underground, just waiting to be tapped.

Fullerton's first oil well, circa 1890. Discovery of "black gold" heralded a new boom period for Fullerton.
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)
The first wells were struck in the late 1890s, and, by 1912, wells extended for 12 miles. The oil fields were located in the northern reaches of the town, much of which is now in Brea. The oil boom continued through the 1920s, and much of the land is still being worked by major oil companies.

Incorporation talk occupied the town's attention at the turn of the century. The first attempt at formal cityhood status was defeated in 1901 by opponents who believed incorporation would be "tantamount to having a saloon on every corner and a house of ill repute in between."

In February 1904, the incorporation issue again went before the voters, with proponents gaining ground by championing the cause of improving fire protection. Incorporation passed 185-44, and Chapman was elected the first mayor. 

A turn-of-the-century view of Downtown Fullerton (looking north on Spadra, now Harbor).
(Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library)

In 1920, Fullerton weathered the only real challenge to its borders. To accommodate the needs of its growing industrial segment, the city planned to establish a sewer farm on property in the south of town. Farmers in the Orangethorpe Avenue area, alarmed by this prospect, launched incorporation proceedings and, in January 1921, successfully "seceded" from the city. When the sewer farm threat faded a few years later, the little suburb of Orangethorpe quietly slipped back into Fullerton's jurisdiction.

The 1920s heralded an economic boom for the city, sparked in part by the oil being pumped in the hills to the north. Building permits soared to a record $2 million, and the city launched an impressive (by 1920s standards) $150,000 public works program to make street, water and sewer system improvements.

Fullerton Municipal Airport crica 1930
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
Fullerton entered the air age in 1927, when pioneer aviators William and Robert Dowling convinced the city to establish an airfield on land previously used as a hog farm and then a sewer farm. Today, Fullerton Municipal Airport is the only general aviation field still in its original location in Orange County.

The airport gained world-wide attention in 1949 when two flight instructors - Dick Riedel and Bill Barris - flew the "Sunkist Lady" to a world endurance flight record of 42 days.

Fullerton's industrial destiny was secured in 1932 with the opening of Val Vita Food Products in the west end of town. 

Aerial view of Val Vita Food Products.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
Starting out as a small citrus juice plant, Val Vita, by 1941, had grown into the largest canning company in the nation. In 1943, it merged with another firm to become Hunt-Wesson Foods Co.

With the establishment of the southeast industrial area as an "all manufacturing zone," additional industries started to appear. Before the 1950s had concluded, the city had 142 industries producing a variety of goods, and employing 18,500 persons. Today, the city boasts more than 10,000 businesses and industries.


A postcard view of busy Downtown Fullerton in the 1950s.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
Fullerton's last big "boom" period began in the late 1940s as veterans returning from World War II began demanding homes for their families. In 1948, permit valuations reached $2.5 million, and, in 1949, set a record $3.2 million, which was more than doubled in 1950. In 1956, the building permit valuation skyrocketed to $114 million.

By the 1970s, the rapid pace of growth which characterized Fullerton in the post-war years had slowed considerably. The city was now able to concentrate on providing the amenities all those new families and businesses demanded. New libraries were built, a cultural center and a museum were opened, parks and community centers were developed, recreational trails were provided, human service programs were instituted, and general municipal services were expanded to meet the needs of businesses and residents alike. Work also began on revitalizing the older business areas of town.

Educational opportunities also blossomed in this period, following the example set by Fullerton College, which was 

A postcard aerial view of the growing community in the late 1960s.
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
established in 1913, and is the oldest community college in the state still in its original location. In 1963, Orange County State College, which had begun in classrooms at Sunny Hills High School, moved into its own campus and changed its name to California State College (now University) at Fullerton. It was followed by Western State University College of Law, Southern California College of Optometry, and Hope International University.


Old City Seal
(Photo courtesy of
Fullerton Public Library)
The last two decades of the 20th century saw Fullerton’s citizens and the City Council, joining forces in an effort to restore the traditional “heart” of the city – the downtown business district - which had begun to decline. This effort became known as “Fullerton 2000 and Beyond,” and brought about a “renaissance” of the downtown, which included restoration of more than 70 historic buildings through a commercial building rehabilitation and seismic loan program funded by the Fullerton Redevelopment Agency, and the formulation and implementation of a master plan and vision statement for the downtown.

The result has been a revitalized, vital downtown – one of the last true downtown districts remaining in Orange County – that has become a destination point not only for Fullerton residents, but for citizens from throughout Orange County. The effort also brought state and national attention and awards to the City.

As the City of Fullerton moves into the new millennium, its emphasis continues to be on progress - both in terms of physical development, as well as refining existing services to best meet the changing needs and interests of the citizens.

In 1937, George Amerige revealed his secret "recipe" for a successful city. The strength of that recipe is being proven every day in the City of Fullerton. 

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