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Esther Cramer was one of the historians interviewed for the 1989 KOCE documentary, The Story of Orange County.
(Esther appears about three minutes in)
She herself might have explained it as an acrostic:
Esther Ridgway Cramer, northern Orange County’s leading historian for more than 45 years, was all that and more. Born and raised in La Habra of pioneer parents, she was devoted to her hometown – and to local history. Beginning the 1960s, she turned out a steady stream of books, articles, and newspaper columns, yet somehow also found time to serve on almost every historical organization within reach.
A Pomona College grad (biology), Esther worked for the Fullerton Elementary School District for several years before taking a break to start a family (husband Stan and three girls). She then started graduate work at Cal State Fullerton.
Two events helped to turn her to local history. In 1959 her childhood home in La Habra burned, taking with it many irreplaceable family documents and photographs. Then in 1963, she was asked by one of her Fullerton professors to start a series of tape recorded interviews with old timers from the La Habra Valley. This was before the start of CSUF’s oral history program (now the Center for Oral and Public History), and her tapes are among the earliest in the collection.
These events reminded her of the fragility of both human memory and local history. Though she professed to never wanting to be an author, she began working on putting the history of La Habra down on paper.
Her first book, La Habra, The Pass through the Hills (1969), set the standard for her work. It was carefully written and beautifully produced. Beyond the standard fodder of community histories – pioneers, crops, and early organizations – Esther discussed more practical matters such an infrastructure, including roads and even storm drains.
She said she had no intention of ever writing another book, but the success of her La Habra book led to a commission to write a history of Alpha-Beta markets, then headquartered in La Habra. The Alpha-Beta Story appeared in 1973. Esther worked for Alpha-Beta as a corporate executive until her retirement in 1986, eventually serving as Vice President of Community Relations.
During those years, Esther also found time to volunteer with a host of community and historical organizations. The La Habra Old Settlers Society (founded in 1898) had lain dormant for years. In the early 1960s, Esther helped to revive it, and supported it for the rest of her life. In 2003 the society published a second edition of her La Habra book as a fundraiser for the La Habra Historical Museum, which opened in 2009.
Esther’s involvement with the Orange County Historical Society also began in the 1960s, and she served as president in 1971 (following Jim Sleeper through the chairs). She contributed to several society projects, including co-editing the 1992 issue of Orange Countiana on early businesses in Orange County.
Then in 1973, the Orange County Historical Commission was formed by the board of supervisors, and Esther was one of the original appointees. She spent nearly 40 years on the commission, and had a hand in almost all of its projects, including publishing, workshops, and placing historical markers.
When the centennial celebration for Orange County was being planned, Esther was asked to join the board of directors of Orange County Centennial, Inc., and served as the main link between that organization and the local history community. She also brought together more than two dozen local historians to compile A Hundred Years of Yesterdays (1988), a collection of community histories from throughout the county.
Esther was also a mainstay of the Orange County Pioneer Council, and the Orange County Dinosaurs Club. The first brought together old time families (recording many oral histories); the second brought local historians together to talk shop.
When the City of Brea celebrated its 75th anniversary, Esther was commissioned to write their official history. “The two cities are siblings, really,” she explained (though like siblings, there was some rivalry over this project). Her Brea, The City of Oil, Oranges, and Opportunity was published in 1992, and that same year she received Historical Society of Southern California’s prestigious Donald H. Pflueger Award – for her La Habra book from 23 years before!
Fortunately, patience is a good trait for a local historian, and Esther took it all in stride. She was never one to brag on her own accomplishments, but was quick to encourage others in their work.
Even as Esther’s health began to fade in later years, she never seemed to let up. She kept writing (mostly newspaper columns), she went on attending meeting after meeting (particularly the Orange County Historical Commission), and she kept up her many friendships (both personal and professional). Longtime devotion was one of the hallmarks of Esther’s life. The death of her husband, Stan, early in 2012 was the final blow. She died on April 15, 2012, at age 85, survived by her three daughters and a host of grandchildren. But her work lives on in her books, and the many local historians she inspired.