Don Meadows: A Remarkable Life
Don Meadows was one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met -- historian, scientist, explorer, author, book collector, park ranger, and mentor to two generations of Orange County historians.
He was born October 20, 1897 in Shoals, Indiana. His father, Charles, was an old tramp printer who eventually settled down after getting married and having a son. Charles Meadows worked for papers all over the central part of the country. The winter of 1902-03 found him working on the Pittsburgh Headlight. That was a particularly harsh winter, and Meadows finally had enough. “To hell with it,” he decided, “I’m going to California where it never gets cold.”
So in March of 1903, the Meadows family came to California. After working in Ocean Park for several months, he met Alice Armor, the editor and publisher of the Orange Post, who was looking for a new shop foreman. Meadows took the job and moved to Orange in October, 1903. Five-year-old Don Meadows and his mother Adah had gone home to Indiana about a month before. Once Charles Meadows was settled in Orange, they returned to join him. They left on Christmas Eve, and arrived in Orange on December 31, 1903.
The many facets of Don Meadows’ later life are all reflected his childhood in Orange. In school, he was a bundle of energy. One of his teachers told me she spent the whole year just worrying what he would do next. His interest in the world around him was insatiable. He was forever off tramping through the hills, exploring, bird watching, and collecting. He learned the printing trade at his father’s knee, and in 1912 launched a short-lived miniature newspaper called The Postscript, for his fellow eighth graders at Center Street School. In 1916 he served as the founding editor of Orange Union High School’s first newspaper, The Reflector.
Don’s interest in California history began with his first trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1905. “There was no resident Priest there then,” he later recalled, “the Serra Chapel ... was filled up with hay, the patio was covered with weeds, and the whole place was just a disintegrating pile of history.” Yet something about the place sparked his imagination. “I don’t try to explain it,” he once said, “I don’t want to explain it, but there was a certain fascination about the mission ruins.”
Back home, Don peppered his father with questions about the missions -- none of which a transplanted Midwesterner was equipped to answer. So he pointed his son in the direction of the Orange Public Library.
Don’s first attempt at historical research got off to a rocky start. The only thing he could find on the subject was H.H. Bancroft’s seven volume History of California, so he asked to see volume one. The librarian, Anna Field, said he was too young, and refused. In 1985 he recalled:
“I went over to Dad and I told him that I found a book, but that Mrs. Field wouldn’t let me have it. Well, I had a wonderful father, because he took me by the hand and led me over to the library and he opened the door, and there was a big sign that said ‘SILENCE,’ but he didn’t pay any attention -- I guess he couldn’t read. He slammed the door and he went up and he said to Mrs. Field, ‘Listen, any time my boy wants a book, whether he can read it or not, you let him have it!’ I got the book all right. I walked back over to the newspaper office and I sat down and I read one page and decided that Mrs. Field was right. So that was the beginning of my interest in California history.”
Don began assembling his own library of Californiana a few years later. After graduating from Orange Union High School in 1917 he entered Pomona College. Before his freshman year was up, he enlisted in the Navy Signal Corps and spent about six months stationed at San Pedro. To kill time, he started visiting the local library and found several books on California history, including Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. When closing time came, Don asked to check out the book, and once again the librarian told him no; she didn’t trust sailors. So the next chance he had, Don rode the Red Car up into Los Angeles and bought his own copy. It was the start of a library that would eventually number over 4,000 volumes.
When the war was over, Don returned to Pomona College, where he earned a degree in Biological Science. After graduation, he went into newspaper work, writing for papers in Pomona and Long Beach. Then in 1925 he heard that Edison Junior High School in Long Beach was looking for a new printing instructor. Don applied and got the job. A year later he switched over to biology, his specialty for most of the rest of his 35 year teaching career. In truth, it might be better to call teaching Don’s job, rather than his career. Though by all accounts he was very effective in the classroom, he once told me he was only a teacher from 8 to 2, then he locked the door and walked away.
During his first year at Edison, Don finally settled all of his old quarrels with librarians. He fell in love with one -- Frances Matchette, the school librarian. They were married on April 10, 1926.
It was around this time that Don first became active with the Orange County Historical Society. In the early days, new members were supposed to be invited to join the group, but not Don. Speaking before the Society many years later, he recalled:
“I was always inquisitive, and I wanted to know more about California history. A historical society is supposed to be made up of historians, so I read in the paper someplace that there would be a meeting of the Society. I wasn’t invited, I just arrived and sat in the back row and listened. And I guess I went back, because later I did become quite well acquainted with the members -- particularly Terry Stephenson and Bill McPherson. Bill and I got to be very good friends.”
Don’s first talk at the Society was on January 31, 1927, when he spoke on “Portolá’s Pilgrimage Through Orange County”. That same year, Don and Frances moved to Catalina Island. Frances later wrote:
“After Don’s second year of teaching, he conceived the idea of doing a biological survey of Catalina Island. The schools on the Island had recently been taken into the Long Beach school system, so he requested a transfer to teach in the Avalon High School. I also requested a transfer and was sent over to the Island as the high school librarian. We were to stay there for seven years. During that time we built a home overlooking Avalon Bay, and our son Donald...was born.”
Don often said that his first four years on Catalina were the happiest years of his life. But for the last three years he couldn’t wait to get off that island. “The whole world was changing,” he once told me, “and I was satisfied just to live out on that island.” He felt he was getting sedate, too provincial.
Returning to Long Beach in 1934, Don taught at Jordan, and then at Long Beach Poly High. His interest in both the natural and human history of California continued and expanded into other areas, especially Baja California. From 1939-41 he served as a field supervisor for the Channel Islands Biological Survey, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum. After World War II, he spent four summers as a Park Naturalist at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Slowly but surely, history was taking precedence over biology in Don’s life. In 1950 he became a member of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners, a prominent historical organization. By 1956 he was Sheriff of the group. He also became active with the Death Valley 49ers, the Zamorano Club, and was Noble Grand Humbug of Platrix Chapter of the E Clampus Vitus in 1961.
His first historical book, Baja California, 1553-1950; a Biblio-History was published in 1951 by his friend Glen Dawson. A few years later he began teaching California history at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He finally retired from teaching in 1960 to devote the rest of his life to historical research and writing.
Back around 1945, Don had bought several acres up on Panorama Heights above Tustin. There, in 1956, he and Frances began construction of their own adobe home La Quinta de los Prados (The Summer Home of the Meadows). He and Frances moved there in 1957, and it would be their home for the next 28 years.
Once he was back in Orange County, Don became a prominent member of many local historical organizations. In 1958 he was one of the founders of Los Compadres con Libros, the county’s oldest book collectors’ society. When the Orange County Historical Society (dormant since World War II) was revived in 1961, Don again took an active role. In 1973 he helped to found the first historical society in his adopted hometown of Orange, and served on its Board of Directors of many years.
His best-known book, Historic Place Names in Orange County was published in 1966 by Paisano Press. The idea had been suggested by his friend (and Paisano’s founder) Dr. Horace Parker. Much of the research was done in Don’s own library, which had grown to include maps, newspapers, letters, documents, photographs, and thousands of rare books. In 1972 the Meadows Library was purchased by the University of California, Irvine. I never asked Don what he got for the collection (that would have been too blunt even for me) but I have always heard it was around $50,000.
In 1985, after a rush of farewell parties and honors, Don and Frances moved to Yuba City, California to be closer to their son and daughter-in-law. Frances died there in 1989 at the age of 90. Don lived to celebrate his 97th birthday, then died quietly on November 9, 1994. I will always count myself fortunate to have known him.
Click here for a rare video of a brief talk by Don Meadows in 1981 at the re-dedication of the old Orange Plaza Fountain.