Jim Sleeper, 1987 (courtesy Nola Sleeper).

Jim Sleeper, 1987 (courtesy Nola Sleeper).

The Quotable Mr. Sleeper

Jim Sleeper’s books bubble over with observations, comments, and asides (even the endnotes make good reading). Here are some examples, collected from a variety of sources.

Jim Sleeper - Orange County Historian

A prominent county official once asked me just who named Jim Sleeper Orange County’s county historian?

“No one named him that,” I said, “he just is” – and now, sadly, was.

It was a title, he admitted, which “carries a good deal more prestige than profit.” But we’ve all profited for more than half a century now from his many books and articles.

Jim Sleeper loved Orange County. Not just its history, but the place, and its people. “When it comes to local pride,” he often said, “I’m not just provincial, I’m downright bigoted.”

Born in Santa Ana in 1927, and for many years the most prominent resident of Holy Jim Canyon, Jim’s interest in Orange County’s history was already evident in the late 1930s, when he was “a button-assed kid in junior high.” Through his grandfather, longtime County Assessor “Big Jim” Sleeper, he was able to meet many of the county’s prominent pioneers – everyone from James Irvine to Ham Cotton to Terry Stephenson, and even the legendary Santa Ana Mountains pioneer J.E. Pleasants.

After graduation from Santa Ana High School and service in the last days of World War II, he worked as a reporter, a teacher, a forest ranger, and a PR man before finally (suspiciously soon after marrying a wife with a steady job) setting out as a full time local historian. He served as staff historian for The Irvine Company (1965-69) where he launched The Rancho San Joaquin Gazette, a bimonthly historical publication that included articles on a vast array of topics. Later he filled a similar role for the Rancho Mission Viejo Company. His services were also much in demand for environmental impact reports, research projects, and multiple lawsuits, where it was sometimes a race to see which side would sign him up first as an expert witness.

His business card described him as an “author-historian.” The designation is important. Jim always placed literacy as high as accuracy in his work. His distinctive literary voice has led some to call him “Orange County’s Mark Twain.” And it wasn’t an act. Jim wrote like he talked, and talked like he thought, and thought like he saw the world (and his mother said he’d been like that since he was six years old).

I first met Jim Sleeper in the late 1970s. Jim was, to be honest, a little more approachable in his books. In person he was glib and affable, but a little hard to get to know. But once you were his friend, he was loyal to the end. He was always full of stories of whatever he was working on at the moment, but he always wanted to hear what you were up to as well. He had a boundless curiosity about the world around him and always went through life with his eyes open, noticing, considering, and commenting on everything he saw.

But it was through his books that most people knew Jim Sleeper.

In Turn the Rascals Out! The Life and Times of Orange County’s Fighting Editor, Dan M. Baker (1973), he used the biography of Santa Ana newspaperman Dan Baker to trace the early history of Orange County. Like Sleeper, Baker was an iconoclast, a sharp-tongued Democrat, and a snappy writer. When the final push to create Orange County began in 1888-89, he threw himself into the fray. “I am convinced that no man in history did more to deliver the sovereign County of Orange,” Sleeper opined.

But the birth of Orange County doesn’t even take us a third of the way through Rascals. And the remainder of the book is taken up with descriptions of some of the other people, issues, and events that marked the early years of the county. All of it is assiduously indexed and amply annotated – in fact, as in most of Sleeper’s books, some of the best bon mots can be found buried away in the 44 pages of endnotes in the back of the book that keep you flipping back and forth like a tennis match from text to notes.

A Boys’ Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys). A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains (1976) again weaves together several stories. Bears in the Santa Ana Mountains, of course; but also a general outline of human history in the hills, and thumbnail sketches of a host of mountain pioneers.

Great Movies Shot in Orange County that will Live Forever (or at least until 1934) (1980) delves deeply into the minutia of local movie making, but still manages to bring in a goodly dose of local history as well. A second volume is still awaiting publication.

Bears to Briquets, A History of Irvine Park (1987) began as a small pamphlet published for the 70th anniversary of Irvine Park in 1967. The revised version brought in a great deal more mountain history and some surprising episodes from the park’s past.

Then there are the Almanacs – Jim Sleeper’s Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities – published in three editions (1971, 1974, and 1982). These little orange volumes perhaps best capture Sleeper’s insatiable curiosity and the breadth of his historical research. They include useful summaries of local agriculture, chronologies of county events, and even local weather superlatives. But most of all the Almanacs bubble over with odd, wacky, quirky, and just plain strange tidbits from our pioneer past.

There is more to be sure (including some 2,000 articles) – the legacy of a lifetime of work and dedication. And Jim’s research files – some 11,000 pages of indexed newspaper clippings from the 1880s to the 1940s – are now preserved by Special Collections at the UC Irvine libraries.

Jim’s last years slowed his steps, but his curiosity survived. I can remember him near the end, just looking out the window, watching his last little slice of the world go by, still fascinated. He died in September of 2012 at age 85, survived by his “school marm” wife, Nola.

Local history, Esther Cramer once observed, is the trees in the forest of history. In the forest of Orange County historians, Jim Sleeper was a towering redwood. We all stand in his lengthy shadow.


(In 2016 the Orange County Historical Society published a collection of Jim’s talks, entitled Sleeper on the Stump. You can find more about it here. You can also hear an excerpt from one of Jim’s talks on Youtube.)