La Palma - Orange County's Dairy Land
La Palma is the only city in Orange County that went straight from farmland to incorporated city. Before 1955 there was no town, no commercial center, no schools, no post office – just a group of tough-minded farmers who wanted to preserve their rural way of life.
It was in the 1940s that dairy farmers began moving into the area between Buena Park and Cypress. New housing tracts were pushing them out of Los Angeles County; from Torrance, Bellflower, Norwalk, Paramount, and other places. Most of them were Dutch, but a few were Portuguese and Belgian families. By the early 1950s there were about 30 dairy farms in the area, along with a few chicken ranches and some row farmers. Plus a few scattered houses of people who just wanted to live out in the country.
But by the early 1950s Orange County was changing. Urbanization – or rather, suburbanization – had arrived; new communities were incorporating, and cities old and new were annexing territory in every direction. Buena Park incorporated in 1953 and after just two years had tripled its city limits through annexations. Then early in 1955 the announced plans to annex a big piece of territory to the south.
The dairy farmers there knew that once they were in the city, subdivisions were sure to follow, and they didn’t want to get squeezed out again. So they decided to do something about it. Rather than get swallowed up by Buena Park they came up with an unique solution – why not create their own city? A rural city, without any subdivisions.
And they decided to call it Dairyland.
Disneyland opened that same year, and gave the name a certain ring. But it was also descriptive. Jack De Vries, the first mayor, later said that it was their land, and they had dairies on it, so it was Dairyland.
The proposed City of Dairyland was just a mile and three-quarters square, with a population of a little over 500. The incorporation election was held on October 11, 1955. There was just one polling place (in a garage at one of the homes), but a pretty good turnout – 74 of 92 registered voters. And the incorporation vote was decisive – 55 for and only 19 against.
The city council election was not quite as simple. There were only six candidates for the five seats, but election officials still had to count the five absentee ballots to decide who won the fifth seat. In the end, Peter D. Bouma (not to be confused with his cousin, Councilman Peter G. Bouma) lost, but to make up for it, the new council appointed him City Clerk and Treasurer. When it was all over there were four dairymen on the council and one chicken farmer.
The council’s first official act was to establish zoning restrictions that would keep subdivisions out and protect local agriculture. This seems to have been the first time in California that a city was incorporated just so that the area could stay agricultural. But the idea caught on. In 1956, the City of Dairy Valley was incorporated just over the line in Los Angeles County, and in 1957 Dairy City incorporated here in Orange County. They changed their name to Cypress just a few weeks later; Dairy Valley became Cerritos in 1967.
A few more dairies moved into the City of Dairyland, but it remained Orange County’s smallest city, both in area and population. During the first half of 1962 the population grew by just six people, and by the middle of 1963 there still only 649 people living in Dairyland – and thousands of cows.
But by that time, there were rumors that subdivisions were coming.
The real problem, though, were that schools were coming. Small as it was, Dairyland was split between five different school districts – Centralia, Buena Park, and Cypress elementary school districts, and Anaheim and Fullerton union high school districts. These school districts had figured out that agricultural land in Dairyland was less expensive than land in residential areas and began buying it up. In 1963, Dairyland only had about 50 kids in public schools but there were already three schools inside the city limits – and more on the way. Most of the sites were taken by eminent domain. Eventually, the schools took up one-tenth of the city.
So Dairyland was finally forced to give in. In 1964 they wrote a new master plan for residential and commercial development that envisioned a city of 18,000 people. The plan was submitted to local voters in February 1965, and approved. At the same time, residents also voted to change the city’s name from Dairyland to La Palma. Again, it was largely a descriptive name – La Palma Avenue, the city father’s said, was “destined to become the city’s main business street.”
The first residential subdivisions opened in the fall of 1965, and one by one the dairies began leaving town. Today the City of La Palma is thoroughly suburbanized.