Leo J. Friis – Anaheim’s “Historian Laureate”
Though closely connected with Anaheim for more than half a century, Leo J. Friis (1901-1980) was born in Iowa and taught school there briefly before attending law school at the University of Southern California. Admitted to the Bar in 1926, he came to Anaheim and went into private practice. That same year he married Lena Jane Carlson. They had one son, James J. Friis. From 1929-35, Friis worked in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. He later served as Anaheim City Attorney (1941-49).
Friis was involved in many community organizations, including the Episcopal Church, the Masons, and the Elks. His love of California history led him to the Orange County Historical Society in the 1930s, and he later served two terms as its president. Perhaps his first article on the history of Orange County was published by the society in 1939.
“Terry Stephenson … was probably as instrumental in getting me actually writing as anyone,” Friis later recalled. “He told me that research has to stop somewhere and the writing has to begin.” And once he’d begun, Friis turned out a steady stream of books and articles for the next 40 years.
In 1954, Friis and his son launched The California Herald, a monthly historical magazine. “Dad wrote the main historical articles;” J.J. Friis later wrote, “I did advertising and marketing and my Mom kept the books and supervised the mailing operations. In 1956 the magazine became the Official Publication of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, a statewide organization of California-born women. It was a good association for us and circulation rose greatly. Mounting postal costs finally forced us to suspend publication [in 1971].”
From magazine publishing, J.J. Friis moved into commercial printing, and with his father as co-owner founded Pioneer Press (later the Friis-Pioneer Press). This gave Leo Friis a ready publisher for his own books and pamphlets, beginning in 1962 with the story of Anaheim’s first newspaperman, George W. Barter, Pioneer Editor. Around that time Friis began work on a history of Anaheim, but it quickly grew into his most significant book – Orange County Through Four Centuries (1965). This is still the best one volume history of Orange County.
Among Friis’ other books are The Bowers Memorial Museum and its Treasures (1967), When Anaheim Was 21 (1968), David Hewes: More Than the Golden Spike (1974), Kleinigkeiten (1975), Historic Buildings of Pioneer Anaheim (1979), At the Bar (1980), and a posthumous collection, Campo Aleman: The First Ten Years of Anaheim (1983). When Anaheim was 21 is built around the sole surviving copy of Anaheim’s first city directory, published in 1878. Kleinigkeiten is a collection of short stories based in part on the files of the early Anaheim Gazette. Historic Buildings of Pioneer Anaheim is a model for what building histories can be, incorporating both surviving buildings and those lost to modern development. At the Bar is a collection of Friis’ legal reminiscences, many first published in the California Herald. Campo Aleman traces the earliest days of Anaheim in the 1850s and ‘60s, told primarily through contemporary accounts.
Beyond his research and writing, Friis was quite active in what today we would call “public history.” He helped revive the Orange County Historical Society in 1961. He served as president of the Mother Colony Household, which was responsible for the preservation and operation of the Mother Colony House, Anaheim’s first building (1857) and first museum (1929). He also pushed for the creation of the location history room at the Anaheim Library, which opened in 1967. Originally known as the Mother Colony Room, today it is part of the Anaheim Heritage Center. In honor of his many accomplishments, the Anaheim City Council named Friis the city’s “Historian Laureate” in 1976.
I saw Leo Friis now and then at the old Mother Colony Room in the late 1970s. Though near the end of his life, he was still a formidable presence, though he was always cordial in our conversations. On his death, Jim Sleeper told The Register, “He was a very bombastic type of character. He had a kind of gruff exterior, but he was just a cream puff on the inside. I used to call him the kingfish.”
Like Sleeper, Leo Friis remains one of Orange County’s most significant local historians.