Jim Sleeper and Don Meadows, 1972 (courtesy Nola Sleeper).

Jim Sleeper and Don Meadows, 1972 (courtesy Nola Sleeper).

A Conversation with Don Meadows

(Conducted by Jim Sleeper at a meeting of the Orange County Historical Society, June 13, 1985)

Don Meadows (1897-1994) was a living link to the earliest generation of Orange County historians and a mentor to many younger historians. In 1985, when old age forced Don to move north to be closer to his family, the Orange County Historical Society asked Jim Sleeper to conduct one last public interview with him regarding his long career in local history.


Jim Sleeper: What you are about to hear this evening started out as a brilliantly conceived outline of Orange County history and historians, based on Mr. Meadows’ 80-odd years of familiarity with those subjects. What it will soon disintegrate into is anybody’s guess.

Unfortunately, when you get two old wind-jammers up here together – as we frequently do – outlines have a tendency to fade rather rapidly and what we usually end up doing is talking about what we’d really like to talk about in the first place, and to hell with the format! So, forewarned, forearmed.

With that mutual disclaimer, I thought it would be interesting to look at a number of people through Don’s eyes; people that many of you have heard about, or read about, but never knew, as he did. In the process, I suspect we will be hearing a little about the evolution of the Orange County Historical Society; and certainly no one has had a wider exposure to this organization, because Don has been involved with the society for 58 of its 66 years. It was, in fact, 50 years ago last month – on May 3, 1935 – that Don gave his first talk here at Bowers Museum. And that was eight years after his first address to the society at the old Ebell clubhouse.

In the process, I suspect we will be hearing a little about the evolution of the Orange County Historical Society; and certainly no one has had a wider exposure to this organization, because Don has been involved with the society for 58 of its 66 years. It was, in fact, 50 years ago last month – on May 3, 1935 – that Don gave his first talk here at Bowers Museum. And that was eight years after his first address to the society at the old Ebell clubhouse.

To give this chat some semblance of order, we’ll be taking it by historical periods, rather than when the events occurred in Don’s life. Not that that’s terribly logical, but we figure it would confuse the note-takers.

With that overture, ladies and gentlemen, will you welcome our guest of honor, the dean of Orange County historians, my friend and mentor, Mr. Don C. Meadows.

Why do I have the feeling like the egg interviewing the chicken?

Don Meadows: Well, you know, this would be embarrassing if it was our first talk. I don’t know whether I picked your brain first, or you picked mine, but this nit-picking has been going on for quite some time.

Sleeper: I notice they billed this as “A Night to Remember.” Isn’t that the same title they used for the sinking of the Titanic? [laughter]

Meadows: Also the beginning of World War II. [laughter]

Sleeper: Don, let’s start with some beginnings. Rather appropriately, the first history book written in what would become Orange County was Boscana’s epic account of the Juaneño Indians, Chinigchinich, written at the mission between 1814 and 1826.[1] Now, I’m not going to accuse you of knowing Boscana personally, but I believe you mentioned one time that you had met the man who brought our Indian culture into prominence with his latter day studies. As those of you who collect Fine Arts Press books known, John P. Harrington did the notes for an elegant edition of Chinigchinich in 1933. Harrington was an ethnologist, a former Santa Ana High School Greek and Latin teacher, a genius, and an all together thoroughly odd duck. [laughter] Tell us what you know about Professor Harrington and did you ever meet him?

Meadows: Yes, I did meet him under circumstances you mentioned, when he was gathering material for Chinigchinich. It happened that Bill McPherson had known Harrington when he was teaching in Santa Ana High School, and it also happened that Bill McPherson and I were very good friends and also that we both knew Jose Albañez, the Luiseño Indian who was being interrogated by Harrington. We heard that Harrington was at Capistrano, interviewing Albañez, so Bill McPherson and I drove down to see both of them. Both Albañez and Harrington were interesting characters in entirely different ways. Harrington was a handsome individual, about six-foot, two-inches tall and very dynamic. But the outstanding thing I remember in my association with him – if you’d even call it an association, because I was an interested bystander in the background, just listening to this interview that was going on – is that as he’d talk to Albañez and ask questions in Spanish and English and Luiseño, he wouldn’t look at his paper, but he would look right at Albañez and write his notes, and when he got down to the bottom of the page he’d tear it off and throw it on the floor. After a couple hours of that we made our exit. So, you see, I’m a buddy-buddy friend of John P. Harrington.[2]

He was an eccentric. If you want to read a fascinating book, his wife wrote Encounter with an Angry God – and she was a character, too.

Sleeper: Is that the one he left down in the basement for six months at a time? [laughter]

Meadows: No, that was his second wife. That was another thing he did. He had two children and they lived in the basement of the Southwest Museum, and on one occasion – maybe others – he disappeared for five or six months and nobody knew where he was. Finally, he came back, casually, as though nothing had happened. I think he’d been up interviewing some of the Modoc Indians, or something like that. The family had to take care of themselves. He was a character.

Well, his first wife took it just so long until she got a divorce and since she’d been exposed to Indian lore and Indians and had followed John P. around interviewing Indians, she met a Chemehuevi Indian and they were married. She’s not living now, she died recently, but her second name was Laird, Carobeth Laird. Have you read her book?

Sleeper: Yes I have.

Meadows: It’s wonderful. Encounter with an Angry God – and it’s good.

Sleeper: Did you ever get involved with any Indian research yourself here in the county?

Meadows: Yes. I mentioned Jose Albañez. And, of course, Bill McPherson wasn’t an Indian, but he might as well have been, because he spent a lot of time with them and through him I’ve gone through the clothes burning and burial of the eagle feather with the Luiseños. I’ve also done a little digging – never found anything particularly – but I’ve had some interest in trying to locate some of the old Indian sites.

Sleeper: How about the first one? The first Indian site as you come across the border from San Diego County – Los Cristianitos?

Meadows: I was with Terry Stephenson on that trip. Bill McPherson, Terry Stephenson and I went. Terry was the one that instigated it and I just went along for the ride, in a way. When Portolá came through in 1769, the first baptism in California took place down there in the San Clemente area, and in honor of that great event they called the canyon “The Canyon of the Little Christians” – Cristianitos. And fortunately, in spite of the Anglo invasion, that canyon still keeps the name of Cristianitos. That is a hold over from the past. But with the diaries of Crespí and Costansó and Portolá we were pretty well able to locate the site. I suppose we got within a couple hundred yards of where the first baptism actually took place.

Sleeper: As Don indicated, recorded history in Orange County – that is to say, the written word – really began with the diaries of the Portolá party. And coincidentally, Don, “Portolá’s Pilgrimage Through Orange County” was your very first talk before the Orange County Historical Society on January 31, 1927. Through no fault of my own, I missed that talk by three months, [laughter] so I have two questions for you: one, what sparked your interest in the Exploration Period; and two, how did you get involved with the historical society?

Meadows: Oh, I guess it was just inquisitiveness. I think my first contact with what might be called California history was in 1905. My mother and dad read in the paper that there was a special railroad fare to San Juan Capistrano mission – I think it was over Labor Day or something like that. So we went down to Capistrano, and although I was only seven years old then, we roamed around and something . . . well, I don’t try to explain it, I don’t want to explain it, but there was a certain fascination about the mission ruins. There was no resident priest there then; the Serra Church was filled up with hay, the patio was covered with weeds and the whole thing was just a disintegrating pile of history.

Well, I asked my dad questions about the mission when we got home and he couldn’t answer them all, because he was a newcomer, too. But he suggested I go the library and find out some things about it. So I did. I went to the public library in Orange – it was in the cement hotel on the corner of the Plaza – and I looked around and I couldn’t find anything because the books weren’t on open shelves, until I happened to find Bancroft’s thirty-nine volumes of California history. Well, I was in the second grade, so wanting to know all about California I took down volume one. Mrs. Field was the librarian, and when she looked at it she said I couldn’t have it, that I wasn’t old enough to read it . . . .

Sleeper: Or lift it! [laughter]

Meadows: You know your Bancroft! Well, anyway, my father was associated with the weekly newspaper [the Orange Post], and after Mrs. Field turned me down and wouldn’t let me have it, I went across the Plaza – the Post office was right on the Plaza Square, and it only about forty or fifty yards between the library and the newspaper office. I went over to dad and I told him that I found a book, but that Mrs. Field wouldn’t let me have it.

I had a wonderful father, because he took me by the hand and he led me over to the library and he opened the door, and there was a big sign that said “Silence,” 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 my beginning with an interest in California history. I never had thought much of librarians at the time, but I changed my opinion later on.

Sleeper: I know, Don, that you’ve done a lot of work on the Mission Period, beginning with Pro Patria in 1921. Who, if anyone, was helpful to you on the Mission Period?

Meadows: Well, I don’t think that that can be ascribed to any individual. One of the most receptive people I ever ran into was Father St. John O’Sullivan, who was the priest down there [at San Juan Capistrano]. I met him around 1910. He had tuberculosis, you know, and he liked to sit around in the sun and talk, and so did I. But I was just a kid in grammar school. I used to ride my bike from Orange to Capistrano to go down there. He gave me a lot of information, but I guess it’s pretty hard to say who had the greatest influence. Many people did. Bill McPherson was one. I got acquainted with him later on. He was a regular walking encyclopedia of information on California.

And then, of course, although I didn’t know Terry Stephenson as well as I knew Bill McPherson, Terry Stephenson had a lot to do with it, because Terry was a dynamic, magnetic person, who inspired enthusiasm. One nice thing about Terry, he knew a lot, but he didn’t throw his weight around and tell everybody how much he knew – unless he started writing. I believe his writing is all right.

Sleeper: Tell us a little about Pro Patria. First of all, refresh our memories as to what Pro Patria is and then tell us how you got that one off the ground.

Meadows: Well, I was a senior at Pomona College in 1921, and it was a tradition that somebody in the class write a Senior Class Play. So, being interested in California history, I took one episode about Capistrano mission – the visit of Hipólito Bouchard in 1818. He was an Argentinean, sailing under the flag of Argentina. He captured the mission for a very short period. But it was Capistrano, and I was in love with Capistrano Mission, and so I took that episode and put it together and stirred in a little bit of corn, and some music and dancing. Briefly, the story was about this young man, a native of California who had gone to Mexico City at the time of the revolution when Mexico overthrew the rule of Spain, and when he came back he started talking about liberty and all that. “Pro Patria” mean “for the country” – that was his watchword. And, well . . . he got the girl. That was the important thing. [laughter]

Sleeper: Forty-six years after Pro Patria – which has been reproduced several times, I might add – Don was instrumental in pinpointing the original site of Mission San Juan Capistrano, which wasn’t the old Mission Viejo adobe as everyone thought, but was . . . well, you tell them.

Meadows: Well, it wasn’t exactly a discovery. The material was all there, but no one had ever put it together before. What was confusing was that when Portolá came up the coast in 1769 they followed the coast but they kept back a ways. We already mentioned that they came up Cristianitos Canyon, which parallels the coast, but it’s back three or four miles from the sea. And then they came up, crossed over from Cristianitos and went down into San Juan Canyon, and then up into Gobernadora and cut across the Trabuco Mesa, then in back of Red Hill. And that became known as the “Camino Real.” But when Capistrano Mission was founded in 1776, the Camino Real was changed completely. They moved it down onto the coast.

Well, most historians – who hadn’t really studied their history – assumed that the first mission was established on the Camino Real; which it wasn’t, exactly, because Crespi’s diary and others said it was so many leagues down the canyon from the Camino Real. Well, you can’t go down the canyon from the Camino Real to the present site of the mission. So I got to thinking about it and I went down there and tramped all over that country with the Costansó and Crespí diaries and several others and started studying the terrain and then I suddenly had the realization that they were talking about two Camino Reals. One of them was the old one, and that’s the one where the first mission was established. Everybody thought it was the present Camino Real. It wasn’t.

So as soon as I woke up to that fact, why, the rest was easy. Well, I say it was easy, but I had to scout around. The first mission was established on the Lacouague ranch, up on the mesa about a mile and a half up San Juan Canyon in what’s now an orange grove.

And, believe it or not, when the mission was first established in ’76, it was established at the Indian village of Quanis-savit, and then, when the mission was moved from its first location down to where it is today, the name was changed on the baptismal and marriage record books. They said, “at the village of Quanis-savit.” But Quanis-savit is crossed out and the new name is written in.

So, I met the Lacouagues and went up there and sure enough, I found a beautiful mano in the orange grove, and still – after two hundred years – the ground showed signs of long Indian occupation. So that was just a matter of luck, that’s all.[3]

Sleeper: And a little gumshoeing, I can tell you that.

Now, Orange County’s Mission Period, from 1776 to, let’s say the mid-1830s, gave way to what historians are pleased to call the Rancho Period. Actually the two overlap, the Rancho Period really beginning with the granting of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana in 1810. Don’s next talk before the historical society occurred in 1935 on that very subject, and in you’ve forgotten, Don, you shared billing that night with Ed Stafford on early Santa Ana, Roch Bradshaw on boom time hotels, and – I love this – a puppet show on Orange County Indians, directed by Miss Hazel Beemis. I’ve never followed a puppet show – a lot of treasurer’s reports, but never a puppet show. So tell us a little about your talk that night on the Bernardo Yorba adobe and what prompted your study of that.

Meadows: Well, I think it goes back to the National Geographic magazine. Roch Bradshaw and I were very close friends at Orange Union High School, and there was an edition of the National Geographic that came out about some archaeological work – I think it was being done in Assyria, or Italy, or Persia, or someplace, anyway. I think Roch and I were sophomores or juniors in high school at the time, and we decided we’d be archaeologists, but we didn’t know how to “archaeologicalize.” So we started asking around and somebody said, “Oh, yeah, there’s some old adobes up in Santa Ana Canyon you might look into.” So we went up Santa Ana Canyon and through some questioning they directed us to a fellow named Juan Cooper at Peralta. I don’t know whether the community still exists or not, but there used to be a little community called Peralta up there – they still call it Peralta Hills. Juan Cooper had a grocery store in what used to be called the community of Peralta. He pointed across the river and he said, “The best adobe’s that one over there.” And so we went over and that happened to be the Bernardo Yorba house. Well, we tramped around and had a good time. We “archaeologicalized” for a few hours.

And then nothing happened until after we’d both graduated from high school. I think Roch was home from Stanford at Christmas time and we were reminiscing and we happened to mention the fact that we wondered about the old Bernardo Yorba house. And so we went up to see it, and it was a wreck! It was going to pieces. And realizing the changes that had taken place and those that were still taking place, we thought something ought to be done, and so we went back up there the next day with a tape line and drawing material and took a lot of notes and measurements and things like that. Later, I wrote up this publication that the Orange County Historical Society published, The House of Bernardo Yorba, with pictures and the notes we made.

So that was just . . . well, just fun.

Sleeper: I know you asked me not to ask you too many dates, but how long ago was it that you first saw the Bernardo Yorba place?

Meadows: When I first saw it? About 1915, because I was in high school. I graduated in 1917, so it must have been about the summer of 1915.

Sleeper: After almost one hundred years of Spanish/Mexican influence, the Santa Ana Valley was invaded. First by the Germans at Anaheim in 1859, and gradually by the Gringos everywhere, giving rise to our Settlement Period.

Until 1889, of course, we were still a shirt-tail relative of Los Angeles County. And in 1880 the first Los Angeles County history was published, and contained some brief squibs about our budding villages down here. This was followed ten years later by the first of many “mug books,” as historians call them – those big, fat, county histories containing biographies of people prominent enough and rich enough to pay for them.

One of these, put out in 1890, was called An Illustrated History of Southern California, and contained a good deal of Orange County material. It was written by a lady who used the pen name Yda Addis. Now, no one remembers Yda Addis as a historian, but I believe you mentioned once that you had met her under her real name, which was . . . .

Meadows: Rose Hartwick Thorpe. She wrote a poem called “Curfew Shall not Ring Tonight.” The way I got acquainted with her was that she was the sister of Judge Hartwick, who was an attorney in Orange, and he had a son who was my age. And I met his aunt, Rose Hartwick. It didn’t mean a thing until years later I happened to run into this “Curfew Shall not Ring Tonight” – boy, it was ringing all right.

Sleeper: That was her big claim to fame.

Meadows: That was Rose Hartwick’s claim to fame. She wrote “Curfew Shall not Ring Tonight” under her own name, but I found out later that that first mug book was written under then name Ida Addis.

Sleeper: The things we will do to make money, right? We’re both poets at heart.

Meadows: Yes.

Sleeper: I don’t know what that had to do with history, but it’s the kind of thing the trivia nuts want.

During the 1900s, J.M. Guinn, an early Anaheim schoolmaster, edited a number of Southern California histories. And speaking of trivia: among other things, Mr. Guinn was the correspondent for the Anaheim Gazette during the Silverado mining boom of the 1870s. I mention this because it is curious – it seems to me – how many historians have come out of newspaper work. People like Guinn, Terry Stephenson, of course, and you and I. And also how many have been former schoolmarms or masters, like Guinn, Bill McPherson, and you and I again.

A third ingredient that keeps cropping up among historians seems to be an interest in natural history – a love of the flora and fauna dimension. Sometimes I think that Terry Stephenson was a frustrated forest ranger, because his brother was, and Terry liked nothing more than to go out with his brother and go tramping around the hills with Burt. I think this comes up because I spent ten years in the Forest Service and I know that you were a park ranger. But you actually began in the natural sciences and then shifted to history, is that right?

Meadows: Yes, I was a biology major in college.

Sleeper: Well tell us how you got started in biology and then what prompted the shift to history.

Meadows: Well, I think the thing that headed me in that direction was this: along about 1910 Dad had a newspaper in Orange and also there was a little streetcar that ran back and forth between Orange and Santa Ana. You’ve heard of the “Peanut Roaster,” haven’t you? Well, there was a resident of Santa Ana who had worked for the U.S. Natural History Museum collecting insects and birds and plants and things in the South Pacific and in Malaysia and India and around different places, and while he was waiting for the “Orange Dummy” to take him back to Santa Ana he used to loaf around the newspaper office and talk. He was a fascinating speaker – in fact he’d been on the Chautauqua circuit – and hearing his adventures and his experiences in collecting insects and birds and so forth fascinated me and so, let’s see, I was about 11 or 12 years old at that time and, well, I ‘got the bug’ – and I did get the bug! [laughter]

Sleeper: That being your specialty.

Meadows: But you asked how I happened to get over into history….

Sleeper: Yes, why did you ‘bolt the party’ there?

Meadows: Well, I don’t know; it just seemed to be kind of a natural thing to do, because as a Biology major I had written several scientific papers and the only satisfaction that anyone got out of them was myself in the writing of them, because no one ever paid any attention to them. But by being a biologist with an emphasis, really, on field work, and getting out and going to unusual places, why, I met some interesting people and went to some rather out of the way places. And they suggested a note and so I’d write a little bit and I found that – not that I gave a hoot about publicity, although I enjoyed it – I found that it was easier to write a little historical article than it was to go through a whole lot of dry research for a scientific paper. So I kept both of them up for a while, but sooner or later the science just faded out and the history moved in, and I’ve never been sorry – although I’m sure glad I’ve got a biological background.

Sleeper: We were talking about old newspaper men, or would-be newspaper men, which brings up what I would call Orange County’s first completely home-grown historian, Samuel Armor. Now, many here I’m sure are familiar with Armor’s big, fat, black-bound histories, published in 1911 and 1921; but you actually knew him, so tell us how you came to meet Mr. Armor and what kind of a guy was he?

Meadows: Well, Sam was about five feet, four inches tall. He was a little man who wanted to be big. I think he had an inferiority complex. He had a high-pitched voice and he spoke very, very slowly. Sam Armor was the husband of Alice L. Armor, who owned the Orange Post, and my Dad happened to be in partnership with Mrs. Armor in putting out the Post. I remember one time my Dad and Sam were in a . . . I wouldn’t say a discussion at all, but Sam was telling something and Dad got a little bit irritated, because when Sam would try to tell anything he’d start with Christopher Columbus and bring it up to date. [laughter] So Dad said, “Sam, speed it up, speed it up!” And – I can remember it so well – Armor said, “I’ve been slow from birth, but absolutely accurate!” [laughter] Maybe he was. Sam was on the first Board of Supervisors. I think he came from the Fourth District. And he became the Supervisor by four votes. I forget who his competitor was, but Sam beat him out by four votes. Of course, this was a big county then. But all during the time that I remember him he was always talking about, “When I was on the Board of Supervisors….” And I guess he did all right. Sam lived up to around 1933. He was a very, very interesting character.

Sleeper: All right. In 1919, the Orange County Historical Society was founded, meeting first at the old Carnegie Library in Santa Ana, then moving in ’25 to the Ebell Clubhouse and finally, beginning in 1933, meeting here at Bowers Museum. You tuned in around 1927. What I’d like to know is what were those early historical society meetings like, and what kind of people showed up.

Meadows: Well, there was nothing like the group that showed up today, because look at this group here tonight. It’s amazing. There must be a good program on, is something coming up? [laughter] It was a small group and there were about three people I remember as outstanding. One was Dr. Ball. He was the first president, and I would say the last president, because he was president until he died. He manipulated it so that he was re-elected for a period of about – I don’t remember – 12, 15 years.[4]

Sleeper: 1919 to 1935, when he died.

Meadows: Is that right? Well now, Ball was all right. He conducted a good meeting. The other person that I remember – and it was through the historical society in a way that I got to know that fantastic individual named Bill McPherson. And then the third pillar was the one and only Terry Stephenson.[5] They kind of held it together, but after . . . well, Terry died during World War II, but I don’t know, it just kind of faded out. Did you ask how I got into it?

Sleeper: Yes, what was your first exposure to it, how did you find out about it?

Meadows: Well, I was always inquisitive and I wanted to know more about California history, and a historical society is supposed to be made up of historians, so I read in the paper someplace that there would be a meeting and so – 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 with Terry Stephenson and Bill McPherson, because Bill and I got to be very good friends.

Sleeper: There’s something I wanted to ask you about: how did they actually present their talks there?

Meadows: Well, one of the things – I don’t know whether it’s being done today or not, because I haven’t been active with this historical society for quite some time – but it used to be that everybody wrote their papers and then in the end those papers were submitted and published. I believe it was mentioned tonight about either starting, or maybe resurrecting the old “Orange County History Series.”

Sleeper: Actually that’s a little stodgier than the way we operate today. But at the end of the year the society had a built-in, ready-to-go book in effect, because those papers that were in those three volumes of the history series were former talks.

Meadows: That’s right. And another fortunate thing that doesn’t exist today was that there used to be a fellow named Tom Williams, who taught printing at Santa Ana College, and Tom was interested in fine printing, and he was a great friend of Terry Stephenson. And so he used the writings of the historical society as copy and all the historical society had to do was supply the paper it was printed on and the students did the work. And if you’re acquainted with the Fine Arts Press books you know Tom Williams was a master printer. He printed Chinigchinich as well as two or three other books, some by Terry Stephenson and so forth.[6]

But in the beginning, you had to be invited to be a member of the historical society . . . or maybe you weren’t invited until after you had written something. I never was invited, I just started coming.

Sleeper: I see. Say, tell me this – speaking of research – prior to, say, the 1960s, before the libraries at Cal State Fullerton Special Collections, and UCI, and the Mother Colony Room, and the Sherman Library and so forth, where did you go to do historical research?

Meadows: Well, unfortunately there weren’t very many places to go. And those places that were available were not very accessible to a kid way out in the country. But I think the Los Angeles Public Library was one of the first good sources, and then, of course, the Huntington [Library] came along later. But, well, I guess Dawson’s Book Shop was the best.

Sleeper: There you go, let’s hear it for Dawson’s! Glen Dawson is here tonight.

Meadows: I guess he was the best librarian of all, because – I hate to think about it now, but – Glen was very liberal, because I used to owe Dawson’s every month.

Sleeper: That’s why he’s here tonight. [laughter] I was going to ask you, though, did this dearth of public resources have anything to do with your having to build up your own private library?

Meadows: Yes, to a great extent it did. But another thing is that I just naturally had a pack rat instinct and, well, an interest in Californiana and Western Americana and biology and, oh, everything. I finally settled down more or less on just Western Americana and California material. I used to collect everything, until I found out that I couldn’t afford to collect everything.

Sleeper: During the 1930s – which were really kind of a golden age for historical publications in the county – Stephenson, of course, published Caminos Viejos and Shadows of Old Saddleback, three volumes of the Historical Society’s papers came out – during 1931 to ’39 – Mrs. Pleasants published her three-volume history in ’31 . . . incidentally, did you know Mrs. Pleasants?

Meadows: Yes, fairly well. That is, I knew the second Mrs. Pleasants, because the first Mrs. Pleasants – the one that Frances found her diaries – died rather young.[7] The second Mrs. Pleasants – the one that I knew – was a school teacher up here in Santiago or Silverado Canyon – or maybe over on the Serrano side – but anyway, the Judge and his first wife, Mary Refugio, had a cabin up in the mountains and when she died he married the second Mrs. Pleasants. It’s kind of complicated, but it’s an interesting story. Somebody ought to write up a real good ‘life’ of Ed Pleasants. It’s already been written, but it isn’t in one place; you have to read this and read that, but somebody could pull it together and make a wonderful book out of it.

Sleeper: Earlier in the program, Larry DeGraaf mentioned the possibility of publishing the WPA books. I know you’re familiar with them, but for those who aren’t they were . . . I would characterize them as long on pioneer recollections and probably short on primary sources. How would you assess the WPA notes?

Meadows: Well, they’re a very, very good source of inspiration. You see, the WPA researchers were simply people who were out of work; good, conscientious, educated people, interested in history, or for that matter interested in most anything. So they’d assign them a historical project and they were amateur historians, and so they interviewed people, but they didn’t know what they were interviewing for; and the result was that they picked up a tremendous amount of very, very good information, but their interpretations and some of their notes are pretty bad. But nevertheless, I would say, with the proper editing, the WPA reports of the ‘30s are really worthwhile. The sad part of it is, those reports came in and . . . what was her name?

Sleeper: Ashby, Gladys Ashby.

Meadows: Yes. She was the editor, and she gets all the credit for all those articles on a multitude of subjects. The WPA reports cover a shelf of about two or three feet, but the people that did the research, wrote up the articles and turned them in – Mrs. Ashby acknowledged them – and she still gets the credit. But who were the authors? I only know one or two who were authors, but they had to come up later and admit it.

Sleeper: Is there a complete run of those anywhere? I suppose there would be if you put them together. There’s about three sets of them and they’re really miserable to annotate when you’re doing annotated history, because the page numbers are not the same on any two copies. So you’ve got to actually tell where you borrowed your copy and so forth.[8] But I didn’t know that anyone has a complete set. I know that the Santa Ana Public Library has a good run – except one. I asked them, “Well, which one is missing?” and they said, “They stole the one on religion.” [laughter]

Meadows: There’s some down at the University of California at Irvine, because . . . I’ll tell you, Jim, it wasn’t that the sets weren’t complete exactly; it’s complete, but not at any one depository. I picked up odd copies here and there at various places. As these different reports came in they were paid off and that was that. So, there is a partial file at Irvine. You say there’s one at Santa Ana College?

Sleeper: Yes, and the Santa Ana Public Library.

Meadows: Well, I may be wrong on this, but I think the Huntington Library may have corralled more or less a complete set. I’ve never seen it, but I know Ed Carpenter was talking about it one time and he said he thought there was a file of the Orange County reports. I do know that the Huntington has the Los Angeles file. It wasn’t just an Orange County affair, it was a national set up.

Sleeper: Well, there are several sets of them. Actually, I think the original notes used to be here at Bowers did they not?

Meadows: I believe they were. I believe that was where one of the sets went. Well, what happened to them?

Sleeper: Who knows? Speaking of Bowers, that was one of the events of the 1930s. Bowers, of course, ostensibly opened as a local history museum. And I’m sure you must have known Bessie Randall Coulter [the first curator] . . .

Meadows: Yes.

Sleeper: How would describe her contributions to history? What kind of a person was Bessie? I’m sure no one ever called her that. She was rather an austere lady. A pretty lady, but . . .

Meadows: She was gracious and enthusiastic. I don’t know how much history she was interested in, but she had a doll collection. Maybe since she was a collector they thought collectors are supposed to be hooked up with museums; so, maybe she was supposed to . . . well, she had a nice personality, but she was rather austere. A nice person, but, oh, you should have seen her doll collection! It took up half of the Bowers Museum. It was all right.

Sleeper: We mentioned that during World War II – beginning around 1942 – the Historical Society went into something of a coma, which it didn’t come out of until about ’61. What were you doing in the ‘40s? In Long Beach and in Laguna part of the time.

Meadows: Well, we still had a home in Laguna and I was teaching in Long Beach and also at Orange Coast College. We didn’t start building up on the hill until the ‘50s so . . . I don’t know. I was having fun.[9] [laughter]

Sleeper: Obviously you did a little writing. I had a feeling that part of that time you’d sort of deserted Orange County for your other love, Baja California. One of your articles I noticed in your bibliography has always intrigued me. Published in Westways in 1941 and called “A Waterfront Derelict.” And I always wanted to know, was that autobiographical in nature? [laughter]

Meadows: Yes, perhaps in a way. I was in the Navy during World War I and stationed in San Pedro, where there used to be a Catalina steamer called the Hermosa. After the Avalon and the Santa Catalina were built the Hermosa just faded out and was left in San Pedro off in one of those docks off the north side. And it just deteriorated. But it had been quite a ship back in the 1880s and early ‘90s, running between San Pedro and Catalina; but it had been abandoned and just rotted away. And I happened to be down there cruising around one time and I took some pictures of it and that gave me an idea; and so I wrote up the story of the Hermosa and sent it with the pictures to Phil Hanna, the editor, and he was gracious enough to send me $3.00.

Sleeper: Well, the pay was slightly better in the ‘60s, during which time local history enjoyed something of a renaissance here. In 1965, Leo Friis wrote his survey account of Orange County’s past, we saw a plethora of town histories, Esther Cramer’s La Habra book, the Goddard’s Santa Ana’s 100 Years, and half a dozen others. But what really started off this period was the 1963 publication of the three volumes known as the Talbert research works – so called because Tom Talbert was the Honorary Editor-in-Chief – but which I happen to know that you and Mildred Yorba Serrano personally wrote.[10] And, I’ve got to ask you, on that whole project, did you ever even meet Tom Talbert?

Meadows: Yes, but a long time prior to his editorship. The two people that promoted that mug book couldn’t find a suitable sponsor, so they went to Tom and Tom said, “Nothing doing, I don’t want anything to do with it at all.” But they did use his name anyway, and as far as I know, Tom never even saw a copy and didn’t want to. He had absolutely nothing to do with it. Before that, though, this promotional company – I forget what it was called – had contacted Mildred Yorba and myself and asked if we’d write the history. And Mildred and I got along beautifully. She was smarter than I was, though, much smarter, because she said sure, she’d write her account for so much money in advance, complete. Well, I didn’t know how it was going to be so I made them a deal that I’d write the thing for so much a word. Well, Mildred got her money and I got about 90 percent of mine, but the other ten percent I took out in books. I don’t have any copies now, but if you ever wanted a three volume set of Orange County history, I had two or three copies that I was perfectly willing to let loose of.

But, well, Tom had nothing to do with the book, although he gets the credit. But Mildred and I . . . Mildred and I got along beautifully. You know her, of course. We had kind of a mutual agreement. We’d get together about once a week and say, “What are you working on?” and we’d talk things over and say, “All right, I’ll take this, you take that.” “Okay!” and away we’d go.

Sleeper: Yes, I always wondered how you divvied up the county between the two of you.

Meadows: Well, if something interested Mildred more than it did me, why, she could have it. And the same way if I wanted something. Mildred’s interests were primarily in folklore and cooking and customs and things of that kind. My interests seem to run along more of, we’ll say, the chronological events and so that’s why Mildred and I got along so well. Incidentally, those are darn good books, too. The part that Mildred wrote has really got a lot of good information.

Sleeper: And facts . . . because they are an encyclopedia.

Meadows: Yes, that’s so.

Sleeper: Okay, following the mug book adventure, in 1966 Don came out with his Historic Place Names in Orange County – a real gem. If I may be permitted a private observation, that book, more than anything else I think, really established you as a county-wide historian. You know, most local historians, their interest really ends at their own city limits sign; but in this book, you really had to poke your nose into every nook and cranny in Orange County. How did you go about it, and what prompted that book?

Meadows: Well, what prompted it was a very dear friend of mine named Dr. Horace Parker, who a veterinarian down here on Balboa Island. We were talking California history – Parky was raised over in the Temecula area and he knew that country remarkably well, and he’d written some things – and one day . . . I don’t know where we got the idea, but it came up that there’d never been a history of place names in Orange County. So he said, “You write it and I’ll publish it.” He owned the Paisano Press. And I said, “Okay, fine,” and thought nothing more of it. About six or eight months later Parky simply said, “How’s the place names book progressing?” And I said, “What place names book?” “The one you’re writing!” “Why, I didn’t know I was writing a place names book.” But Parky was a good friend and so we shook hands on it and I went to work. I dug through old maps, old magazines, old newspapers, interviewed old timers, got out time tables and picked up places and then started researching to see the meaning of them or the reason they were there, etcetera. I think there’s 640 names in the book, and there are eleven errors. [laughter] I’m not self-conscious of the number of errors, but I figured it out, and I think ten or eleven errors out of 640 is a fairly good batting average. But Parky should get the credit – all I did was write it. We did, finally, ten or twelve years after the book came out, sign a contract. Parky said one day, “What is somebody else republishes this?” so we signed a contract for him to publish it and I was to write the book. That’s the kind of friend he was. We didn’t give a hoot about any contract, we trusted each other. He was a great guy.

Sleeper: Significantly, your cut-off date in the place names book was 1940, and with a slight variation of one side of World War II or the other, most historians feel that the ‘40s were the end of the so-called “Good Old Days” in Orange County and the beginning of “modern times.” The war signaled the end of the county as a collection of small, isolated, agrarian communities, and our beginning as a metropolitan complex. Before, of course, our towns were separate and distinct, and population was sparse. Today we are elbow to elbow, not knowing where our town ends and the next one begins. Now, given that premise, how is anyone going to write meaningful local history in the future?

Meadows: Well, the only thing I can suggest . . . I’ve thought about this, Jim, because it’s too complex, we’re getting so many factors coming in that are beginning to show a great influence: the Chicanos, the Vietnamese, the Orientals, the Hindus. Of course, the Chicanos have been here since before we got here, really. But anyway, the whole thing is effervescing and changing with their new influences, and the only thing I can think of – and I’ve been asked this question once or twice – is to save the newspapers. You can pick out one that has good news coverage and also pick up all the ephemera that you find. Because it isn’t just this immigration of foreigners that’s brought change, but also – as you’ve already mentioned – when we built the house up there on the hill, we could look out over the valley at night and there was a little glowing spot here and another one over there – Tustin was here, Santa Ana was over here, Anaheim over here, Fullerton over here, Orange down below – you could see the whole thing, pick out each little glowing spot. Now it’s one solid sweep of lights.

Sleeper: In the scene you’re describing, each town had its own flavor, too.

Meadows: That’s true.

Sleeper: Lots of town pride. Pretty hard to have town pride today when you don’t even know which town you’re actually in.

Meadows: You don’t know your neighbors anymore.

Sleeper: Or who you’re competing against.

Meadows: I don’t know . . . we’re too close to it to really draw any conclusions.

Sleeper: But the only conclusion you can come to safely is that history does not stop with 1940.

Meadows: It started. That is, one phase of it did, because it was definitely the end of one phase . . . well, there was the Mission Period, and the Rancho Period, and the period of the Boom, and the period up to World War I, and then after World War I, that was another period – every one of them as distinct as could be. And we’re right in the middle of a distinct period now, and you tell me what it is – I don’t know.

Sleeper: Okay, a couple of quickies before we wind up here. If you could bring back one person from history for an hour’s chat, who would it be?

Meadows: In history, all of history?

Sleeper: Well, presumably local history, someone from Orange County.

Meadows: Oh my gosh, Jim, I don’t know, there’s been so many interesting people. I’ve never been bored with any of them. So to pick out just one . . . you got any suggestions? I don’t know . . . Terry Stephenson?

Sleeper: Yes, Terry. Judge Pleasants?

Meadows: Judge Pleasants, yes. Bill McPherson . . . yes, I’d probably like to see him, but I did spend hours and hours talking to Bill, and he was my friend for 40 years. We went to Indian ceremonies, we lived with the Indians, we went to Baja California together and . . .

Sleeper: And you wrote a good book on him, too, called A California Paisano, but he’s still something of a mystery to me.

Meadows: He was to me, too, because although Bill and I were friends for 40 years or more, and he was a walking encyclopedia of Western history – he’d talk about anything at great length, and accurately – but he never mentioned himself, he never told anything. But after he died I was asked by the bank to kind of take over his assets, particularly the books – he had built up a wonderful library of Californiana – and in digging out the books . . . well, that’s a story in itself, the house was absolutely a mess, but anyway, I found a tin bread box with a lot of his diaries. Bill had started when he was 12 years old, and he never expected anyone to see those diaries except himself, so he was very, very, extremely enlightening. So, in knowing Bill, and going through some of the periods together, why, I was able to interpret them. And then, he was a fantastic, fascinating character, and so I did write this book called A California Paisano – have you got a copy?

Sleeper: You bet! I think it’s one of the best things you ever did.

Meadows: I think it is the best thing I ever did. I enjoyed it most. I know Glen Dawson is here – where’s Glen Dawson? Glen, are there any of them in print?

Dawson: Yes.

Meadows: They are in print? Well that’s good.

Sleeper: It’s a real collector’s item, too, because this guy was not only an Orange County historian and book collector and pioneer and . . . a little odd.

Meadows: He was an odd ball, but . . .

Sleeper: Sort of a loner . . .

Meadows: An eccentric, no question about it.

Sleeper: All right, Don, we’re going to have to wind this up, but before deserting us for the number one spot on Rand McNally’s hit list – the worst possible place in the nation to live [laughter] – do you have anything to say to your irate fans out there about your leaving?

Meadows: Yes. It’s a traumatic experience. If it weren’t for the fact that Frances and I are not as young as we used to be, and the fact that our son and our daughter-in-law and our grandchildren have reached the conclusion in the last two or three years that at our age we ought to be taken care of, we wouldn’t be moving. Our son has a ranch up at Yuba City, and he’s also a teacher at Yuba College. I wanted to have him move . . . I said, “Well, son, sell out up there and come down here.” “No, not Southern California, there’s too many people.” But finally we broke down – that is, Frances and I – and admitted that . . . although we have a host of friends here in Southern California, we grew up here, we love it, love everybody, and it’s been wonderful; but, when you come right down to it face to face, friends are not family. I know we have friends that if anything happens we wouldn’t be ignored at all – because I’m sure there’d be a rush in to . . . well, there has been already. It’s a traumatic experience and rather an emotional one, too, because when I . . . well, look at this group here tonight . . . .

Sleeper: I think it’s an emotional one for all of us, but what worries me, Don, is that six months from now I’ll be getting a flyer announcing Don Meadows’ “Historic Place Names of Yuba City” [laughter] for $35, which I will be obliged to buy and won’t give a damn about! [laughter]

Meadows: All right, Jim, I’ll dedicate it to you – and I don’t give a damn about it either! [laughter]

Sleeper: One last thing, Don. I don’t know whether you know it, but you yourself are commemorated in an Orange County place name. I guess it’s time to tell this story. In 1967, when I was Staff Historian for The Irvine Company, we were breaking ground for a new housing development just south of Tustin. And they needed a name, and they wanted something historic-sounding. And so they came in and asked me to gumshoe this particular area. Well, I knew that the area used to be called La Cienega de las Ranas, and so I brightly suggested “Frog Swamp.” [laughter] For some reason our real estate department didn’t really go for that, and so they sent me back to the drawing board. About that time you dropped by the ranch for one of your interminable chats – I’ve forgotten whether that was the time we shot the Tomato Springs Bandit, or bushwhacked Sheriff Barton – but anyway, after you left I was thumbing through your place names book again, and I was smitten with this brilliant thought. The upshot of that inspiration was that today, one square mile of the Irvine Ranch bears the impressive name of “Tustin Meadows.”

A true story.

As Mr. Meadows himself once observed, history is finding answers to good questions. Old friend, what can I say after all of these years except, Vaya con Díos!

Meadows: Gracias, compadre. And to all of you . . . adios!


1 – Father Geronimo Boscana (1775-1831) served at Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1814-26, and during that time complied the most extensive treatise on the California Indians written by any of the early Franciscan missionaries. The 1933 Fine Arts edition, with extensive notes by John P. Harrington, is considered the best. Don Meadows is thanked in the acknowledgments.

2 – John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) was a linguist, and anthropologist, and a famous eccentric. During the early 1900s, he taught at Santa Ana High School, and his field notes from his work with the Juaneño people are still yielding fruits today.

3 – Meadows’ article, “The Original Site of Mission San Juan Capistrano,” appeared in the Southern California Quarterly in September 1967.

4 – Dr. C.D. Ball (1859-1935) came to Santa Ana in 1887, and was a charter member of the Orange County Medical Association. In 1919, he helped to found the Orange County Historical Society. He also served as one of the original trustees of the Charles W. Bowers Memorial Museum.

5 – Terry E. Stephenson (1880-1943) was the editor of the Santa Ana Register from 1906-1927. Later he served as County Treasurer. For more information, see Allen Goddard’s short biography, Terry E. Stephenson (1965). 

6 – Thomas E. Williams (1894-1974) taught printing at Santa Ana Junior College, and during the 1930s created a student-run fine printing program that created some of the most impressive books ever published in Orange County. See Richard Curtiss’ biography, Thomas E. Williams and the Fine Arts Press (1973).

7 – Don and Frances Meadows were married in 1926. She worked as a school librarian during her professional life, and supported her husband in all his endeavors. She transcribed, edited, and annotated several years of the diaries of Mary Refugio (Carpenter) Pleasants from the early 1860s. They were published by the Downey Historical Society in their annual journals for 1968-69, and 1969-70/1970-71. Joseph Edward Pleasants (1839-1934) was a ‘49er, who first settled in the Santa Ana Mountains in 1861. One of Orange County’s most beloved pioneers, he was popularly known as Judge Pleasants. His second wife, Adelina, died in 1943.

8 – In 1988 the Orange County Historical Society published An Indexed Guide to the Works Progress Administration Project #3105, 1936: A History of Orange County, California, compiled by Virginia Carpenter and Jane Mueller.

9 – In the late 1950s, Don and Frances Meadows built at adobe house on the southern end of Panorama Heights, overlooking Hewes Middle School, in Tustin. They named it Quinta de los Prados – the home of the Meadows. It was their home until leaving Orange County in 1985.

10 – Mildred Yorba MacArthur (1903-1987) was a descendant of several pioneer families, including the Yorbas and the Tuffrees. She worked as a journalist and freelance writer before turning to local history. The Historical Volume and Reference Works was published in three fat volumes by Historical Publishers of Whittier in 1963. Sales were less than spectacular, and some of Meadows’ chapters were later re-issued without the biographies by Dawson’s Book Shop as Orange County Under Spain, Mexico, and the United States (1966). Later still, a portion of MacArthur’s work was re-issued by Dawson’s as Orange County During the Spanish Period (1968).