Eldo West's "Notes Concerning Yorba Linda"
In 1980, I was part of Dr. Arthur Hansen’s community history class at Cal State Fullerton, and he had given us a project – to try to preserve the oldest house in Yorba Linda. In fact, it was not only the oldest house in town, it was the childhood home of author Jessamyn West (1902-1984) who used her Yorba Linda memories in many of her novels. Better still, it was already owned by the city, sitting in the middle of 13 acres of proposed parkland at the corner of Palm and Yorba Linda Blvd.
Naturally, several of us (including Dr. Hansen) all wrote to Jessamyn West, and for some reason, mine was the letter she chose to answer first:
“Your letter prompted me to get out a sizeable sheath of pages written at my request by my father about twenty-five years ago – telling of Yorba Linda when he moved there in 1910.
“What he has to say is not only well written but authentic. For instance, he did not by ‘a lot’ in 1910 as the county record reports, but ten acres of barley land on which he, when the Tract (as it was called) drilled wells, planted oranges and lemons.
“I am going to have these pages xeroxed and my brother, Merle E. West, will see that you have a copy. I will not try to recount for you now the richness of details you will find in them: everything from the size of the redwood planks used in building the house to the number of trapdoor spiders and roadrunners in the neighborhood.
“Alas, no one was concerned about the preservation of endangered species in those days and I doubt that either can now be found in Yorba Linda.
“My father … was Superintendent of the Water Company; president of the school board; Master, if that is the word for it, of the Masons.
“In his accounts, written for me, are fascinating facts which none of us, even historic commodities like me, could arrive at by speculating. An eight-year-old female can’t hold a candle to a twenty-nine year old housebuilder and citrus grower. I send you a treasure trove.”
And indeed she did.
One phrase in West’s letter deserves explanation. Dr. Hansen, in a rush of enthusiasm, had more than once described Jessamyn West in the newspapers as “a valuable historical commodity.” “We would like to see Yorba Linda capitalize on Jessamyn West like Salinas has with Steinbeck,” he explained. (Yorba Linda Star, Aug. 12, 1980) Thus West’s joking reference to herself.
Armed with West’s support, our class pushed on. We met with city officials, spoke to community organizations, gave newspaper and radio interviews, did displays around town, and prepared a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. The city officials seemed less than excited about our efforts.
In California, those nominations are first reviewed by the State Historical Resources Commission, so in February 1981 I traveled north to Larkspur to make our case before the commission. The City of Yorba Linda, meanwhile wrote to the commission to announce their plans to tear down several of the surrounding ranch buildings and “abate a hazardous condition.” That was probably their undoing.
“What about this letter from the city?” one of the commissioners asked me.
“What letter?” I said. “They told us they weren’t going to take any position on the nomination.”
One of the commissioners handed me their copy, which I had to read and respond to on the spot. Once the commissioners found out the site was threatened their interest increased, and we were given preliminary approval to move forward, subject to providing more information. Because Jessamyn West was still living, our statement of significance could not rely on her work as an author. Instead, we had to work from Eldo West’s significance in the founding of Yorba Linda.
At the same time, the city suddenly decided to evict the caretaker who had been living in the house for several years. The house was left standing open and abandoned, and sure enough, on February 28, 1982, it was burned to the ground in an arson fire.
So ended our efforts to save the oldest house in Yorba Linda.
But the story wasn’t over. Barely a year later, the city began negotiations with a developer to give him half the proposed park site “in exchange for a developer’s offer to build a city hall at no cost to the city.” (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 18, 1983) Despite protests from local residents, a dozen homes went up on the north end of the property and the City of Yorba Linda got their city hall. A year later, Jessamyn West Park opened on the remaining acres.
After using Eldo West’s recollections in preparing the nomination to place his home on the National Register of Historic Places, I summoned up my courage and suggested to Jessamyn West that his manuscripts would be a valuable addition to the published history of Orange County. Her reply was immediate and definite:
“Thank you for your kind words about my father’s letters. Since they form a part of a collection of my forebears, some dating back to the 18th century, I would not like to have them separated from the others.
“While they include facts about early Yorba Linda, they have a deeper meaning for me and my family….
“Use them to check facts about Yorba Linda, but I would not want them to pass out of my hands or to be used and edited by any one other than myself.”
And there things stood at the time of Jessamyn West’s death in February 1984 at the age of 81.
After a decent interval, I approached the library at Whittier College (West’s alma mater, where she had donated her papers) and after they conferred with her husband, Dr. Harry McPherson, I was given permission to publish Eldo West’s recollections. I have used excerpts from them in the past and now take this opportunity to share more of them with a wider audience. As his daughter promised, they are well-written and wonderfully detailed.
The four articles that follow were assembled from a variety of manuscripts written by Eldo West in the late 1950s. Where there was repetition I have tried to select the most detailed versions. Besides the photocopies sent by Jessamyn West, I am also grateful to her brother, Merle West (1912-1998) who loaned me one of their father’s original manuscripts to copy.
Eldo R. West
Born of Quaker stock in Jennings County, Indiana, in 1879, in 1901 Eldo West married Grace Milhous (he always said she proposed). Their first daughter, Mary Jessamyn West, was born a year later. Eldo “was six feet one, black-haired, olive-skinned, had broad shoulders, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose,” his daughter later recalled in The Woman Said Yes (1976). “Eldo was a quiet man,” she added, “easily discouraged, and given to melancholy.” While “Grace was tenacious, witty and merry.” They both shared a love of travel.
After farming and teaching school in Indiana, in 1909 the Wests came to California, settling originally in Whittier before moving to Yorba Linda in the fall of 1910.
Two other children were born to Eldo and Grace in Indiana: Myron (1903-1975) and Carmen (1906-1963). Their youngest son, Merle, was born in Yorba Linda in March 1912. Grace’s father, Jesse Milhous, was the brother of Frank Milhous, grandfather of future president Richard Nixon, who was born in Yorba Linda in 1913. Thus the West and the Nixon children were cousins.
In Yorba Linda, West was active in many roles. He served on the original school board from 1912-15 and again from 1918-21. He went to work for the local water company in 1913 and served as superintendent from 1914-21. He was one of the founding directors of the First National Bank of Yorba Linda in 1916, a charter member of the local Masonic Lodge in 1918, and served briefly as postmaster.
That same year, he founded Acme Cleaners and Dyers in Anaheim, which ran until 1934 when his son, Merle, took over the business. He moved to Anaheim in 1923, and then to Whittier in 1932, where he owned a small orange grove for many years and sold real estate on the side.
Grace West passed away in 1959, and two years later Eldo moved to a Quaker retirement home in Oregon where he passed away on December 31, 1969 at the age of 90.
Jessamyn West graduated from Whittier College in 1923, married classmate Harry McPherson, and began a teaching career before being stricken with tuberculosis. She began writing from her sickbed in the 1930s and first found fame with her 1945 collection of stories of Midwestern Quaker life, The Friendly Persuasion (1945). She returned to her Yorba Linda childhood in several of her novels and memoirs. Her father’s “notes” were originally written for her when she was writing her novel South of the Angels (1960), which is set in Yorba Linda in 1916. Memories of her childhood there also appear in her coming of age novel, Cress Delahanty (1953), and her memoirs Hide and Seek (1973) and The Woman Said Yes (1976).
Jessamyn West also wrote a few recollections of early Yorba Linda for the newspapers, including this article for the Yorba Linda Star (October 17, 1947), available on the Yorba Linda Public Library website.
Here are the links to Eldo West’s memoirs: