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Tragedy at the Riverside

During a heatwave on August 5, 1917, two cousins, Robert Gisler’s daughter Elizabeth, 11, and Sam Gisler’s daughter Mabel, 10, went to the Santa Ana River with Elizabeth’s sister Lucile, 6, to play in the water.

The two older girls were wading in the shallows of the channel, laughing and playing, when they suddenly lost their footing and stepped into a large hole. They struggled to find a foothold in the deep drop-off, while their cries for help went unanswered. Young Lucile thought they were only playing.

When the girls disappeared under the water, Lucile ran for help, eventually finding a surf-fisherman on the beach 3/4 mile away. He and a 13-year-old boy managed to recover the girls, who by that point had been in the water between 45 minutes and an hour.

Every effort was made to revive them. An electric car was flagged down, and a Pulmotor resuscitator was sent from Santa Ana. But it was too late. At the time of the accident, Sam and Robert were in Seal Beach, where they received the sad news.

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How do you pronounce Gisler?

Gisler Avenue in the north side of Costa Mesa sees more traffic, perhaps, than any other street of its size in the city. The 1.7 mile road is lined with subdivisions, schools, a city park, and hugely popular restaurant chains like In N’ Out, Raising Cane’s, Denny’s, and Chik-Fil-A.

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President’s Year in Review 2017

We have had a good year! When we were children, the saying was, “Will Christmas ever get here?” Now we say, “Is Christmas here already?” We had many good things happening in 2017. Our accomplishments include:

  • Contributing SAAAB photo displays and volunteer hours for the grand opening of Heroes Hall at the Orange County Fair & Event Center in February.
  • Hosting successful meetings which attracted new members to the society including January’s installation dinner with speaker Michele Richards and From SAAAB Barracks to Heroes Hall; February’s Bring A Friend event; presenter Bob Minty and Whaling Along the Orange County Coast in March; historian Richard Duvall and Early California Days in May; historian Craig MacDonald and Old West WOW! in September; editors Lisa Alvarez & Andrew Tonkovich and Orange County: A Literary Field Guide in October; and author David K. Heyward and A Young Man in the Wild Blue Yonder in November.
  • Participating in community events and setting up booths at 70th Annual Fish Fry, Concerts in the Park and Uncovering Hidden Histories in OC held at Irvine Ranch Historic Park.

All in all Society volunteers gave more than 6,000 hours of service to the organization and to the community in 2017. Thank you to our dedicated members:

Lead volunteer Art Goddard for all the amazing things he does from producing high-quality prints of old photographs to managing our technology needs. Head archivist Mary Ellen Goddard for everything, including handling the many requests from the public for historical information to organizing the acquisition and preservation of our collections. Tess Bernstein for taking on the role of 2nd VP of Membership, cataloging items, and overseeing Scarecrow Festival in the past. Nancy Pedersen in her role as Secretary while she devotes hours to the upcoming boat building exhibit The Hull Story. Kathy Bequette for managing the newspaper files, scheduling tours of the museums, helping out with refreshments, and overseeing the adobe. Susan Weeks in her role as treasurer – many thanks for an excellent job. Annette Watson who gave us four years of engaging newsletters – we will miss you.

Thanks to 1st VP Terry Shaw for his persistence in organizing our speaker events and excellent programs. Bob Palazzola, past president, SAAAB newsletter editor, and our representative to Heroes Hall – your efforts are appreciated. Dave Rusher for taking on projects involving hours at the computer. Cynthia Humphreys for chairing the adobe event in May and helping out where needed. Karl and Hope Von Herzen for their dedication to helping build a database of local newspaper articles. Sid Hallburn for coming in each week and cleaning up the building.

Thanks to docents Vickie Alcala Kelley and Lynn Alcala who captivate visitors with stories of growing up in the adobe. Sharon Dearing for the many projects you take on. Jean Nomura for cataloging our collection. Jan Rovan, Dolores Minerich and Ursula Hartunian for helping whenever needed. Estelle Hughes for cataloging the clothing and other textiles. Beth Refakes for setting up at the refreshment table during our programs. Alex Golson in your new role as adobe docent and more – thanks for joining us. 

And lastly thank you to Gladys Refakes and your many years of service to the society. You are our ROCK!

Enjoy the holidays and we’ll see you next year!

– Dave Gardner, President, Costa Mesa Historical Society

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Celebrating Lil’ Pickle

Even though Pete Bower has owned Lil’ Pickle almost 13 years, people still come in and ask, “Are you the new owner?” But that’s what happens when you own a 55 year old institution.

Every week, he says, he’ll get a customer who will say, “My mom used to bring me in here when I was a kid. Now I’m bringing my kids in.” Or, looking at the team photos lining the walls, one will say, “That’s my sister, that’s my brother, that’s me, 20 years ago.”

James DiCamilli first opened Lil’ Pickle on 17th Street in 1962, moving to Fairview and Baker in the early 1970s — where it’s been ever since.

Mr. Bower, who previously ran Pizza Pete’s and Balboa Beach Treats near the Balboa Pavilion, was introduced to Mr. DiCamilli though a friend. When the latter decided to retire in 2005, he handed the keys to Mr. Bower.

Since then, Lil’ Pickle added a 14” sub. And, for a personal touch, Mr. Bower — an avid golfer — added golf gear to the sports-themed decor.

But other than that, the sub shop remains much as Mr. DiCamilli left it, including the sandwiches, the layout, the photographs, and the popular avocado spread. And it’s still family run.

Sticking to tradition has helped make Lil’ Pickle what it is today: a buzzing neighborhood spot reflecting the diverse community around it, where plumbers, lawyers, electricians, students, coaches, and professors alike rub shoulders.

In gratitude for its continued support, Lil’ Pickle gives back to the community every year, sponsoring a wide variety of causes, with a focus on youth and college athletics and other local organizations. Mr. Bower is proud to make Mr. Di-Camilli’s devotion to the community a central part of Lil’ Pickle’s mission.

Popular subs include “The Lil’ Pickle,” made with salami, capicola, and cheese, and “The Natural,” a healthier choice with turkey, cheese, and avocado spread on a wheat roll. The pastrami is popular, too.

No matter what you order, you’ll get a taste of history when you come to this long-standing local institution.

Lil’ Pickle is located at 2985 Fairview Rd. and is open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily.

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Lost Landmark: The Clark House Fire

When George H. Clark visited the boomtown of Fairview in the spring of 1889, he declared the area “the prettiest place I have ever seen.” In a matter of weeks he sold his business interests in Chicago and purchased over 100 acres in what would later become Costa Mesa. He then set about building a house that would rival the beauty of the landscape.

The result was a grand three-story mansion boasting airy arched verandas, striking decorative shingles, intricate scroll work, ridge poles, a bay window, and stained glass. The interior overflowed with rooms, including a large reception hall, parlor, dining room, library, butler’s pantry, kitchen, four bedrooms, a bathroom, and servants’ quarters. Two features stood out: the massive fireplaces heating the parlor and dining room and the luxurious polished redwood running throughout.

The house quickly became a local landmark, with area pioneer Harvey Holden remembering it as “the most beautiful of all the houses in Fairview.”

The ranch stretched northwest from modern-day Baker and Fairview to roughly Harbor on the west and Gisler to the north, and sat across from the McClintocks and Yales. The ranch was home to the Bingham Creamery, a dairy, tennis courts, and a small cottage for the grandparents. The former executive exchanged the silk and tea trades for a new kind of stock, cultivating English walnuts and French prunes, white Adriatic figs and lusty-looking grapes, and goats and cattle. In 1891, Mr. Clark registered a newly calved Holstein-Friesian cow, “The Duchess of Fairview.”

Life on the mesa had its setbacks. The Fairview boom went bust. George’s father died and his wife left for Chicago to give birth to their second son, never to return. He lost $2,000 when the Fairview general store, which he owned, burned down, uninsured. And his plans to run an electric train from Santa Ana to Newport Beach never materialized. He left the area in 1902 in search of better education for his sons, eventually settling in Los Angeles after marrying his second wife, Elysabeth Clarke, his sons’ former schoolteacher, prominent educational activist, and daughter of Fairview founder A.L. Clarke.

Over the years the old house saw a variety of tenants, including Vernie Graser, Charles Borchard, and even the famous McClintocks, who spent a year in the house while they awaited the construction of their new Spanish-style home.

By the 1950s the property was owned by another local magnate: merchant, rancher, and real estate broker Ernest A. Watson of Tustin. His son Don moved into the house with his wife and children.

On Christmas Day 1953, we are told, the Watson family went out, leaving the tree illuminated. The lights shorted and sparked a fire that flared through the wooden house. Neighbors noticed dense smoke billowing from the chimneys around 3 p.m. One witness, the young nephew of Maureen McClintock Rischard, ran to his mother to alert her. As she called the fire department, the boy and his father rushed across the street, rescuing three palomino horses locked in a corral next to the growing inferno.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rischard was herself driving to the ranch. Approaching Baker from Newport Avenue, the fire loomed over the landscape some two miles away. She and her husband arrived to find the mansion — where she had passed a year of her childhood, playing dress-up in fancy clothes — engulfed in flames. They stood and watched, powerless. They took one last photograph before the former icon collapsed in front of them.

It took firefighters from Costa Mesa and Santa Ana Gardens two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the blaze. Only a nearby barn and garage were saved. As for the house, it was a total loss. “Mrs. Watson’s sterling silver was just a clump,” Mrs. Rischard recalled. “It was that hot a fire, with all that wood.”

Fittingly, perhaps, the loss of the boom-era landmark occurred during the frenzy of another boom. “New Subdivision Maps Swamp Planners” reads one 1954 headline. Within 18 months of the fire, ground was broken on one of the first modern planned developments in Costa Mesa, the Halecrest tract, and the Clark ranch welcomed a new kind of pioneer.

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They Were Here Before Us

It was a warm day in July 1769. A small band of soldiers were slowly riding north. They stopped on the bluff overlooking the ocean to refresh themselves. Perhaps they looked towards the Pacific, thinking to them- selves the area would make a great harbor someday. Turning inland, they noticed a band of about five hundred Indians quietly going about their daily lives. Don Gaspar de Portola led his small band of soldiers slowly riding northward, never to return. The Indians lived where the Diego Sepulveda Adobe is today. The tribe was known as the Tongva.

As a docent at the adobe, I tell visitors they are standing where the Indians were in about 1750 and earlier. Also, I point out the display we have about the Tongva lifestyle. Tongva means “People of the earth”. The people lived mainly on small animals, deer, fish, and ducks, and also fruit, berries, and nuts. Both men and women wore grass skirts and animal skins with elaborate jewelry made of shells, seeds, and beads. Hunting was done with bow and arrows, snares, and throwing sticks. Their housing, called wikiups, was made of willow branches and woven mats of tule rushes. Should the wikiups become infested with vermin, they were burned down and rebuilt some distance away.

Want to learn more? Visit the Diego Sepulveda Adobe to view artifacts, speak to our docents, and discover more about our community’s native peoples. The contributions of the Tongva to Costa Mesa history should not be overlooked.

Dave Gardner
President, Costa Mesa Historical Society

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Nat Rochester, Costa Mesa War Hero
Nat Rochester leads the color guard at the "Homecoming of Company L," April 6th, 1918, on 4th Street in Santa Ana. Source: "The Story of Company L: Santa Ana's Own", 1958.

Nat Rochester, Costa Mesa War Hero

In the Argonne Forest, October 8, 1918, Sergeant Nathaniel N. Rochester became one of the first Costa Mesans to die for his country.

Nat, as he was called, moved to what was then Harper in 1908 at age ten. His parents were artists, but he was drawn to patriotic duty, like the great-great grandfather for whom he was named, the Revolutionary War colonel and founder of Rochester, New York.

He enlisted with Company L, “Santa Ana’s Own,” in 1916, and briefly patrolled the Mexican border against Pancho Villa’s raids. The Company mobilized again in 1917 when the US entered the Great War, and was stationed first in San Luis Obispo, then at Camp Kearny.

Nat returned home for the last time in April, 1918, taking a place of honor among the color guard at the “Homecoming of Company L,” considered one of the largest parades ever held in Santa Ana.

The company was deployed to Europe that summer. Nat was transferred to Company B, 308th infantry, and sent to the front.

Nat’s letters home contained his inveterate cheerfulness. He urged his mother, when he learned he would be fighting on her birthday, to celebrate by waving Old Glory. The supreme sacrifice, he said, “would be like skipping a grade in school.”

In October 1918 Nat’s division advanced quickly but reinforcements were delayed, allowing the German army to surround what would become known as the “Lost Battalion.” 554 soldiers fought for six days against overwhelming odds, with little food or ammunition, and water only reached under enemy fire. Only 194 men were rescued. The rest were captured or killed.

On the last day of the siege, October 8, Nat was shot and killed, a month away from his 21st birthday. He died, it is said, furiously working the bolt of his rifle, saying: “Don’t surrender.”

When his family and friends learned the news, they vowed to commemorate their beloved Nat. A tablet was unveiled with great ceremony at the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, where it remains in a place of honor. His mother dedicated a book of poetry to him, From Star to Star, in print today. And his father campaigned to memorialize fallen heroes in the names of city streets.

So on this Veteran’s Day, or whenever you’re on Rochester Street, take a moment to remember Nat, the cheery lad from Costa Mesa who sacrificed everything for his country.

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Goddards Honored at City Council Meeting

Our own Art Goddard addressed the city council at its April 16 meeting by presenting a short history of Costa Mesa. He posed this thought provoking question: will he and his wife, Mary Ellen, live to see the costa mesa freeway finished?

After Art’s presentation, he and Mary Ellen Goddard were presented the mayor’s award for their decades of service in helping to preserve the city’s history with the Costa Mesa Historical Society.

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