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.
The busy street is named after Samuel Gisler (1860-1947). Sam, as he was called, was just one of a wave of Gislers who left the Canton of Uri in Switzerland for California in the 1870s and 80s. The extended family, led by Sam’s father Max, first settled near Oxnard, where they were important pioneers, acquiring farmland and winning fame for their prized sugar beets. In the early 1900s, at least two of the Gisler family decided to trade Ventura for Orange County. Robert Gisler (1861-1945) settled in Gospel Swamp (now Fountain Valley) while Sam focused on what is now Costa Mesa.
Tom Talbert sold Sam his first piece of land, about 60 acres worth, in about 1903. But Sam didn’t stop with one purchase. He kept on buying. His family did, too, until there were Gislers on both sides of the Santa Ana River, spread over hundreds of acres. Whatever Sam didn’t farm himself, he rented out. He raised not only his famous beets, but also alfalfa, beans, and barley, and ran a small dairy of 11 cows. The Gislers supplemented their income in 1909 with a $1,500 prize for largest family (11 children at the time). Whatever success the farms had, the real money came when the family began selling off the land — becoming millionaires, says Talbert, in the process.
Today, several cities claim the Gislers. Besides the street and park in Costa Mesa, there is a Gisler Elementary in Fountain Valley and a former Gisler Intermediate in Huntington Beach (now Huntington Christian School). According to Talbert, the Gislers were good farmers, good ranchers, and good citizens: “Some of the best we got,” he said.
That’s all well and good, but how, exactly, are you supposed to pronounce Gisler? There are almost as many ways to pronounce it as there are letters in the name. We’ve heard it called “Gizz-ler”, “Guys-ler”, “Geese-ler”, and, from a particularly exasperated GPS, “JEEZ-ler”.
One could ask his descendants, but the intervening generations may have chipped away at the original pronunciation. How would Samuel Gisler have introduced himself?
We could find no recording in which Gisler left us a definitive pronunciation guide. We do, however, have audio recordings with neighbors, friends, and business associates who knew the intrepid beet farmer, including such authorities as Tom Talbert, Lester Platt, Goldie TeWinkle, and the Colombini sisters, Rose and Nellie. To a person, they all pronounced the name the same way. They even corrected the interviewer’s pronunciation when he got it wrong.
For comparison, we wanted to see how the name is pronounced by the Swiss of today. We combed YouTube for interviews with famous or less-than-famous German-speaking Gislers. We found, that, without deviation, today’s pronunciation matched the one found in the audio recordings.
But before we solve one mystery, how about another? Is it, in fact, spelled “Giesler”? No. Despite the occasional road sign to the contrary, virtually every newspaper article, biography, relative, and official marker, not to mention Sam’s tombstone in Holy Selpucher Cemetery, spells it “Gisler”. Funnily enough, though, the maiden name of Sam’s first wife was indeed … Annie Giesler.
The spelling with an E offers a clue to its pronunciation. Both Costa Mesa old-timers and today’s seem to Swiss agree: it’s pronounced “Geese-ler”. But, how do you pronounce Gisler?