What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Orange County, California? Miles and miles of beaches, large houses, and nice cars? That’s the impression that I had when I first moved to Orange County. But just a couple generations ago, Orange County was a very rural county. What’s interesting is how quickly Orange County developed from rural farmland to a major Southern California suburb.
For the vast majority of Orange County’s civilized history, the primary economy was agriculture. The Native Americans who lived in the area hunted, fished, and planted seeds. In 1769, the first Spanish explorers arrived in present-day Orange County (which was then part of Los Angeles County), and by 1776, the Spanish missionaries established Mission San Juan Capistrano. Those who occupied the mission grazed cattle, horses, and sheep.
While California was under Mexico’s rule, settlers began pouring into the county, and received grazing rights for the settled land. By 1846, almost the entire county was divided into ranches. By the time California was admitted into the union in 1850, Orange County had a population of 500.
Those who held title to the original Mexican land grants began dividing up their properties and sold parcels to settlers. Even though towns like Santa Ana, Orange, and Westminster were born, the economy remained largely agriculture-based. The local economy rested in part on wine grapes, corn, wheat, and barley. The growth of this agricultural economy fueled a sense of identity, which helped residents secede from Los Angeles County, and formally establish Orange County in 1889.
For the next half-century, agriculture “remained the most important part of Orange County’s economy.” New crops, such as celery, walnuts, and beans, were planted and harvested at the turn of the century. By World War I, Orange County had 20,000 acres of orange groves, and by the Great Depression, Orange County produced one-sixth of America’s Valencia oranges.
Then came the 1950s.
The 1950s ushered in an era that changed Orange County forever. This was the decade of expanding freeways, bulldozing farms, and building suburban homes. When Walt Disney built his park in the mid-1950s, he had to clear 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of the county increased by more than 300%. By 1963, the population surpassed one million.
In 2004, there were fewer than 100 acres of citrus groves. Presently, with a population of more than three million, Orange County is the third most populous county in California, behind Los Angeles and San Diego counties, and the sixth most populous county in the United States.
How did this transformation from farm to suburb take place so quickly? There were many factors that, taken as a whole, facilitated this change. The 1950s saw the birth of the Eisenhower Interstate System and a proliferation of personal automobiles. This liberated homeowners from living near the city centers to purchase homes in newer and nicer neighborhoods in the suburbs. Orange County was in a prime location; in addition to its beautiful weather, Orange County had abundant space and was conveniently juxtaposed beside America’s second largest city.
But Orange County is not an ordinary suburb or bedroom community. Orange County as a whole might seem like one big city, but it doesn’t resemble a traditional concentric-zone city in which a single downtown is in the middle, encircled by “rings” of residential areas. In Orange County, there is no single downtown; rather, there are multiple “central business districts” throughout the county in Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, and Irvine (all of which have populations less than 350,000). The traditional suburb-to-urban commute generally doesn’t apply to Orange County. Most residents live and work within the county, prompting a suburb-to-suburb commute, primarily by automobile.
But if you want farm-fresh fruits and vegetables long associated with Orange County, you won't have to drive far. There are many farmers' markets throughout the county, in the suburban cities that replaced the very farms that existed half a century ago.