When the County of Orange incorporated in 1889, a number of towns, including Fullerton (1904), Newport Beach (1906), and Huntington Beach (1909), quickly followed suit. During these early years, Orange County had about fifty unincorporated villages and towns, ranging in size from a few families to a sufficient population needed to incorporate as a city. Started by turn-of-the-century land and oil booms, many of these communities quickly vanished while others were paper towns that never developed past the planning stage. Others would thrive for decades and eventually be annexed to cities during the aggressive annexation wars following World War II.
The most important of these long-lost towns to Fullerton history is Orangethorpe. In 1860, settlers began moving into the territory northwest of Anaheim, eventually naming the area Orangethorpe. Like the county and the city of Orange, the name played on the appeal of the word “orange,” combined with the Old English word “thorpe”, meaning a village.
Original townsite map of Orangethorpe.
The town consisted of 6.25 square miles, sandwiched between Anaheim, Fullerton, and Buena Park. The town limits ran roughly from Stanton Avenue on the west to Harbor Boulevard on the east and from Lincoln Avenue on the south to approximately Olive Avenue on the north. Orangethorpe was larger than Brea or La Habra, but had no police or fire departments or a city hall. It did have an elected Treasurer, City Clerk, and Board of Trustees, which met once a month at the Orangethorpe School. The treasury consisted primarily of income derived from a one dollar an acre assessment from Orangethorpe residents. City services were provided by Orange County.
Land in this area was selling for ten dollars an acre. In 1872, early farmers and ranchers banded together to build an irrigation ditch that brought much needed water to the area. Settlers were attracted by the rich, fertile soil in the district, initially growing apricots, walnuts, and alfalfa, but switched to more lucrative citrus groves in the 1910s.
In 1872, the first school in northern Orange County was constructed at the northeast corner of Nicolas (now Euclid) and Orangethorpe Avenues. Two years later, a two-story school was constructed at Orangethorpe and Brookhurst Avenues, and the first school was brought to the new site to become part of the larger building. Prior to the building of the first elementary school in Fullerton in 1888, Fullerton students attended the Orangethorpe School.
Initially, the rough roads in Orangethorpe were difficult to navigate, but in 1913, as part of the Good Roads Movement, Orange County Supervisors made the area a top priority. New paved roads were constructed starting with Orangethorpe Road, enhancing community life and the ability to ship agricultural products.
In 1921, the residents voted to incorporate as a city in order to prevent being annexed by Fullerton and to stop a planned sewage farm from being built by Fullerton. In 1923, a sewer line running from Fullerton to the ocean was planned, ending the sewer farm threat, so on December 31, 1923, the residents of Orangethorpe voted to unincorporate. However, the sewer farm was ultimately implemented by Fullerton because the sewer line to the ocean was never built. The sewer farm was abandoned by 1926, and ultimately became the site of the Fullerton Municipal Airport in 1927.
Well into the 1950s, Orangethorpe consisted primarily of ranch homes surrounded by grove upon grove of orange, lemon, and walnut trees. Farmers and ranchers in Orangethorpe formed a tight- knit community, and many important Fullerton families—the Royers, Gardiners, Spencers, and Hiltschers— came from the Orangethorpe district. The most famous individual born in Orangethorpe was guitar legend Leo Fender (1909-1991), who attended the Orangethorpe School.
After World War II, original settlers and their families began selling acres of their land to developers. Gradually the orange and lemon groves were plowed under and replaced with tract and ranch-style homes. Glimpses of what early Orangethorpe looked like can be found in the few designated Significant Properties that remain: the Gardiner House (1155 W. Orangethorpe, 1925), the imposing Mary Spencer House (1520 W. Orangethorpe, 1913), and the Clarence Spencer House (1400 W. Orangethorpe, 1915).
In 1954, the school district was divided between Fullerton and Anaheim, and the entire Orangethorpe area was eventually divided and annexed to Anaheim, Fullerton, and Buena Park, although a few pockets of unincorporated county territory remained for many years.
Mary Spencer House in the former city of Orangethorpe.