After being closed for seven years due to extensive damage from the 2014 La Habra Earthquake, George Key Ranch Historic Park, maintained by OC Parks and located at 625 W. Bastanchury Road in Placentia, quietly reopened in November 2021. During the years that it wasn’t open to the public, the 2.2 acre park underwent a series of repairs that were made to improve safety and accessibility to the historic home. Now open from 10 am to 2 pm every Saturday, the George Key home and museum offers an authentic look into North Orange County’s agricultural past, while its orchards, gardens, and barnyard area allow guests to get a closer look at dry farming and citrus farming equipment used in the late 1800s.
There are two entrances into the park: a south entryway that’s accessible from Bastanchury and a west gate located on Gilman Circle. I entered the park through the west gate, which led me into an area containing a wide array of farm equipment. Looking at a posted sign, I learned that in the late 1950s, George G. Key began collecting farm equipment and household items from many of the local growers when they started to sell their land for sub-division. According to the sign, as the citrus industry declined over the next 20 years, Key sold off portions of the ranch, saving the 2.2 acres of land for his wife and himself.
The museum’s collection of blacksmith and carpenter tools were on display as I made my way along a brick walkway, past a historic garage, to an asphalt driveway, where I got my first view of the white two-and-a-half story Victorian ranch home at the top of a hill. The west side of the house overlooked orange groves, while the south side faced a large garden. Interestingly, George Key Ranch Historic Park was one of the original Sunkist orange groves, and it’s still an active citrus ranch today, with an acre of orange trees. Walking underneath an archway covered with leaves, I waited on the porch of the house for a guided tour to start.
“Established in 1893, Key Ranch operated during the peak of the Orange County citrus industry,” said Bradley Flynt, Historic Park Curator for OC Parks.
“That’s when George Benn Key and Mary Wright Key purchased this property: a 20-acre plot starting at the corner of what is now Placentia Avenue and Bastanchury. They immediately started to cut down the vegetation that was here and planted Valencia Orange trees. Twelve of the 20 acres were Valencia Oranges; the reason it was only twelve was because of geography. As you noticed when you walked up the hill, we’re up a slope, whereas the area he had planted the citrus trees was called the flats. It was an area of lower elevation, and that was because one of the main ways to get water out to all the ranches in this area was irrigation from the Santa Ana River. Water would have to be brought to reservoirs in this area, and then all the orchards had to dig irrigation ditches to bring the water onto their individual homesteads.”
Flynt explained that George and Mary Key had actually moved to this area to become superintendents at the Semi-Tropical Fruit Company. Mary’s older sister, Helen Wright Gilman, was married to Richard Gilman, who planted the first commercial orange grove in Orange County. “So, the first five years that the Key’s owned this, they continued to live on the Gilman ranch,” he said. “It took about five years for the Valencia orange grove to grow to a point where they could actually make money off of the harvest. Up to that point, they were working on the infrastructure of the grove. After they started getting income from these trees, it wasn’t until 1898 that they built this original home. It was relatively unfinished when they first moved in; they continued to make additions to it as they moved in full time. They lived here the remainder of their lives and raised their children here; they had eight in total.”
I learned from Flynt that after George and Mary passed away, the house was jointly inherited by their six surviving children and their spouses, who ran a trust. In 1944, the younger son of the Keys, George Gilman Key, and his wife, Hannah, purchased the share of the ranch from the rest of the family, and became sole owners of the property. When they moved in, they started running the grove and fixing up the house.
“Eventually, they come up with the idea to convince the County to turn George Key Ranch into a historic site,” said Flynt.
“The County ultimately agrees and makes an offer for the site in 1980. We put a living trust arrangement so that the Keys could continue to live here the remainder of their lives. Hannah Key lived here until 1983, and George Gilman Key lived here until he passed away in 1989. By that point, we turned it into a historic site. More recently, we had a lot of educational programs here, but we did close in 2014 due to earthquake damage from the La Habra Earthquake. Unfortunately, we had to close down the entire site while we re-evaluated damage to the building. We finally completed repairs and reopened in November 2021. We’re still building back the programming that we had here because we’ve been closed for so long.”
According to a sign posted in the entryway, OC Parks worked with Thirtieth Street Architects to plan repairs to the Key House after the earthquake. The County hired Spectra Company as the general contractor for the project. Both firms had extensive experience in working with National Register listed historic buildings. (George Key Ranch was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 21, 1975).
Flynt explained that earthquake repairs to the house included plastic removal, and replacement throughout the building with composite steel and gypsum board sheer wall panels, anchored by drilling and epoxying into the foundation. Repairs were also made to seal the roof to prevent water intrusion. While the old plaster was removed, the house’s electrical wiring and circuit panel were replaced. An ADA parking space and accessible path were made, and an accessibility lift was added to the north side of the house. While a lot of the historic wallpaper was damaged by the earthquake, certain areas were re-adhered and protected by Plexiglas panels. He told us that while they were under construction, artifacts were moved off-site. Now that they’re reopen, artifacts are being stored on the second floor.
Only the first floor of the Key Ranch was open for the tour. Leading our small group inside, Flynt explained the history behind the objects contained within each room, which included: a big dining room, a living room and parlor, a workroom, and a kitchen. He said, “Keep in mind that not everything within the house is original to the building in 1898. It comes from a long period of time; most of it is from 1900 to the 1930s, with a few exceptions. The Keys collected not only from their own family, but also from their neighbors. This is really representational not just of the Keys, but what the lifestyle was like for this community in the Placentia-Fullerton area during this time period.”
Free tours are offered at 1pm every Saturday at George Key Ranch Historic Park.
For further information, please contact the park office by phone at (714) 973-3190 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Above: Historic Key Ranch House – exterior. At Left: Key Ranch Historic Park. Below: Interior of Key Ranch Historic Home. photos by emerson little