History of Westminster

Westminster Through the Years

The story of the Westminster that was, and the Westminster that has changed through the years to become the thriving city as we know it today, is one of a cooperative spirit, purpose and determination.

The settlers who founded the temperance colony of Westminster in 1870 were not the first to come to the coastal plain. The earliest settlers were the Oak Grove people who occupied the land over 8,000 years ago and stayed until the climate became too dry and vegetation dwindled. The area remained uninhabited until the Gabrieleno Indians moved in from the desert to this area and numbered over 200,000. Diseases such as measles, smallpox and diphtheria reduced the Indian population.

The next recorded history of the North Orange County area dates to 1492, when Pope Alexander IV decreed that all unclaimed land in the North American continent belonged to the King of Spain. Large land grants called ranchos were awarded by the King to induce colonization of the continent.

The Spaniards cleared, surveyed and mapped their new land. In 1784 the Spanish Governor of California honored Manuel Nieto with a 21 mile square concession of land to be called the Rancho Las Bolsas. It covered most of what we know today as west Orange County. The Rancho prospered with large crops and fine herds, however, after Nieto’s death in 1804 his heirs quarreled and the Rancho was partitioned in1834.

During the 1850’s with California’s admission to the Union, the U.S. Land Commission was set up to review claims that rose from original Spanish land grants. An American named Abel Stearns saw this as an opportunity to buy up shares from the disputing factions of the Rancho Las Bolsas. With the Commission’s acceptance, Stearns became the sole owner of the rancho changing the name to Stearns Rancho.

First Decade of The Westminster Colony

Westminster was the second colony in Orange County to be deliberately founded, but in contrast to the first which was Anaheim, Westminster was not founded by any one ethnic group nor did it center on one product economy.

Westminster was founded as a temperance colony by the Presbyterian Reverend, Lemuel P. Webber in 1870 upon his purchase of some 6,000 acres of the Stearns Rancho. Fulfilling his dream, he invited those people with like ideas in religion and morals to locate on individual 40 acre farms in his new colony. The town was named for the Westminster Assembly of 1643 which prescribed the basic tenets of the Presbyterian Church. John Y Anderson, a native of Virginia was the first man to respond to the Reverend’s invitation. Anderson took up residence on the corner of what we know as Westminster Boulevard and Monroe Street.

In 1872, the town’s first schoolhouse was built after a tax was levied which raised over $3,000 for the project. School started that August with 13 students.

In the spirit of cooperation, the township soon realized it had to make supplies more readily available for all to share. In 1874, the township opened the first “general store” beginning the first business district on Almond Avenue, which today is known as Westminster Boulevard.

At the end of 1874, the colony had 225 inhabitants, 62 families, and 52 farms.Acreage prices started at $13 rose to $20 and $30 per acre in 1875.

Soon, 1,800 additional acres were needed and added to the northern part of the colony. The first community newspaper, the Tribune, was started in 1878.

The district was surrounded with wild Spanish cattle, hogs, and horses. Meat was sold through a butcher for 9 cents per pound. Horses were rounded up and domesticated for riding and for work.

At the close of the first decade three churches were free of debt, testifying to the character of the towns people. An additional two general stores had been opened, two blacksmiths, a wagon shop, a harness shop, a milliner, and a shoemaker. A sorghum mill and two creameries set the scene for future industry and the self-sufficiency of Westminster.

The 1880’s

The second decade was one of continuing development. This agricultural community had overcome swamps and tulles and a rainy season that flooded the region due to the lack of any drainage system. The Drainage Act of 1881 turned thousands of acres into productive soil and opened the most thriving celery fields in the world.

The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads brought settlers from the Missouri River to the west coast for $15.00 and during the price wars the cost went to $1.00. Railroad travel marked a population and a land boom in all of Southern California. Before that, pioneering families could only arrive by ship which passed through the Panama Canal or overland in wagons through the hot desert.

Oxen teams hauled harvested crops from Irvine Ranch to Anaheim Landing and returned inland with lumber for Westminster’s growth. The 1880’s closed with the secession of the southern part of Los Angeles County which was to become Orange County.

The 1890’s

Dairy farming was the principle source of income for many ranchers. These ranchers cooperatively built creameries which provided more jobs and eventually led to their products being exported. Peatland was yielding 12,000 bunches of celery per acre and trade went on.

Early settlers had pledged not to grow grapes, but outside influences modified tradition, and soon grapes began to flourish and the first saloon was then opened.

The 1900’s

Westminster was growing. The colony continued to gain the reputation as the finest dairying center in the country. Chinese were brought in from Los Angeles and San Francisco along with some Japanese and Mexicans to farm the rich productive soil.

The first library was set up in the newly built Odd Fellows Hall in 1900. The first telephone was installed for the Wells Fargo mail agent, J.F. Patterson, who also became the agent for Southern Pacific Railroad when the line reached Westminster in 1902. The “Plaza Association” was organized to develop Sigler Park and also to provide awards to those citizens who caught chicken thieves. The Westminster Chamber of Commerce was formed to promote the town’s business.

The 1910’s

With the Southern Pacific Railroad coming through Westminster, 1,500 to 2,700 carloads of celery were being shipped to eastern markets. Two large sugar factories, located within eight miles of the town, provided a convenient market for sugar beet growers. Land prices were rising with some acreage selling for $500 per acre.

During the 1910's the artesian wells were allowed to fill ponds, making the area into a well known sportsman’s paradise. Gun clubs dotted the marsh land along Bolsa Road. In 1913, the Westminster Gun Club bagged 8,633 ducks. At seasons end, the wells were capped, water drained off, and cattle returned to the pastures.

The 1920’s

Westminster was known as a quiet village – an area primarily of scattered farms. It was one of the most ideal communities in which to raise a good family. It had the best schools and the finest church facilities in the local area.

1924 saw the Midway City subdivision and in 1927 Barber City was begun. The world’s largest goldfish farm moved into the area where the Westminster Mall stands today. The Westminster Gazette newspaper was established, and at the same time the original Green Kat Tavern was built. It was ironic that this community, first established as a temperance colony, should have a tavern as its landmark just a few decades later.

The 1930’s Auditorium

With the building activities of the late twenties, it seemed that Westminster might grow and become more than just a farming community in the thirties, but major events altered the growth. In the spirit of cooperation, the “Association of the Unemployed” was started during the depression years, assisting in securing food for the area. Then on March 10, 1933, a devastating earthquake damaged much of the city and all of its brick buildings. The 17th Street Hoover School had to be rebuilt by SPA and was opened again in 1935.

Additionally, in 1938, Southern California was struck by a severe flood. Fortunately, it bypassed Westminster proper but left washes and debris across roads, which disrupted access to the town for months.

The 1940’s

As the forties began, one could view orange groves, lima beans, and sugar beet fields which surrounded the few businesses in downtown Westminster. By 1942, the population had reached 2,500. However, World War II brought several more changes which again effected the development growth of Westminster. Young men left the area to join the armed forces, and the Japanese, nearly all of them farmers, were moved out of Orange County. Defense workers from the Midwest settled in Westminster and joined their fellow neighbors working at local shipyards and aircraft factories, which were located nearby.

At the end of the war, many servicemen who enjoyed the Southern California climate decided to stay. Huge housing tracts grew in areas surrounding Westminster, but the agriculture remained untouched by this population boom, and sheep herders were able to keep their paths open through Westminster.

During these trying times, Westminster was part of the first desegregation case in the United States. A Federal judge denounced segregation in public schools, and integration came to most of California schools.

The 1950’s

Recovering from the earthquake, the flood, and World War II, Westminster found itself growing once again. Land developers became interested in acquiring local farms. Eventually, new tracts were built, and in 1956, the population was recorded at 10,755.

In March of 1957, proceedings began to form a municipality called the Tri City. However, when Midway City withdrew from the venture a spiritual contest resulted. The voters finally chose to incorporate by a vote of 1,096 to 1,008, and it was also decided to retain the historical name of Westminster. The first permanent City Hall was located in the Hoover Schoolhouse.

September 10, 1959, Westminster High School became a reality. It was at that time, the most modern and up-to-date school in the county. Deriving its name and tradition from the English Westminster Abbey, the mascot became the lion, and the colors of the Royal Guard, red, black and white, were used.

The 1960’s

In the 1960’s the population quadrupled. The number of schools grew from 3 in the fifties to 22 at the end of the sixties. Freeways were completed that linked Westminster with the Southland Freeway system.

In August of 1968, the city moved its base of operations from the condemned Hoover Schoolhouse to the new municipal facilities which, in keeping with tradition, followed the English theme. The Tower of Westminster, California, was built in the center of the square of brick civic buildings.

The 1970’s

The 1970’s found a thriving community concerned with the original cooperation spirit the townspeople showed throughout the years. Most vacant land had been developed in residential zones and new construction was replacing some of the older dwellings. Two libraries situated in storefront buildings were accommodated by one new facility. The Historical Society, joining with the City Council restored and resettled the 1874 McCoy-Hare House in Heritage Park as a reminder of the early days.

In addition, the 1970’s were a prosperous decade for commerce. The Westminster Mall, a prestigious new shopping center, was built, housing 180 shops. Further construction of municipal buildings included an administration building and a senior citizens facility. New fire department buildings were being considered along with renovation of the civic auditorium. Street improvements and other capital outlay for the city continued with the same positive outlook held by the early day pioneers. This cooperative spirit, purpose and determination became the earmark of our city, Westminster.

The 1980’s

The 1980’s saw population growth as Southeast Asian refugees, fleeing from the conflict in their homelands, relocated to this area. Over 500 businesses opened in the Bolsa Avenue area. The construction and development of Southeast Asian businesses, restaurants, and professional services is not only adding to the commercial base, also becoming a tourist attraction. The development of this area and the twenty-five-acre shopping center at Beach and Heil streets will add to the revenues needed to operate a still-growing city. Westminster now has an assessed valuation of over $2 billion, which reflects a 34.5 percent increase in a one-year period.

The growth of Westminster Colony in the 130 years since Rev. Webber chose this area will continue as will the spirit of cooperation and purpose demonstrated throughout the time Westminster grew into today’s thriving city of 73,500.

The 1990’S

The 1990’s were a time of challenge, celebration, change and crisis for the city of Westminster.

There were many changes in land use during this period. The Warne family ranch at Bolsa and Bushard, that had held to its agricultural use from the early 1900’s, became a part of the Westminster “Little Saigon” area with the development of markets, retail stores, and professional offices. The Warne family farmhouse and big red barn (circa 1915) were relocated to Blakey Historical Park at 8612 Westminster Boulevard by the Westminster Historical Society. The Westminster Museum and the McCoy Hare House have also been moved to the two-acre parcel donated by Leaora Blakey.

The historic Westminster Auditorium, built in 1940 as a WPA project by the Westminster School District at Westminster Boulevard and Hoover, was demolished to become the site for a three-story assisted care facility in 1996. Under city municipal ownership, the auditorium had served as the Westminster Cultural Center for the past twenty years. Plans to construct a cultural center on City municipal-owned property east of the Civic Center are progressing slowly. The Community Services Center and the Senior Center are being used at this time for community events.

The Highway-39 Drive-in Theater (the last drive-in in Orange County), built in 1955, was redeveloped recently into a Hi-way 39 shopping center. With Wal-Mart as the anchor for this center, it boosts the sales-tax revenue for Westminster. Westminster Center at Goldenwest was redeveloped, as well as the Westminster Mall.

Amid political upheaval, fire services, that had been provided by Westminster Fire Department since incorporation in 1957 were transferred to the Orange County Fire Authority. The three local fire stations remain as part of the system. There were many celebrations during the 1990s. Westminster had a gala party to mark forty years of incorporation in 1997. The Blessed Sacrament Church celebrated fifty years, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church marked 125 years in the community. The Midway City Sanitary District, founded in 1939, marked the occasion by hosting an open house at the new office building at Cedarwood and Hazard. The district provides sewer and trash service and boasts the lowest rates in the country at this time. City Hall Administration buildings were remodeled during the 1990’s.

Westminster was named “All-America City” in 1996 by the National Civic League for civic accomplishments, made possible by the cooperative efforts of business, government, the volunteer sector, and other individuals. Projects recognized by this award included: Project SHUE (Safety, Health, Understanding, and Education), an intergenerational after-school program at the Senior Center for six-to-nine-year old Vietnamese and Hispanic “at risk” children; the anti-gang program TARGET (first of its kind in the nation), which teamed Police, Probation, and District Attorney working together daily in an office at the police station; and the Community Collaborative, which grouped leaders from city and county working to provide a total range of services. The spirit of cooperation that marked the early years of Westminster Colony continues to thrive in the Westminster of the 1990’s.

Crisis hit the community in September 1998, when the 5,000,000-gallon water-storage tank on Hefley Street ruptured, flooding the adjoining fire station and forty-nine Hefley Square Townhouses. There was no loss of life, but damage to homes was extensive. Nearly a year later, eleven of the homes were still being rebuilt or repaired. The fire station was damaged but is back in service. City employees, the Orange County Fire Authority, neighboring fire services and the Red Cross were on-site for days assessing the damage and assisting residents. Water storage for the city was non-existent as the twin storage tank was emptied while the cause of the tank failure was determined.

In 1999, Westminster was a city of 86,500 with an assessed valuation that is over $3.5 billion. Westminster School District has an enrollment of 9,817 in grades K through 8. Boos School and Midway City School closed during the 1990’s and the campus now houses single family homes.

The 2000’s

The turn of the century and early years of 2000 found continued growth and improvement in Westminster. Design and completion of two 8million gallon state of the art water tanks at Hoover and Hazard Avenues assures an adequate water supply. In the Civic Center area, Sid Goldstein Memorial Park was dedicated. An important part of the park is the Vietnam War Memorial which is a tribute to all who served in that arena.

Coastline Community College now serves the community at its satellite campus located adjacent to the Westminster Rose Center, which includes a 411 seat theater and convention/banquet center for community events and programs. The Westminster Rose Center, Coastline College Educational buildings and Sid Goldstein Freedom Park joined the Civic Center City Buildings, Senior Center, the Orange County Courthouse, and the Orange County Library to create a focal point for Westminster that provide services for the residents of the community.

Residential and commercial growth continue as the assessed valuation has reached $5,186,876,215 and a population in 2005 that is 92,000 and growing.