There are many interactive historic sites in Orange County providing great options for learning about the area’s rich history. The first people of Orange County fished from the plentiful oceans, and they hunted and gathered from the land. The Juaneno and Gabrielino Indians are the Native American tribes that inhabited the Orange County area when Spanish, Mexican, and European exploration began in North America. Spanish missionaries first explored Orange County in 1769 and Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776.
Mexican Ranchos moved into the area in the 1800s, and when Mexico broke away from Spain, California became territory of the Mexican government. Cattle ranching was the primary industry of the time. In 1848, Mexico ceded California to the United States and in 1850, California became a state. Ranchos began to suffer from drought, disease, and costs from new American court systems. They were sold to American owners who opted for sheep instead of cattle to make up for the lack of cotton due to the Civil War.
In 1857, Anaheim became the first American town founded in Orange County. Farming became the new industry of the area. Orange County successfully produced grapes, barley, wheat, and corn. New irrigation in the 1870s led to the addition of new crops like apricots and oranges. Agriculture was a booming business, and while other crops disappeared, by the 1930s, one sixth of the nation’s Valencia Oranges came from Orange County. The oil boom began in the early 1900s, and major oil strikes in Placentia and Huntington Beach around 1920 helped add another layer to the history.
It’s hard to imagine Orange County with miles of citrus groves and acres of sheep. But a few landmarks remain to tell the stories of Orange County’s past. Here are a few you won’t want to miss.
400 Main Street, Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach
Built in 1905, the Balboa Pavilion reminds us of the heyday of waterfront recreation. In 1906, the Pavilion served as the terminus connecting the beachside community with Los Angeles via Pacific Electric’s Red Cars. Today, the Pavilion is a marine recreation facility for fishing, whale watching, and other activities, and features a restaurant and ballroom. The Balboa Pavilion is conveniently located next to the Balboa Fun Zone, another historic destination, established in 1936, and still in operation today complete with Ferris Wheel and Merry Go Round. Don’t forget to stop and get a world famous Balboa Bar while you’re here.
415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente
Casa Romantica is the Spanish Colonia Revival Estate that originally belonged to the founder of the city of San Clemente, Ole Hanson. The two and a half acre estate includes manicured gardens, art and history exhibits, and views of the ocean and the San Clemente Pier. The Cultural Center often hosts a variety of special events including story times, performances, lectures, and workshops.
Dory Fishing Fleet
2111 W Oceanfront, Newport Beach
The Dory Fishing Fleet and Market is located in Newport Beach next to the pier. Originally founded in 1891 at the base of the McFadden Wharf, the Dory Fleet is now the last beachside fishing cooperative of its kind in the US and is a registered historical landmark.
The Dory is open Wednesday through Sunday until noon or until sold out. The public can visit to purchase the fresh catch of the day, brought in by local fishermen.
25151 Serrano Road, Lake Forest
Heritage Hill Historical Park is 4.1 acres and includes four fully restored and furnished buildings from the 1800s to the early 1900s. The 1863 Serrano Adobe represents the Mexican Rancho era. The founding of the town of El Toro is represented by the 1890 El Toro Grammar School and the 1891 St. George’s Episcopal Mission. The 1908 Harvey Bennett Ranch House represents the early 20th century citrus farming days here in Orange County.
Free guided tours are available to the public during the week. Heritage Hill offers a variety of educational programs for students. Fourth graders can experience what a typical school day was like at the turn of the century. Third graders can experience a hands-on activity at each historic building. And a Native American tour is available for all elementary aged students to learn about the People of the Land before 1769 when they visit the Indian Village exhibit. They also host a variety of free public events throughout the year including the Christmastime Candlelight Walk and Holiday Lights event.
Heritage Museum of Orange County
3101 W. Harvard St., Santa Ana
Built in 1898, The Kellogg House serves as an educational experience for children and adults and has been a popular field trip destination for area schools for more than 30 years. The Queen Anne Victorian style home is fully furnished and decorated to reflect the era in which it was built and inhabited. The surrounding grounds also features a blacksmith workshop, Gospel Swamp Farm and Nature Area, the John A. Maag Farmhouse, and more.
Los Rios Historic District
31831 Los Rios Street, San Juan Capistrano, CA (and surrounding area)
Dating back to the 1700s, Los Rios Historic District is the oldest neighborhood in California. With the establishment of Mission San Juan Capistrano, 40 adobe structures were built to house Native laborers. Several of the original adobes still stand including The Montanez Adobe (31745 Los Rios Street) and The Rios Adobe (31781 Los Rios Street), both built in 1794. There are additional historic structures to see including the Ramos House and the Jailhouse.
26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is considered the birthplace of Orange County. It is the seventh of 21 missions built in California. The mission was founded by Saint Junipero Serra in 1776 and is known as the “Jewel of the California Missions.”
Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular field trip for Orange County students. The historic landmark has permanent exhibits that display artifacts and information to give visitors a look at the lives of important cultures including Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and European heritage. Visitors will see original buildings, including a chapel where Saint Serra held mass, beautiful gardens, and original bells that once hung in the Great Stone Church.
The mission hosts daily tours as well as regular community events like summer concerts and cultural festivals. Kids will enjoy a host of hands-on activities like adobe brick making, crafting arrowhead necklaces, panning for gold, and Native American basket weaving. A visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano is a must for visitors to, and residents of, Orange County and provides a wealth of information about the culture and history of the area.
18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda
Monday-Sunday 10AM – 5PM
The Nixon Library & Birthplace is the presidential library and museum focused on President Richard Nixon. There are a variety of permanent exhibits to explore here centered around Nixon and his time as President.
Nixon was born in Yorba Linda in 1913, and the home he was born in, built by his father, is a focal point on-site here at the museum. Also on-site for permanent display is Army One, the presidential helicopter used by Presidents Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford.
The museum features 70 family-friendly exhibits, over 300 artifacts, 30 multimedia experiences, 11 original films, digital interactives, curated archival film sequences, over 600 photographs, and 8,000 square feet of wall murals.
211 West Santa Ana Boulevard, Santa Ana
Opened in 1901, Old Orange County Courthouse and Museum is the oldest court building in Southern California. The building is still open for select government services, and the courthouse is open to the public for guided and self guided tours. Exhibits include courtroom artifacts from the early to mid-1900s and the history of Orange County. The Courthouse has also been used for the filming of popular films including Legally Blonde and Catch Me If You Can.
6398 East Santa Ana Canyon Road, Anaheim
The last adobe standing on land that was once part of Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. A small museum features information and artifacts about the Spanish explorers and European colonization from 1769 on.
12174 Euclid Street, Garden Grove
The two acre Stanley Ranch Museum is home to several of Garden Grove’s first homes and businesses from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The grounds include the Ware-Stanley House, a school house, Garden Grove’s first post office, the Electric Shoe Shop and Barber Shop, and Garden Grove’s #1 fire engine from 1926. Stanley Ranch also houses Walt Disney’s garage studio, which contains many old prints and artifacts from Walt Disney’s early days. The museum is open by appointment for tours and educational programs.
2525 E Warner Ave., Tustin
*On November 7, 2023 the north hangar caught fire at approximately 1:00 AM, resulting in a total loss of the building. The north hangar was the most damaged of the two structures, having suffered a partially collapsed roof in 2013.
The Tustin Hangars are two structures built in 1942 at the Marine Corps Air Station Tustin. The Hangars, built to house manned blimps, are almost entirely wooden and come in at 17-stories high, over 1,000 feet long, and 300 feet wide, and are two of the largest wooden structures ever built. In 1993 they were listed as one of the Civil Engineering Landmarks of the 20th Century by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Hangars have been featured in several TV shows and movies including Pearl Harbor, Star Trek, Austin Powers, JAG, and The X-Files.
Today the Hangars are owned by the Department of the Navy and occasional public events and activities are allowed on-site. You can see a documentary about The Hangars here:
More Historic Sites and Buildings In Orange County
- Samuel Kraemer Building (First High Rise in Orange County) – Anaheim, 1924
- John Woelke House (Woelke-Stoffel House) – Anaheim, 1896
- The Mother Colony House – Anaheim, 1857
- St. Michael’s Episcopal Church – Anaheim, 1876
- Olinda Oil Museum & Trail – Brea, 1897
- The Bacon House – Buena Park, 1884
- Whitaker-Jaynes Estate – Buena Park, 1887
- Diego Sepulveda Adobe – Costa Mesa, 1820
- Blacksmith’s Shop (1817 Fullerton Ave.) – Costa Mesa, 1909
- Heritage Park Historic Buildings – Fountain Valley
- Elephant Packing House – Fullerton, 1924
- Fox Fullerton Theatre – Fullerton, 1925
- Muckenthaler Cultural Center – Fullerton, 1925
- the GEM Theater – Garden Grove, 1920
- Newland House – Huntington Beach, 1898
- Historic Wintersburg – Huntington Beach, 1908
- Irvine Ranch Historic Park – Irvine, 1878
- St. Isidore Historical Plaza – Los Alamitos, 1926
- Crystal Cove Historic District – Newport Beach, 1930
- Plaza Park – Old Towne Orange, 1886
- Masonic Lodge/Campbell’s Opera House – Old Towne Orange, 1912
- Orange Daily News – Old Towne Orange, 1909
- 100 W. Chapman Ave. – Old Towne Orange, 1888
- 108-126 S. Glassell St. – Old Towne Orange, 1908
- Sunkist Building – Old Towne Orange, 1922
- Orange Theater – Old Towne Orange, 1929
- A.S. Bradford House – Placentia, 1902
- George Key Ranch Historic Park – Placentia, 1898
- Arden: Helena Modjeska Historic House & Gardens – Silverado, 1888
- Historic Yorba Cemetery – Yorba Linda, 1860
|Museums In Orange County||Children’s Museums In Orange County|
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|Orange County Piers||Calico Ghost Town|
Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.