Four Women Who Built Orange County

Happy Women’s History Month from Heritage Museum!

One of the first female physicians in Orange County, Dr. Howe-Waffle arrived in Santa Ana with her first husband, Dr. Alvin Howe, in 1878. Construction on their historic home, in the Queen Anne Victorian style, was completed in 1889, the same year that Orange County was founded. When her husband was accused of performing an abortion on a local woman, he relocated to San Francisco. Willella initiated a divorce that was finalized in 1897, and remarried local rancher Edson Waffle.

Dr. Howe-Waffle was renowned for her dedication to the practice. Educated at

Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago, she completed her studies in Southern California and served a 38-year tenure providing medical and midwifery services from her home. She delivered over 1,000 “Waffle babies” and died at the bedside of an ailing patient.

When the house was threatened by rezoning in 1975, a group known as the Friends of the Howe-Waffle House (later the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society) had it relocated to its current home on the corner of Civic Center and Sycamore in Santa Ana.

Currently, her home and office is preserved as a medical museum, staged as it would have looked in the days she practiced there. It features 19th century medical instruments in 12 rooms, including authentic waiting and examination rooms. Queen Anne features like leaded stained glass windows and pocket doors are also on display. The restored Howe-Waffle House is an homage to her excellence and resolve in providing treatment and nurturing the growth of the new county.

Born in Puerto Rico, Felicitas moved to Southern California with her family at the age of 12 to work on farms. Because of her complexion, she and her family were often racialized as Black and the target of prejudice by white Americans. In 1936 she married Gonzalo Mendez. In 1940 they leased a 40-acre farm in Westminster from a Japanese American family interned at the start of WWII, and started their family.

The two schools in Westminster, Hoover Elementary and 17th Street Elementary, were still segregated at the time. The former was a

two-room wooden schoolhouse in the center of the city’s Hispanic neighborhood, while the latter was a whites-only school with significantly better curriculum and campus. When Felicitas attempted to enroll her children at 17th Street, the Mendez children were told that because of their complexion and Hispanic surname, they would be denied admission.

After this incident, Felicitas and Gonzalo led a community campaign to desegregate Orange County Schools. Culling the feedback of community leaders and local parents, the Mendezes and four other families filed a county-wide lawsuit against four OC school districts. The districts appealed repeatedly up to the 9th circuit court of appeals, which confirmed the initial district ruling in favor of Mendez and the families. After this landmark ruling, then-governor Earl Warren moved to ban de jure segregation in all California schools and public spaces as well.

The efforts of the Mendezes paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education, which appeared before the Supreme Court only 8 years later. Incidentally, it was Earl Warren who presided as Chief Justice. Thurgood Marshall, who was only an attorney at the time, argued Brown v. Board using points from an amicus brief he filed for Mendez v. Westminster on behalf of the NAACP.

Felicitas’s tireless fight for educational justice mean that her daughter, Slyvia, and her two sons were the first non-white students to attent 17th Street Elementary, and though Sylvia reports facing prejudice and harassment from her white peers, she resolved to stay enrolled to honor her parents mission to integrate schools and equalize education.

Originally from Krakow, Poland, Helena Modjeska was the youngest daughter in a theatrical family, who was launched into fame first as a Shakespearean actor in her home country. Known for her organic, affecting interpretations of canonical roles, she captured the hearts of European theater-goers–then decided to move west.

She and her husband (and de facto manager) Charles Bolzenta Chlapowski and a small group of Polish artists and visionaries migrated to Anaheim in 1876, following a Polish

agricultural settlement that failed in 1877 due to drought and economic depression. She learned English in a short six months in order to play English parts, and had her San Francisco debut the same year of her arrival in the States.

She and her husband had high ideals about the American West, and wished to found a utopian farming community. However, their cohort was inexperienced with agriculture, and unable to cultivate the utopia Modjeska envisioned. They vacated their settlement and left to reside in San Francisco, $15,000 in debt.

Modjeska continued to travel the US and Europe, performing nine months out of the year in notable theaters and opera houses. In 1888, acquaintances of the couple vacated their ranch home in the Santa Ana foothills and offered it to Modjeska, who converted it into a country retreat. 10 miles from the nearest railroad and 23 miles from the nearest town, Modjeska named the property “Arden” after the paradisiacal forests in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. The craftsman home was designed by architect Stanford White, and the extensive gardens were planned by prodigious horticulturalist Theodore Payne.

In her time presiding over the estate, Modjeska hosted community events for central OC’s pioneers and mountain men, like horse races, sports tournaments and dances. She was beloved to such an extent that the portion of Santiago Canyon where she lived is named Modjeska Canyon, and the north peak of Saddleback mountain is named Modjeska peak. Arden is designated a California State Landmark as well as a National Historic Landmark.

Madame Modjeska, her moniker in the theater, is remembered for her revelatory approach to acting and a dedicated study of the arts at large that made her an important cultural figurehead of the 19th century. In an 1894 address to Congress, she writes, “Whether it is the beautiful that brings to our hearts the love of truth and justice, or whether it is truth that teaches us how to find the beautiful in nature and how to love it, in either case art does a noble work. It drags out the soul from its everyday shell, and brings it under the spell of its own mysterious and wonderful power, so that a memory of this experience stays with the people, sustains them in their daily labors, and refines their minds.”

Yukiko Furuta immigrated to the United States in 1912, before she was even 18, leaving behind metropolitan Hiroshima, Japan for a rural, still-developing Orange County. She was arranged to marry Charles Furuta, and together they raised a family in Huntington BEach at Wintersburg Village. The property encompassing the Presbyrterian church and goldfish farm they founded is a present day National Treasure and endangered historic site.

Her marriage brought her across the Pacific, first to Tacoma, Washington, and then down the coast through San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Japanese-American community in Orange County was sparse and scattered at the time of her arrival, and racialized violence was present in surrounding areas. For the first several years of marriage and motherhood, Yukiko was confined to her home on Warner Avenue, leaving only to attend church events with her husband and children. Having left her homeland so young, she learned the skills of Japanese homemaking from Japanese women’s magazines. When it became too difficult to travel to Los Angeles on the streetcar to purchase clothes, she began to sew in-home.

One of the few immigrants who had come from a city, she was routinely othered by those in her community from agricultural backgrounds for things like wearing makeup and dressing formally.

Charles Furuta was the first person of Japanese ancestry to be baptized in Orange County, and the Furutas were able to collectivize the immigrant community through church. When the Alien Land Law was passed in 1913, prohibiting immigrants from purchasing land, the five acres the Furutas called home became a symbol of autonomy and opportunity. The farming community in Wintersburg continued to build, installing draining, water and road systems.

Following Executive Order 9066, Yukiko and her 3 children were forced to evacuate their home after Charles was interned at the Tuna Canyon Detention Center in Los Angeles. At the time, he was president of the Japanese Association in Orange County. Yukiko arrived at an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, with very few belongings, and alongside her in-laws, the Akiyamas. She remained here for two years, each of her children having left the camp for work, before returning to Southern California and reuniting with Charles. With the goldfish farm many years out of operation, the couple turned to selling flowers commercially.

Historic Wintersburg is an icon of the Japanese American presence in Orange County which is so often understated. The Furutas’ endurance embodies that legacy. With two buildings from Wintersburg Japanese Mission recently destroyed, please consider lending a hand to preserve this property, which holds over a century of nationally significant Japanese American history.