The Orange County Great Park is a work-in-progress being developed out of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, closed in the 1990s. The Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton has been working with the Great Park for the past several years on an oral history project that has yielded hundreds of interviews with people who served at the base or lived near and interacted with it over its history from World War II onward. History students have learned oral history techniques, conducted interviews, and helped create a remarkable archive of memories that will help researchers better understand Southern California’s past.
In 2009, one of my students, Sarah Barca, curated an exhibition on the El Toro story mixing excerpts from the interviews with artifacts and photographs. Farmers to Flyers: Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and Mid-Century Orange County opened at the Fullerton Arboretum’s Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum as her master’s project in public history. She had ample help from a dedicated cohort of students, many of whom have gone on to further graduate study or to work as public historians. Sarah herself is now an archivist at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.
Our student project manager back in 2009, Michelle Antenesse, recently completed a new reinstallation of Farmers to Flyers at a most appropriate venue: the Palm Court Arts Complex at the Orange County Great Park itself. Michelle enriched the show with additional material from the growing oral history project, added new objects and images, and worked with designer Gail Griswold to recreate the show, which will be open until March 31, 2013.
Sarah, Michelle, and I collaborated on the exhibition catalog. On a recent visit to the exhibition at the Great Park, I thought of what I had written in the introduction about the ways El Toro was part of the massive changes Orange County underwent during World War II and afterward, changes you can easily see in the landscape itself when you take a ride on the big orange balloon that is one of the attractions of the Great Park:
“On a clear day high above the old Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, from a vantage point achieved through the decidedly nineteenth-century technology known as the balloon, some small glimpse of the life at and around the base during the mid-twentieth century may be found. Nearby are an old packing warehouse and blacksmith shop from the agricultural days, now converted into a chain hotel and local restaurant branch. Below are the outlines of the runway and a hangar that served it, undergoing full development as part of a new park. Beyond is green space, a vague reminder of the way the land may have been even before its use in large-scale agriculture. Not far away are suburban residential developments, unmistakably incompatible with a military airfield. And beyond, the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, the blue heavens that on another day of climatic perfection provide vivid reminders of why a mobile society packed up and headed south and west for well-paying jobs in Orange County in the years after World War II.”
It is a story worth pondering, and aided by the narratives and memories of those who lived it, Farmers to Flyers is a good place to do so.