Irvine Park was part of Don Teodosio Yorba's original Mexican grant of Rancho Lomas de Santiago. The first recreational use of the oak grove was by the early German colonists who settled Anaheim in 1857, and the area became known as the "Picnic Grounds."
In 1860, Don Teodosio sold his rancho for $7,000 to a Yankee trader named William Wolfskill. Joseph E. Pleasants took charge of Wolfskill's new cattle operations. Already overgrazed, the Santa Ana range could not sustain the large cattle herds.
Sheepmen from Monterey County bought the Lomas for $7,000, the same price paid six years before. The demand for wool was high, and soon flocks populated the park and adjacent plateaus.
As the nearby communities grew, the "Picnic Grounds" became a mecca for valley dwellers, and with organized festivities on May Day and the Fourth of July.
In 1876, the grove and the surrounding rancho became the sole property of James Irvine, who had bought out his partners. Seven years after his father's death, James Jr. decided to give the county its first park.
F. P. Nickey, then president of the Board of Supervisors, accepted what was described as the "Gift Munificent," with the donation of the 160-acre oak grove. Irvine stipulated that the area should always be kept as natural-looking as possible and that the trees should have the fullest care. On Oct. 5, 1897, James Irvine gifted the land to the County of Orange for just $1, and the Orange County Board of Supervisors officially accepted the gift Oct. 11, 1897. The 160-acre grove officially became "Orange County Park."
In 1898, L. D. West was appointed park "custodian" to ward off sheep-herders and wood-choppers. Early park improvements were limited to a caretaker's house, outdoor stoves, and a couple of outhouses.
The first major development was an open dance pavilion with a bandstand on one end. The building stood for nearly 30 years, approximately where the refurbished bandshell is now.
Back then, the road ran directly through the park and through what is now Irvine Lake, past Silverado and into Modjeska Canyon. When W. M. Boring became custodian in 1901, the road was rerouted. Additional changes occurred with the park's more recent expansions.
When A. B. Tiffany took over as custodian in 1907, one of his sidelines was selling soda pop to thirsty visitors. By 1912, the concession business warranted a store. A roofed stand was built just south of the present snack stand.
Until 1917, when it was banned, the favorite tenting spot was "Camptonville," a wooded area adjacent to the park on the left side of the road after it crossed Santiago Creek. In order to get rid of squatters, camping in the park itself was prohibited in the late 1930s.
On Oct. 21, 1913, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pay E. G. Stinson $3,160 to excavate a basin for a "boat pond." Working with a pair of mules and a scraper, Stinson scooped out the old marsh and diked up two sides. The lake filled from the springs at its bottom, so much so that a spillway had to be installed for the overflow. When Irvine Dam was built, water no longer ran down Santiago Creek and the park lake had to be artificially filled but was still difficult to drain successfully. The boat house was built in 1914 and the county purchased eight redwood rowboats.
During the custodianship of S. C. King (1916-1919), Orange County Park was the setting of many official gatherings, including dedications and veterans award ceremonies.
In 1919, Jesse B. Irwin became the official custodian. F. F. "Fay" Irwin succeeded his father and supervised the park from 1929 to 1960; and his brother, Joe was the park's chief concessionaire. Joe Irwin managed the boathouse and the park's burro rides. After several years, the burros were traded for bicycles, starting with 10 in 1932.
The early 1920s saw some park improvements, such as wooden picnic tables and restrooms. Commercial electricity was not available till the mid-20s. In the late '20s, a "peewee" golf course was built just outside the old park entrance. Later, the site was leased to Ray Martin and his father, who added a miniature railroad with a quarter-mile track. The trains left from the "Irvine Park Depot (Pop. 5 or 6)."
A popular movie setting, some scenes filmed in the park are in "Goose Girl," "Picadilly Jim," "A Yank at Eaton," Lassie Come Home," "Topper," "Black Mail," "Summer Holiday," and "Thanks a Million."
The Irwins and several hired hands provided all park maintenance at the time. In 1924, the Board of Supervisors recognized the untapped labor of jail crews. Robert C. Northcross supervised some of the park's early jail crews and, enlisting his prisoners, highjacked the bedrock mortar still on display in the park. This mortar was from nearby Black Star Canyon, but the oak grove was no doubt an important acorn harvesting area for local Native groups.
The cannon once stood on the Santa Ana Courthouse lawn. Cast in 1853 by the Ames Co. Foundry of Chicopee, Mass., this Howitzer was brought to California during the Civil War and assigned to the garrison of California Volunteers at Drum Barracks, Wilmington. Secured from the State Armory in Los Angeles, it was installed at the courthouse on June 20, 1908. Replaced in 1925 by a captured World War I field cannon, the Civil War cannon was then brought to Irvine Park.
The Spanish-American War Memorial was also dedicated on Nov. 5, 1926. On one side, the monument has a tablet cast in metal recovered from the U.S.S. Maine, which was sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898. On the opposite side of the monument is a bronze plaque with the Muster Roll of Company L, 7th California Volunteer Infantry, a Santa Ana unit that served during the War. The U.S.S. Maine tablet lists the four members of Company L who died during their service with the Company in California and the Philippines.
In 1928, the park's name officially changed to "Irvine Park," in honor of its donor. A building program followed with a new pavilion, an exhibition hall, and a new store designed by Frederick H. Eley.
The "Exhibit Building" was intended as a museum to house relics of Orange County's past but became a local "Parade of Products," representing agriculture and manufacturing products.
During World War II, Irvine Park was closed to the public and opened as an Army post called "Camp Rathkey." Another Army unit was set up in nearby Peters Canyon, and the two posts waged sham battles. On Oct. 16, 1943, during Army occupation, a fire damaged the pavilion. After the War, the outside stage was rebuilt, but not the ballroom.
Myford Irvine donated six acres in 1950, and 20 more acres in 1958, starting park expansion. In 1969, the County purchased 177 acres to the west, and in 1971, an additional 114 acres, bringing the park to 475 acres. In 2014 an Irvine Company donation added another 16 acres, bringing the park to its present size of 495 acres.
Throughout its history, Irvine Park has housed a wide range of animals. William A. Kinsley succeeded Fay Irwin as superintendent in 1960. He built up a compound of birds and animals, which became known as the park's zoo.
The park underwent a major renovation and redevelopment in 1982- 83. This included restoring the old buildings; redeveloping the three group picnic areas; adding three playgrounds, horseshoe pits, new turf and landscape; and relocating the roadways. A new zoo facility was also constructed, which included a children's barnyard area and native animal exhibits. The year 1983 also brought the listing of the park on the National Registry of Historic Places.
An Interpretive Center occupies the historic exhibit hall. It has displays featuring the park area's natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources, and includes an audio/visual theater for interpretive presentations.
Irvine Park has a rich history and contains some of the oldest Coast Live Oak trees in Orange County. Concern for the preservation of the park's specimen oak trees necessitated much of the redevelopment and redesign of the park's facilities.