Huntington Beach

Oil and encyclopedias

Huntington Beach in its days as an oil drilling center.

Huntington Beach in its days as an oil drilling center.

By Jim Tortolano

Many people in the frigid winter regions of the Northeast dream about life on the sunny California shores. It’s been that way for over a century, and that’s the impulse behind one of Orange County’s most curious land issues: the encyclopedia lots.

Speculators roughly a hundred years ago – sources put the beginning at 1914 to 1919 – hit on a sly way to sell encyclopedias. With each set, you got a slice of the Golden State, literally.

There were and are several such areas in Huntington Beach. Generally, the lots were in undesirable locations. On hills and in gullies, or in swampy areas. The slender pieces of land – many of them 112 feet long by 25 feet wide – were bundled with the books. The name “encyclopedia lots” were doubly appropriate because not only were they a bonus for purchasing the books, but the lots were lined up next to each other just like a row of volumes.

The trick was not only played in California. Similar schemes were also conducted with”worthless” land in New Jersey, also famous for swampy soil. But it was in Huntington where the whole scheme backfired.

The Huntington Beach Company and city were at first glad to get paid for the seemingly useless pieces of property. But in 1920, oil was discovered in the area of what’s now Goldenwest and Edwards streets, and the land was quickly worth its weight in black gold. The advent of slant drilling made additional land desirable as well.

Of course, not all the collections of lots were quite so valuable. But as Huntington Beach grew from a small cluster of homes along the beach further inland, developers anxious to construct homes and commerce ran into the issue of small chunks of land divided into tiny slivers owned by dozens or hundreds of owners, many of them living out of state.

Lot deed from 1914 in monument at Adams and Brookhurst.

Lot deed from 1914 in monument at Adams and Brookhurst.

A testament to that issue is in the shopping center at Adams Avenue and Brookhurst Street, anchored by a Ralphs supermarket. In front of the Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop is an historical display recounting the encyclopedia lots saga, which was a factor in the building at that location. The city’s redevelopment agency (now defunct) helped assemble the land that made that center possible.

The legacy of the lots continues. Some people hold on to them; many located near the city’s Central Park have been acquired for additional open space and recreational use. About 50 lots in that area remain in private hands.

And who knows? With high-density housing becoming more and more prevalent, there may come a day when a 25-foot wide house is all the rage for New Englanders wanting to retire in the Golden State.

Sources: City of Huntington Beach, Orange County Register, Huntington Beach Independent.

 

 

2 replies »

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