History of Orange County

Brea: From tar to oranges to malls

Brea's oil fields.

Brea’s oil fields.

By Jim Tortolano

When people think of Orange County’s past, the image of long rows of citrus trees is most likely to come to mind. But another important aspect of the county’s past is not orange, but black.

One of those cities whose origins are sunk deep into the oil drilling business is Brea, which has evolved from a rough-and-tumble wildcatting town into one of the county’s most elegant and affluent cities.

The area was long known as Brea Olinda, a combination of three communities; the name survives with the local high school. The village of Olinda dates back to the 19th century in what is now called Carbon Canyon. The presence of surface oil and tar suggested that the there might be large deposits of petroleum under foot. Abel Stearns, who at one time owned much of the county, sold 1200 acres west of Olinda to the Union Oil Company in 1894 and by 1898 there were wooden drilling derricks rising in what became the Brea Olinda Oil Field.

Railway engineer Epes Randolph lent his name to a new village of Randolph south of Brea Canyon. The demand for oil as the automobile industry boomed helped grow the area, and it gave rise to a new community, called Brea, which is from the Spanish meaning “tar.” The Brea town map was filed in 1911 and the city incorporated in 1917.

For many years, Brea was an oil town. The high school, established in 1927, has as its nickname Wildcats. In the oil business, a “wildcatter” was someone who drilled for oil in an area not known for having petroleum.

Downtown Brea grew up along Brea Boulevard, especially north of Birch Street. It was a mix of the gritty and the chaste. But after World War II, oil production declined and many of the oil fields were recycled into lemon and orange groves. Brea remained a small city, with a population of 3,208 in 1950.

Developers who grew Orange County into a suburban area started with the flatlands, such as Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster in the Fifties and Sixties. Brea is a hilly area and – at that time – isolated from other cities. But the demand for housing and the coming of the Orange (57) Freeway brought tremendous growth to Brea, and the opening of Brea Mall in 1988 made the city into a retail powerhouse.

Redevelopment of downtown Brea was controversial, but the end result has been a much-envied area with a lively mix of retailers, movie theaters and eateries. Today, Brea is a 12.1-square city with a population of just over 40,000 people. The median household income is over $78,000, far above state averages.

A wealthy city rises on the hills where oil-smeared roughnecks once dug into the ground for “black gold.” It’s another version of the Orange County story, an area that is always changing.

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