Before the 5 Freeway sliced its way through Orange County in 1953 — and Walt Disney turned the city into a tourist destination with the opening of Disneyland in 1955 — Anaheim became the second-oldest colony experiment in California and the oldest town in Orange County.
Named “Ana” for the Santa Ana River and “heim” after the German word for home, this “Home by the Santa Ana River” was originally founded nearly a century before the arrival of Disneyland by a collective of 50 German families who had formed the Los Angeles Vineyard Society.
Although you might associate such a German community with biergartens, these German immigrants established Anaheim in 1857 with 50 vineyard lots, 20 acres each, on 1,165 acres of the former Rancho San Juan Cajón de Santa Ana. They hoped to find wealth through wine, planting primarily Mission grapes in an attempt to create the largest vineyard in the world — despite being miles from markets, seaports and railroad depots (at least until 1875).
And they succeeded, reigning for a time as the greatest wine-producing district in California, until 1885 when a blight wiped out their wine grapes. They had to quickly shift their attention to other agricultural crops, like Valencia oranges and walnuts.
Much of this history has been forgotten, or at least eclipsed, by haunted mansions, intergalactic adventures and the smell of freshly baked churros. But there are still traces of it to be found in Anaheim — if you know where to look.
Anaheim has way more to offer than just its resort district, and you don’t need an admission ticket or annual pass to enjoy much of it.
Here are 6 of the most intriguing attractions in Anaheim that reflect its past, present and future.
1. Anaheim Founder’s Park
If you’re looking for “ground zero” of the original establishment of the Anaheim Colony, look no further than Anaheim Founders’ Park — a one-stop shop for early Anaheim agricultural history, including one structure dating back to its winemaking and citrus eras. Located at the original colony’s western boundary and dedicated in 2011, some of its recently added outbuildings include a 19th-century carriage house, pump house and windmill. But the main attractions here are two of the oldest homes of Anaheim — a three-room redwood cottage known as the Mother Colony House (aka the George Hansen House, circa 1857) and the two-story Victorian mansion, the Woelke-Stoffel House (aka the John Woelke House, circa 1894).
The former is Orange County’s oldest wood-frame structure, once occupied by the colony’s first superintendent and “Father of Anaheim” (that’s Hansen) and, later, the twice-windowed Doña Vicenta Sepúlveda de Yorba de Carrillo. The latter is a Queen Anne that features stained glass, decorative woodwork and ornate gingerbread details. It’s named after its original occupant John Woelke, an Austrian immigrant, as well as Peter Stoffel, a citrus farmer who’d immigrated from Luxembourg and later moved into the home. From 1953 to 2006, the Anaheim chapter of the American Red Cross was headquartered there, too.
Park admission is free — but interior access to the structures is only available during open houses from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m on the first Saturday of each month. There’s plenty to explore even without docents on hand, as interpretive signage guides you through a path that winds around between the structures. Park in the dirt lot off of West Street, marked by a big ol’ Moreton Bay Fig tree — the city’s first “Landmark Tree” and reportedly used by Walt Disney in 1962 as the model for Disneyland’s Tarzan Treehouse (formerly the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse).
2. Pearson Park
Less than a half-mile east of Founders’ Park, also in the Anaheim Colony District, is Anaheim’s first city park circa 1927, Pearson Park. First dubbed “Anaheim City Park,” former Anaheim mayor Charles A. Pearson subsequently lent his name to this central hub of “old” Anaheim, which has been modernized with an amphitheater, public swimming pool and many other recreational facilities.
One of the park’s main attractions is its cactus garden along West Sycamore Street near Harbor Boulevard, designed by famed landscape architect and parks administrator Rudy Boysen. But don’t stop there — head to the park’s northeast corner, near the intersection of West Sycamore Street and Lemon Street. There, you’ll find the rock-lined, duck-filled Pearson Pond, where you can walk across whimsical bridges and enjoy the waterfowl... from afar. (No feeding allowed!) The pond dates all the way back to the park’s original design.
That’s where you’ll also find one of Orange County’s oldest examples of public art that came out of FDR’s Works Progress Administration and the California State Emergency Relief Administration in 1935. It’s a statue of the Mother Colony’s own Helen Modjeska, who had established an artists’ colony in the city in 1876. A renowned Shakespearean stage actress, Polish expatriate, and Orange County historical figure, Modjeska is depicted here in the role of Mary, Queen of Scots (reportedly, her favorite).
3. Kroeger-Melrose Historic District
First added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, this historic district marks the approximate boundaries of the original land holdings of Anaheim pioneer Rudolph Luedke, a Jewish watchmaker and jeweler from Prussia and a trustee of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society.
Subdivided in the late 1880s, the Kroeger-Melrose Historic District became home to such landmark businesses as the Del Campo Hotel, which was built in 1888 and, in 1896, housed a historic medical school then called the Pacific Sanitarium & School of Osteopathy. Unfortunately, the hotel was demolished in 1905, but the college survived and is now known as the UCI School of Medicine. You can find its former site at the northeast corner of South Melrose Street and East Broadway, marked by a stone pillar and historical plaque.
Head north on Melrose towards Center Street and then east to South Kroeger Street to explore the Victorian cottages, Craftsman bungalows and other residences that date back to the first decade or so of the 20th century. You’ll see why the area became a city historic district in 1997.
4. Anaheim Packing District
A landmark structure preserved from the Orange County citrus industry — the 1919 Anaheim Citrus Packing House — is now home to a food hall, community meeting space and entertainment hub. As one of SoCal’s few remaining historic packing houses, fruit was once cleaned, boxed up and shipped out from here. But now, it's a modern, comfortable and eclectic destination for locals and visitors alike. Prepare to spend ample time sampling any and all of the culinary delights — including those you can bring with you to sit in the swing that’s suspended at the bottom level of the atrium, under the amber glow from industrial chandeliers and plenty of natural lighting from the overhead skylights.
Situated along the Southern Pacific rail line, the current packing house complex pays tribute to its roots, converting an old train into patio seating and retaining much of its rusty, industrial exterior. Inside, this bi-level public market is wide open for people-watching, creating a truly communal experience, with a central atrium that feels like a garden and a mezzanine that wraps all around it. Small design touches pay tribute to the citrus history, but the gastronomical offerings go way beyond fruit.
Some of the Anaheim Packing District vendors are open for breakfast, but it's worth a visit later in the day to sip on some wine in a vintage 1920s railroad car at BXCR Wine Bar, which opens at 5:00 p.m., or slip behind a wall of sake barrels to partake in the adult beverage offerings of The Blind Rabbit. Check the online calendar for live music, free classes and even yoga in the adjacent Farmer's Park.