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Jim Sleeper, Orange County Historian: 1927-2012

Jim Sleeper was known for his outsized personality as much as his love of local lore, Chris Jepsen writes.

Editor's note: This obituary was originally posted on Chris Jepsen's blog, O.C. History Roundup, where he posts information and photos for readers interested in Orange County history.

Orange County's greatest historian, and one of its most memorable personalities, Jim Sleeper, passed away this morning, Sept. 27, 2012, at about 1:30 a.m. His impact on local history, local historians, and Orange County's sense of itself was enormous and incalculable. He will be greatly missed.

If you were lucky enough to know him, you undoubtedly have wonderful and colorful Sleeper stories of your own to tell. If you did not, let me tell you a little about him... 

To start with, a small sampling of titles and nicknames Jim accrued over the years may give you some hints about him: The Sage of Trabuco Canyon, Holy Jim Jr., the Ol’ Almanacker, The Professor, Rex, Orange County’s Mark Twain, the Last True Orange County Democrat, Orange County’s Last Rustic, the Last of the Victorians, Forest Lawn's Ghost Writer, Fireman for Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, and Assistant Junior Bugler and President of the Old Timers’ Picnic. 

But most of all, Jim Sleeper was known as the County Historian. Not "a" county historian, but "the" County Historian. It’s a title that was never officially recorded, and as he said, it carried "a good deal more prestige than profit.” But he more than earned that prestige.

Jim loved doing historical research -- “gumshoeing,” he called it. When under full sail, Jim could spend up to 15 hours a day at it. That's not to say that he didn't find it challenging. “Historical research is like eating quail," he wrote, "You wade through so much to wind up with so little. The problem is to run down those many sources thought to exist, then digest those few that really do.” 

Conversely, Jim had little patience for the official functions and board meetings that often accompany historical projects and organizations. “Are you working on anything interesting,” he would ask us, “or have they got you doing committee work?”

Old newspapers and early records were standard tools for him, but he also brought a strong human element and wry humor to his writing. “From the old-timers you get the color and the flavor," he wrote, "and from the documentary sources you get the facts and figures. You need both of them to tell a good yarn.”

Thus, Jim, who never used a computer, found use for the tools of modern oral history. "Tape recorders are my one concession to modern technology," he wrote. "That, and pop top beer cans."

Indeed, Jim resisted change, lived the rustic life as much as he could in the 20th Century, and had an endearingly curmudgeonly manner that belied how generous and enthusiastic he was.

Most local historians focus on a town or city. But Jim's work encompassed the whole county, with a “special passion for what little is left of the rural.” His interests were divided between O.C.’s natural and chronological history -- usually stopping just short of World War II.

James Doren Sleeper was born in Santa Ana in 1927 to Boyd and Italia Sleeper. He was a fourth generation Orange Countian on one side of the family, and third generation on the other. Boyd was Santa Ana’s first Fire Marshall. Jim’s grandfather, “Big Jim” Sleeper, had come to Orange County in 1888 and leased land on the Irvine Ranch where he grew barley. “Big Jim” later served as County Assessor for 34 years and was known in his field for his remarkable success in getting oil companies to pay their fair share in property taxes. As a child, "Little Jim" would frequently visit his grandfather at his office in the Old Courthouse.

With deep roots and all our local history and backcountry to explore, Jim was always quite comfortable being a "homer" for Orange County. “When it comes to local pride, I am not just provincial, I’m downright bigoted,” he liked to say. A Los Angeles newspaper reporter once pressed him on that point, asking if he ever left Orange County to visit Downtown L.A. "Hell," Jim replied, "I wouldn't drive up there to watch Jesus Christ wrestle a grizzly bear!" 

Historian Esther Cramer, a great friend of Jim’s later in life, remembers visiting the Sleeper family when they were both children. But she didn’t actually meet Jim until much later. During her visits, he was always out exploring the Santa Ana Mountains. The history bug had bitten Jim while he was still in grammar school, and he loved to be out in the canyons where the sense of early California was still alive and well.


“When I was 13,” Jim later wrote, “I went to work as a copy boy on the old Santa Ana Independent… a Democratic weekly edited by A.B. Berry, whom everyone called “The Colonel.” At the time, there were only two Democrats in Orange County. I came well recommended for the job. My grandfather was the other one.”

While still in Junior High, Jim’s grandfather introduced him to our first true county historian, Terry E. Stephenson, who looked at Jim’s early efforts at writing history and pronounced them “really quite good.” Through his grandfather, Jim also met such early Orange County luminaries as J. E. Pleasants, James Irvine, Andrew Joplin, Hamilton Cotton and C. C. Chapman.

Jim was encouraged to attend a meeting of the Orange County Historical Society, where Stephenson introduced him around. Jim was active in the society for more than 70 years. In 1970, he served as OCHS’s president. He was also the co-founder (with friend Lindy Curry) of the society's County Courier newsletter, and was still on the Editorial Board of the Orange Countiana historical journal at the time of his death.

At age 17, Jim completed his first book, called Shocking Reports from the Electric Eel. It was written, he later said, “in a style somewhere in between Robert Benchley and St. Thomas Aquinas. While it didn’t have much to do with Orange County history, the eight people who bought copies have a real treasure.”

Jim graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1945, then spent two years in the Army Air Force, “defending democracy from behind a Smith Corona.” He worked at one newspaper or another until he left for college at age 20. He developed not only an understanding of the mechanics of printing and design, but also a greater affinity for writing. 

On his 21st birthday, in 1948, he paid $800 for a cabin in Holy Jim Canyon and a lease on the National Forest land it stood on. For most of his life, he was the most prominent resident of this remote and rustic corner of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Jim earned a masters degree in classical literature from Occidental College. He’d intended to become a short story writer, but by the time he graduated most of the magazines that published short stories had folded. Once again, he was drawn back toward his old love, history.

But history for its own sake doesn't always pay the bills, so Jim also taught "dumbbell English and journalism" at Orange Coast College, wrote newspaper articles and radio scripts, and worked off and on as a Forest Ranger in the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest.

"Well, after I left the Forest Service," Jim said, "I went back to school for a couple more years – this time to soak up ancient history. In eight years of college I never read a book later than the 16th century, so you can see how well prepared I was to become an Orange County historian. I also minored in pre-Columbian civilizations, which killed off any interest whatsoever in our local Indians. Sorry about that."

Instead, he had a continuing fascination with the people and cultures of Central and South America, and made many trips through the jungles, exploring old ruins and lost cities.

To float the first of these trips, he took a job as speechwriter for Hubert Eaton, the founder and general manager of Forest Lawn memorial parks. 

Somewhere amid all these adventures, when he again had a teaching job in Fullerton, Jim met the love of his life, a young teacher named Nola Fox. They married in 1965.

“I’ve concluded that the only bright things I ever did in my life were to marry an English teacher and buy a house before the interest rates went up. After looking at the weeds in my front yard, I am surer about the English teacher.”

Soon thereafter, Jim got a plum job as staff historian for the Irvine Company -- when the corporation was still controlled by the Irvine family. It was during his four years at that post when Jim's reputation as an excellent local historian really solidified. In his capable hands, the Irvine Company's PR newsletter, The Rancho San Joaquin Gazette (and to a slightly lesser extent, the Irvine Ranch Newsletter) became a fount of well-researched and engagingly written history. He also contributed articles to local magazines and newspapers that provided new insights into the history of Orange County.

Because he broke so much new (old) ground -- rather than simply recycling earlier history books -- people were sometimes inclined to question his version of events. But Jim's research was always solid. 

“Those unfamiliar with Orange County’s whimsical history are inclined to huff: ‘Sleeper never lets the facts get in the way of a good yarn.’ Good yarns I trust they are, but they are also woven from facts," he wrote. "Local history doesn’t have to be believable to be true!” 

Or as he summarized it in his oft-quoted motto: “When it comes to local history, the first liar doesn’t stand a chance.”

Jim also addressed the concern that the humor in his work might throw the content into question: “If my treatment seems a bit jocular, the facts are no less true. One of the curses of our culture is that one is not taken seriously unless one writes seriously.”

 But happily, Jim didn't take himself too seriously. “Anyone who writes history must own up to the fact that it boils down to a judicious combination of banditry, lard, and well-turned transitional phrases,” he once said. Referencing one of his Almanac articles, he admitted that “Anyone who can write three pages on apricot pits has got to be weird.”

In 1969, Jim set off on his own as a full time freelance historian. He had his own office, letterhead -- the whole schmeer. In this capacity, he served as a consultant or adviser for the Rancho Mission Viejo Co., the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, at least 20 historical societies, and nearly as many libraries. He was also a popular (though frequently reluctant) lecturer, and often served as an expert witness in trials where questions of land and history came up.

More memorably, Jim also wrote over 500 local history articles, and a number of must-have books. None of these books had short titles. All of them are classics.

His first major effort as a free-lance author was Jim Sleeper's Orange County Almanac of Historical Oddities, published in 1971 (the first of three editions). His other books included Bears to Briquets: A History of Irvine Park 1897-1997; Turn The Rascals Out!: The Life and Times of Orange County's Fighting Editor, Dan M. Baker; A Boy’s Book of Bear Stories (Not For Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains; Portrait from the Past: A Historical Profile of Orange County's Old County Courthouse, 1901-1979; and Great Movies Shot in Orange County That Will Live Forever (Or At Least Until 1934).

He was also reporter, editor and publisher of some Xeroxed "newspapers" for his neighbors and friends, including the Canyon Wren.

Over time, he amassed "the largest private collection of Orange County-ana in Orange County, including historical materials, old newspapers, old books, etc. I've indexed newspapers from virtually 1870, when the first newspaper began in what is now Orange County."

In his later years, Jim -- a long-time pipe smoker -- developed serious cancer. Although the disease and treatment took a physical toll, his spirit remained strong. Jim once said he resisted death for the same reason he resisted other kinds of change: It was "the untested novelty of it" that bothered him. 

In 2008, after his health had improved a little, I invited Jim and Phil Brigandi along on a tour of historic sites on restricted Irvine Ranch Conservancy land. What an amazing day that was! Curiously, the TV crew that had invited me to tag along had no interest in interviewing Jim, who knew that land better than any person alive. (In fact, the only time they addressed any of us historians on camera was to "shush" us when we were talking in the background.) But Phil and I were the winners that day. We learned more about the hanging tree in Precitas Canyon, the C-135 crash on Lomas Ridge, Cañada de los Bueyes, and ancient Indian sites by simply hanging back and listening to Jim.

Never one to give up, Jim beat back cancer twice. But in his last couple years his health declined. However, even a week before his death, fading somewhere in and out of awareness, he still had moments where his irascible sense of humor, intelligence, concern for friends, and interest in local history were on full display. Jim was Jim to the end.

And that meant Jim's trademark curiosity was intact too. 

"Did you ever see a tube," he asked me, "with a light shining at the end of it?"

"No," I said. "When have you seen that, Jim?"

"I think it's when I'm dreaming," he replied. "I try to wave off the light, and it flickers like a candle for a moment, but comes right back. It's like looking down a tunnel."

He didn't seem the least bit afraid. He was just very, very curious and perhaps a little irritated that he hadn't been able to figure it out yet. I knew that look. When something made Jim curious, it was likely to become his next big project and adventure.

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