You may not know that Irvine has its own Historical Society, which is dedicated to preserving the city’s impressive landmarks. One of their most important projects is the Irvine Historical Museum, established in 1976.
Located in the San Joaquin Ranch House, the quaint museum building is part of the original ranch house structure commissioned by James Irvine in 1868. The current building was built in 1877 and is the oldest structure in the city of Irvine. It was built for a mere $1,300 on the Irvine Ranch.
“Our little museum is an authentic historic site, in the same place that it was when James Irvine used to visit from his home in San Francisco,” said Ellen Bell, a volunteer docent at the Irvine Historical Society.
Although the main house was torn down in 1971 during the grading of the nearby golf course, the cooking wing for the ranch cattle and sheep camp is now the museum and headquarters of the Irvine Historical Society.
The Irvine Historical Museum has files and collections which reflect the life and events of the past on the Irvine Ranch, on which the city of Irvine was founded. The collections, artifacts, photographs and displays show Irvine’s vast history and rich roots.
Established in 1976, the Historical Society was birthed from the city’s Bi-Centennial Committee. In the mid-1980s, the society was able to rent the building from the city through the Irvine Company, who eventually gifted them the museum.
Society members support the museum with volunteer hours and fundraising. They also give monthly walking tours at Old Town Irvine, the original shipping and storage center of the Irvine Ranch.
“The society loves when the public can experience Irvine’s history first hand. We believe strongly that public education is the best way to ensure preservation,” Bell explained.
“The Irvine Historical Museum features exhibits that tell the story of the Irvine Ranch, from original indigenous tribes who first settled in the area to Rancho Days, to the Irvine Family ownership, who purchased the land in 1864 and gave the city its name,” said Bell.
There are exhibits about cattle ranching, agricultural products, the Boy Scout Jamboree of 1953 and Lion Country Safari. “You will learn more about cowboy life, and lima bean farming, as the ranch was once one of the world’s largest producers of this fantastic legume,” she added.
Bell became involved with the Irvine Historical Society when she wrote her book, “Irvine: Images of America” in 2011.
“When I was doing research for my book, I heard the same comment over and over: ‘Why are you writing a history book about Irvine? There is no history in Irvine.’ While it’s true that Irvine is a relatively new city, it has a rich heritage that dates back to California’s earliest days,” asserted Bell.
Bell has loved volunteering and becoming a historian.
“Now, because I know the stories behind the places, the reason for the street names, my experience as a resident is so much richer. Irvine is a city nearing its 50 year anniversary, in 2021. I find people are interested in history now more than ever,” she said.
“Plus, we have new residents coming to Irvine from all over the world who are anxious to learn about the history of their new adopted home.”
Nearby the museum is the Katie Wheeler Library, a lovely treasure for anyone interested in Irvine Ranch history. The venue has recreated the exterior of the Irvine family home on its original site and adapted the structure to provide library services.
“You feel like you’ve gone back in time when you visit there … the family pictures are on the walls and on the mantle of the fireplace. You can imagine what it would have been like when James H. Irvine and his family lived there,” according to Bell.
If you and your family want to spend more time exploring, Bell recommends checking out the Irvine Ranch Historic Park, a 16.5 acre special-use park that retains 24 original ranch structures. It was once one of the world’s greatest producers of Valencia oranges.
“The Irvine Ranch Historic Park is home to O.C. Parks and is currently used as their office and meeting space. The interesting buildings are all part of the original Irvine Ranch Headquarters,” Bell said.
Gail Daniels has been working with the Irvine Historical Society for over 30 years and is now the president.
“I began by giving tours of what Old Town was called in 1985 – East Irvine. The area was in danger of being demolished, and the society gave tours on Sundays to raise awareness of the value of one of the few intact agricultural shipping centers in Southern California. The society succeeded in saving some, but not all, of the buildings.”
“What is also enjoyable about my job is getting questions on my phone or in an email. People are interested in some amazing things, and like to tell their stories to someone who appreciates THEIR history,” said Daniels.
Admission to the Irvine Historical Museum is free, though donations are always welcome. The Historical Society welcomes anyone who has a love for local history to get involved.
Irvine Historical Museum
5 San Joaquin
Irvine, CA 92614
Tuesday-Sunday: 1:00-4:00 – Closed Mondays
Irvine Ranch Historic Park
13042 Old Myford Rd.
Irvine, CA 92602
Park Hours: Monday – Thursday: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday – Sunday: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.