Monday, June 24, 2019

The Newport Harbor Buffalo Ranch

Photo by Google Earth

On the corner of MacArthur Blvd. and Bonita Canyon in Newport Beach stands a statue of an animal that looks out of place.  You might expect the sculpture of an American Bison… Buffalo… to be found in Wyoming, Kansas, or Montana, but no. There in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate on earth stands a lone bronze buffalo, contentedly looking out at the cars as they pass. But why here?  Because at one time, that very corner was the center of buffalo country, Orange County style.

As we have said here before, California history is rich with tales of dreams that hit it big, or fade into obscurity, and many entrepreneurs came up with attractions to garner tourist dollars.  Orange County seemed an especially appealing place to bring animals to roam the open spaces that once rolled for miles without a house in sight.  There were ostrich, deer, and alligator farms, bird sanctuaries and one very large development dedicated to a variety of African animals called Lion Country Safari.  More on that later.

In 1955, a different sanctuary sprang up, founded by Irvine Company’s Gene Clark and Chief Cuthle Geronimo III, great grandson of famous Apache warrior.  They secured a large 115-acre site in Newport Beach, California.  Clark wanted visitors to come to a wildlife park, drive among the live bison, and stop at the Porter Western Store to pick up souvenirs. There was a train and a fire engine for kids to ride. He named it the Newport Harbor Buffalo Ranch, “the West’s Largest Buffalo Ranch!”

Porter’s store was constructed to resemble a barn, and adjacent to the barn stood a tall, white silo where you could purchase a delicious buffalo burger… fresh off the farm made from one of the former residents.  In fact, for a while Knott’s Berry Farm would occasionally purchase one of the animals for their own Buffalo Burger nights.  

Several Native Americans relocated from Kansas for the park and would greet visitors to explain the fine points of native culture and buffalo hunting. They built a small, touristy Indian village, where you could watch live demonstrations of tribal dances. They ran a petting zoo with other farm animals like goats and sheep.

72 Buffalo were the first residents, arriving in November of 1955.  The population grew to around 100, but timing is everything.  There were other attractions opening across Southern California, and the Buffalo ranch had a hard time competing with Knotts, Disneyland (both of which also had Indian villages), and Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes. The ranch couldn’t keep up. Though plans had been made to build a conference center, the expansion never materialized.  The herd dwindled, and the ranch closed just four years later.

Many of the bison remained for years, even as the neighborhood homes sprang up around.  Ford Motor Company built a facility across the street, bordered by MacArthur, Jamboree, and Ford Road.  The University of California, Irvine was sprouting up on nearby land, and campus designer William Pereira accepted a contract to also create the layout of the city of Irvine.  He needed a local office. Being a lover of barn buildings, Pereira converted the Porter building and dubbed it “Urbanus Square.” He kept four of the animals: Becky, Happy, Rainbow, and Lucky. 

But in five years, even Pereira had to move out.  The land was just too ripe for development.  A Huntington Beach man named John Cogorno took Happy, Rainbow, and Lucky to his ranch to live out their remaining days.  Becky was sold to the Orange County Fairgrounds, where she later gave birth to a calf, Tatonka. 

The bronze statue is the only remaining evidence, standing behind a plaque on the corner by the sidewalk. It marks the Ranch as follows:

“In 1954, Myford Irvine granted a 115-acre lease to the Newport Harbor Buffalo Ranch for a sightseeing attraction in this location. The Buffalo Ranch provided a glimpse of the colorful days of the Old West with buildings, cowboys, chuckwagons, and Native Americans. The ranch was home to over 100 bison that were overlooked by Chief Cuthle Geronimo III, grandson of the famous Apache chieftain. The original Buffalo Ranch buildings, designed in an authentic western style including a barn and silo, were located on this corner.”

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