October 16th would have been the 146th birthday of James Harvey Irvine.
Chances are, the intensely private founder of the Irvine Company wouldn't have wanted much of a celebration. Irvine was a man of few words who preferred to let his actions speak for him. No other member of the Irvine family had greater impact on the city that would one day bear his name.
His father, also James Irvine, was an Irish immigrant who was lured to California during the Gold Rush. James Harvey Irvine didn't need to seek his fortune. He was born into San Francisco high society, the privileged son of a newly-wealthy man. But Irvine never rested on his father's success. He was serious and determined and believed in the ability of every man to make his own way in the world.
Instead of observing life from the lofty position of privilege, James H. Irvine experienced life firsthand, choosing to ground himself in the natural world. When he was 21 years old, he and his friend Harry Bechtel rode high-wheeled velocipedes from San Francisco to San Diego. The trip took three months to complete.
On his 25th birthday, James Harvey Irvine inherited the 110,000 acre Rancho San Joaquin, also known as the Irvine Ranch, which covered more than one-fifth of present day Orange County. At the time, the only asset of the Irvine Ranch was its potential. The vast, undeveloped pastureland was populated with more sheep than people.
James Irvine not only inherited his father's land, but his love for it as well. He preferred to think of himself as a farmer, not a landowner.
With shrewd business judgement and formidable self-discipline, he transformed the sleepy, sheep grazing operation into an agricultural powerhouse.
His critics said he was aloof, distant and unemotional. Those who knew him best defended his reticence as the defense mechanism of a wealthy and powerful man.
They also spoke of his tremendous personal loss and natural shyness that caused him to guard his emotions in public.
Irvine didn't suffer fools easily. He detested social niceties as a waste of time. But he was a man of his word, fiercely loyal to his family and generous with those in need.
Today, the legacy of James Harvey Irvine still has an impact on his former ranch. In 1894, he formed the Irvine Company and remained its sole shareholder until his death 53 years later.
In 1897, he donated more than 160 acres of his land to form Orange County Regional Park, now Irvine Regional Park, which has preserved the beauty of Santiago Canyon for more than a century.
Most notably, he contributed to the success of the future city of Irvine. James H. Irvine may never have envisioned the place that would eventually be named for him. His determination to keep his ranch intact provided a "giant blank slate" that planners used to design the master planned community.
Ellen Bell is the author of Irvine: Images of America