Newport Harbor once had…buffalo!

Newport Harbor once bragged of buffalo, not bling.

In the 1950s, the area boasted of Buffalo Ranch, a drive-through amusement park with about 100 of the hairy beasts as well as tractor rides and buffalo burgers.

Below follows an interesting article by the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Harvey.

Newport Harbor — where the buffalo roam?

Well, that was true in 1954 with the opening of Buffalo Ranch, one of Orange County’s first amusement parks. The drive-through landmark offered glimpses of the hairy beasts as well as story-telling by Geronimo III (said to be the famous chief’s grandson), a miniature train, tractor rides and buffalo burgers.

The hilly, 115-acre ranch held about 100 buffalo; the number varied depending on how much demand there was for buffalo burgers (but no need to tell that to the young’uns).

“Tastes better than it looks,” Times columnist Gene Sherman said of the burger.

While there were goats, peacocks and burros for the children to see up close, the buffalo didn’t fall into the “petting zoo” category.

In 1991, Bill Grundy of the Newport Beach Historical Society recalled driving a carload of kids through the buffalo area in his open convertible.

“There was a big bull on one side and the herd on the other,” he told The Times. “I drove in the middle and the bull got so close to the car, I could see it frothing. I said, ‘Look, kids,’ but they were on the floorboard, hiding behind the seats.”

Buffalo Ranch was the idea of ex-building contractor Gene Clark, who leased the property off MacArthur Boulevard from the Irvine Co. and brought in the buffalo (technically, they were bison) from Kansas.

It was part of an early 20th century trend toward animal theme parks in then-uncrowded Southern California.

Buffalo Ranch was preceded by attractions such as the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm, whose neighbor, eerily enough, was the Los Angeles Alligator Farm. The gators were later moved to Buena Park, no doubt to the relief of the birds.

El Monte was the home of Gay’s Lion Farm while Monkey Island (“Paradise of Primates”) was near Universal City.

Later, there would be the Japanese Village and Deer Park in Buena Park and Lion Country Safari in Irvine. The latter was the home of elderly Frasier the Sensuous Lion, who, despite his decrepit appearance, was said to have sired about 35 cubs.

Alas, Buffalo Ranch wasn’t so vibrant. Opening about the same time as Disneyland and Marineland of the Pacific didn’t help business.

By 1959, with property values increasing, the Irvine Co. canceled the ranch’s lease. The animals were sent back to Clark’s Kansas ranch.

Architect William Pereira moved into several of the left-behind buildings while working on his master development plans for the city of Irvine and UC Irvine.

After Pereira left, a portion of the land was leased to businessman William Lange, who brought in four buffaloes out of nostalgia for the vanished amusement park.

In 1994, the Irvine Co. took the land back and the animals were sold at auction to bidders who pledged to keep them alive.

“I can’t imagine killing something so beautiful, so American,” Lange said.

Few reminders of the Buffalo Ranch era exist.

UC Irvine chose the anteater, not the buffalo, as its athletic mascot.

A silo that stood near the old ranch’s main building is now used for office space on the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Bison Avenue runs through Newport Beach and Irvine.

And a life-size bronze statue of a buffalo stands somewhat uncertainly on the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Bonita Canyon Drive, a sight that must puzzle some passing motorists.

A plaque explains why the creature is there, but one would be risking one’s life to try to stop in the heavily traveled area to read it. The nearest parking spots are several blocks away.

Westminster attorney John Cogorno purchased three of Lange’s buffaloes, a cow named Rainbow and bulls named Happy and Lucky.

The trio got along amicably and amorously, producing several offspring.

“Happy and Lucky were both happy and lucky,” he said the other day.

But keeping buffalo was an adventure.

“If they want to do something, they’ll just go ahead and do it,” Cogorno said.

Once, he recalled, Happy, the dominant bull, decided “he wanted to go to a greener pasture on the ranch. He went through three thick [steel] bars of fencing. I couldn’t believe it. It makes you a little nervous when you have a loose bull. You don’t know if it’s going to a neighbor’s house or what.”

After nine years, he and his partner sold the animals to a rancher in Central California after receiving assurances they would not be slaughtered.

“They were pets more than anything else,” Cogorno said.

The three are still kicking.  No buffalo burgers served here.

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