This settlement on the edge of the desert, originally a collection of avocado and citrus groves, was transformed into an actual farming town over the course of President Richard M. Nixon’s youth until the family moved to Whittier in 1922.
Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace
18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard
Yorba Linda, CA 92886-3949
ph.: (714) 993-3393, 993-5075
Web site: www.nixonlibrary.org
Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-seventh president of the United States, was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California, the second of five sons of Frank and Hannah Milhous Nixon. Frank had migrated from Ohio several years earlier and met Hannah at a Quaker religious meeting. After the wedding, Frank borrowed money from his father-in-law in order to purchase twelve acres of land on which he planted lemon tree seedlings.
In 1910, Frank built the Nixon homestead from an eight hundred-dollar building kit ordered from the Sears catalog. It is the same house, a one and one-half-story bungalow, which was restored and has been open to the public since 1990 as part of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace. There is a large brick fireplace on the ground floor around which Richard Nixon had long family talks about local affairs and state and national politics. Downstairs there was also a bedroom for the parents, living room, and kitchen. All the boys slept together in a single upstairs bedroom. There was an outside privy which the family shared. At the time of Richard Nixon’s birth, the bungalow had no electricity or running water, either.
Hannah insisted on naming four of the five sons after early English kings (Harold, Richard, Arthur, and Edward). The other son, Francis Donald, was named after Frank, but the family always called him Donald. Frank’s foray into citrus farming, however, never brought the affluence or even the sustenance that he sought. The lemon trees suffered blight due to a number of frosts, and the soil in which Frank Nixon planted the seedlings was too sandy and pebbly to produce good fruit. Throughout the nine years that Frank Nixon and his growing family lived in Yorba Linda, the family lived in working poverty, and Frank took outside jobs to supplement income from the lemon trees and food from the family garden.
Nixon, in his memoirs, characterizes his early life in Yorba Linda as “hard but happy.” His mother had taught him how to read at home, which helped make him a star student at Yorba Linda Elementary School, which he entered in 1919. He did so well in the first grade–there was no kindergarten at Yorba Linda Elementary at that time as universal kindergarten, originally conceived in Germany in the nineteenth century, did not become ubiquitous in the United States until later in the century–that the following fall, he skipped from first grade to third grade. Hannah also tutored Richard at home in French and German and introduced him to the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. There is a confirmed report that on young Nixon’s first day of school, Hannah told Miss Mary George, his first grade teacher, “Please call my son Richard and never Dick. I named him Richard.”
Richard was reported to be a quiet and studious boy with a great inclination toward reading and a memory that some teachers called “photographic.” In the three years that Richard attended Yorba Linda Elementary, he was consistently at the top of his class. In the family papers, his first-year report card shows an “E” (Excellent) in every graded subject except handwriting, for which he received a “U” (Unsatisfactory). There are school exercise books that Nixon composed while at Yorba Linda Elementary that can be viewed in the Nixon Archives. The penmanship is indeed difficult to decipher in areas, but the content is redolent of the classical notions which dominated elementary instruction at the time: Nixon, like his schoolmates, copied out famous speeches in the Western rhetorical tradition from Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Nixon apparently had a remarkable memory, and his ability to memorize long passages from various poems and orations amazed his peers and pleased the four teachers who taught all levels at Yorba Linda Elementary. Contemporaries of Nixon recall that he and a Japanese American girl, Yoneko Dobashi, generally competed for top honors in successive academically competitive early-elementary classes that they shared. Indeed, the Yorba Linda community was remarkably multicultural, due in part to the job opportunities available in new oilfields nearby and the relatively low price of real estate. Yorba Linda had been founded by members of the Whittier Quaker community, but there were many Chinese American and Japanese American farming families, some of whom also worked in the oilfields, which drew African American and Latino families to the small village as well.
The Friends Meeting of Yorba Linda was a continuing influence on Richard and the entire Nixon family and probably constituted a more comprehensive influence on him than even his public elementary school education. Richard was expected to follow the precepts of Quaker Christian practice as espoused by his father, who, having converted from Methodism, taught in the Friends Sunday School. Richard was expected to be in attendance at no less than four Sunday services. Yet Richard recalls reading, almost every evening, newspapers and periodicals that allowed him to develop his lifelong love of politics and his consideration of issues of civics and public affairs. Even given the financial straits of the Nixon family, they apparently always subscribed to the Los Angeles Times, The Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal, all of which Nixon read voraciously. Nixon recalls enjoying visits with his Uncle Oscar and Aunt Olive Marshburn in Whittier because of their National Geographic collection, which they generously shared with their nephew. In his memoirs, Nixon calls that magazine the preferred reading choice of his youth while in Yorba Linda.
Other influences on the development of Richard Nixon’s personality during the first nine years of his life in Yorba Linda include his older brother, Harold, and his maternal grandmother, Almira Milhous. Harold, four years older than Richard and blessed with an insouciant personality and athletic ability which Richard did not have, provided an ideal for Richard which he could not attain and perhaps helped to develop his sense of perseverance which later served him well. Yorba Linda contemporaries recall Harold’s physical superiority but remember as well the determination of young Richard to try to keep up with his older, stronger, more self-assured sibling.
After the death of grandfather Franklin Milhous in 1919, his widow, Almira Milhous, became more a part of the Frank and Hannah Nixon Yorba Linda household. Although she was a strict Quaker, she still liked and presided over midsummer picnics and family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of her thirty-two grandchildren, Grandma Milhous seemed to have most favored Richard; she appreciated almost immediately the talent that her nervous and studious grandson had for absorbing knowledge. Many members of the family recall her frequent compliment to young Richard, “That boy will one day be a leader.” Other family members noted, and sometimes complained about, the favoritism that she on occasion showed for Richard. Grandma Milhous’s influence on Richard was to give him an appreciation and respect for both religious values and humanitarian ideals: to believe strongly in one’s preferred understanding of religious concerns while showing respect for other traditions and opinions.
By the early 1920’s, Frank Nixon had become fairly convinced that citrus farming was not going to support his family of six (youngest brother Edward was not born until 1930). Frank sold off single acres in parcels, with the local school system purchasing several of the lots (which the school owns to this day). Hannah had never liked the proximity of the Yorba Linda homestead to the Anaheim irrigation ditch, a dirty and dangerous temptation for her sons and their friends in the neighborhood. Frank and Hannah Nixon moved with their four sons to the larger town of Whittier, twenty miles northwest of Yorba Linda. There was a larger Quaker community there and more opportunities, Frank Nixon thought, to assure his family a reasonable middle-class living. Frank again borrowed money, this time to buy land on Whittier Boulevard, the main road between Whittier and La Habra. Nixon cleared the land and installed a tank and pump; his service station was the first one on the eight-mile stretch between Whittier and La Habra. Almost immediately, he started selling Hannah’s home-baked pies and cakes, and as he added items for sale, the Nixon Market developed as an early iteration of that very American, automobile centered establishment, the convenience store attached to a service station. Thus, the Yorba Linda era ended, and the Whittier era of the Nixon family began.
Metropolitan Los Angeles’s fabled and at times troubled freeway system puts several other areas of interest for Nixon historians–professional and amateur–close enough to merge into a single day’s agenda. Nixon Winter White House is in San Clemente, seventy miles south of Los Angeles via the 91 West to the 55 South (Newport Freeway) to the I-5 South (the Santa Ana Freeway, then the San Diego Freeway). Whittier College, Nixon’s undergraduate alma mater, is located on the east side of Painter Avenue in Whittier, north of Whittier Boulevard and the downtown area.
Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993. A definitive biography that is thoroughly annotated. Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon: The Education of a Politician. 3 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. A well-researched and -documented three-volume biography with forty pages of notes in the first volume alone, as well as an extensive bibliography and index. Costello, William. The Facts About Nixon: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1960. An objective biography written during the 1960 presidential election that makes extensive use of private papers including letters, telegrams, diaries, journals, and other memoranda. Hughes, Arthur F. Richard M. Nixon. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. An accessible biography for scholastic audiences. Morris, Roger. Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. This 1,005-page biography includes significant detail about Nixon’s early life in the first 300 pages. This volume concludes with Nixon’s ascent to the vice presidency after the 1952 campaign. Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. Nixon’s complete memoirs, published four years after he resigned from the presidency. Stone, Oliver, ed. Nixon: An Oliver Stone Film. New York: Hyperion, 1995. This text describes the making of Stone’s controversial film about Nixon and includes illustrations as well as insights concerning the production and direction of the film. Volkan, Vamik D. Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. This text is an exemplary psychobiography that attempts to show the relationship between Nixon’s inner psychological dynamics and his outward style of leadership.