HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY
James A. Whitaker, founder of Buena Park, California
By Allan R. Ellenberger
James A. Whitaker was a successful businessman and the founder of Buena Park, California, the home of Knotts Berry Farm. Whitaker was born near Cherry Valley in Otsego County, New York on April 8, 1827, the son of James T. and Prudence (Sydleman) Whitaker. His grandfather, Maj. Thomas Whitaker, was a soldier in the Revolutionary Army.
His father died when he was a child and this limited his education to the local Cherry Valley Academy. However, he quickly moved forward in business, first in Norwich, Connecticut where he formed the firm of Whitaker & Price for a $500 investment. After eight years of profitable trading, the firm dissolved leaving him with a profit of $8,000 cash.
In 1853, Whitaker moved to Chicago and formed Whitaker Bros., a wholesale grocery business. Later he joined Loomis & Whitaker, and within two years he bought out his partner. Over the years Whitaker continued to merge with other companies and rapidly forged a successful name for himself in the commercial world.
In 1885 Whitaker moved to what is now Orange County, California and acquired 690 acres for raising cattle. However, George Fullerton, a land agent for the Santa Fe Railroad, persuaded Whitaker to subdivide his property as an alternative. Since Whitaker’s property surrounded the rail route, the deal included a rail terminal to be built later. On June 17, 1887, when Whitaker registered his platted map with the county, he used the name Buena Park (the city was incorporated in 1953).
Though the exact derivation of the name Buena Park is uncertain, a grassy area where Artesia and Beach Boulevards (formerly Grand Avenue) now meet had been named Plaza Buena (the “good park”) by early Spanish-speaking settlers, so Whitaker apparently adopted the name “Buena” for his town. Within a short time, a little business district sprang up at Ninth Street and Beach Blvd. around Whitaker’s General Store, near the railroad depot.
Another theory is that Whitaker used the name of a Chicago suburb — Buena Park, Illinois. Both communities were named in 1887, and Whitaker’s brother, Andrew (who is also buried at Hollywood Forever) lived in Buena Park, Illinois before moving to California to join his brother.
In 1888, Whitaker allowed a group of local worshippers to use a room above his general store for holding church services and then donated $3,000 and 100 square feet of land at Tenth Street and Beach Blvd. for a new church. The church became the First Congregational Church of Buena Park and is still worshiping at this location today.
Twenty acres of land within the subdivision was sold to one of James’ two brothers, Andrew. Andrew was an experienced farmer who later helped James operate the Pacific Condensed Milk Company after a local group of investors took over its operation in the early 1890’s. This company was Orange County’s first non-agricultural industry and was commonly referred to by its brand name as the Lily Creamery.
In the early 1900’s, Whitaker and his wife Ella, moved to Highland Park, near Pasadena, where he died on March 13, 1908 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery.
Whitaker’s imprint can still be seen in Buena Park. Whitaker Street is named for him as is the James A. Whitaker Elementary School on Montana Avenue. The home of his brother, Andrew Whitaker, is now known as the Whitaker-Jaynes Estate, and has been restored and moved to become the cornerstone of Buena Park’s newly established Historical District.
Whitaker’s grave is located at Hollywood Forever in Section 7, behind the Griffith obelisk and facing the sandy path.