In 1923, a young aviator named Eddie Martin began using a portion of the Irvine Ranch without permission. The desolate patch of land was covered in salt grass, not even useable for pastureland. Martin thought that no one would mind if he landed his Jenny airplane there. He hoped to build an airstrip and establish the first airport in the area.
In his autobiography, “Just Call Me Eddie: My Life as a Pioneer Pilot in Orange County, California,” Martin tells his story to historian Judy Gauntt.
“I knew I was poaching and I knew I was wrong, but nobody said anything about it. Eventually, I got up the courage to go out to the Irvine Ranch Headquarters to talk to them about a lease.”
When Martin entered Irvine’s office, he saw a red sign hanging on the wall. It read: “Often the best way to show warm sympathy is with cold cash.” Martin thought the sign was strange.
“I read that sign and thought ‘now what in the Sam Hill could that mean?’ Here’s a man who has all the land and probably most of the money, and he’s not going to show warm sympathy to anybody?”
James Irvine Sr. was not in the office that day, but his son James Jr. told Martin that he would try to convince his father to support aviation. “That suited me real well,” Martin remembered. Eventually, The Irvine Company extended a five-year, 80-acre lease for $35 per month. Martin operated the Eddie Martin Airport at the intersection of South Main Street and Newport Boulevard in Santa Ana. Today, this would be near the intersection of the 55 Freeway and Main Street, not far from John Wayne Airport.
Eddie Martin gave biplane rides to the public for $10 and taught many local pilots to fly. He formed the Santa Ana Air Club in 1924 to promote aviation in Orange County. In 1925, he taught a pretty, young Santa Ana woman named Peggy Hall how to fly. She became the first female pilot trained at the airport. Eventually, Hall became an accomplished aerial acrobat, appearing in many of Martin’s popular air shows. In 1932, Martin and Hall were married.
Eddie Martin was able to pay his monthly lease to James Irvine Sr. until the Great Depression caused him to fall behind.
“I paid what I could, but I got behind. Eventually I got another job and was able to settle my debt with Irvine. I apologized for being late and I paid what was due.”
Months passed and Martin received a note that Mr. Irvine wanted to see him in his office. James Irvine sat at his desk and spoke frankly.
“Aviation isn’t good business,” Irvine said. “I don’t see how you can make any money and stay in it. I know you like to fly and I’d hate to do anything to keep you from it. I’ve decided to cancel your lease.”
Martin listened quietly, afraid that his time on the Irvine Ranch was over. Irvine continued to speak.
“I’m going to cancel that note. You don’t owe me anything. I know business is rough and all. I like the way you do business. From now on, we don’t need written lease; we’ll just do business by handshake. Furthermore, we’re going to go back to $35 a month until you feel you can afford a higher rent.”
Martin then looked up and saw the red sign on the wall that he had read before. “Often the best way to show warm sympathy is with cold cash.”
The Eddie Martin Airport serviced Orange County until 1939. Eventually, the county decided to build MacArthur Boulevard right through one of Martin’s hangars and the proposed Orange County Airport would soon put Martin’s operation out of business. James Irvine Sr. came to Eddie Martin’s rescue once more. He negotiated the land deal with the county on the condition that Martin Aviation would receive a 17-year lease at the new airport.
“Not many people would think of a lessee like Mr. Irvine did,” Martin said. “Mr. Irvine was
one of the finest people I’ve ever known in my life.”