The Rice Family

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

The Rice family was consider the epitome of success, wealth, sociability and culture in early Tustin.

James S. and Coralinn Rice with their two young sons, James W. and Merrill, came to California from Cleveland, Ohio, in the winter of 1876. Rice planned to join his brother-in-law James Irvine in raising cattle and hogs. The family moved into the Irvine’s San Joaquin ranch house at the head of Newport Bay, but after a drought killed much of the livestock, they decided that ranch life was not for them.

In 1877 Rice bought 50 acres on the north side of First between Holt and Prospect in Tustin and built an ornate three story Victorian house which became the social center of Tustin after they moved in. A gentleman farmer, Rice first planted grapes and then oranges on the acreage surrounding the house.

Mrs. Rice, who was a gifted pianist and vocalist, soon became known as the “Sweet Song Bird of Tustin.” Rice was a talented whistler and often joined his wife in entertaining at parties. They hosted parties often and lavishly. Their guests were the socialites of the area including people such as Mr. and Mrs. David Hewes, Madame Modjeska and Stella Nau.

Mrs. Rice and Madame Modjeska performed together several times in benefits held at French’s Opera House in Santa Ana. Mrs. Rice drew large audiences of her friends when she appeared in the cantata “Esther.”

The Rices had two more sons after moving to Tustin, Harvey in 1878 and Percy in 1882. All four boys became well known in the community and people marveled at how different each was. Both James W. and Merrill inherited their parents’ love of music. Harvey was a brilliant boy whose life ended with tuberculosis in 1900 at age 21. Percy was an inventor from an early age.

When Percy was assigned the chore of caring for the family’s flock of chickens each morning, he contrived a string and pulley arrangement for feeding and watering them without leaving his bed. After being spanked in school, he designed and built a spanking machine which he presented to Tustin Superintendent of Schools John Zielian.

John W. married Rubel Martin and had two children. Both a violinist and orange rancher, he built a large Victorian home at the corner of Seventeenth and Hewes.

Merrill became estranged from the family and left Tustin. According to local gossip, he was an early day hippie who favored tattoos and a wild life.

Despite becoming a drunkard who was renown for giving temperance speeches, Percy continued to be a successful inventor. His inventions covered a wide range including a very successful automatic paper feed for printing presses introduced in 1903. Some of his inventions, such as the automatic windshield wiper for spectacles, were zany, but others proved valuable in industry. He invented an automatic gear shift for automobiles in 1913 and a push button tuner for radios in 1924.

Percy continued to visit in Tustin until his death in 1954. Coralinn and Merrill both died in 1919, James S. in 1939, and James W. in 1951. All are buried in Lawn K at Fairhaven Memorial Park.


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