Last Woman Standing

Ruth Ann Segerstrom Moriarty is the matriarch of the Segerstrom Family, a family who changed Orange County. She is the final surviving family member of C. J. Segerstrom’s third descended generation.

“I can’t believe I’m 94,” Ruth Ann Segerstrom Moriarty says, as she reflects upon her life. Ruth Ann’s father, Anton Segerstrom, was one of 11 children that Charles John (C.J.) and Bertha Segerstrom brought into the world. Anton Segerstrom married Ruth Thomas, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana in 1920. They had two children: Ruth Ann, born in 1922, and her brother Henry, born in 1923. With the passing of Henry on February 20, 2015, Ruth Ann is the sole direct descendant of the Segerstrom generation that made their pioneer voyage from Sweden to America in 1882.

While Henry placed his focus on development, Ruth Ann set her sights on preserving her family’s history. Her archives chronicle the journey of the Segerstrom family from immigrant farmers to real estate giants. She relates that her grandparents, C.J. and Bertha, were married in 1878, but lacked significant opportunities for their three children Charles, Eric, and Christine. As a tenant farmer, he and Bertha decided to leave Nashulta Sweden in 1882 for America, arriving in Chicago, where C.J.’s brother Henry and sister Amanda had immigrated. Henry helped C.J. find employment at the Chicago Stockyards, but a year later, the family opted for the pine forests of Wisconsin, before finally settling in St. Paul, Minnesota for the next 13 years, where C.J. worked as a janitor for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway.

The family size had now increased to 10 children: Charles, Eric, Christine, Anna, Ida, William, Clara, Anton, Esther and Fred.

Bertha’s health suffered tremendously with the harsh winters, so, in 1898, C.J. joined his brother Henry in Los Angeles, where the oldest boys Charles and Eric had located. The C.J. Segerstrom family was joyously reunited two days before Thanksgiving.

C.J. located farmland in Orange County, and moved the family in 1900 to what is now Costa Mesa on Fairview Road and the 40-acre Campbell Ranch, which they leased and named “Willow Springs Farm.” It was there on January 22, 1900, that C.J.’s and Bertha’s 11th child, Harold, was born.

C.J. bought the 50-acre Brooks Ranch in 1912, across the road from Willow Springs Farm, and in 1916, built a lovely eight-room home, which still stands today as the Segerstrom homestead.

The family began farming alfalfa before transitioning to the now-famous lima beans in 1916. With Eric and Charles now married and living in Sonora, the remaining four sons worked the fields and the five daughters worked in the house to become one of the largest producers of lima beans in the world on their 2,000 acres of prime farmland.

“Father would always say, ‘We are land rich and cash poor’ because everything we had went back into the land and business.”

Ruth Ann and Henry were born in Santa Ana and lived in a home on Spurgeon Street before the family moved to the city’s upscale Victoria Drive.

“Henry and I would roller skate, ride bikes and jump rope,” Ruth Ann recalls. “We were very close.”

Besides lima beans (100 years later, beans are still being grown on the Home Ranch), the family had a dairy farm for many years. When it sold in 1942, the farm was the second largest dairy farm in California. It stood where The Westin South Coast Plaza and surrounding high-rise office buildings are today.

With C.J. passing away in 1928, the four sons–William, Anton, Fred and Harold– continued to manage the farming operations. When Anton and Harold passed away, their sons stepped in as partners; Henry T. Segerstrom, Anton’s son, and Harold (Hal) T. Segerstrom, Jr., Harold’s son.

Following World War II, Ruth Ann says the family expanded into commercial real estate development by acquiring the Santa Ana Air Base warehouse and developing an industrial park on the 25 acres of land. In 1960, the family sold a strip of property to the State of California, which became the San Diego Freeway. That seed money provided the first fully-enclosed shopping center in the region known as South Coast Plaza. Following its opening in 1967, high-rise towers were erected, as well as South Coast Plaza Village and the retail center’s extension across Bear Street, Crystal Court.

“I was a little apprehensive about South Coast Plaza in the beginning,” a practical Ruth Ann confesses. “Henry wanted to make it high-end, and I was worried no one would shop there!”

Ruth Ann graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1939 and attended Scripps College in Claremont and Stanford University before transferring to USC, where she received her BS and RN degrees. It was on a visit to her cousin Christine in San Francisco, that she met future husband, Eugene (Gene) Moriarty. Ruth Ann says he was a tall, handsome USC student, who worked with Christine on the school paper.

“Gene was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Pendleton, and he would drive up and take me out to dinner,” Ruth Ann says. “We would laugh and laugh together. He had a wonderful sense of humor.”

She attributes this laughter and humor to their successful 60-year marriage. While at USC, Gene was called to active duty and served in the Pacific Theater, and, later, on Okinawa on the Block Island aircraft carrier.

Following the war, he and Ruth Ann were married in 1946 at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, and Gene, who helped form the Department of Cinema at USC, was officially named one of “The Unholy Five.” Ruth Ann worked as a nurse, under the guidance of a dermatologist, who taught at the USC School of Medicine. Within a few years, she was home full-time, as their children arrived – Richard in 1948, Jeanne in 1950 and Donald in 1952.

From that point, Gene’s worked in executive level management, with the family moving to locations across the country before returning to Orange County in 1962. Gene joined C.J. Segerstrom & Sons and was the general manager of MV Partners, which operated Mesa Verde Center, until his death in 2011.

Of course, there is the matter of the Segerstrom family giving the land for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2011, in honor of the family’s legacy. Giving 14 acres of land and millions of dollars is a measure of this remarkable family’s dedication and love for this community.

“We were very proud to donate the land and contribute to its construction,” Ruth Ann says.

Today, Ruth Ann loves the selection of stores at South Coast Plaza, as well as the growth and development of their land.

This amazing woman gives very quietly to a myriad of community nonprofits and continues researching the family’s genealogy. Ruth Ann is proud that her son Richard carries on the family’s agricultural legacy with ownership of his company, Newport Beach Vineyards. Her son Donald has his father’s love of cinema and is an avid filmmaker, and her daughter Jeanne inherited Ruth Ann’s and Ruth’s keen sense for style and real estate acumen. All five Moriartys proudly graduated from USC.

Ever so humble, Ruth Ann says it best.

“I feel very blessed. I have an extraordinary family, fantastic children and grandchildren, with great friends, and 94 years of beautiful memories… and still counting!”