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The Lady of La Brea: Madame Ida Hancock Ross, Los Angeles' Forgotten Matriarch

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tar elephants
The La Brea tar pits adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection/LAPL

I don't think there is anywhere I adore more than Hancock Park in Los Angeles. Home to the La Brea Tar Pits, the Page Museum and my beloved L.A .County Museum of Art, it bustles with a laid-back joy rarely seen in our spread-out, rather jaded city. Happy people of all ages are everywhere. They dance to the songs sung by the man in a cowboy hat, who has played the mandolin in front of the Page Museum as long as I can remember. They kiss under Chris Burden's iconic Urban Light exhibition at LACMA, and they peer into the pits where tar-stained archeologists painstakingly uncover ancient bones with brushes and picks. The smell of asphalt looms over this place of wonder, where you can see the skeleton of a Colombian Mammoth, view an actual Van Gogh and eat delicious treats from one of L.A.'s famed food trucks, all in one relatively chill afternoon.

A bust in the park commemorates George Allan Hancock, the man who donated the pits to the county. But it does not mention his mother -- the woman who extracted great wealth for him from these lands and was the first to allow scientific researchers free rein of the premises. She was a woman whose life, from beginning to end, reads like some-kind of Western fairy tale. But this is a revisionist tale -- where the woman constantly cleans up the messes that men in her life have left behind, and survives and thrives, becoming universally revered for her kindness and charity.

Sisters are doing it for themselves.

Ida Hancock Ross | Source: L.A. Times, 1909

Royal Roots

"[I came to America] for one reason only-namely, to see this blessed country for myself." - Count Agoston Haraszthy

From her birth in 1843, Ida Haraszthy was an anomaly -- a true American born pioneer with an impeccable European pedigree. Although she was born in Imperial, Illinois, her parents had been raised in the aristocracy of Hungary. Her mother, Eleonora Dedinsky, was a noblewoman of Polish descent whose family had lived in Hungary for centuries. Her father, Count Agoston Haraszthy, was a titled nobleman who had been exiled from Hungary for "efforts to obtain freedom from what he considered despotism."

After years apart from his family, the Count returned to Hungary in 1842, and brought his wife, children and parents to America. The family became the first Hungarians to become American citizens. They lived in Wisconsin for many years before moving to the promised land of California. According to the Los Angeles Times

In 1849, Count Haraszthy and his wife, father and six children set out across the plains via Santa Fe for California. All the hardship in the almanac, from hunger to Indian treachery, were experienced by the Count and his family. Count Haraszthy first settled in San Diego, where he held many public offices. Afterwards, he removed with his family to Sonoma, where he imported the first grape vines ever grown in California for industrial purposes.

The Count would become a member of the California State Assembly, a prominent California booster, prolific land owner, and the "father of modern winemaking in California."

Young Ida benefitted from the family's prosperity. She and her mother sailed around treacherous Cape Horn to reach Europe. They settled in Paris, where Ida received an excellent education. Decades later, she would secretly give scholarships to numerous young artists studying in her beloved Paris. She had returned to California by the early 1860s, when she was wooed by Major Henry Hancock, a native of New Hampshire who had also come to California during the Gold Rush, "hale, hearty and penniless." The Harvard trained lawyer was 21 years Ida's senior, and had great success as a surveyor for the government. The couple married in 1863, and settled in Los Angeles.

As a surveyor, Hancock had drawn the lines for and analyzed every bit of the sprawling Ranchos of old Los Angeles. During the 1860s, his brother John began acquiring deeds to portions of the massive 4,439-acre Rancho La Brea, which covered much of what is now Hancock Park, Hollywood, and West Hollywood. In 1870, Henry received a deed for approximately 2/3rds of the Rancho. His portion included what would become known as the La Brea tar pits.

That year, he and Ida built "a small frame house in a grove of eucalyptus, pepper and palm trees at the southerly portion of the rancho" very near the tar pits. Five years later, Ida gave birth to twin boys, George Allan and Harry -- the latter died shortly after birth. Two years later, she gave birth to another boy named Bertram.

rancholabrea deathtrap
Hancock Ranch House with tar pool in front and oilfield in background. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
hancock house
This view along the facade of Henry Hancock's ranch shows the intersecting gable roof and details of the porch. | Herman J. Schultheis Collection/LAPL

Life on the Rancho was hard. Although Ida spent a lot of time in San Francisco, visiting with her northern relatives, she was actively involved with the business of the ranch. There were constant battles over who actually owned the land, and it was not until 1877, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Hancocks, that the disputes were settled. John Hancock was formally granted 1,200 acres, and Henry ended up with 2,400 acres. Other men were given small portions of the Rancho.

Although the Hancocks farmed the land, their main income came from the asphalt and tar extracted from the strange, smelly lakes and streams that covered the southern end of their property. Since ancient times, Native Americans in the area had used asphaltum to cover their roofs and seal their jugs. The Hancocks continued this tradition of mining asphaltum. In the words of the L.A .Times:

Maj. Hancock had about twenty-five Chinese at work in digging out the best of it. The material was conveyed to large open iron boilers where it was boiled for 24 hours. It was then poured into long trenches in the ground, broken up and shipped to San Francisco for paving purposes.

Occasionally, workers discovered ancient bones -- like the tooth of a saber tooth tiger. These finds were presented to learned guests, but elicited little interest. In 1873, Major Henry Hancock died at the age of 61.

When the accounts were settled, it was clear that the ranch was deep in debt. 30-year-old Ida Haraszthy Hancock now had two children and 2,400 acres of land to nurture.

rancholabrea deathtrap
Large pool on Rancho La Brea, containing springs, oil seepages and natural gas vents. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

On Her Own

When Maj. Hancock died the land was heavily encumbered and Mme. Ross, then an attractive young widow, took her two sons and moved to the little old ranch house. There she struggled for years, doing every or any part of the rough farm work which fell to her hand, until at last the mortgage was cleared. These hard years developed the wonderful character which has been such an inspiration to other strugglers. It was because of all the privatizations endured at this time that Mme. Ross understood the sufferings of others... and it also had a great deal to do with her years of bounteous charitable work. -Los Angeles Times

After Henry's death, Ida briefly moved to San Francisco to be close to her family. However, she soon discovered that running a vast estate from such a distance was too difficult. There was also the pressing issue of squatters on the ranch, living there illegally trying to establish legal claims. Without being there, Ida was unable to protect her vast holdings. She moved her two sons back to the little frame house near the pungent pits of tar, and set about trying to turn the fortunes of her little family around. According to Bruce T. Torrence:

Mrs. Hancock's only immediate income lay in marketing the "brea" from the pits which were under her sole control. This source was sufficient to take care of her living expenses, meet tax assessments, pay ranch hands, keep farming equipment in good order and otherwise balance the budget.

No doubt Ida's childhood, spent on her father's vineyards, informed her careful cultivation of her land. She worked day after day, overseeing every aspect of the ranch's management, often performing menial tasks, which would have appalled her aristocratic forbearers. She slowly turned the ranch's fortunes around and proved to be the rock of her family.

When oil companies began courting Ida for permission to drill wells on her land, she held out until she could negotiate advantageous and fair terms. In 1885, she made her first leasing agreement with Lyman Stewart, Dan McFarland and Wallace Hardison. According to Torrence, "She stipulated 1/8th royalties, reserved agricultural rights and the privilege of continuing to mine the brea, which was still her chief source of income." Of the four wells the company drilled, only one resulted in a moderate flow. A few years later, she leased her Asphaltum Springs to another company, increasing her yearly revenue.

excavation hole
A single worker is seen holding a pickaxe at the bottom of one of the tar pits located on Rancho La Brea. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
rancholabrea deathtrap
An oil or 'brea' seepage on Rancho La Brea. Brea (asphaltum) was mined from this depression at an earlier period. Off to the right in the distance are the oil fields. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

During the 1890s, Ida also began to subdivide potions of her land with great success. The Ida Hancock Tract, surveyed in 1893, was bounded by "Prospect Avenue on the north, Highland Avenue on the west, Sunset Blvd. on the south, and Seward Street on the east."

According to historian Bruce Torrence, by 1894, lots on this tract were selling for around $300 per acre. Many developers who bought northern portions of the ranch would subdivide them into neighborhoods that became the backbone of golden age Hollywood. Ida hired her son George Allan to manage the La Brea estate, paying him $100 a month.

Despite her family's steadily increasing prosperity, the 1890s were also filled with personal tragedy. In 1892, her brother-in-law John killed himself. Ida, the administrator of the estate, was left to help pay off his creditors and sort out his tangled finances. A year later, her 16-year-old son Bertram died of typhoid fever while they were in San Francisco for the World's Fair.

Ida continued to have a close personal and working relationship with her beloved son George Allan, a charming cello prodigy, and the two often vacationed together at the Metropole Hotel on Catalina Island. By 1895, Ida was wealthy enough to take an extended trip to Europe.

But Ida's greatest wealth was yet to come. In 1900, she secured a 24-year drilling lease with the Salt Lake Company. The first well was such a success that the stream of oil blew out the casing. George Allan began to work for the company, learning everything he could about the industry. By 1911, Salt Lake had drilled 258 wells on the property.

George Allan would eventually start his own oil company, the La Brea Oil Company, with funding supplied by his mother. By 1907, he had his own well on the family property, producing 200-300 barrels of oil a day. Soon, it was claimed that his mother made $1,000 a day from oil revenues alone. She was now known as "the wealthiest woman in Los Angeles."

woman around tar pits
Four people walk around the small pond tar. Beyond is the Hancock oil field with oil derricks stretching across the land. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

 Madame Ida

Whose name has been the synonym for social prestige and open-hearted philanthropy for a quarter of a century... (L.A. Times, 1909)

In 1901, Ida built a ten-room, $8,000 frame residence on Carondelet Street in ultra-fashionable Westlake. She began to spend half of the year in Europe, but was always in Los Angeles for important events. In 1901, she also watched as the apple of her eye said I do: 

One of the largest and most brilliant weddings that has been celebrated in Los Angeles for many years was that of Miss Genevieve Deane Mullen to George Allan Hancock, which took place at 10:30 o'clock yesterday morning in the Cathedral of St. Vibiana. It was a happy and gorgeous spectacle. Eleven hundred invitations had been issued and the cathedral was crowded to the door with invited guests and many others who were curious to see the bride of the season. Every seat was taken and the aisles were filled with people standing. (L.A. Times, 1901)

Ida's generosity took many different forms. Often called "Madame" as an honorific, the deeply Catholic Ida was frequently written about in the society pages, not for throwing lavish parties, but rather for her charming events for friends and relations.

In 1908, to celebrate Mr. and Mrs. Hancock Banning's upcoming tour through Europe, she held a dinner party where, "An automobile, made of pink roses and decorated with tiny flags of European nations, formed the table centerpiece and places were marked with cards and ornamented with hand painted machines." (L.A. Times, 1908) A few years earlier, she hosted a thoughtful event for teenage girls:

Madame Ida Hancock...entertained yesterday afternoon with a beautiful luncheon at Christopher's Broadway, followed by a theater party at Mason Opera house, in compliment to Miss Ellen Flood and Miss Alice Dean, two charming San Francisco society girls, who are her house guests. The table at Christopher's presented a lovely scene...In a graceful French basket in the table center, a number of corsage bouquets were massed together. Each bouquet was made of delicate sweet peas and maiden hair ferns and tied with the colors of the Knights of Columbus. Fastened to the flowers by means of the ribbons were the beautiful souvenir spoons but lately made for the knights. On the back of each spoon were the initials of each fair maid and the date. The spoon proved a surprise, as just at the last moment while the guests were shaking out their pretty gowns, the gracious hostess arose and presented to each the blossoms and souvenirs. (L.A. Times, 1905)

But Ida's true love was philanthropy. She had a secret bank account, from which she anonymously contributed large sums of money to different charities. She was a prominent booster and backer of both the Fine Arts Building, the Hollywood Southern Pacific line, and the campaign to place bells all along the El Camino Real. Ida was very active in Catholic charities, and could often be found running a booth at the fair in aid of the L.A. Orphan Society, or participating in a charitable sewing circle. "Twice a year, every orphan she could find in Los Angeles was treated to all the ice cream, cake and candy he could want," a reporter recounted. "One of these happy occasions was her birthday and the other Christmas or Easter."

She also opened the La Brea tar pits to scientific excavation, closing it to poachers and granting university researchers exclusive rights to uncover the treasure trove of ancient skeletons smothered in the thick "brea."

Her wealth growing exponentially, Ida finally built a home worthy of the European royal she was. In 1908, she began construction on a magnificent mansion that many considered the finest home in L.A.: 

The pure Italian renaissance style has been chosen by architect John C. Austin for the residence planned for Mme. Ida Hancock on the northeast corner of Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Blvd. It will be one of the handsomest dwellings in this city of fine homes. With the graceful observation towers reaching toward as fair a sky as any under which the style of architecture grew, the view of the house given herewith brings up visions of sunny Italy, and the beautiful villas of the Medici and the Borghese...Formal gardens and terraces will surround the house and there will be a porte cochere entrance ... To the six main rooms on the first floor, entrance will be gained over a large porch and through an elaborate vestibule, opening into a huge reception hall...This room will be furnished in old oak in the fourteenth century Gothic style...The music room will be another remarkable feature of the beautiful house. It will be...a veritable hall-finished in the beautiful style of the Georgian period in white and gold. Here will be placed the 10,000 pipe organ which Mrs. Hancock has just purchased... (L.A. Times, 1908)

A year later, the infinitely proper and correct Ida surprised Los Angeles when, after years as a hard-working, chaste widow, she married respected U.S. Circuit Court Judge Erskine Mayo Ross. This "accomplished and delightful" couple were married in an afternoon ceremony in the parlor of the Cathedral of St. Vibiana. "Mrs. Ross wore a handsome going away suit in two shades of French gray, and a waist of cream point lace over ashes of roses silk, with hat to match," the Los Angeles Times reported.

No wedding in recent years was so great a surprise to the community or to relatives and friends of the principal. The bride and groom are each over 60 years of age, and were widow and widower, with grown children, and have been friends for years.

After her surprise marriage, Ida finally slowed down, increasingly leaving business to her able son. She and Ross spent three months on honeymoon, and moved into her brilliant new home.

villa madama
In 1908, architect John C. W. Austin was hired by by Ida Hancock to create Villa Madama, which was based on Florence's Villa Medici. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

 But sadly, her newfound semi-retired happiness was short-lived. In 1913, Ida passed away from a lingering stomach ailment in her home, surround by her family. In the words of one reporter:

Not many persons of the west have been so universally mourned as is Mme. Ross, one of the cosmopolitan pioneers of California...She numbered her friends by the thousands in all parts of the world. Many a young art student of the Latin quarter of Paris owes his opportunity to study to her generosity. Music, art and all things making for human advancement she loved and would always do anything in her power to stimulate...For more than a half century she lived in this city and saw it grow from a tiny village to the great, thriving metropolis of today. She stood ever ready to give her time and money for the up building of the community.

Ida left behind a fortune of several million dollars and a legacy of good works. Today, her father, husband and son all have Wikipedia entries. Ida does not.

Further reading: "Rancho La Brea," by Bruce T. Torrence

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