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Before Suburbia, Agriculture Dominated the San Fernando Valley

If it were a separate city, the San Fernando Valley would be the fifth largest in the nation. With more than 1.7 million inhabitants, it is one of California’s largest suburban areas and epitomizes suburbia in the public imagination. However, for much of its early history, the region was a sparsely populated agricultural hinterland, just over the hill from Los Angeles. Even as L.A.’s urban spaces expanded through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the valley remained largely rural and did not experience its full transformation into an immense suburban area until the latter half of the 20th century.

In the decades following America’s conquest of California, remnants of the valley’s early rancho days remained. Owned largely by Pio Pico, California’s last governor under Mexican rule, the valley was well known for its cattle and sheep. A severe drought in 1862-63, however, hastened the disappearance of daily cattle roundups in the area and ranchos, including Rancho Encino, turned their focus to sheep shearing.[1]

Fruit trees
View overlooking the many acres of fruit trees in the San Fernando Valley. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

On May 1, 1874, the completion of the Southern Pacific rail line to the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley marked the beginning of a new period in the valley’s history. Though it never precipitated the immediate development that land speculators like Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Newton Van Nuys so eagerly expected, the railroad and the regional connections it provided allowed agriculture to flourish.[2] As a result, gentlemen farming, or small-scale suburban agriculture, came to dominate the valley landscape till the start of World War II.

A series of droughts convinced many farmers by the 1890s to adopt dry farming practices in hopes of turning a profit despite the uncontrollable weather. Some grew citrus and fruit, but valley farmers more notably became dependent on grain production, which replaced sheep raising as a primary practice.[3] Still, these dry farming tactics could not last. Continued unpredictable climate and the crucial importance of agriculture to local inhabitants necessitated the establishment of a large-scale irrigation system. This system, the first of which was built from 1915 and 1917, provided a missing link that allowed for the production of a wider variety of crops and the unprecedented growth of local farm villages.[4] As agriculture expanded throughout the valley, towns and areas became known for the production of certain crops. Limited to higher altitudes, citrus farms were commonly found on slopes in Encino, Pacoima, Canoga Park and Chatsworth while poultry and dairy farms were rooted in Reseda, Mission Acres, North Hollywood and Van Nuys. [5] The San Fernando Valley also became known for its abundance of walnut orchards in addition to its vast fields of grapes, tomatoes and lima beans.[6]

Well through the Depression years, agriculture would remain an important part of valley life, peaking in 1930 with a total of 58,359 rotating crops.[7] Beginning in 1940, however, agricultural started to fade as the region’s population continued to grow and farmland gave way to suburban development. From 1950 to 1960, the valley, according to local historian Jackson Mayers, “outgrew all other major city areas in the United States,” thrusting it from the 25th to the 9th largest urban center in the nation.[8] As a result, by 1967, “40% of the land was residential, 3% commercial, 4% industrial, 16% public.” Still, despite such massive development, 33% either remained agricultural or vacant.[9]

The importance of agriculture to valley sustainability and growth cannot be understated. Sold locally as well as nationally, the crops cultivated across the valley floor served as a main source of profit for local farmers in its early years. More importantly, the money agriculture brought to the region helped boost the local economy, which benefited not only valley inhabitants, but also reassured prospective residents that the seemingly bare valley was a sustainable, profitable and desirable place to live.

View of sheep grazing in Topanga Canyon while carpenters hammer together frames of homes for a new subdivision. This scene was typical throughout the San Fernando Valley on February 16, 1957, where agriculture was fast giving way to homes and industry.
View of sheep grazing in Topanga Canyon while carpenters hammer together frames of homes for a new subdivision. This scene was typical throughout the San Fernando Valley on February 16, 1957, where agriculture was fast giving way to homes and industry. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/ Valley Times Collection
Aerial view of the San Fernando Valley north on Sepulveda Blvd. from Sherman Way, 1/30/1946.
Aerial view of the San Fernando Valley north on Sepulveda Blvd. from Sherman Way, 1/30/1946. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Office building of the Weeks Poultry Colony at 21228 Sherman Way in Canoga Park on July 14, 1927, founded by Charles Weeks as a utopian colony.
Office building of the Weeks Poultry Colony at 21228 Sherman Way in Canoga Park on July 14, 1927, founded by Charles Weeks as a utopian colony. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/ Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Aerial view of Weeks Poultry Colony, Canoga Park. Sherman Way is the tree-lined street in the foreground. (1927)
Aerial view of Weeks Poultry Colony, Canoga Park. Sherman Way is the tree-lined street in the foreground. (1927)| Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

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Chicken thieves
A sign that says "chicken thieves and others caught trespassing these premises after dark will be shot without further notice" is posted in front of an orange grove in what is now known as Granada Hills. (1937) | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/ Herman J. Schultheis Collection

 

Workers on ladders are picking peaches in an orchard in the San Fernando Valley.
Workers on ladders are picking peaches in an orchard in the San Fernando Valley. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection
An example of early irrigation construction in the San Fernando Valley.
An example of early irrigation construction in the San Fernando Valley. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/ Security Pacific National Bank Collection
A woman crouches
A woman crouches picking tomatoes while a girl watches the camera. One man leans against a stack of crates that are marked "Property of I. F. P. Co. Long Beach California," while a second man is busy at work at his feet. Many other workers can be seen scattered across the landscape in the background and farm buildings are visible on the horizon. (1937) | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/ Herman J. Schultheis Collection
Photograph of a long row of horse-drawn wagons and men on horseback plowing and seeding 5,000 acres of wheat on the southeasterly portion of the Lankershim Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
Photograph of a long row of horse-drawn wagons and men on horseback plowing and seeding 5,000 acres of wheat on the southeasterly portion of the Lankershim Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Here the outfit is stopping for noon lunch in the fields. One hundred horses were used in this field for plowing. Five tall trees are visible in the distance. A mountain range rises in the distance. (circa 1898/1900) | Photo: Courtesy of USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960
The mountains form the backdrop to this grove of baby orange trees in the San Fernando Valley. Channels between the rows are filled with water, demonstrating one method of irrigation. (1937)
The mountains form the backdrop to this grove of baby orange trees in the San Fernando Valley. Channels between the rows are filled with water, demonstrating one method of irrigation. (1937) | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Herman J. Schultheis Collection
Apricot orchard
Photograph of an apricot orchard in the San Fernando Valley, 1929. Two rows of apricot trees extend into the distance, each with small bulbs or leaves adorning its boughs. A row of bare soil stands between the row, and more lines of trees appear on both sides. In the distance, the line of distant hills can be seen. | Photo: Courtesy of USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960
Chickens
Photograph of about 50 chickens standing in an outdoor pen, ca.1900. Two buckets of collected eggs sit in the foreground. A bearded man and young boy in strawhat stand in the background against a wooden fence near a barn. | Photo: Courtesy of USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960
Lemon orchard
Photograph of a large lemon orchard prepared for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley, California, ca.1900. Narrow channels and dams have been dug into the ground around each tree. | Photo: Courtesy of Courtesy of USC Libraries/California Historical Society Collection, 1860-1960

Notes

[1] Jackson Mayers, The San Fernando Valley (Walnut, CA: John D. McIntyre, 1976), 56, 58, & 62.

[2] Lewis Height, Settlement Patterns of the San Fernando Valley, Southern California (1953), 48.

[3] Height, Settlement Patterns of the San Fernando Valley, 49-50.

[4] Mayers, The San Fernando Valley, 112 & Height, Settlement Patterns of the San Fernando Valley, 89.

[5] Height, Settlement Patterns of the San Fernando Valley, 94-97.

[6] Kevin Roderick, The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Times Books, 2001), 71.

[7] Height, Settlement Patterns of the San Fernando Valley, 97.

[8] Mayers, The San Fernando Valley, 172.

[9] Mayers, The San Fernando Valley, 204.

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