Before movies, there were lemons. Hollywood at the turn of the 20th century was a place of religious zeal; a town founded by an ardent Prohibitionist and a devout Episcopalian; a community that abhorred gambling, liquor, and popular entertainment. But above all else, Hollywood was a decidedly rural settlement, a small country hamlet located a few miles to Los Angeles' northwest.
Hollywood at the turn of the 20th century was a decidedly rural settlement, a small country hamlet located a few miles to Los Angeles' northwest.
Hollywood’s rustic charm – and its agricultural potential – helped it weather the bust that inevitably followed the regional real estate boom of 1887, the year Harvey and Daeida Wilcoxsubdivided 160 acres of the Cahuenga Valley and named it Hollywood. The land had long been famous for its frost-free belt, a narrow strip of land along present-day Hollywood Boulevard where all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables would ripen: bananas, tomatoes, peppers, even pineapples. And so in the early 1890s, even as real estate values slumped, the prospect of a refined ranching life lured wealthy migrants to Hollywood, where they planted citrus orchards and sumptuous gardens around baronial mansions.
The idyllic retreat pictured here seems worlds apart from the Hollywood of popular imagination – the Hollywood that has become metonymous with filmed entertainment; the Hollywood of exotic movie palaces, and also of cheap souvenir shops and panhandlers costumed as superheroes.
But those worlds are more closely linked than you might think.
On an open-air stage perfumed by the surrounding lemon grove, Cecil B. De Mille shot Hollywood's first feature-length film, “The Squaw Man.”
In December 1913, a fledgling motion picture director named Cecil B. De Mille arrived in Hollywood and leased part of Jacob Stern’s lemon ranch at the southeast corner of Selma and Vine. Inside a shingle-roofed barn – still occupied by Stern’s horse and carriage – De Mille set up dressing rooms and offices for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Outside, on an open-air stage perfumed by the surrounding lemon grove, he shot a western epic, “The Squaw Man.” Released in February 1914, “The Squaw Man” was the first feature-length film shot in Hollywood. It was also a commercial success.
Hollywood's conservative residents were skeptical – even openly disdainful – of the newly arrived movie people. But the movies were here to stay. The Nestor Film Company had been shooting in Hollywood since 1911, and the town's rustic scenery, as well as the wilder countryside on the town's outskirts, offered filmmakers a variety of backdrops for their moving picture stories. Within 18 months, the Lasky Company purchased an entire block of Stern’s ranch to expand its operations. Lemon trees gave way to studio facilities, signaling that Hollywood’s days as a small country town had come to an end.
Rustic Ranches and Baronial Estates
Sweeping Panoramic Views
Braudy, Leo. The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.