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Before the Movies Came, Hollywood Was a Rustic Country Town

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’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 Wilcox subdivided 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.

Hollywood, circa 1905
Panoramic view of Hollywood, circa 1905. Hollywood Blvd., then named Prospect Ave., runs horizontally through the middle of the photograph, and Orange Drive runs vertically at the photo's right. The white building at top-center is Hollywood High School. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Map of Hollywood, Oct. 1887, H.H. Wilcox and Company
This map, published by the H.H. Wilcox and Company in October 1887 to advertise the new Hollywood tract, emphasized the community's rustic setting. Map courtesy of the Huntington Rare Book Maps collection at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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.

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 

Charles Harper and his orchard, 1898
Charles Harper built his house at the mouth of Laurel Canyon and used canyon water sources to irrigate his lemon orchard. Photo dated 1898, courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
The residence of Charles Harper, located at the mouth of Laurel Canyon near Hollywood
Harper's estate offered commanding views of the Hollywood countryside and, in the distance, the Pacific Ocean. Circa 1909/05 photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Paul de Longpre's residence in Hollywood, circa 1900
Before the movie stars came, Paul de Longpre – a French painter of flowers – was Hollywood's most celebrated artist. Circa 1900 postcard courtesy of the California State Library.
De Longpre in his Hollywood garden with his daughter, circa 1900
De Longpre in his Hollywood garden with his daughter, circa 1900. Postcard courtesy of the California State Library.
Henry Clausen's citrus ranch at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon in 1910
Henry Clausen's citrus ranch at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon in 1910. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

 Sweeping Panoramic Views

Two men stand on Olive Hill, located to the east of Hollywood, circa 1905.
Two men stand high above the Hollywood countryside on Olive Hill, the present-day location of the Hollyhock House and Barnsdall Art Park. Circa 1905 photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
A panoramic view of Hollywood, looking south from Krotona Hill in 1900.
A panoramic view of Hollywood, looking south from Krotona Hill in 1900. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking from Gower Street and Temple Hill Drive, 1900.
Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking from Gower Street and Temple Hill Drive.  Photo, dated 1900, courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

 

Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking west from Laughlin Park in 1903. Filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille would later build his estate atop Laughlin Park's hill.
 Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking west from Laughlin Park in 1903. Filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille would later build his estate atop Laughlin Park's hill. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

 

Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking south from Whitley Heights
A panoramic town view of Hollywood, looking southwest at the intersection of Franklin and Highland. In 1900, H.J. Whitley began developing the land north of Hollywood Boulevard (then Prospect) exclusively for residence as the Ocean View Tract, which explains the lack of orchards in the foreground. Circa 1905 photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Hollywood in 1906
Another panoramic view of Whitley's Ocean View Tract, its residences spaced far apart, with the older Hollywood tract beyond. The view looks east toward the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. Photo, dated 1906, courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Around Town

Hollywood Cash Grocery, the first grocery in Hollywood, on the northeast corner of Cahuenga Street and Sunset Boulevard
The intersection of Cahuenga and Sunset, located between Hollywood and its rival town of Colegrove, emerged as the area's first commercial center. The Hollywood Cash Grocery, pictured above circa 1893, was the town's first market. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Two girls stand at the dusty Hollywood corner of Sunset and Gower, circa 1900
Two girls stand at the dusty Hollywood corner of Sunset and Gower, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Group of campers on Franklin Avenue near Bronson Street, Hollywood, California, ca.1905
How rustic was Hollywood in the early 1900s? Travelers could camp there. Here, a group of campers poses for the camera on Franklin Avenue near Bronson Street, circa 1905. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society.

From agriculture...

Postcard of a Hollywood lemon grove
The orange is the citrus variety most associated with Southern California, but oranges grown in Hollywood were found lacking. So Hollywood orchardists turned to lemons instead. Circa 1910 postcard courtesy of the California State Library. 
Pineapple ranch on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood, circa 1900/03
Even before the Wilcoxes founded Hollywood, the area – originally called La Nopalera by the region's Spanish-speaking residents for the numerous cactus patches – was renowned for its frost-free growing belt. One enterprising farmer even planted pineapples – and found success. Circa 1900/03 photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

...to Industry

Nestor Film Company, 1912
Even before De Mille and the Lasky Company arrived, other filmmakers had discovered Hollywood. The Nestor Film Company, pictured above, shot short comedies in Hollywood as early as September 1911. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Nestor Film Company studios at Sunset and Gower, 1913
When the Nestor Film Company arrived in Hollywood in 1911, it rented the old Blondeau Tavern at the southeast corner of Sunset and Gower as its headquarters – today the site of the Sunset Gower Studios. Photo, dated 1913, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Director Cecil B. De Mille directs "The Squaw Man" on an open-air set surrounded by lemon trees on the film's first day of shooting
Lemon trees surround the open-air set for "The Squaw Man," the first feature film shot in Hollywood, as Cecil B. De Mille directs. This photo was taken on the film's first day of principal photography, Dec. 29, 1913. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Further Reading

Braudy, Leo. The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Mallory, Mary. “A Little Barn Started It All.” Hollywood Heritage Newsletter 32, no. 3 (2013): 1, 5.

Wanamaker, Marc, and Robert Nudelman. Early Hollywood. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Williams, Gregory Paul. The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History. N.p.: B.L. Press, 2005.

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