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Chasing down L.A.'s Rancho Era Past

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Rancho Los Alamitos / Photo:informationmistress/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Northeast U.S. has its history of the 13 colonies, while parts of the west has its history of the Spanish (and Mexican) land grants. This was a time when California wasn't a state yet, and got carved up into huge chunks to be used for agriculture and ranching.

It is possible to travel back to a time when California was part of Mexico. Here are some little pockets in and around L.A. where you can catch a glimpse of its rancho era past before it was gobbled up by the U.S. as its 31st state. In these environs, time has almost stood still.

Rancho Los Alamitos
Near Long Beach, there remains the last one of five ranchos that was partitioned out from an original Spanish Land Grant of 300,000 acres. Rancho Los Alamitos, which now provides modern-day access to a tiny sliver of L.A.'s ranching history, is tucked away in a tremendously developed, populated area (unlike the ranches of, say, the Santa Monica Mountains, which are still pretty much out in the wild). Named after the area's native cottonwood trees, Rancho Los Alamitos used to be quite huge. It once extended across 25,000 acres into present-day Orange County, but over time its perimeter has shrunken, now occupying a mere 7.5 acres.

This was a working ranch, and, in many ways, still is, as five of the original barns remain, including a feed barn that is still in use. Visitors can tour the original 19th-century adobe house, which the Bixby family renovated extensively and built major additions upon its incredibly thick walls. Much of its current decor and furnishings are original. The other highlight of the property is its historic European-style gardens, whose landscape architecture was designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers (and helped obscure the growing number of oil derricks that were sprouting up nearby). Say "hi" to some horses and chickens while you're there, and escape present-day Long Beach for just a little while.

Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum
Next to a business park in the City of Industry is the most unexpected relic of our rancho past: the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, a six-acre site where you can explore L.A. history in the century between 1830 and 1930. It's now just a fraction of the original Rancho La Puente, where the Workman family arrived in a caravan of pioneer wagons traveling overland from New Mexico to Southern California via the Old Spanish Trail. The Workmans were cattle ranchers with successful vineyards, and you can explore their 1840s-era adobe house, as well as an adjacent 1920s Spanish Revival "new" house that was built after William Workman's grandson, Walter Temple (as in Temple City), became oil-rich.

Over the years, the property was used as both a school and a hospital before being restored to its original period-appropriate condition and opened as a museum. On a visit you can admire lots of custom stained-glass windows, both American and Mexican tilework, and Temple's own private mancave, called the "Teepee." There's even a private cemetery where many members of the family -- and California's last Mexican governor, Pio Pico -- are interred.

White Point
Two Japanese brothers, Tojuro and Tamiji Tagami, arrived to White Point in 1910 and discovered natural geothermal sulfur hot springs (known as onsen). They then developed the area along with Ramon Sepulveda, who had built his Royal Palms Country Club and recreation center out of a share of the Rancho Palos Verdes land grant just up the shore. The White Point resort included a two-story hotel and a restaurant, plus a bathhouse, enclosed saltwater swimming, boating, and fishing. The White Point resort, on the beach just below where Sepulveda himself lived, was one of the few recreational facilities that the Japanese were allowed to use. But it couldn't survive the Long Beach earthquake, which crumbled the structures and blocked the flow of the hot springs in 1933. Both Royal Palms and White Point closed a few years later in the wake of the Great Depression.

Visitors today can see the old foundation from Sepulveda's home (located at the perimeter of the White Point Preserve and Nature Center), crumbling remains of the resort on the shore (especially at low tide), and the restored white fountain from the resort's spa, which had been lying in ruins down on the beach until it was brought up to the bluff above in 1982.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Rancho Boca de Santa Monica
Rancho Boca de Santa Monica (the "Mouth of Santa Monica") was one of the many ranchos of early California, a Mexican land grant awarded in 1839 (while it was still Mexico) to winemaker and tar-hauler Ysidro Reyes, and his friend Francisco Marquez, a soldier in the Spanish army. You can still visit some parts of the former Rancho Boca de Santa Monica at La Señora Research Institute in Pacific Palisades. Located within the boundary of the former Santa Monica Canyon rancho, La Señora Research Institute is open to academics, historians, and students interested in research and education of the Rancho Era of Los Angeles. One of its historic sites is the 1920s hacienda once occupied by local opera star José Mojica, as well as a former horse stable, a carriage house, a restored chapel, and the Pascual Marquez Family Cemetery -- the oldest extant private cemetery in Los Angeles. Buried there are members of the Marquez family (including several children who died before reaching adulthood), some of their Native American servants, friends, and a dog.

Access to La Señora, and especially the cemetery, is extremely restricted, but they do open it up for a free annual open house every summer, with guided tours and lectures in both English and Spanish.

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

Los Encinos State Historic Park
Until the late 19th Century, what is now known as Los Encinos State Historic Park was the hub of Rancho El Encino in the southern San Fernando Valley. This rancho stands out historically because the land was granted to three "Mission Indians," who used the property for a modest cattle ranching business. The five-acre park includes the eight-room de la Ossa Adobe, a two-story limestone bunkhouse building, a blacksmith shop, and a citrus grove. Located along El Camino Real, the rancho became a popular stop-over point for travelers who needed to rent rooms for the night. The rancho changed hands and industries a few times before being parceled out, 1170 acres of which became the city of Encino in 1916.

Now, the park is a nice picnic spot with a natural spring (housed in a guitar-shaped stone pool) where you can feed the ducks and other birds. Or, you can stop into the Lakeside Café and have a snack inside the former location of the first-ever El Torito, where they have a nice display of historical photos of the area.

Santa Fe Springs Heritage Park
Santa Fe Springs doesn't have really anything to do with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead, it's named after the Santa Fe Railroad, which purchased parcels of land in the former Los Nietos land grant that were rich with mineral springs. The property in what's now known as Heritage Park was a prospering ranch for several decades before oil was discovered in 1921, and now, it's a pretty significant archaeological site of the area's agricultural period, replete with a pit of cattle bones and household waste of the time period. There are also foundations of old adobe structures, a reproduction of an 1880s carriage barn, Victorian gardens, an orange grove, and a 1920s-era aviary. Other reconstructed structures include a conservatory and a windmill and water tank house from the 1880s, which could still generate power for the property, if they needed it to.


Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum
This was the first privately-owned ranch in Southern California and therefore, the birthplace of private landownership, years before the Homestead Act of 1862. It was originally the seat of Rancho San Pedro, the first Spanish land grant in California (granted to Juan Jose Dominguez, a Spanish solder, in 1784). It's hard to believe this place is in Compton, with its 1826 adobe, exotic gardens, historic trees, and the biggest bougainvillea tree you've ever seen -- which hasn't been trimmed in over 50 years. It is definitely a quiet oasis, a hidden treasure, and off the beaten path -- but an important part of our rancho era past.

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