Working the Land: Gathering Hay on the Irvine Ranch, ca. late 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Here’s another new series, “Working the Land,” focusing on agriculture and ranching in the region up through the 1920s.  This first entry highlights a fantastic photo from the Homestead’s collection of workers on the Irvine Ranch in roughly the late 1880s.

The greater Los Angeles area was, not that long ago, an agricultural powerhouse.  From supplying the hide-and-tallow trade of the late Mexican era, to the supplying of fresh beef during the Gold Rush and from winemaking and wheat raising to producing famed quantities of oranges and walnuts, the region had a diverse and impressive range of products on its ranches and farms through the World War II years.

Suburbanization, disease and other factors ate (!) away at the area’s agricultural dominance and our acres of concrete and asphalt, tract homes, and shopping centers are covering some of the most fertile soil in the United States.

In Orange County, there are still some remnants of agriculture, mainly on some of the last productive acreage on the famed Irvine Ranch.  The ranch was built through the acquisition of some of the early Spanish and Mexican-era land grants from the 1840s and earlier.  The opportunity to buy property during a devastating drought, which all but destroyed the cattle industry, lured Llewelyn Bixby, the brothers Thomas and Benjamin Flint, and James Irvine down from more northern portions of California.

Their first foray into purchasing distressed property was when the Rancho San Joaquin, almost 49,000 acres, was sold by Andrés Sepulveda to the quartet for $18,000 at the end of 1864, just prior to the drought’s end.

Less than two years later, in March 1866 and shortly before his death, early American settler William Wolfskill, whose orange orchard in Los Angeles was the first commercial endeavor in California, sold over 47,000 acres of the Rancho Lomas de Santiago to the four newcomers for $7,000–which is what he paid six years prior.

This photo from the Homestead collection shows Irvine Ranch workers with a hay press sometime after 1885.


That purchase also involved Wolfskill’s interest in notes on the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and, in 1868, the four men picked up just under 4,000 acres of that ranch by a court judgment.  Additional acquisitions in the latet Sixties enabled the Flints, Bixby and Irvine to amass, in short order, some 108,000 acres with an investment of just over $40,000.

Given that the Los Angeles region was on the road to recovery with the drought ended and immigration picking up, the timing was just about perfect to subdivide and sell at least some of the vast landholdings, which were consolidated into Irvine’s hands after 1870 after he bought out the Flints and Bixby for $150,000.  Irvine, however, decided to keep his lands intact and expand intensively into agriculture, specifically field crops, as well as sheep raising.  He died in 1886, just as the Los Angeles region was primed for a massive growth book called the “Boom of the Eighties” and three years before the Irving Ranch became part of the new Orange County, carved out of Los Angeles County.

After Irvine died, the property was managed by trustees until his son, James II, turned 25 in 1892 and assumed control of the massive ranch.  In 1894, he incorporated the Irvine Company and the ranch became known for its lima bean raising, comprising 60,000 acres.  Citrus fruits, including the orange and lemon, also were planted in enormous numbers, while some livestock were maintained.

Under James Irvine II, the ranch flourished and he remained its dominant figure until his death in 1947, on the heels of another era of change–the postwar suburban boom that moved southward through Orange County towards the Irvine Company holdings.  Today, master planned communities in the cities of Irvine, Newport Beach and others have replaced the grazing lands, lima bean fields, and orange groves that made the company famous.

As to the photo, it shows about two dozen Irvine Ranch farm workers on a lunch break, sometime after 1885.  How we know the approximate date is because there are patent dates for the conveoyr belt on its wooden sides ending at that year. Why we know it is lunch is because a few of the laborers have food in their hands and there is a “chuckwagon” in the back with the cook standing in his white apron on the portable kitchen.

In addition, there are a number of haywagons loaded with hay, what looks to be a steam-powered hay press with a long belt attached to it to run the conveyor towards where the men in the foreground are standing.  This is presumably where the hay was compacted into bales.  The wagons loaded with loose hay are waiting for the workers to transport that material over to the press for compaction and bailing.

This is a great, rare view of farm activity in the region in the late nineteenth century.  Check back for more “Working the Land” posts on agriculture and ranching in greater Los Angeles before 1930.



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