Museum Director Musings: Agricultural History with the 48th District Agricultural Association at Cal Poly Pomona

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Last May, I was honored to be a judge for projects dealing with agricultural history at the 48th District Agricultural Association Agriculture and Nutrition Fair at Fairplex in Pomona.  I spent a few hours looking at, appreciating, and then having the difficult task of awarding what I felt were the best of the projects.

The AGRIscapes facilities at Cal Poly Pomona on Saturday.  It is home to the university’s Farm Store, a great place to get fresh fruits, vegetables and other food items.

Just to have elementary school students take the time to put something together that reflected the agricultural history of our region and state is worth recognizing on its own.  These days, so many of us are so far removed from a direct connection to how our food is grown and then how it makes it to our tables.  Ironically, the first time I can recall my own kids learning about locally-grown and sourced food was at a remarkable program offered almost a decade ago at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York, when my wife was out there for business and we went along.

Last Saturday, the 48th District association had its Teacher Recognition Luncheon at AGRIscapes, an educational outreach branch of the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona.  The event honored teachers and school for their work in helping elementary through high school students learn more about the importance of agriculture, particularly with involvement at the agriculture and nutrition fair.

This stereoscopic photograph of an orange grove near San Gabriel was taken about 1878 by A. C. Varela (brother-in-law of famed composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa) and is from the Homestead’s collection.

It was great seeing teachers get due recognition for their efforts and I sat at a table with four teachers, two from the La Puente area not far from the Homestead, one from Glendale, and another from Chino Hills, where I live.  In fact, the latter was recognized for her many years of involvement in the fair and I happened to know her from her additional involvement in the GATE program in our school district.

Another part of the event was a presentation by Dr. Rachel Surls, co-author with Judith Gerber, of the Angel City Press publication, From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles (for more on this book, click here).  The Homestead was fortunate to be able to provide the cover image for the book and also was the host site of the launch of this impressive history.

Rachel gave a summary of the rich agricultural history of greater Los Angeles, noting its importance from cattle ranching to grape raising and wine making to citrus and walnuts.  One of the most interesting facts she provided was that Los Angeles County was the #1 agricultural county in the United States for several decades running and would be until just after World War II.

This Isaiah Taber cabinet card photograph, also from the Homestead, shows orchards on the Shaffer and Lanterman property at Main and Jefferson streets in south Los Angeles, ca. 1880s.

Of course, these days, almost all of the orchards, fields and groves are gone, with small pockets left here and there.  Tract homes, industrial parks, shopping centers, schools, streets and sidewalks have been built or paved over some of the most fertile soil on our continent.

Naturally, a significant element of the Homestead’s history and a growing part of our interpretation and programming has to do with regional agriculture from 1830 to 1930.  The use of Rancho La Puente for cattle ranching and farming, including wheat, walnuts and other crops is one we need to continue to promote.

The recent additions of the museum’s demonstration vineyard and native garden are important catalysts for our programmatic interests, as well.

Dr. Rachel Surls gives an excellent overview of greater Los Angeles agricultural history to teachers and others at the 48th District Agricultural Association Teacher Recognition Luncheon at AGRIscapes at Cal Poly Pomona on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to involvement in the 48th District Agricultural Association’s next Agriculture and Nutrition Fair in May 2017, the theme of which is “Food Grows Where Water Flows”.  As our region is enmeshed in the worst drought in recorded history and hearkens back to devastating droughts like the Workman family experienced in the 1860s, it is important to look at current conditions in historical context.

The Homestead will continue to explore our agricultural history in a variety of ways, including here in this blog, especially with the “Working the Land” series of posts.

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