by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This installment of “Wo/Men at Work” highlights a 1920s photograph from the Homestead’s collection showing a couple of employees at the opening of a Ralph’s grocery store in Los Angeles.
The view shows a man and woman behind a counter at the store, identified by an inscription on the reverse as at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Jefferson Boulevard. There is also the name of “Mrs. Inez Cecil” written on the back, probably identifying the young woman, whose maiden name was Inez Marsh, whose family lived just to the east of the Silver Lake reservoir.
The photograph also has a large display of fruit behind the two employees, with the produce provided by the Rivers Brothers Company, one of the largest wholesale produce firms in the city. Of course, Ralphs is a well-known major chain of grocery stores in greater Los Angeles and its history goes back to the founding of a single store in the town by George Ralphs in 1873. While the retail firms were better known to the shopping public, their suppliers on the wholesale side tended to be hidden in the background. So, let’s learn a little about the Rivers Brothers Company.
Ernest and Howard Rivers were natives of the San Jose area, though their older siblings were born near Toronto, Canada. Their father, Henry, was a carpenter and native of England, while their mother Amanda was from Toronto. In 1861, the family migrated to California and their father worked in carpentry until his untimely death eight years later.
By the early 1880s, the family relocated to Los Angeles and Ernest, who began working in a grocery store in San Jose, continued in that line here, including five years with Hans Jevne, one of the biggest retail grocers in Los Angeles. After a brief stint running his own store in North Ontario, now known as Upland and then a few years with Jevne for a second time, Ernest bought a grocery store at Broadway and Temple and then brought in his younger brother, Howard, into the business.
Howard, who took business courses at Woodbury Business College at the same time Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1917 to 1932, attended the still-functioning school, worked for the Stern and Goodwin grocery in Fullerton before going to work with Ernest.
After over fifteen years, the brothers decided to get out of the retail side and move, in 1906, into wholesale work by purchasing Keystone, which operated in the old produce market area southeast of the historic downtown of the city. With Ernest as president and Howard as vice-president, the firm grew rapidly and employed some 125 persons by the mid-1910s and spent a quarter million dollars for a property at Central Avenue and 7th Street that included a small store, as well as the wholesale warehouse.
One interesting detail about the firm’s early details was when the State of California passed a “pure food” law, in the days when the issue of food and drug purity and safety was a national concern thanks to Progressive Era movements and books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, requiring that all fruit displayed to the public be covered. While the measure intended to protect the public from contaminated products, the dealers objected that covering the fruit was tantamount to hiding it from shoppers and cutting into sales.
Consequently, Rivers Brothers offered to be a test case for the other fruit dealers in Los Angeles by willingly disobeying the law along with its competitors and offering to be the test case in the courts for the law. Eventually, it was decided to allow fruit to be displayed to the public uncovered, though other measures were enacted to try and provide better conditions for purity and safety.
In the early 1920s, Rivers Brothers had farmland in northwestern Mexico for raising fruit and were among the early local importers of Hawaiian pineapple, coconuts and bananas. Howard also invested in apple orchards at Oak Glen, near Yucaipa and Redlands, and ran the Los Rios Rancho for many years, supplying his company with apples for the produce markets in Los Angeles. The rancho continues to operate today in an area still renowned for its apples.
By the end of the Roaring Twenties, Rivers Brothers became absorbed in Consolidated Produce Company, Ltd., which also took in the Klein Simpson Fruit Company (previously mentioned in this blog) and Myers-Darling & Hinton Company, other major produce dealers in the city. The larger firm, created in late December 1929 just as the Great Depression was underway, was located in the Wholesale Terminal Market, in the general area where today’s produce and floral markets operate.
Howard lived a more lavish lifestyle, thanks to the success of the business, than his brother, owning a mansion in Beverly Hills valued at $125,000 in 1940. Ernest, who, in the 1920s, had an orange grove in Duarte also called “Los Rios,” later lived in smaller digs in Pacific Palisades.
Howard died in 1941 and was buried with much of his family at the original Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, while Ernest passed away in 1949 and appears to have been cremated.