Museum Director Musings: Seeking Out History at Los Nietos and Rancho Los Cerritos

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

My younger son had a school robotics competition in Long Beach today, so it was an opportune time to go out and seek some interesting history at two nearby places.

The first was the opening of the new branch of the Los Angeles County Library for the Los Nietos community near Whittier and Santa Fe Springs.  The project, spearheaded by the fourth district of the Board of Supervisors, the county library system, the Los Nietos School District (which provided the land) and other stakeholders, came out beautifully, with a striking building and about three times the square footage of the previous facility.

A blessing by Chief Ernie Salas of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, and remarks by elected officials, the county librarian, and local officials were offered to open the festivities at the new Los Nietos county branch library.

Skye Patrick, the director of the library system, welcomed a good-size crowd gathering on a pretty warm late morning and the program included a blessing by Chief Ernie Salas of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, comments by Supervisor Janice Hahn and her predecessor Don Knabe, who oversaw the fundraising and origins of the project, and remarks by the president of school distict and the Friends of the Los Nietos Library.  The latter talked about using the library as newly divorced mother looking to rebuild her life and it was poignant reminder of how important libraries are for communities.

Guests waiting, after the ribbon-cutting, to enter the newly completed library.  Artist Louise Griffin completed a three-dimension art work, the first part of which is on the facing wall.  Photos below show the historic timeline that flows from that.

A ribbon-cutting was held and attendees then had the chance to see the new facility, as well as enjoy acitivities from the county library mobile van, an art program from Barnsdall Arts, a slide show of historic photos from the community, and refreshments provided by the Friends of the Library and the school district.

Over an outside entrance to a meeting room is the first part of the timeline showing the area’s history from the native aboriginal Indians to the late 19th century.

A great element was artwork by Louise Griffin on the front of the structure and including a timeline of Los Nietos community history, filled with interesting photos and brief details.  That history goes back to the native aboriginal Indians and then moves through the Spanish period and the massive land grant to retired soldier Manuel Nieto of 1784 (divided later into five ranchos: Los Alamitos, Los Cerritos, Santa Gertrudes, Las Bolsas, and Los Coyotes.  Later history included references to Mexican-era ranching families like the Poyorenas and Guirados, American-era transformations, and more recent history.  The project is colorful and eye-catching and well worth seeing.

Another detail of Griffin’s excellent art work, showing 20th century aspects of the community’s history.

With one of the subdivided ranchos of the Nieto grant being the 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos, it was more than relevant to head back down to Long Beach and visit the historic site that was its headquarters.

The visitor center at Rancho Los Cerritos.

I hadn’t been down there for some time, perhaps a decade or more, so it was great to see all of the changes there, including the very nice visitor center.  Exhibits on the history of the rancho, its owners and the area were on the top floor, though, because the tour was starting in ten minutes, I did not get downstairs to see the video on Chinese-American history in the area that was showing.

Walking from the center to the courtyard gate at the rear of the adobe, our small group of six was greeted by Jotham Bixby—well, a docent in costume who bore a striking resemblance to the man who was part of a group of cousins who bought Los Cerritos in 1866 from its owner of nearly a quarter-century.

The approach to the Los Cerritos house from the west end, where a gate to the courtyard and the end of the long projecting wings of the house are located.  Our guide, a volunteer playing ranch owner Jotham Bixby, stands behind he wall at the left.

That, by the way, was Jonathan Temple (1796-1866), whose half-brother F.P.F., married Antonia Margarita Workman, and whose nephew, Walter, laid out his 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, La Casa Nueva, in the same general form as Los Cerritos.  Temple, who arrived at San Diego in 1827 after several years as a merchant in Hawaii, then came to Los Angeles in 1828 and opened its first store.

He also bought what became the Temple Block, built one brick business building to which his brother added a few more structures, and erected the Market House, loosely designed on the model of Faneuil Hall in Boston (near Temple’s hometown of Reading, Massachusetts) and which became city and county government offices and the courthouse when the commercial use failed.

The large and beautiful courtyard from the gate at the west and looking towards the main two-story block and its single-story wings.

Temple acquired Los Cerritos in 1843 because the mother of his wife, Rafaela Cota, was a daughter of Manuel Nieto.  The purchase provided Temple an excellent place to graze cattle for the hide-and-tallow trade, with the harbor at San Pedro just a short distance away.  He chose an elevated position off the east bank of the Los Angeles River to build the two-story main structure with single story wings and a courtyard between them.  This was not his main residence, which remained in Los Angeles, but it served as a country home, where a foreman and ranch workers maintained the ranch for Temple.

After the discovery of gold in northern California and the onset of the Gold Rush, Temple did well supplying cattle and sheep to the mining regions, but matters changed considerably by the early 1860s.  The decline of gold production and the lessening of demand for livestock dampened the economic situation and this was compounded by the dual disaster of floods and droughts from 1862 to 1865.  Smallpox epidemics and locust infestations added to the misery.

A wedding party was readying as our tour finished and I snapped this view of the front and south end of the adobe.

Likely believing that there was no future in Los Angeles, Temple moved to San Francisco and sold Los Cerritos for only $20,000 or just under 75 cents an acre just before his death in late spring 1866.  The new buyers, Flint, Bixby and Company, comprised of cousins and which had been successfully raising sheep near Monterey, immediately improved the ranch, with the benefit of the end of the drought being followed by greater Los Angeles’ first significant growth boom.

The docent playing Jotham Bixby gave us a very thorough tour explaining details and ranch and home life, frequently using artifacts and hands-on objects as illustrations, as he moved us through one wing and four rooms in the main block. His nephew, Llewelyn, made dramatic changes to the house in the 1930s and the house, sold to the City of Long Beach in 1955, has retained the general appearance of that era.

A view from the east end of the garden looking back towards the house.  Part of the Moreton Bay fig tree towers over the landscaping at the upper right.

After the tour, lasting about 1 1/4 hours, ended at the front of the building, I walked through the garden, which contains some nice interactive areas for school groups and other visitors, shaded walks through a variety of plan life, and a massive and imposing Moreton Bay fig tree that dominates the landscape.  I was sure glad to be able to visit and enjoy the Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site after so long.  That, coupled, with attending the opening of the Los Nietos branch library and seeing its historical timeline, made for a great day exploring our region’s history.

One thought

  1. I remember visiting the house years ago. We were there with Uncle Tom. I remember taking home a seed pod from one of the trees. It’s long since disappeared.

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