La La Landscapes: Baldwin’s Ranch, ca. 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Not quite a year ago, one of the early posts here in the “La La Landscapes” series highlighted a late 1870s view of the natural spring-fed lake at Rancho Santa Anita.  On this date, 14 January 1911, the postcard featured in this post was postmarked for delivery out of Monrovia for the central California town of Merced.

The image on the front was an idyllic dirt road, surrounded by a dense throng of beautiful, majestic oaks, winding through the same ranch, reflecting the rural nature that marked much of the San Gabriel Valley a little more than a century ago.

When the 1870s photo was taken by Alexander C. Varela, Rancho Santa Anita had not long been owned by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who earned his sobriquet by cashing out of a period of grossly overheated stock speculation at the silver mining boom town of Virginia City, Nevada.

Baldwin left San Francisco during the growing insanity and instructed an agent to sell his stock in a mine when a price hit a certain level, but took the key to his strongbox with him so the agent could not fulfill his mandate.  When Baldwin returned home, however, the stock value climed even higher and then he sold, cashing in to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Lucky, indeed!

This published postcard from the Homestead’s collection shows an idyllic scene as a dirt road wends among stately oak tres on “Baldwin’s Ranch near Los Angeles,” otherwise known as Rancho Santa Anita.

This was early in 1875 and Baldwin, who’d been interested in investing in greater Los Angeles real estate during that region’s first significant growth period, which began in the later 1860s, made his first major purchase.  Santa Anita, owned by Luis (Lewis) Wolfskill, heir of William Wolfskill, a major landowner and the first commercial orange grower in California, was sold in 1872 to Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark for $85,000, which likely made Luis Wolfskill very happy.

When Baldwin bought Santa Anita, however, values in the regional real estate market had climbed significantly higher.  Newmark, in his classic memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, told the story of the acquisition, writing “the sale of the Santa Anita is not without an incident or two, perhaps, of exceptional interest . . .

On “Lucky” Baldwin’s first visit, he offered us one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the property; but learning that we wanted two hundred thousand dollars, he started off in a huff.  Then, Reuben Lloyd, the famous San Francisco attorney, who accompanied him, said on reaching the sidewalk, “Lucky, go back and buy that ranch, or they’ll raise the price on you!” and Baldwin returned, carrying under his arm a tinbox (containing several million dollars) from which he drew forth twelve thousand, five hundred, tendering the same as a first payment.

Baldwin poured a large amount of money into improving and developing the 8,500-acre Santa Anita as a showpiece gentleman’s ranch, building the cottage that still stands near the lake, breeding thoroughbred race horses, planting extensive gardens and much more.  It was widely known for its natural and man-made beauty and features when the San Gabriel Valley (not its drier cousin, San Fernando) was “the Valley.”

Baldwin’s purchase in March was followed by other regional investments, including mining property in the Big Bear Valley of the San Bernardino Mountains, but the magnate became vitally interested in the situation involving F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, two of greater Los Angeles’ wealthiest individuals and owners of one of the city’s two commercial banks (the other being Farmers and Merchants, ran by Isaias W. Hellman.)

When Baldwin sold out of his Virginia City mine stake, it influenced a pull-back of investment broadly there and a collapse ensued.  The telegraph brought the dire news of the failure of the Bank of California at San Francisco and a panic erupted at Los Angeles, causing depositors to head to the two banks to withdraw funds.  While Farmers and Merchants was stable and could withstand the run, Temple and Workman was not and could not.

Los Angeles Herald, 21 March 1875.

Rather than declare bankruptcy, pay off creditors, and keep what they could of their significant landholdings and other assets, Temple and Workman elected to seek a loan, but only Baldwin was willing to negotiate.  The deal, however, in Temple’s words, was “on rather hard terms,” with respect to interest, the compounding of it, and the payment schedule.

The loan, with additional money forwarded within weeks, was secured at the end of November, but, once depositors found out there was hard cash in the stricken bank, which lacked support and confidence in the community, they headed over to withdraw their funds.  By 12 January 1876, the damage was done and the bank closed.  Four months later, on 17 May, when Richard Garvey, a court receiver, was sent to inform Workman that his property was being held in receivership pending court proceedings, the aged silent partner, overwhelmed by what took place, committed suicide.

Temple, who’d just taken office as county treasurer, declared personal bankruptcy, served out his two-year term with a deputy handling day-to-day functions, suffered a series of strokes, and died on his Rancho La Merced, several miles west of the Homestead, in April 1880.

Less than a year before Temple’s passing, Baldwin foreclosed on the collateral for the bank loan, consisting of an enormous amount of valuable city and ranch property, from what became the Baldwin Hills near the coast out to some 18,000 acres of Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente, and a great deal else.  Baldwin was now one of greater Los Angeles’ largest landowners, though Santa Anita was the undisputed crown jewel of his holdings.

In March 1909, the colorful and controversial Baldwin died and his estate was managed by his trusted nephew, Henry A. Unruh, and Los Angeles attorney Bradner W. Lee.  Much of the San Gabriel Valley ranch land, such as what was left of La Puente, was sold, leading to the creation of such communities as North Whittier Heights, discussed in recent posts here.

The reverse of the card, sent to a little girl in Merced and postmarked from Monrovia on this day in 1911.

Santa Anita, meantime, included the town of Arcadia, so there was some subdivision there, too, even prior to Baldwin’s demise, but it accelerated with his death.  The centerpiece of the ranch remained in the hands of his daughter, Anita, who built a massive fifty-room mansion nearby.  In 1936, she sold the remaining 1,300 acres of Santa Anita to another prominent landowner, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler.

Chandler began subdividing the holdings over the following decade, but 111 acres was purchased in 1947 by the state and county for what is now known as the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.  An adobe house, said to have been built by early Santa Anita owner Hugo Reid, Baldwin’s ornate cottage and carriage barn, and the lake are among its notable features.

The postcard’s message, by the way, was short and simple, being sent to a child addressed as “little Helen.”  The sender, Elma Van, wrote that she received the girl’s New Year’s greetings “and [I] return them with fervor.”  There’s a sentiment we don’t hear hear or see too often when it comes to holiday greetings!

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