by Paul R. Spitzzeri
If you’re driving south on the 710 Freeway not far south of Interstate 5 and you blink, you might well miss the second-smallest city (after Hawaiian Gardens) in Los Angeles County. Cudahy, one of a trio of small municipalities, including Bell and Maywood, on the west bank of the Los Angeles River, is also the second-most densely-packed city in the region, following Maywood, with some 20,000 persons per square mile for its estimated 24,000 population.
Cudahy, like many of its neighbors, evolved from a rural ranching and agricultural area to one with a significant industrial component by the time the city was incorporated in 1960 as the older manufacturing areas of downtown Los Angeles and nearby areas were built out. From about 1980 onward, it has again transformed with the larger factories and other industrial facilities closed while the ethnic composition of the city becoming overwhelmingly Latino and now at about 95%.
The Cudahy area was part of the Rancho San Antonio, granted to Antonio María Lugo (1775-1860), one of the more prominent Californios of the pre-American era. Lugo largely raised cattle on his ranch and experienced great wealth during the Gold Rush years following the American seizure of Mexican California.
Within several years of his death, about 3,600 acres of the ranch was sold to Remi Nadeau (1821-1887), a native of Quebec, Canada. Coming to Los Angeles during the dire years of the early 1860s, when floods and drought ravaged the region, Nadeau was a teamster and was best known for ferrying silver ore from mines in eastern California to Los Angeles with ox and mule teams.
Nadeau had a vineyard on about three-quarters of his ranch, though disease blighted the crop and the land was put to other uses not long before his death, which occurred just as Los Angeles was in the middle of the famed Boom of the 1880s. When his heirs decided to sell off much of the ranch, they found a ready buyer from Chicago.
Michael Cudahy (1841-1910) was from Ireland and was among the many Irish who fled their famine-stricken homeland for America, with his family settling after a time in Milwaukee. He left school at age 15 to work as a butcher at a meat packing plant, a job that involved a good deal of hard labor in harsh conditions. He worked his way up to a foreman, inspector, and packing house manager for Plankinton, Armour and Company, a Milwaukee packing business that had branches in Chicago and elsewhere.
Made a partner of what was later rechristened Armour and Company in Chicago in 1873, Cudahy worked with Phillip Armour in a business that paid low wages and operated free of much in the way of government regulation and inspections. After many years with Armour, he and two brothers formed the Cudahy Packing Company in 1890. In addition to plants in Milwaukee, Chicago and other Midwestern cities, a branch was opened at Los Angeles. He lived in Chicago when he died there of double pneumonia in late November 1910.
Cudahy Ranch was basically used as a preparation ground for the Los Angeles packing house, though the company formed to run the ranch also raised walnuts and engaged in other sidelines. The ranch was kept intact until 1908 when, the rapid movement of suburbanization and industrial activity south from the center core of Los Angeles induced Cudahy to subdivide and sell much of the property.
One of the more interesting elements of the tract was its unusual lot sizes in most areas with street frontages of up to 100 feet and depths going back 800 feet. These extraordinarily deep lots allowed for poultry raising, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and other like uses. Many of these lots are intact but with multiple dwelling units, such as apartment houses, where the chickens, cucumbers and horses used to be.
In addition to residential lots like these, portions of the ranch were set aside for industrial and manufacturing enterprises, as well. Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a pair of snapshot photographs, perhaps taken in the 1910s or 1920s, of a pipe plant on the Cudahy Ranch. This plant was emblematic, too, of the massive change engulfing greater Los Angeles in terms of the enormous growth in population and the spread of development.
The pipes made at the plant, obviously, were vital parts of the infrastructure needed to the expanding region, specifically pipes used for the delivery of water and the transport of sewage or other uses. The first photo, probably looking north, shows workers shoveling powdered cement into wheelbarrows and other near what seems to be interminable rows of about 2-foot sections of pipe. In the background are fields of vegetables or fruit with a home, barns and other outbuildings.
The second image, apparently looking to the east, includes a man dragging a wheelbarrow down strips of 2×4 planks while about eight other workers are near more rows of pipe and a large wooden barn. Again, in the background are large fields with rows of trees far off that might be lining a road, perhaps a main thoroughfare like Atlantic Avenue.
What’s striking about these photographs is the open space still evident in the area, especially reflecting on the fact that, now, Cudahy is such a small and dense-populated community nearly a century after these photos were taken. There is probably no way to specifically identify the location of the pipe plant, though it would be interesting to know where it was.
From its ranching and farming origins, to a subdivision that retained much of that feel until after World War II, and then from a heavily industrialized period in the post-war era to another transformation in the last thirty years, Cudahy has struggled with high rates of poverty (over 1/3 of the population is below the federal poverty line, which has been criticized for being not reflective of true poverty), political corruption.
Like these laborers, engaging in back-breaking manual labor to make their living, the residents of working-class Cudahy strive to make their way in a greater Los Angeles that continues to evolve and transform in ways people buying lots at Cudahy Ranch in 1908 couldn’t envision.
This article from the Los Angeles Times in 2015 indicated that young members of the council were looking to change the way that Cudahy is managed, as is the case with other nearby cities, so it’ll be interesting to see what this generation can do with their communities.