Ticket to the Twenties Themes: Los Angeles, The Center of an Agricultural Empire, 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two days remain until our Ticket to the Twenties festival begins and we continue with a series of posts dealing with themes from displays that will be in the historic houses during the weekend event.

LA as Ag Empire cover
This and the other images here are from the 1928 edition, one of several in the Homestead’s holdings, of Los Angeles: The Center of an Agricultural Empire, published by the Agricultural Department of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Prior posts covered the tremendous efforts made in infrastructure development through the importation (stealing, cried the folks in Owens Valley!) of water and the resulting creation of hydroelectric power and the planning by the County of Los Angeles of a coordinated streets and highways plan.

Yesterday’s post discussed the mid-1920s creation of an industrial district in Boyle Heights that was one of several major commercial developments made possible by those advances in infrastructure over the prior decade.  Another industry that benefited tremendously from the seemingly unlimited supplies of water and, to a certain extent, expanded availability of electricity was in agriculture.

LA as Ag Empire 3

Broadly speaking, agriculture was the backbone of greater Los Angeles’ economy from the beginning.  Cattle ranching, in particular, was the lifeblood of the area’s economic fortunes through the 1860s when floods and drought racked the region.  By then, grain growing, mainly wheat, and citrus raising and viticulture were becoming prominent and these expanded dramatically after the drought died out by 1865.

By the end of the 19th century, while grape raising was wracked by disease, the raising of citrus fruits became paramount, especially the orange, which became the symbol of the region to many from outside the region.  Thanks to coordinated efforts and careful marketing through the brand name of Sunkist, the region’s oranges were sent to faraway destinations, with the impetus of the development of the refrigerated box car for shipment over long distances.

LA as Ag Empire 5

By the 1920s, though, massive growth in greater Los Angeles meant that agricultural tracts, be they truck farms, wheat fields, walnut orchards, or orange groves, were increasingly giving way to suburban development.  Land values increasingly made the decision for farmers and growers to sell out to developers of housing tracts, commercial centers, and, in some cases, industrial zones.

Still, greater Los Angeles was one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world during the Roaring Twenties, even with the shrinking acreage devoted to farming, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, through its Agricultural Department, made sure to emphasize this with annual editions of its publication, “Los Angeles: The Center of an Agricultural Empire.”  The Homestead collection has several of these with the 1928 edition highlighted here.

LA as Ag Empire 7

Notably, that domain was not restricted to the county or immediate outlying areas.  Much as was talked about a half-century before about Los Angeles being the hub of a much larger geographical region, including identifying the city as a core component of a Southwestern empire including Arizona, Nevada and Utah, while the city’s central place in agriculture over several counties in the southern section of the state was also promoted.

Agriculture was defined broadly as embracing “all the economic products of the soil,” while it was averred that the “full definition of agriculture is our birthright in Southern California, for here it has reached greatest development as an industry and a mode of living.”  When it came to “acquired advantages,” the publication noted the region’s matchless weather and fertility but also those elements of life that “contribute to the happiness and social and cultural welfare of those who seek rural life,” including schools, churches, clubs and others.

LA as Ag Empire Produce Market

Beyond this, access to water, electricity, natural gas, paved roads, good schools and the like meant that greater Los Angeles had all of these elements such that “in no other part of the country are there so many persons enjoying the advantages of country life with none of the hardships,” though laborers, like farm workers (many of whom were migrant Latinos) might have disagreed.  Cooperative marketing, access to scientific research for elements like pest control, and promotion by such entities as the Chamber were also highlighted.

A section focused specifically on “The Small Farm” and “Little Farm Development, with attention given to flower and bulb growing, breeding rabbits, raising chickens, and having that “home berry patch.”  Given the dramatic transformation of American agriculture away from small farms to agribusiness in recent decades, much less the near total suburbanization of the region, this section is particularly striking.

LA as Ag Empire Turnbull view
This view is almost certainly, though not identified as, from Turnbull Canyon Road in the Puente Hills looking northeast towards Hacienda Heights, La Puente and surrounding areas.  The Homestead would be just about where the left edge center is, just above the clump of dark trees along the road.

As for prominent areas of agricultural endeavor in greater Los Angeles, pages were devoted to tree and vine crops; nuts (especially walnuts and almonds); citrus fruits (particularly oranges, lemons and grapefruits); other subtropical fruits (avocados dates, olives, and the like); deciduous fruits like apricots, apples, and peaches; viticulture, though, of course, it was Prohibition (not, however, mentioned), so the crop emphasized was raisins; truck crops involving other fruits and vegetables; field crops such as corn, alfalfa, hay and grain; and livestock and poultry, including the dairy industry.

A section on established markets returned to cooperative marketing, and discussed packing and grading laws, testing and inspection, and the importance of Los Angeles Harbor for transshipment and the new Los Angeles Produce Terminal in the Central Manufacturing District of the booming city.  Finally, there is a page devoted to “A Service for the Home Seeker,” in which the department claimed to provide “impartial advice and unbiased information . . . to the newcomer” thus “insuring the permanence of development in the Southwest.”

LA as Ag Empire 4

Specifically, it was advised not to buy land until a personal inspection and a professional appraisal from an agricultural expert was had.  It was suggested to prospective settlers that they contact the department for advice.  Emphasis was placed on acquiring property that was developed with “the moral integrity of the subdivider,” his financial abilities, and bearing in mind “all the fundamental risks in agriculture.”  Buyers were warned about the long-term nature of speculation in agricultural properties and to note the extremely important aspect of available water.

The publication is filled with photographs of vistas showing agricultural regions nearly devoid of urban development (in fact, two of these look to be taken from Turnbull Canyon Road looking over Hacienda Heights, La Puente and areas eastward towards the mountains–one example is shown here); amenities for those “acquired advantages” mentioned above; types of crops and products of agriculture; packing houses and employees, including women involved in grading and packing fruit; field work of various types such as plowing and picking or harvesting; and many others.

LA as Ag Empire 6

Two maps show the Southwest broadly and the Southern California area specifically, this latter basically moving from Paso Robles and Bakersfield on the north to the Mexican border on the south and from the Pacific on the west to the Colorado River on the east.  Because cover images are valuable for drawing attention to the subject at hand, the front cover has a view of a substantial and comfortable rural home with cows, chickens, orchards and fields among a landscape of a framing palm tree and mountains in the distance.  It is telling that the back cover shows agricultural workers packing and carrying crates—an important representation perhaps, but placed on the back in contrast to the other view.

At the end of the following year came the onset of the Great Depression and these publications, issued yearly through much of the Twenties, ceased to be produced.  Regional agriculture, despite the dark years of the depression, continued to be a major part of the economy, even as suburban sprawl accelerated, particularly after World War II and the massive boom that took place.  Now, 90 years after this edition was put out, agriculture is virtually non-existent in much of our region, though in Ventura County, and some parts of the Inland Empire, vestiges are still found.

LA as Ag Empire back detail

This was one of the intriguing aspects of the 1920s.  Greater Los Angeles was being heavily promoted and was a very desirable place for new arrivals.  This meant that these residents were increasingly living in suburbs radiating from Los Angeles and, in some cases, working in industrial or commercial tracts in these areas.  Agriculture could not compete with these developments and the empire was destined to dissipate.


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