“One of the Most Profitable Industries Ever Inaugurated On This Coast”: The Forest Grove Association’s Eucalyptus Experiment, 1874-1880

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s guest post by Jeff Perry of Angel City Lumber provided an excellent summary of the introduction of the eucalyptus tree in greater Los Angeles and today we follow up with a look at the first large-scale enterprise devoted to the cultivation of what became a very common tree in our region, the Forest Grove Association, launched in November 1874.

The endeavor was launched at the peak of the region’s first boom, a significant and sustained period of growth and development that began in the late Sixties. Among the principal figures in this period was F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and whose involvement in oil, railroads, real estate, banking and many other ventures was emblematic of the excitement and risk embodied in boom-time business activity.

The articles of incorporation of the Forest Grove Company, also Forest Grove Association, filed on 16 November 1874, are in the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Another was Robert M. Widney, a real estate speculator, attorney and District Court judge who, earlier in the year, with Temple as treasurer, launched the first streetcar line in Los Angeles, the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, and who went on to be a key founder of the University of Southern California (though his alleged involvement in a December 1870 vigilance committee and its lynching of an accused murderer has led to his name being removed from a core campus building.)

On 22 November, the Los Angeles Herald, which just happened to be owned by a publishing company in which Temple, Widney and others were stockholders, published an article about “A New Enterprise” informing readers that a company with $100,000 in stock had just been created “for the purpose of raising forest trees for fuel and manufacturing purposes.”

The business, which was not named, “has selected two hundred acres of land, through the middle of which runs the railroad to Anaheim,” this being the newly built Southern Pacific branch line from Florence, south of Los Angeles. It was added that the tract was on the Rancho San Antonio, the princely domain long owned by the prominent Lugo family, and “the land lies this [west] side of the San Gabriel River and can be irrigated in necessary.” The property was likely located between what is now the river on the east and Lakewood Boulevard on the west and Florence Avenue on the north and Imperial Highway to the south.

As to the species, the paper continued that,

The company will plant out the whole tract with Eucalyptus or blue gum. This tree is a remarkably fast grower. Within a mile of this land and on the same kind of soil Mr. C.E. White has blue gum trees four and one-half years old from the seed which measure 16 inches in diameter and about 40 feet high. Six hundred of these trees can be grown to the acre . . . the timber is tough and hard, and is superior to hickory or locust. A more profitable enterprise could not be started. Timber is becoming scarcer every year. A grove of this kind will be very valuable.

The piece stated that, after just four years, a crop could be cut every three years thereafter without the need for replanting, because new trees sprouted from the stumps and it was asserted that some $120,000 could be reaped by those triennial cuttings. With “a rich, black, sandy loam” and water just six or seven feet below the surface, the project was highly promising.

The article concluded by noting that there were 1,000 certificates of stock with a par value of $100 each and 60% were subscribed before the firm was incorporated. An initial 12% assessment was to be called in for the first year and ones of 2-3% for the three following years and it was claimed that “shares of stock thus costing $12 to $20, on the hundred will reach par in four years, providing the trees do as well as the average trees of the same kind do in this valley.”

The articles of incorporation were filed on the 16th for the Forest Grove Company with the objects stipulated to be “to buy a lease land in Los Angeles Co., Cal., to raise thereon forest trees for fuel or manufacturing purposes. And to sell any real property of the company upon the written consent of the holders of four fifths of the capital stock of the company.” The business was chartered for fifty years and seven men signed on as directors, including Widney, who was the president, Temple, who was treasurer, and John M. Griffith, White, Salisbury Haley, Isaac W. Lord, and James F. Ward.

Los Angeles Herald, 22 November 1874.

Griffith, who came to Los Angeles roughly a dozen years before ran a teamster business with his brother-in-law John Tomlinson, until the coming of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad spelled trouble for that enterprise and the two turned to the lumber business. After Tomlinson died, Griffith partnered with Santa Cruz lumber baron Sedgwick Lynch and the two operated a successful yard for severy years.

White, who’d experimented with eucalyptus as noted in the article, was a native of Massachusetts and a Gold Rush emigrant to California, purportedly being the first to commercially grow deciduous fruit trees in the gold country. After settling in Los Aneles, he and partner James Denham ran sheep on 6,000 acres of the Rancho San Antonio. White was later an early trustee of U.S.C. as well as a prominent settler of the new town of Pomona, where White Avenue was named for him.

Herald, 20 January 1875.

Haley hailed from New Hampshire and was a sea captain for many years, residing in Florida for a while before coming to California. When he settled in Los Angeles, Haley became an attorney and was also a long-time friend of the Workman and Temple families. Ward was a new arrival in Los Angeles and had an interest in the nursery business, as well as in real estate. Though he went through a bankruptcy in the early 1880s, the subsequent famous boom that followed restored his financial position thanks to property he held downtown.

Lastly, Isaac W. Lord was a native of rural Illinois who drove cattle to the gold fields of California in 1853 and returned home after a few years to pursue medical studies (his faher was a well-known physcian) and then worked as a clerk for what became Marshall Field, the famous Chicago store, and James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. In 1872, Lord and his family settled in Los Angeles and he was a partner in a furniture store for a couple of years before he joined Widney and Temple in the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad, the Forest Grove endeavor, and worked with Widney as key founders of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Later, Lord lived in San Bernardino County, where he was a supervisor, and also established the 1880s boomtown of Lordsburg, now La Verne.

Herald, 25 March 1875.

On 5 December, the Los Angeles Express reported that all but $2,500 of the Association’s stock was sold and noted “the eucalyptus seed to be planted has arrived” while the lumber, presumably provided by Griffith, was to be taken that day to the grove for building a house. On 20 January 1875, a Herald reporter visited the tract and observed that 270 trees, brought in boxes, were “showing a very vigorous growth,” while in a pair beds two feet wide and 48 feet long, “there must be near 80,000 young plants already up, and more coming.”

Because, the paper went on, “many persons are trying to sprout the eucalyptus seed,” the article went into some detail about the sprouting methods adopted by the company, including the use of 4 1/2 foot high wood enclosures to minimize wind exposure and keep out rabbits, squirrels and other critters. Two tablespoons of seed were spread in boxes 20×24 inches in width and length and three inches deep and these put in double rows with walks of eighteen inches between, while “fresh stable manure” was applied to some six inches in depth ad “which generates heat sufficient to put the seed in fine condition for germinating and growing.” For frost protection, “a light framework” with a fabric covering was placed over the boxes at night.

Herald, 25 May 1875.

In its 25 March edition, the Herald, by then under new ownership, went to Widney’s Los Angeles house on Hill Street (in November, the paper went to the residence and reported that some trees up to 50 feet high) and saw seedlings in boxes being readied for transfer to the Downey tract and it added that “the Forest Grove Association have now some three hundred of these boxes sprouting, and from them expect to raise several hundred thousand trees on their grounds in Los Nietos,” this latter term being for the broader township in that area.

Again, it was reiterated that harvesting could begin in four years. Beyond its use in furniture making, the eucalyptus had “a new virtue” in that it was said to be ideal for dock pilings at the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington because it was not suspect, apparently, to barnacle and pest infestation. If such promise held out, the article concluded, “the discovery will be worth millions” and it was added “the eucalyptus is a wonderful tree, and its merits yet to be made known to commerce will place it in the front rank for intrinsic value.”

Herald, 23 June 1875.

Further planting was conducted in April and on 25 June, the Herald reported that “some 40,000 trees have been set out, and are making a wonderfully rapid growth” and another 40,000 were being prepared for eventual planting. From small boxes, the seeds, once sprouted to about three inches, were transferred to the larger boxes noted above until reaching 6-8 inches when they were planted directly in the field at eight feet between each tree.

The paper discussed a customized “transplanter” developed by the manager to create holes and set the plants in them with part of the root system and the dirt from the box in which it was extracted with it. Some trees were anticipated to reach ten feet by the end of the year. Meanwhile, a vigorous program of poisoning gophers and squirrels was detailed and the piece concluded with more breathless prognostications of the future of the venture, including that,

Planting blue gum forests is destined to be one of the most profitable industries ever inaugurated on this coast. . . These forests raised in this county will be of fabulous value, and can never be planted in sufficient quantities to glut the market. As the country here and back into Arizona settles up, the consumption of timber will be increased and the supply constantly diminished.

The Herald returned, with Widney and others, to the Downey grove in late September and, in its issue on the 30th, reported “there were found some ninety thousand Australian Gum trees planted over an area of 150 acres, presenting the appearance of a miniature forest.” It was noted that, after Widney determined the project to be worth pursuing, ten pounds of seed were acquired from San Francisco “and planted in a hot-house” before being moved to the tract for sprouting.” Trees were reported to be ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height and, by the end of 1879, were expected to reach up to 50 feet and a foot in diameter. It was also stated that another company was looking to start a similar project on 250 acres, seven miles south of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Star, 1 October 1875.

The next day, the Los Angeles Star got a tour of the grove and it added that there were some 90,000 trees on 150 acres, about a third of these being of the 6-9 foot heights mentioned by its contemporar, while the remaining 50 acres was being readied for another 12,000 trees. The only irrigation was when the sprouts were being transplanted into the field, which were remarkably free from weeds. The projected value for fuel and manufacturing, including wagon-making, was $2 per tree.

The Star suggested “we do not consider that there is any danger of this busines being overdone” and added “we believe that thousands of acres could be profitably employed in the same manner.” It ended by encouraging the young man with modest capital to plant part of his farm to the variety (as well as the black locust), while “the farmer on the downhill of life couljd leave few more valuable heritages to his children than a forty acre tract of forest.” Anyone with an interest in what was taking place was prodded to visit the tract and see the results.

Herald, 30 January 1876.

In its New Year’s Day 1876 issue, the Herald again promoted the Forest Grove Association scheme, noting that “Los Angeles has perhaps the largest grove of Eucalyptus or Australian Gum trees in the State.” The lack of good timber and wood “renders this tree invaluable, and its cultivation must be lucrative” and it was reported that “there are now two hundred acres planted with 190,000 trees,” though that number was slightly exaggerated (see below), as was much of the boosterism!

On 30 January, the Association’s yearly report was published by the Herald and President Widney told stockholders that 140 of the 200 acre tract had about 80,000 trees, with 30,000 showing growth of between 8 and 15 feet in height, and the remaining 60 acres were to be planted by mid-May. Total expenses were under $13,000 and the value of the property was said by “disinterested pesons” to be between $40,000 and $60,000. The four-year plan pegged disbursements at no more than $18,000, at which time the tract “cannot be worth less than $100,000.” Only a small amount of stock changed hands, and that at an 8% increase, with 17 persons holding shares, so, it was concluded, “such enterprises are better than banking.”

Star, 3 February 1879.

This last statement was undoubtedly directed at the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, which closed a little more than two weeks prior, but the bigger problem was that the state’s economy cratered the preceding August and remained in a deep downturn (a national depression broke out in 1873) for several years to come. Despite all of the glowing optimism and the fantastic reports about the Association, nothing could be found in the press for two years.

In February 1878, Widney transferred the quit-claim made to him by White and Denman to the company and, a year later, the Association was among the many firms and individuals listed in newspapers as owing delinquent taxes. The state instituted foreclosure proceedings at the Justice Court of the San Antonio Township on 40 acres of the tract and a constable’s sale was held at the end of September 1880. The next February, a reference was found to wood being cut on the property and this was the last mention of it.

Herald, 1 September 1880.

So, clearly, the Forest Grove Association project, heralded (!) as it was, did not achieve its objectives and it is not known how much of its eucalyptus was ever harvested and sold for fuel, furniture, wagons, dock pilings or anything else. Still, it was a pioneering effort in the field of forest tree cultivation, even if it did not quite take root or branch out beyond the initial planting and growing stage. Future decades, however, did find the eucalyptus used extensively in greater Los Angeles, including as wind-breaks for the burgeoning citrus industry, and the variety is still commonly found in our region today, if not as anticipated by its early promoters and boosters.

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