by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It may be hard to believe for those who drive on Interstate 210 through Sylmar and try to image that the land around them once comprised the world’s large olive orchard, but the Los Angeles Olive Growers Association had some 2,000 acres of the former Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains devoted to this crop, which was manufactured and sold as the Sylmar brand of olive oil and pickled olives.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a 20 April 1903 billhead, or invoice, from the Association to Arthur B. Brooks, a pharmacist in Ithaca, New York, for an order of one gallon of oil, with which samples were included, and which was dispatched from Chicago five days earlier.
The document has the entity’s name in a somewhat elaborate fashion, lists president Louis J.P. Morrill as president ad George L. Arnold as secretary, provides the office phone number and the address as Suite 309 in the well-known and distinctive Bradbury Building at 3rd and Broadway, notes the grove at “Fernando, Cal.” and identifies key products as “Pure California Olive Oil and Pickles,” though the brand name was not listed.
The Association was incorporated in April 1893 with stock issued for $100,000 and three of the five incorporators were George L. Arnold, Louis J.P. Morrill and Daniel O. Miltimore. These figures, along with S.W. Little, happened to be associated with the University Bank of Los Angeles, which was founded in 1887 with William H. Workman as a trustee and his future brother-in-law, Robert M. Widney (whose daughter Frances married Workman’s son Boyle) as the president.
Widney, who was a prominent attorney, former district court judge, founder of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway (established in 1874 as Los Angeles’ first streetcar line and which had F.P.F. Temple as its inaugural treasurer), and founding trustee of the University of Southern California, was tied to the San Fernando area because his uncle, former state senator Charles Maclay, established the town in 1874.
So, it comes as no surprise that the Los Angeles Olive Growers Association, tied directly with University Bank and its president Widney, who was connected to Maclay and San Fernando, was able to acquire the substantial amount of land just north of the town’s border to develop the olive orchard that it controlled in addition to selling land to other growers.
Miltimore, who was born in Brome-Missisquoi, Quebec, Canada, southeast of Montreal in 1838 came to Los Angeles in November 1882 and settled in what was known as “West Los Angeles” and later resided in the Sierra Madre Villa tract, where there’d recently been a well-known hotel and resort, in northeastern Pasadena. He resided in Plainfield, Wisconsin, northwest of Milwaukee, on his parents’ farm before he enlisted with the Union Army during the Civil War. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and was mustered out after he recovered.
After a period at Lodi, New York, he moved back to Wisconsin and was a real estate agent and land dealer in Appleton, southeast of Green Bay, for a few years before picking up stakes and migrating to the Angel City. One of his partners in real estate in his new home was Morrill, who was from Stanstead, a border town with New York state very close to Miltimore’s hometown. It is unclear if the two knew each other before they became tied together in Los Angeles, because Morrill, who was a merchant, resided in Illinois, Iowa and then Bozeman, Montana prior to coming to this area.
Morrill was also vice-president of the Milwaukee Furniture Company of Los Angeles (note the Wisconsin reference) and the head of that firm was Otis P. Arnold, who committed suicide in August 1891 after the company experienced financial problems following the end of the Boom of the 1880s, during which the business was started, and was also apparently fleeced of tens of thousands of dollars from its treasurer, Newell Nightingale. Morrill may have escaped economic disaster from this incident.
Perhaps related to Otis Arnold because of the Wisconsin connection was the secretary of the Association, George L. Arnold, who was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1853. He was assistant cashier at the Bank of Fond du Lac for ten years before he resigned to accept the position of cashier at the University Bank, it being evident that he was recruited by Miltimore to join the newly minted financial institution. After his work with University Bank, Arnold went into real estate and was also a broker and money lender.
An early major reference to the Association was in the Los Angeles Express of 13 January 1894, with it stated that a reporter traveled out by train with Miltimore and others to see the firm’s property between the rail line and the mountains. It was reported that, while there was much farming activity descried by the journalist,
the most extensive horticultural enterprise about San Fernando, or probably in Southern California, is the unique one of the Los Angeles Olive Growers’ Association. This association, of which Mr. Miltimore is president, owns a beautiful tract of land of about 1600 acres, extending north and south from the base of the mountains to the railway line, and east and west to the [George K., as in Porter Ranch] Porter orchard to the hills which mark the approach of the San Fernando [railroad] tunnel.
The soil was described as rich and sandy, without rocks, and the land sloping gently toward the rail line, while it was anticipated that there was sufficient groundwater as well as access to water in Grapevine Canyon in the mountains, where the company had ownership of the springs and stream that emanated from it—this is very close to where Interstates 5 and 210 meet now.
The article continued that the company “is now in the progress of preparing the ground and putting in well rooted olive trees,” so that by the start of April it was expected that 1,500 acres of trees would be in place, “making one of the largest, if not the largest olive orchard in the world.” The tract was divided into 40-acre lots with further subdivision into five-acre properties and each lot bounded by 60-foot wide streets.
The company’s goal was to sell half of the acreage and retain the other half for its purposes, but, for the former, it intended to develop this for four years to get the olive trees well on the way to maturity before releasing them to purchasers, this being an effort involving a guarantee of viability for those acquiring orchard lots from the firm.
Beyond this, it was stated that “the association also proposed erecting works for manufacturing olive oil and pickles on a scale sufficiently large to handle the crop when it shall commence to produce.” There was a force of workers plowing and getting the tract ready for planting “and the most modern methods are being employed in every department of the work.”
Importantly, it was noted that this endeavor was hardly an experiment without precedent “as evidenced by the olive trees about the Old Mission [San Fernando], which are now a century old [the mission was founded in 1797] and bearing vigorously.” It was also noted that Widney’s brother, Joseph, had a five-acre orchard, five years old, at San Fernando and the piece concluded that “the enterprise is a commendable one, founded on good business principles, and is of that class which is to make Southern California as great in productive capacity as it is peerless in climatic, scenic and social attractions.”
Given that it can take several years for olive trees to bear mature fruit, it was not until the onset of the 20th century that commercial production could take place. In March 1895, it was reported that 80,000 trees were ordered from Pomona for planting and in December 1897, the Los Angeles Times reported that, of 2,000 acres controlled by the Association, 60% of it had trees that were three years old, with the rest of the tract expected to be planted in short order. While there were few bearing trees at that time, it was anticipated that a townsite (Sylmar) was to be laid out, a large olive mill built and a water system put into operation.
The following February, the Los Angeles Herald observed that 900 acres was to be planted in olives in the coming spring, while shortly before that, it recorded that a Los Angeles firm was already declaring olives from the tract to be of a superior quality. Yet, in March 1899, the Express reported that “a large number of olive trees in the immense orchard . . . are in bloom for the first time this year for the first time, and an unusually heavy crop is looked for.”
The Times of 9 January 1898, meanwhile, in its Illustrated Magazine supplement ran a full-page ad taken out by the Association promoting the “Plan and Purpose of a Great Enterprise.” It was asserted that “by the combination of wisdom, indomitable pluck, untiring energy and favoring natural conditions,” the orchard was “a splendid achievement” and “a conspicuous success.” The land was described as “formerly an unattractive and apparently worthless waste” transformed into a productive and prosperous project, though the natural conditions were also described as ideal for the purpose.
To date, it was recorded, the whole tract was to be planted with a total of 200,000 trees, with 1,700 acres under cultivation and the yield of the three-year old trees planted first was determined to have a value of a dollar per tree. Miltimore, in particular, was credited with a “comprehensive knowledge of olive culture” as well an understanding of climate and soil whose choosing of the site was determined after searching throughout the region—though his connections to Widney and the Maclay holdings were not mentioned.
For those wishing to buy property in the tract, and there had been sales for some time by the time, the price was $350 an acre with a minimum of five acres offered and the like sum to be taken as a deposit and annual payments of the same, without interest, to be made until the purchase price was reached. Not only was it emphasized that the company would care for orchards for four years before turned over to buyers, but Miltimore insisted that there be “the highest moral and intellectual standard in the colony.”
Because of the requirements for successful operating of orchards, it was further asserted that only “a superior class of settlers, usually those who are well-to-do” could succeed and most purchasers to date had been successful in some other field of work “and engaged in olive culture for the profit and pleasure which the avocation promises.” With a five-acre lot, a family of five would enjoy “all of the comforts and conveniences of modern living,” but a ten-acre parcel “will afford a robust bank account.” One consideration contemplated by the company was to build “an electric belt” street railroad line to the tract.
Averring that California was the only state in the Union that could grow olives commercially and successfully, the firm argued that “California can easily supply the home demand” with a judicious cultivation of the crop where it would be best and most profitable grown. Interestingly, the Association adopted a common view by American farmers in supporting “an adequate protective tariff to shut out the foreign adulterated article” including “the importation of impure Italian oils” so that “olive culture in America will enjoy the fair play to which a great industry is entitled.”
Also highlighted was that the olive was “a health promoter” that was far better than using pork fat in cooking,” but, for the purpose of advertising, it was also observed that olive trees were long-lived and it was added that “there are many instances on record in California in which one crop of olives, from young trees, has paid for the orchard.” So, the combination of durability, longevity and profitability were pitched to the prospective purchaser.
The most modern equipment and scientific horticultural methods, along with production techniques and the favorability of soil and conditions meant, it was concluded, far richer and higher quality oil and a better brand of pickled olive. Prices, moreover, were said to fetch up to $100 a ton for the crop. Finally, the Association was touted as having the highest financial standing so that its offering “is better than life-insurance investment” because, after the four-year holding period, the buyer would receive a property ready to be “a perpetual profit-yielder.”
The Times of 9 November 1901 quoted an unidentified “man posted on the subject” as stating that “there are trainloads of olives on the San Fernando ranch alone—probably a million gallons” in which was described as the largest yield to date. Under this condition of growth, it was decided to form a Southern California Olive Growers’ Association with Arnold as a board member and which would “combine the entire acreage of the Coast” with up to 2,000 acres committed by new members, 60% of which was from the Sylmar operation.
Advertisements for the “Sylmar Olive Oil” brand began to appear in local newspapers by summer 1902 and stores in such locales as Garvanza (bordering Highland Park and Pasadena and later absorbed into Los Angeles), Los Angeles, Pomona and Whittier began to list the product in its ads. The Association’s oil earned a gold medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which, undoubtedly, gave the product a significant boost in promotion and it captured a similar prize at the Lewis and Clark Centennial at Portland, Oregon the following year. Early in 1905, expansion of the pickling plant was announced.
There were also reports of improvement in more efficient curing and selling of fruit, including when crop yields in late 1903 were determined to be higher than two years prior, with up to 2,500 tons expected compared about 2,000 in 1901. Growers were generally getting about 15 cents per pound and paying for curing as well as the marketing of their crop.
An October report in the Times included a rare mention of field laborers, who were universally nearly invisible when it came to the discussion of regional agriculture, as it noted that “trouble will no doubt be experienced in gathering,” because of the challenge of finding labor for the grueling work of picking, but it added that “most of the growers have contracted with Japanese” for the harvesting. The article also noted the issue of eliminating the use of dirty and moldy olives as well as leaves and other material that sullied the quality of making high-quality oil and stated that the past two years saw a good deal of improvement in processing.
The Times of 8 July 1906 contained a lengthy feature with photos from the Sylmar (defined as “sea of green” though it is also suggested the moniker was a combination of Latin words for forest and sea) operation. The reporter opined that the “olive ranch is one of the most interesting places in the country to visit” while observing that, a dozen years before, it was a cactus-studded area, but then contained 20,000 bearing trees (though, perhaps, there was a zero missing from the number given what was stated above) on 1,200 acres of the 2,000 acre tract with 100 acres added a year to trees which were to bear fruit in six years.
Morrill’s son, Matt, was then the manager and took the journalist through the ranch and explained the operation. It was also noted that “an extra force of 300 Japanese [workers] is employed and housed in a village of tents” during the harvesting season, which involved picking the fruit which was placed on sheets laid on the ground. The fruit was then hauled to the mill for pressing within a day so that bruising was minimized and freshness heightened, though the first steps involved a fanning machine to remove dust and leaves.
In the first crushing, three-quarters of what was obtained was water and the rest comprised of oil, but a second pass had the results reversed, but Morrill told the journalist that he was hoping to find some use for what was termed the “bitter water” in the extraction process. When the oil was separated and conveyed by pumps to tanks where it was racked and then placed in glass tanks to settle, while the residue was dumped outside the structure, but used later, after more grinding and pressing, “as a base in soap-making” and the company intended to build a soap-making plant on the tract.
The key to making first-class oil was said to be that, with fresh fruit being critical, there was “treating the oil by a system of constant handling in the basement storage rooms during the ten or more months required for maturing before filtering and shipping to market.” The prior season, there were 60,000 gallons stored in the glass tanks, with the temperature kept as uniform as possible, while a taster was at the ready to determine when the oil was ready to be sent from the tanks to filtering cans, “thence to be drawn and bottled on the last stage to the consumer, pure and life-sustaining.”
After labeling the production methods of the French, Italian and Spanish as “crude” and “unclean,” the article concluded,
From the earliest ages the peoples regarded as barbarous have known the value of olive oil ad used it freely as butter, food and lubricator, but Americans have had to be educated to its use laboriously, until at present the consumption absorbs the supply of pure oil.
In addition to the 1903 billhead, another from August 1908 is shown here, but the Museum’s holdings includes several photographs, one shared here, including some demonstrating production, and other items related to the Sylmar operation, so we’ll look to follow up with future posting on this interesting and important agricultural enterprise.