Recap of the First-Ever Tres Hermanos Ranch Tours and Some of its Early History from 1914-1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Demand was so heavy for the just over 100 seats available for the four excursions offered today as part of the first-ever public tours of the nearly 2,500-acre Tres Hermanos Ranch, jointly administered by the cities of Chino Hills, Diamond Bar and Industry that all of the slots were taken within minutes and some 400 people went on to a waiting list. This certainly bodes well for general public interest in the property, slight more than 70% of which is in Chino Hills and once part of the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, with the remainder comprising former public lands in Diamond Bar.

I was fortunate to be one of the three presenters during the visit, with Industry City Manager Josh Nelson welcoming visitors and taking them to see the Arnold Reservoir and dam, situated near Grand Avenue which traverses the northern end of the ranch and retired California Polytechnic University, Pomona plant sciences professor Dan Hostetler, who was at the southern end at a beautiful spot including a majestic wide-spreading oak tree and who talked about the flora and fauna of the ranch.

Looking north from the current ranch headquarters area north along Tonner Canyon Road.

In between, situated next to barns, stables and the ranch house used by the current lessees, I was stationed to provide some of the human, or cultural, history of Tres Hermanos and was aided by some panels, beautifully rendered by Chino Hills city staff, as well as some great maps with overlays showing where the ranch is situated relating to the adjacent historic ranchos as well as modern areas, including the two aforementioned cities—these were provided by the City of Industry using GIS technology.

To allow visitors an opportunity to walk around (though not within) the barns and outbuildings, as well as to stop by the canopies where the panels and maps were situated, I kept my review of the history fairly general and straightforward, starting with the indigenous people and their hunting and gathering over many thousands of years in the area and noting the Mission San Gabriel’s tenure over about sixty years, as well as later uses as part of the ranchos Los Nogales and Chino. Tonner Canyon, named for an eccentric and colorful Pomona figure, Patrick C. Tonner, runs through the center of the tract.

A view looking to the south from the same vantage point.

In 1907, Walter F. Fundenberg, a Pittsburgh dentist and real estate investor, acquired land in the area, both from Los Nogales and Chino, and spent considerable money and time prospecting for oil, thinking that it might be connected to a petroleum belt running southeast from downtown Los Angeles through the Montebello and Puente Hills ranges to the Olinda field in Brea. After several years, however, the venture proved to be unsuccessful, so Fundenberg, whose name was deemed (by me) as the “word of the day” because it has “fun” in it, sold the ranch in two parcels.

One went to Frederick Lewis, a tire manufacturer from the east coast, who took the western section and dubbed it the Diamond Bar ranch. To the east, the tres hermanos, who weren’t actual brothers, though they were of a business sort, acquired the ranch that bore that moniker. The trio were William B. Scott, an oil man whose in-laws established the Union Oil Company (now part of Chevron), Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, and heir of original Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland and a former Los Angeles County Sheriff, William R. Rowland.

A panoramic image looking west toward Diamond Bar, with the tree-covered hill at the left where the ranch house stood from the late 1910s to around 2000 or so.

All of them had oil industry dealings emanating from Rowland’s Puente Oil Company, which worked wells on his share of La Puente in Rowland Heights near where Harbor Boulevard/Fullerton Road crests the Puente Hills. In fact, while later oil producers sent crude in pipelines towards the South Bay and Port of Los Angeles area for refining, the Puente Oil Company, being an early producer dating from the mid-1880s, sent its product through lines traversing Tonner Canyon to the new town of Chino and a refinery there.

In December 1914, Pomona and Los Angeles newspapers reported on the establishment of the Rowland Cattle Company on some 10,000 acres on several parcels, including the Rowland Ranch in the Puente Hills, the Big Brea property in the Brea Canyon and the Fundenburg tract. In addition to Scott, Chandler and Rowland, the other directors and investors included Thomas J. Green of Walnut, who had extensive stock-raising experience including for Rowland, and Moses H. Sherman, a major transportation and real estate figure in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, where Sherman Way and Sherman Oaks are the best-known reminders of his presence.

A barn believed to be from the early operation of Tres Hermanos.

With Green as the general manager of the operation, which had a $100,000 capitalization, the Pomona Review and Pomona Bulletin both stated that,

The intent and purpose of this company will be to raise thoroughbred Durham and Hereford cattle. No horses will be raised except for such use as is necessary to carry on the business. The company intends to supply the large market of the country with the best stock that can possibly be raised and when the capitalists who are at the head of the company are taken into consideration the public may rest assured the project will be a valuable asset to this part of the country.

By the end of the month, Green headed to Texas and made arrangements to have 600 head of Hereford cattle sent out to Tres Hermanos, while another 531 young heifers were soon imported from the Imperial Valley of southeastern California and this was followed two months later by the shipment of 300 more animals—all of these were sent by rail and unloaded from the Southern Pacific Railroad at the Walnut station and then driven eastward to the ranch.

Pomona Review, 18 December 1914.

Once the ranch was established with its ample herds of cattle, the three owners turned their attentions to infrastructure with the Bulletin of 7 February 1918 reporting that Green “had superintended the building of two big dams, [and] two reservoirs,” these likely being the aforementioned Arnold Reservoir and another one at the south end of the property not far from where Dan Hostetler met with visitors. Also mentioned by the paper was that “a commodious residence, adobe style [though not made of the material only with thick walls to mimic the appearance], is being erected on a beautiful round top hill, with a magnificent view of the surrounding country.”

The Bulletin of 14 October 1919 then covered the housewarming of the ranch house, observing that,

Buried deep among the picturesque south hills and crowning a unique bowl-shaped hill rising like a huge mount from the floor of the valley, there stands a beautiful clubhouse . . . It was only recently finished . . . and on last Saturday the clubhouse was the scene of a notable gathering of well known Los Angeles people . . .

The gathering was, in reality, a housewarming, for while it has been used on various occasions before this was the first time that the owners invited number of guests.

The club house is built after the fashion of an old Spanish home. A feature of the living room is the great fireplace built in the center and it was about this that the tables were spread for the feast on Saturday.

Among those attending were 69 friends and family, including Sherman, Times treasurer Frank X. Pfaffinger, Union Oil official Edward W. Clark, oil industry figure of note Mericos (Max) H. Whittier, Scott and family members, Chandler and some of his kin, and Juan José López, descendant of an early California family that built the existing López Adobe in San Fernando and who was a long-time foreman at the Rancho El Tejon, of which Chandler was a part-owner.

Pomona Bulletin, 14 October 1919.

Other large-scale events of note in the ranch’s early days included a rodeo on 6 May 1922, with the Bulletin recording that it was “recalling the old days of open handed hospitality, when the neighbors for miles around were invited in to the big barbecue of rodeo days on the big ranchos when Southern California was a cow country.” The paper described the mix of the smell of fires and hot branding irons searing the flesh of the animals mixed with the modern image of the latest automobiles and fashions of some of those attending.

Two large steers were barbecued to feed some 400 guests at “tables . . . set in a curved row about a bend in the winding road, and overshadowed in the grateful shade of sheltering live oak trees. After the meal, a speech was made by Rowland’s successor as sheriff, William I. Traeger, who commented “upon the fact that there are such people as the owners of the Rancho de los Tres Hermanos, who keep alive the old Spanish customs of hospitality.” It should be noted that Rowland was half-Latino through his mother, Doña María Encarnación Martinez, a native of New Mexico. Green was also praised for his management, while Francisco (Frank) Grazide, whose mother was Rowland’s sister, was also highlighted for his role in the rodeo.

Bulletin, 7 May 1922.

The account continued that,

The ranch is the property of William Rowland, Harry C. Chandler, and the Scott estate [he died in 1920 and his widow and two children were the heirs], and is one of the largest of the few remaining cattle ranches in Southern California . . . It is already one of the finest examples of Durham herds in the Southwest.

Among those attending were several well-known Pomona residents, Deputy Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, who succeeded Traeger and remains the longest-serving holder of the office at 26 years; the Sherman and Chandler families; and Revel English and his wife, who later became owners of much of what is now Chino Hills with their purebred horse ranch with the names of English Road and English Springs Park perpetuating their name in that city.

Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1923.

The 1923 edition of the annual rodeo was briefly covered in Chandler’s paper with the observation that “pioneer families from all parts of Southern California today attended” and “the affair was as picturesque as ever.” It was added that “in the morning, more than 100 cattle were rounded up and herded into the pens,” with a noontime “real Spanish barbecue” served. Of the “pioneer” names mentioned were those of Sherman, William Banning (whose father, Phineas, was the founder of Wilmington and the “Port Admiral” who was instrumental in developing the Port of Los Angeles), and James J. Mellus, who had ancestry among the Spanish-speaking Californios as well as Massachusetts-born merchants of early American-era Los Angeles.

As with all of the greater Los Angeles hill ranges and open lands, the risk of wildfire was always and remains a major threat, including one just a few months prior to the housewarming. As noted by the 4 June 1919 edition of the Bulletin, a blaze burst forth from Tres Hermanos and consumed some 500 acres of pasture and grain land with ten tons of hay destroyed, but fifty ranch hands and volunteers kept the conflagration from ranch buildings by using teams and plows to build fire breaks. There were at least three major fires in succeeding years, including two in June and September 1923 and in August 1927, with the latter starting near the club house and occurring when Mariano Oliveras was leasing the cattle operation.

Times, 30 September 1923.

Later in the 1920s, there were a couple of other interesting references located related to Tres Hermanos. The Bulletin of 9 August 1927 reported that a quintet of five persons associated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, then filming in Claremont for the movie The Fair Co-ed, a.k.a. The Varsity Girl, “enjoyed a ride through the south hills and the Diamond Bar and Rowland Cattle Company ranches.” Their jaunt included a moonlit horseback excursion through the area and it was reported that the film folk “were much impressed with the scenery and the possibilities of the place as a location for making western pictures.” Who knows if any movies were shot on location at Tres Hermanos then or later?

On the last day of 1928, the Pomona paper published a lengthy feature on the ranch with a great photo of Green and two vaqueros, Antonio and his son Angel Reyes, posed on horseback with the ranch house (said to have been made of adobe bricks) in the background. Noting that “picturesque days of frontier life on an extensive cattle ranch are not extinct,” the article observed that the Rowland Cattle Company’s 10,000 acres with some 2,000 head of cattle was “just as in the days before Southern California became ‘urbanized.'”

Bulletin, 9 August 1927.

After discussing the work of Green and the Reyeses in managing the massive holding, it was pointed out that

Eleven years ago Tom Green supervised the building of a large adobe house on one of the hills of the ranch which commands a view of unbelievable distance in every direction. To the north are the San Gabriel mountains, capped by Old Baldy. In the opposite direction are the wooded hills, covered with live-oak trees. A good sized walnut grove fills a part of the land below the house.

The spacious house, arranged so that large numbers of people can enjoy it, reminds one of an old-time California ranch house. Simplicity is the keynote of the establishment. Everything is left in as crude a state as possible. Considerable effort and thought achieved the rustic effect.

The four-sided central fireplace was highlighted as was that the dwelling had every modern amenity, including a gas range and an electric refrigerator, while “a barbecue pit is located in the dining room” and large paintings on the walls shoed “colorful bits of the past history of the owners.” One depicted an unnamed hermano operating a vegetable wagon—this likely was Chandler before he was hired by his future father-in-law Otis and the Times.

Bulletin, 31 December 1928.

The balance of the article concerned Green and his ownership of 25 acres of oranges in Walnut in addition to his 45 years of cattle ranching experience, including the branding and sale of 10,000 head of cattle owned by the Rowland Cattle Company (its namesake died two years prior) in Colorado, and his youthful vocation of driving stagecoaches in northern California and Santa Catalina Island.

With this inaugural public event completed, Authority officials and staff will evaluate how the tours went and look at future possibilities for further tours. Keep updated by checking the Authority website and let’s see what 2024 may bring!

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