The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part I: Ranches, Orchards and Laws

June 21, 2010 § 6 Comments

Claussen's Ranch on Krotona Hill, Beachwood Canyon, 1902/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Hollywood first appears on maps not as a studio town or even a farming village but as ranchland, part of the San Fernando Mission located some twenty miles northeast. Of course, its true history goes back much further, to the Indian settlements of the pre-colonial era. A few Indians remained after the territory was settled by Californios in the late 18th century, probably working the ranchos granted by the Spanish Crown.  

By 1890, Hollywood not only had its present name but a distinct identity from that of Los Angeles, five miles to the east. It was founded by Daeida and Harvey Wilcox, a prosperous Kansas couple who had suffered the loss of their infant son. In the aftermath of their tragedy, the Wilcoxes took long Sunday carriage rides in the Cahuenga Valley. Their fondness for the area’s rolling farmland and fresh breezes led them to the discovery of a 160-acre tract that they were able to buy in 1887. Development soon followed, and by 1900 the area had a population of 500. 

Early Hollywood was a village of Victorian cottages, farms, orchards and considerable charm. Daeida Wilcox apparently chose its name at random, after the country house of a woman she’d met on a cross-country train after a visit to her native Ohio. (The popular idea that Hollywood was named for California holly, or toyon, is unlikely, as the bushes grew too sparsely and remotely to have qualified as a civic symbol.)  

Unlike most rural hamlets, Hollywood was from the start a tourist haven, popular among daytrippers who could easily bicycle or ride on horseback or in traps from Los Angeles. Once in town, visitors enjoyed the hospitality of the Glen-Holly Hotel, which served a 75 cent chicken dinner. Afterwards, they could walk lovely residential streets shaded by pepper trees and bordered by citrus groves. (Although Hollywood lemons were well-regarded, Hollywood oranges were inferior and used mainly for soft drinks.) What they couldn’t do was have a drink, because alcohol was illegal in Hollywood. (When I screened “Under the Hollywood Sign” at Paramount last year, the mostly local audience erupted in hysterical laughter at this fact. But it’s all true.)  

Temperance was non-negotiable for Harvey Wilcox, a strict teetotaler whose religious beliefs set the civic tone.  Enforced morality obviously inspired Hollywood’s incorporation: the city’s first by-laws in 1903 not only prohibited drinking and the possession of spirits but the prescription of alcohol for medical reasons and the transporting of alcohol across town lines. Not only could residents not drink publicly: they couldn’t drink in their homes or own alcohol for any reason. Moreover, west-bound liquor from Los Angeles had to travel a southerly route, beyond pious Hollywood’s borders. 

Close on the heels of alcohol-related legislation came laws against gambling, prostitution, noise, speeding, oil wells, tanneries and the driving of large herds on city streets. Although Hollywood’s civic independence lasted only seven years–the town became part of Los Angeles in 1910 because of its desperate need for water–its many laws are preserved in bound volumes in the Los Angeles City Archives, providing a fascinating glimpse into a mostly forgotten history. 

Not surprisingly, Hollywood was unable to remain a dry, Protestant town. Three years after Wilcox’s death in 1891, his widow Daeida married Philo Beveridge, a very dissimilar husband with whom she had four children. The freewheeling son of a former Illinois governor, Beveridge publicly flouted the liquor laws by serving wine to his guests at the Hollywood Hotel.

Once Hollywood annexed itself to Los Angeles, of course, the matter was moot. 

Additional sources: 

Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: Southern California Through the Progressive Era. Oxford University Press, 1985. 

Gregory Paul Williams, The Story of Hollywood. BL Press, 2005.

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