Third Century of the Rancho Los Alamitos
From Issue: Volume XX - Number 7
In March 1933, a 6.4 earthquake that struck Long Beach destroyed many buildings and caused the deaths of 120 people due to being hit by falling objects. In the area of the Rancho Los Alami-tos about 10 miles to the east of downtown Long Beach, many farm worker families who lived on what is now Palo Verde Avenue at the current site of Cal State Long Beach sought refuge at the Rancho home of Fred Bixby.
It was that kind of universe at the time. However, in the span of 20 years, with the university in the development stage, the ranch home that dominated the landscape since the 1840s remained firmly in place and has since become among the most historic set of buildings in the greater Long Beach area.
According to rancho historian Claudia Jurmain, the original land grant of 300,000 acres was given by the governor of Alta California to Manuel Nieto in 1790 for his service in the Portola ex-pedition.
In 1833, his children received permission to subdivide it into the five great ranchos, two of which, Rancho Los Cerritos near Virginia Country Club and Rancho Los Alamitos are now historic sites owned by the City of Long Beach.
The rancho was acquired in the late 1800s by John Bixby, who turned its 85,000 acres into a working farm and was owned by the Bixby family until it became part of an historic acquisition by the City of Long Beach in 1968.
Since then, volunteers - now over 150 strong - maintain the property, involve the community in events and education and constantly seek out funding sources of improvements.
In late March, Jurmain gave a presentation about the project that re-aligned major outbuildings to better match the original layout than the tighter grouping of buildings that had prevailed since 1968. The new look is more spread out in a way that is faithful to the original look, which Jurmain noted allowed “the site to maintain its integrity” and “lets the site speak for itself.”
Frequent past visitors might very well recognize this expansion, changes and significant alterations, beginning with the 10,455 square-foot Rancho education center which doubles as a welcoming space wall peppered with photos, documents and first-person vignettes drawn from 130 oral histories ranging from 1890 to 1930 and as administrative offices. An adjacent 980-square-foot building will house the bookstore, project room and gift shop, the latter relocated from the education center.
The original five ranchos portrayed by an impressive and artistic map displayed on the floor of the education center brings all of this into the 21st century. According to Jurmain, exhi-bition designer “William Wells can do maps like nobody can do maps.”
Though the livestock has yet to report for duty – they’ll be on site by early April – the land definitely takes a visitor back to a different time and slower lifestyle. Though the big red barn was destroyed by fire in 1947, a large feed shed dominates. The plan is for it to house two large horses, four or five sheep, the same number of goats, as well as a volunteer black-smith on duty.
Located in the heart of Bixby Village’s 360 houses and 110 condos, the main house, which began as four rooms in about 1840 is available for tours. When the Bixby family donated the site to the city, they took many of their possessions with them, but over the years, persuaded by how the site has been maintained, have returned many of these household and artistic objects to complete the interior. Some of these items carry compelling stories such as the billiard table that was donated to the YMCA, only to have it refused and placed inside a parlor, the furniture of which had to be moved to an adjacent room.
In keeping with the times, the interior lighting is dim in the various rooms. Books and original paintings of a variety of schools are on display. A handful of these paintings are care-fully crafted reproductions and some are original.
It’s clear the volunteers are involved in very personal ways and have a depth of stories about the rancho before and after the current alterations. One story has to do with seismic rein-forcement. Seems the city inspector insisted on a rigid wall, about which the staff had doubts. When that inspector retired, plans for a more forgiving system, similar to what’s used in the new 911 center was proposed and quickly accepted by the city.
Prior to its public grand opening on June 10, the rancho will host a notable presentation, “Rancho Los Alamitos, A View Of America From California” with speakers Marc Pachter and Kevin Starr, famed author of several respected works on recent California history. The 1:30 to 4 p.m. event is free, but space is admission is limited to first-come, first-served.
For groups wishing to book events, the Rancho center holds 213 occupants. The entire cost of the renovation was $8.5 million, which was privately raised with the exception of a state grant in the amount of $1.5 million toward the restoration of the historic structures.
Located at 6400 Bixby Hill Rd., the Rancho Los Alamitos is open to the public free of charge, Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. with school tours and cultural workshops scheduled for weekday mornings.
Photo caption: RANCHO — The newly completed barns area restoration is based on the 1948 aerial photo which shows the original location of the surviving five early 20th century ranch barns still on site. These include the stallion barn, blacksmith shop, cow barn, a portion of the original feed shed and the 1948 horse barn which is now part of the new Rancho Center opening in June 2012.