Old Timers Day at the Rancho
From Issue: Volume XX - Number 13
Taking a cue from a major league baseball tradition, the press event could have been dubbed Old Timers Day at the Rancho. As part of the mid-June public opening of Rancho Los Alamitos, a group of people who had first person experience with the Rancho as a working farm was invited to meet the press with unexpected results. Think of them as a team.
Ray Rodriguez at Rancho Los Alamitos on Bixby Hill.
Rancho Director Pam Seager noted changes to the Rancho up to the late 20th Century. “From 1968 to 1980, the Rancho was city-owned. When the city took it over, it was in dilapidated condition.” Though the Rancho is still city-owned, it’s operated by the Rancho Foundation, which used mainly donated dollars to finance the current restoration.
Al Cosyns, 88-year-old son of Belgian tenant farmers “lived where Rossmoor is now” from 1922 to 1959, when he moved to Madera, where he began his own successful Cosyns Farms. In early June, he drove down to the event with berries from his almond farm and vineyard and opened his presentation with the words “I’m Fred Bixby” – an obvious reference to following in the path of the last private owner of the Rancho.
Jose Vasquez’s father worked at the Rancho for about 48 years as of 1912 making lariats, saddles and harnesses for Bixby. Up to the mid-June grand opening, only two horses and some chickens were on-site as the other animals were being temporarily housed and maintained by a high-profile volunteer who recently passed away. That problem was evidently solved as additional animals found their way to the Rancho in time for the opening.
Long Beach resident, LBCC professor of history emeritus and one-time Press-Telegram columnist Ray Rodriguez whose father worked Bixby land near and turned down an opportunity to buy a large swath of Signal Hill shared some very frank views. “Disneyland is fake; this is real.” Before the barn, which was built in 1948, “there was a bunkhouse, cattle, some buffalo and a donkey that would bray on Anaheim Street.” Recalling barbecues for friends and workers, “Mr. Bixby made a fire; we got some tortillas and he would burn meat on front yard.”
When Rodriguez was 10-years-old, he was in the Bixby orchards on the road to the south when Mrs. Bixby pulled up in her Cadillac being driven by her chauffeur Jose Cisneros. She asked, “are you Jose Rodriguez’s son?” “Yes ma’am.” Rodriguez thought he was going to be arrested. She told him “that’s okay for you to pick fruit or berries, help yourself. Just don’t damage the trees.” The adventure was over; he never came back.
Rodriguez recalled Florence Bixby dressed only in black, Toni Castillo, who lived on Palo Verde Avenue with her ranch-hand father and family and herself worked for Mrs. Bixby at the Rancho insisted, “she wore lighter colors when she would walk the hill toward Anaheim Street.”
Castillo, at the rancho since age five, told the story of the house, “what objects were there and how they worked,” said Director of Special Projects and Publications Claudia Jurmain, who also noted that surviving Japanese and Chinese who worked at the Rancho were less amenable to being part of this historical presentation.
These current memories fueled the history-filled Rancho Center, which provides any visitor the opportunity to view and read real snapshots of Bixby and Rancho history, accented by “old manila pages of a ledger we found,” said Jurmain. “We blew up sheets for each panel of the time-line. It’s a bit of a diary. It’s the story of California and was still operating while the area was being developed.
Jurmain went on to assert, “Unlike the rest of California, with the ledger, we know the names of the people” who lived and worked at the Rancho. “In 1850, 33 of 38 people on the Rancho were Native American. Not all the stories are encouraging,” said Jurmain.
”When indentured servitude was legal, Bixby was quoted as saying he wished he could go to L.A. to buy two Indians…”
Project Architect Stephen Farneth’s job since 1986 was to “protect and restore the character of the barnyard area and character of a working ranch,“ an important part of which is the blacksmith shop. Steve Christensen, who has been the Rancho blacksmith since 2005 continues to produce metal and wood artifacts which complement the character of the Rancho as well as giving demonstrations to visiting school children, one of which just might decide to follow his career path.
As phrased by Rancho Designer Bill Wells, “At the Rancho, the site is the artifact.” He recalled, “the temptation was to place new or design elements in the yard, like a pyramid or kinetic objects, but that idea was rejected. The approach became ‘What would Fred do?’”