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In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Spanish military governors of the California territory rewarded favored soldiers with the exclusive rights to settle and farm large tracts of land. These land grants were called ranchos, and named for their original grantees. Although rancho literally means a small ranch or camp, the grants comprised hundreds of square kilometers.
As possession of California passed from Spain to Mexico (in 1822) and then to the United States (in 1848), the original expansive ranchos were divided and subdivided into smaller parcels to accommodate political changes and the original grantees’ increasingly numerous heirs. Ghostly vestiges of the ranchos remain in the names of cities and streets throughout California.
Rancho Los Nietos was the largest of the original Spanish land grants, covering 1,200 square kilometers of what is now Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The military Governor of California awarded it in 1794 to one of his loyal corporals, Jose Manuel Nieto. By the time Nieto died in 1804, this largesse had made him the wealthiest man in California.
In 1834, Nieto’s squabbling heirs asked the Mexican Governor to officially partition Rancho Los Nietos into six new ranchos. One of them was Rancho Los Alamitos, named for the cottonwood or poplar trees (alamitos) that grew on the property. Its 340 square kilometers included what is now northern Orange County and the eastern part of Long Beach.
John and Susan Bixby acquired a 1,460-hectare parcel of Rancho Los Alamitos in 1878. Located in present-day Long Beach, it included an adobe house dating from Nieto’s time. The Bixby family developed the land into a ranch and dairy farm, and then a cattle feed lot. But the ranch wasn’t large enough to be profitable, and urbanization precluded any expansion. By the 1920s, the lucrative oil fields in nearby Signal Hill and Seal Beach had supplanted ranching as the Bixbys’ main business venture.
Over the years the Bixbys sold off pieces of their land to various developers in what became the City of Long Beach. A section of swampland along Alamitos Bay became the island of Naples.
Meanwhile John and Susan, and their son Fred, converted and expanded the old adobe into a modern ranch house. Fred Bixby made it the headquarters for a much-reduced version of Rancho Los Alamitos, which along with various other ranch holdings let Fred indulge his passion for the life of a “gentleman cowboy.”
With the guidance of leading landscape architects, including Paul Howard, Florence Yoch, and the Olmsted Brothers, Fred’s wife Florence designed the 1.6 hectares of gardens surrounding the house during the 1920s and 1930s. The gardens are notable for their tasteful restraint in an era when wealthy estate homes called for ostentatious landscaping. In addition to the traditional enclosed gardens and flowers, there are plantings of cactus, bamboo, and species native to Southern California.
By 1968, the rancho had been reduced to just over three hectares. Fred Bixby’s children decided to donate it to the City of Long Beach as a public historic site.
Today’s compact version of Rancho Los Alamitos is on a hill— not surprisingly called Bixby Hill— inside an exclusive gated community in Long Beach, next to the California State University campus. Visitors must check in at the guardhouse and receive a special pass, clearly marked as valid only for the getting to the historic site.
The rancho is still considered a “working ranch,” although the work now consists of showing visitors what the ranch was like in its heyday of 1920s and 1930s. The grounds include some of the original ranch buildings and accouterments. Clustered around the ranch house are stables, barns, and assorted vintage machinery. There’s also a petting zoo with goats, sheep, and horses, representing some of the animals that once roamed the ranch. Numerous trees shield visitors from the intrusive sight of the rancho’s modern surroundings.
Volunteer docents lead guided tours of the ranch house, furnished circa 1940 as if Fred and Florence Bixby still lived there but had perhaps gone away on vacation. (I can’t show you the inside of the house because photography is not permitted.) It’s a popular field trip destination for local elementary school children, since the fourth-grade social studies curriculum in California is devoted to state history.
The Nieto-era adobe that forms the core of the house is hidden among all the later wood additions, but some unusually thick walls give away its location within the structure. The staff have thoughtfully removed a small section of the plaster to reveal the adobe bricks.
The house is roughly U-shaped. The oldest part of the house forms the base of the U, built around the original adobe with its telltale meter-thick walls. In front of the house are two Moreton Bay fig trees that Susan Bixby planted in the 1880s. Between the arms of the U is a courtyard with a lawn and trees, and a small enclosed “secret garden.”
Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens (the official name) is one of Southern California’s low-profile hidden gems. It offers a “core sample” of California history, from prehistoric times— it was once part of the village of Povuu’ngna, a sacred place of pilgrimage for the Tongva (Gabrieliño) Indians— through the Spanish and Mexican rancho era, to the 20th century. But it’s also a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
Rancho Los Alamitos is normally open to the public Wednesday through Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5. Check their Web site before you visit, since the Rancho is occasionally closed for special events or restoration work.