While Orange County today may be more closely associated with upscale shopping experiences at Fashion Island and Irvine Spectrum, until relatively recently, its massive citrus industry once earned it the nickname of the "Orange Empire."
And that's a feather in the cap of The Irvine Company, whose master plan subsequently transformed the largely agricultural land into sought-after residential developments and commercial districts, as well as open space.
So, to understand Orange County today, you've got to travel back in time to the 19th century.
The Irvine Company was incorporated in 1894, a year after James Irvine, Jr. shifted the focus of its holdings—then known as The Irvine Ranch—from sheep grazing to citrus orchards.
Irvine had inherited the ranch property from his father, James Irvine Sr., an Irish-born immigrant who'd come to California chasing gold. Instead, in 1864, he managed to acquire something far more valuable: land.
In 1864, Irvine—along with Llewellyn Bixby (of today's Bixby Land Company, and Bixby Knolls) and his cousins Thomas and Benjamin Flint—bought the former Rancho San Joaquin from Don José Andrés Sepulveda, who was severely in debt at the time and needed the money.
After making several smaller acquisitions (including Rancho Lomas de Santiago) and adding adjoining tracts, the land holdings totaled a staggering 125,000 acres. In 1878, Irvine bought his partners out.
When Irvine died in 1886, James II inherited the ranch that stretched from the Santa Ana River all the way out to the ocean.
And when the Irvine heir took over and incorporated The Irvine Company, he started making some big changes—and so began the construction of the great empire of oranges.
The key to the Irvine family's agricultural success was the approach of dryland farming, which conserved water resources for farming in an arid climate by maximizing rainfall (while keeping flash floods from washing away crops) and minimizing irrigation.
That helped The Irvine Ranch become one of California's first major agricultural “growers”—and one of the state’s earliest and most productive agricultural enterprises, whose headquarters could be found in "The Early Office" of the ranch from 1891 until 1929.
If you drive through Irvine today, you won't see the sheep and cattle that once dotted the hillsides. You'd have a hard time finding any citrus orchards or any orange crates. But if you go a little out of your way to explore Irvine Ranch Historical Park, you'll find a little of what's left.
A red behemoth at 54 feet by 120 feet, the turn-of-the-last-century Driving Barn once housed various carriages and automobiles.
Later on, it's where you could find the farm machinery and equipment, like tractors and a lima bean windrower.
Also in the park, the former Irvine family residence now serves as the now Katie Wheeler Library. (More on Katie Wheeler in a minute.)
"The Ranch House" was originally built in 1876 by former Irvine Ranch manager C.E. French. When James II moved into the ranch house full-time in 1906, after fleeing San Francisco in the wake of the devastating earthquake and fires, he doubled the size, ending up with a total of 30 rooms.
The library version of the house is a reproduction, as the original was damaged by electrical fire in 1965 and demolished three years later. Although it was rebuilt using its original blueprints (although just an inch off of the original footprint), the family rooms and other living spaces inside are no more. They've been replaced by bookshelves and other, you know, library things.
Some other vestiges of Irvine family life on the ranch are visible, like the old outdoor lights for where the tennis court used to be...
...and the swimming pool.
Originally installed in 1931, it's now fenced off.
In fact, the pool and pool house are hidden so well that you might not even know they were there...
... unless you caught a glimpse of them from the top-floor window of the former ranch house / library.
But the important thing to understand about Irvine Ranch was that it wasn't just the home to the Irvine family. In fact, its citrus-growing enterprise became so big that the sprawling ranch evolved into a company town—where workers of all ranks relocated their own families to their job site.
From Superintendent Charles F. Krauss (the brother-in-law of James II) to the foremen of the orchards, the bean and alfalfa fields, and the cattle and sheep herds, each family had their own cottage or bungalows.
The first of those along Foremen's Row on Irvine Boulevard (a four-mile road that once led to the Tustin City stagecoach stop, now Old Irvine Boulevard) were built 1906...
...and have been restored to their original condition (and very nicely landscaped).
The bungalows that were added across the street in 1935, however, have been better days.
From the largest (at 1500 square feet)...
...to the smallest (at 1200 square feet), those still await a fresh coat of paint and some TLC from OC Parks, which now maintains the property.
The success of The Irvine Ranch (and Company), of course, wasn't just due to a bunch of savvy executives and their supportive wives and children. We can't forget about all those laborers who worked for those administrators and foremen—so many, in fact, that in 1917, the ranch's Craftsman-style mule corral (built just 11 years prior) had to be turned into bunkhouse to house the men, two to three per room.
They showered together...
...and they ate together in the circa 1906 Colonial Revival-style Mess Hall.
Although this was the only dining facility for the entire ranch (after, for privacy reasons, the Irvines no longer wanted workers grabbing their lunch out of the kitchen in their family home), there were actually two dining rooms in the Mess Hall: one for workers and the other for foremen.
And even more workers lived upstairs, among the melons that were being used to breed parasitic wasps in a makeshift insectary.
They say the ranch—or, at least, the ranch house—is haunted, but not by some disgruntled former worker or sharecropper who died in a tragic accident.
It might be Kathryn Irvine, who died of pneumonia in the house in 1920. Her daughter Katie, granddaughter to James II, is the namesake of the library and was born and raised in the ranch house.
It also very well may be Kathryn's brother Myford (called "Mike" by the family), who succumbed to three gunshot wounds in the basement of the ranch house in 1959. (Much of the City of Irvine today was formerly known as Myford.)
Myford had taken the reins after his father's unexpected death on a fishing trip in 1947, but only because he was the last surviving adult male of the Irvine family. His older brother, James III—"Jase"—had been destined to take over, but died of tuberculosis in 1935.
But it was later ruled a suicide—twice. And after Myford's passing, his niece (and Jase's daughter), Joan Irvine Smith, took over the company, seizing control over one of the richest families in Southern California.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from some of the developments and donated lands that the Irvine family have left behind.
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