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A Scary Abundance of Water 

Part 2

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
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Los Angeles River, west
Valley, circa 1955 (top) and
the same location today.


In 1911, a huge public auction of farm machinery and implements marked the end of the 40-year reign of King Wheat in the Valley. Four years later, William Mulholland's water surged through a network of steel and cast-iron pipe, and the Valley changed swiftly and radically. Immense reaches of dry-land farm suddenly became a bocage landscape: small-scale, mixed truck and garden crops, alfalfa fields, walnut and avocado groves, and citrus, apricot and peach orchards. (To avail themselves of Los Angeles' Owens Valley water, Valley residents had to agree to annexation, most of which took place on May 4, 1915.)

By 1917, with its irrigation system completely in place, the Valley had become a nearly contiguous expanse of small (2-to-3-acre) rural lots centered on farm towns -- Marian (soon to be renamed Reseda), Owensmouth (Canoga Park), Zelzah (Northridge), Girard (Woodland Hills) -- and somewhat larger, outlying farmsteads, these demarcated by windbreaks of Lombardy poplar or Italian cypress and by "eucalyptus alleys," one-track farm maintenance roads bounded by rows of blue gums.

The lands that would one day be called Reseda began their modern history as part of the first Rancho del encino (1787). They were then included in Eulogio de Celis' post-secularization purchase of 121,542 acres from the Mexican government in 1846, his Rancho de la antigua misión San Fernando. In 1869, de Celis and his partners, the Pico brothers Pío and Andreas, sold most of the Valley south of present-day Roscoe Boulevard to a group of San Francisco­area investors, among them Isaac Lankershim and his son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys. The syndicate managed its 59,000-acre property under a variety of plans (and titles), the last of which was a series of six ranches operating as the Los Angeles Farm and Milling Co. (One, Patton Ranch, approximated the future site of Reseda.) Anticipating the bounty of water soon to come, LAF&M sold its holdings in 1910 to the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co., which immediately began to subdivide. With similar subdivision going on in the north Valley, nearly 100,000 acres -- two-thirds of the Valley -- was in real estate development that year.

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By the time the first pipe load of Sierra water arrived, Reseda had been a town site for three decades. Along with Van Nuys, it had established itself as a poultry-raising center. Its outer lands were mostly in sugar beets and other field crops -- lima beans, lettuce, spinach, melons, squash, carrots -- and alfalfa, grown to fodder dairy cattle and for chicken feed.

When my family arrived, Reseda was still about this kind of farming, though by 1948 it was rapidly coming to a close. The population of Reseda in 1930 was 1,805. In 1940, 4,147. By 1950 it had topped 16,000 -- but the Ventura Freeway lay 10 years in the future, and like many other Reseda residents, my family still bought most of its fresh eggs, milk, honey and vegetables at stands along Ventura Boulevard. The name "Reseda" was given first to a siding on a branch of the Southern Pacific in the south Valley. In 1905, after Edgar Rice Burroughs bought 550 acres near the intersection of Reseda and Ventura boulevards and named it Tarzana (after his famous fictional character), Reseda came to refer more directly to an area farther north. About 1920, Reseda -- after a fragrant North African yellow-dye plant, Reseda odorata -- replaced Marian as a designation for a stop on the Pacific Electric interurban railway running along Sherman Way. (Marian was the daughter of Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, a director of the L.A. Suburban Homes Co. syndicate.)

I recall an evening in 1952 when Mother drove my ã brother and me over to Pacific Palisades to have dinner with Sidney and Grace. I spent some of that time in Sidney's workshop, watching him fashion aluminum struts for a model-railroad bridge. (It would turn up later under our Christmas tree, part of a large train layout he built and painted for me.) Crossing back over the mountains that night in our '32 Ford coupe, Mother had me hold a flashlight beam on the shoulder of the road to guide her, there being no money in the budget for new headlamps then. With the car beams out and little traffic coming up the hill toward us, we could see the grid of the Valley's lights clearly, and dark patches to the north where farm-style houses still occupied small holdings -- the last remnant of working land, of Old Valley life.

Los Angeles County was the most productive agricultural county in the United States in 1950. By 1955, its agriculture had become largely vestigial. Faced with one of the most astonishing phases of urban development in modern history, commercial agriculture in the San Fernando Valley came and went in a span of 45 years (1915­60). In 1915, about 3,000 of the Valley's 155,000 acres were irrigated; by 1920, according to one estimate, it was 50,000 acres. The number of irrigated farms peaked in 1937 and then began to decline, decreasing not through consolidation but by elimination. Between 1940 and 1958, an average of 2,500 acres per year went out of agricultural production.

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