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The Irvine Ranch Print E-mail

Irvine RanchIn 1849, people from all walks of life swarmed into California's hills to pursue their dreams during the California Gold Rush. Known as “49ers,” farmers left fields unplanted and carpenters abandoned half-finished houses to trek across the continent in search of gold — expecting to remain in California only a few years and return East richer yet unchanged.

One 49er who followed his dream to California — and became enchanted by its landscape — was James Irvine's father, James Irvine Sr. Like many Americans, he was an immigrant. Born in Ireland as the eighth of nine children, he crossed the Atlantic to New York in 1846 at age 19. He later wrote: "I tell you a boy cast upon the world with not a dollar in his pocket … is in a position to appreciate the value of a helping hand."

Investing in Land

Once in California he worked as a merchant and a miner, doing well enough that by 1854 he bought an interest in a produce and grocery business in San Francisco. During those years, gold helped to bring statehood to California and attracted thousands upon thousands of new residents. These newcomers needed produce, and Mr. Irvine profited. But more than anything else, Mr. Irvine was attracted to the land. As soon as he could, he began investing in property.

In addition to purchasing real estate in Northern California, Mr. Irvine joined several partners in purchasing three major Spanish-Mexican land grants south of Los Angeles. By the time he died in 1886, the state was more settled. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, for example, had reached Los Angeles. Mr. Irvine left his son, James Jr., a valuable legacy in Southern California: about 110,000 acres of prime ranch land — almost a third of present-day Orange County.

Agricultural Pioneer

Following in his father's footsteps, James Irvine saw promise in land. During his father's life, the Irvine Rancho San Joaquin, had been used primarily for raising sheep. James Irvine saw in the grass- and cactus-covered land a vast opportunity for cultivation. He became one of the state’s first major agricultural “growers,” a term he and others preferred over “farmers” because of the enormous scale of their enterprises.

In believing in the fertility of the land and experimenting with new methods of cultivation, James Irvine took huge risks. As his granddaughter, Kathryn Wheeler, later said, "He built it from sagebrush. Sheep and cattle were sold for their hides to complete diversified farming. He drilled water wells and a canal and had practically every field crop that was possible. For Grandpa, his work was his love. It was his creation. It was what he thought about all the time — breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In 1898, he incorporated the ranch holdings under The Irvine Company. By 1910, the Irvine Ranch was recognized as the state's most productive farm and its largest producer of beans and barley. In 1930, the ranch's crops ranged from beans to oranges, cauliflower to grapes and barley to papayas, making it a forerunner of the state's large-scale agricultural operations.