James Irvine was a pioneer of California agriculture who built his family’s Southern California ranch into one of the state’s earliest, most productive large-scale agricultural enterprises.
After inheriting the vast ranch in 1886, Mr. Irvine brought most of its 110,000 acres under cultivation, introducing myriad crops, including grains, vegetables, and citrus. He had a keen business sense, and many credited his success to his practice of heavily reinvesting his ranch’s earnings back into his enterprise. Later, it would be this same belief in reinvestment that would spur his interest in philanthropy.
Mr. Irvine decided to establish a foundation that would promote the general well-being of the citizens and residents of the state of California.
The James Irvine Foundation was created in 1937 as the primary stockholder of The Irvine Company, which in turn held Mr. Irvine’s most valuable asset: his 110,000 acres of prime ranch and agricultural land — almost a third of present-day Orange County.
The new Foundation made its first grant in 1938 for $1,000. By the time of James Irvine’s death in 1947, the Foundation had distributed $30,950, primarily to educational, cultural, health care, and community-service organizations. After his death, the Foundation began receiving the full proceeds from Mr. Irvine’s stockholdings, which greatly increased its grantmaking.
The growth of Southern California during the 1940s and 1950s changed the nature of Mr. Irvine’s investments — and increased their value. New residents poured into the state, moving into sprawling cities built upon prime agricultural land. The Irvine Company, located in one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, increasingly felt pressure to open its holdings to real estate development.
In contrast to the unplanned sprawl nearby, The Irvine Company’s more deliberate approach to community planning ensured a wide range of uses, including higher education and agriculture. (The company provided the initial land for the University of California, Irvine campus.) Just as the ranch had become known for adopting new agricultural techniques, the real estate company became known for its large-scale planned communities.
In 1977, the Irvine Foundation was forced to sell its share in the company to comply with new federal legislation. When James Irvine died in 1947, his bequest to the Foundation was valued at $5.6 million. Thirty years later, when the Foundation sold its share of The Irvine Company, its value had grown to $184 million. Today, the Foundation’s assets are fully diversified and stand at about $2 billion.
In 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.
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.
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.
Myford Irvine 1937–1959 (Chair 1937–1959)
Katharine Irvine 1937–1950
N. Loyall McLaren 1937–1977 (Chair 1959–1976)
A. J. McFadden 1937–1975
James G. Scarborough 1937–1968
Paul A. Dinsmore 1937–1950
W. H. Spaulding 1937–1944
Robert H. Gerdes 1944–1982
Kathryn L. Wheeler 1950–1997 (Honorary Director 1998–2003)
W. B. Hellis 1950–1958
James H. Metzgar 1958–1979
Edward W. Carter 1959–1989
John V. Newman 1963–1988 (Vice Chair 1983–1988)
Mark R. Sullivan 1963–1970
Morris M. Doyle 1965–1989 (Chair 1976–1989)
John A. Murdy Jr. 1965–1973
John S. Fluor 1968–1974
Rudolph A. Peterson 1971–1982
Stanton G. Hale 1974–1976
J. Robert Fluor 1977–1984
Camilla C. Frost 1978–1999
Roger W. Heyns 1978–1994 (Vice Chair 1988–1994)
Virginia B. Duncan 1978–1991
Walter B. Gerken 1980–1995
Myron Du Bain 1982–1996 (Chair 1989–1996)
Samuel H. Armacost 1982–2004
Forrest N. Shumway 1985–2000
Edward Zapanta, M.D. 1988–2001
Donn B. Miller 1989–2000 (Vice Chair 1994–2000)
Joan F. Lane 1990–2001
James C. Gaither 1991–2003 (Chair 1997–2003)
Angela Glover Blackwell 1991–1994
Dennis A. Collins 1994–2002
Blenda J. Wilson 1995–1999
Patricia S. Pineda 1995–2006 (Vice Chair 2006)
Peter W. Stanley 1997–2006 (Chair 2003–2005)
Toby Rosenblatt 1996–2008 (Vice Chair 2007–2008)
Gary B. Pruitt 1999–2009 (Chair 2006–2009)
Peter J. Taylor 2000–2012 (Chair 2010–2012)
Cheryl White Mason 2000–2003
Mary G. F. Bitterman 2002–2003
Molly Munger 2002-2013
Jim Canales 2003-2013
Frank Cruz 2002–2014
David Mas Masumoto 2002–2014
Samuel Hoi 2011–2014See current Board of Directors
The James Irvine Foundation was founded 75 years ago in 1937 with the broad mandate to “benefit the people of California.” The Foundation celebrates this anniversary in 2012 with an interactive timeline that spotlights historic moments in the Foundation’s history, as well as prominent achievements of our grantees. We also commissioned a series of blog posts from California experts that describe the state’s unique challenges and opportunities. They offer some very compelling ideas, and we encourage you to read the posts and let us know your thoughts in the comment boxes below the blogs.