By Jan Siegel
Abraham Lincoln is known for returning Mission land to the Catholic Church just days before he was assassinated. However, he should also be remembered for bringing the citrus industry to California. On July 2, 1862, Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land Grant Act, which “granted federal lands to each state to establish colleges for the teaching of agriculture and allied arts.”
Lincoln also created the U. S. Department of Agriculture Homestead Act, which “granted western land to those who would farm,” and the Pacific Railway Act, “which cleared the way for the transcontinental railway.” These federal laws gave citrus growers the means of transporting their fruit to eastern markets and allowed for the migration of people to California. They also led to the founding of the University of California. The Southern Pacific Railroad and the university worked together toward the common goal of developing agricultural goals for the state. The Southern Pacific Railroad offered greatly reduced fares to farmers who came west to attend University of California programs.
Drought and flood years, and American laws, slowly made for the disappearance of the big rancheros. With the coming of the railroad to Southern California, glowing travel brochures and the end of the Civil War, settlers began entering California in record numbers. The Homestead Act gave these new settlers an opportunity to acquire land from the ‘Californios’ who could not prove their land ownership under United States law.
Most of these new people coming into the area were farmers.
“Richard Egan bought acreage near Trabuco Creek for $1.25 per acre and settled down for farming barley, which he sold to Seely and Wright, the stage coach owners, for 50 cents a bushel. Joel Congdon planted English walnuts (between Alipaz and Del Obispo Streets), thus starting the walnut industry in Orange County. Congdon’s first yield was 6,000 pounds, which he drove by wagon to Los Angeles and sold for seven cents a pound. Walnuts continued to be one of the valley’s primary crops until the late 1930s when many groves were torn out and replaced with oranges,” according to Pam Gibson in Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano.
“The Daneris’ settled on the north side of the Trabuco-San Juan Creek and were raising a new crop, oranges, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Rosenbaum settled north of the township near the Trabuco and the Oso Creeks, and also planted oranges. By 1914, oranges became the major crop for the valley.”
During this period, cattle and sheep could still be seen grazing on the hills of the Capistrano Valley. The Forster family shipped cattle as far as San Francisco, as well as to San Diego and Los Angeles. Lewis Moulton entered the scene as a sheep herder, hiring many Basques, who themselves would become land owners in the valley. Among the early Basques was Domingo Oyharzabal who settled in San Juan Capistrano in 1878. Oyharzabal would become a major employer in the township and many of those employees went on to own their own land.
The Santa Ana Standard was a weekly newspaper that had a local reporter by the name of Dr. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton wrote in an article in May, 1891, “that (the yearly shipment from San Juan Capistrano) was 225 tons of hay, 1,000 quintals of wool, 10,000 mutton sheep, lambs, wegglers and ewes, 62 tons of English walnuts, six cars of honey, six carloads of oranges, eight carloads of corn, three tons of dried fruit, three carloads of green apples, two tons of pears, and 2,000 head of cattle and 200 head of horses.”
Pierre Lacouague immigrated to San Juan Capistrano in 1910. After several years, he was able to purchase 260 acres at the end of San Juan Creek to plant walnuts and oranges. As with most area growers, oranges replaced walnuts. Oranges were still a rare commodity for people living in the Midwest and East. Prices were much better for oranges than for walnuts and walnuts required more water and needed more pest control. On the Lacouague ranch, the last of the walnuts were removed in 1944.
After World War II, Shig Kinoshita and his brother purchased farm land near Del Obispo Street and Del Avion to grow corn, lettuce and strawberries. For 35 years, this farm was in the center of the city.
Just as Mission land led to the Rancheros, and the Rancheros leading to sheep herders, walnut and citrus farmers, the cost of maintaining the orange groves led to the planting of strawberries. Although strawberries were a profitable crop when weather and disease cooperated, they were very labor intensive to farm. While the colorful fruit grew well in our sandy soil, they did not catch on until after WWII. Japanese-American farmers found that they could grow them in small areas and make a good profit to offset the costs of raising other crops. They were also a good rotation crop. One year, the land could be used for tomatoes, the next for strawberries. The biggest year for growing strawberries in Orange County was 1968, with companies in Los Angeles that would come to San Juan Capistrano to buy strawberries, and pack and ship them to other parts of the country. Roadside stands for the strawberries grown by local farmers became a part of the landscape of San Juan Capistrano.
Both the Lacouagues and the Kinoshitas saw the writing on the wall. Their farms were being squeezed by developers who wanted to buy the land for housing projects. The way of life for the valley was changing. The Lacouagues finally sold all but five acres of their land. In 1990, the city approached the Kinoshitas to purchase their farm “as a reminder of a vanishing way of life.” In October 1990, the city purchased the 56-acre farm to be preserved as a living museum. The land included the 112-year-old Congdon farm house. Today, as the site of the Ecology Center, it preserves our farming heritage. The land is still a working farm.
The Historical Society is showcasing this very special aspect of Capistrano life in a six-month exhibit on the history of farming. You can spend a Moment in Time by visiting the O’Neill museum or by visiting the Congdon House on Del Avion.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.