In March 1933, a 6.4 earthquake that struck Long Beach destroyed many buildings and caused the deaths of 120 people from being hit by falling objects. In the area of the Rancho Los Alamitos about 10 miles to the east of downtown Long Beach, many farm worker families who lived on what is now Palo Verde Avenue at the current site of Cal State Long Beach sought refuge at the Rancho home of Fred Bixby.
It was that kind of universe at the time. However, in the span of twenty years, with the university in the development stage, the ranch home that dominated the landscape since the 1840s remained firmly in place and has since become among the most historic set of buildings in the greater Long Beach area.
According to rancho historian Claudia Jurmain, the original land grant of 300,000 acres was given by the governor of Alta California to Manuel Nieto in 1790 for his service in the Portola expedition.
In 1833, his children received permission to subdivide it into the five great ranchos, two of which, Rancho Los Cerritos near Virginia Country Club and Rancho Los Alamitos are now historic sites owned by the City Of Long Beach.
The rancho was acquired in the late 1800s by John Bixby, who turned its 85,000 acres into a working farm and was owned by the Bixby family until it became part of an historic acquisition by the City Of Long Beach in 1968.
Since then, volunteers, now over 150 strong maintain the property, involve the community in events and education and constantly seek out funding sources of improvements.
In late March, Jurmain gave a presentation about the project that re-aligned major outbuildings to better match the original layout than the tighter grouping of buildings that had prevailed since 1968. The new look is more spread out in a way that is faithful to the original look, which Jurmain noted allowed “the site to maintain its integrity” and “lets the site speak for itself.”
Frequent past visitors might very well recognize this expansion, changes and significant alterations, beginning with the 10,455 square feet Rancho education center which doubles as a welcoming space wall peppered with photos, documents and first-person vignettes drawn from 130 oral histories ranging from 1890 to 1930 and as administrative offices. An adjacent 980 square feet building will house the bookstore, project room and gift shop, the latter relocated from the education center.
Though the livestock has yet to report for duty – they’ll be on site by early April – the land definitely takes a visitor back to a different time and slower lifestyle. Though the big red barn was destroyed by fire in 1947, a large feed shed dominates. The plan is for it to house two large horses, four or five sheep, the same number of goats as well as a volunteer blacksmith on duty.
Located in the heart of Bixby Village’s 360 houses and 110 condos, the main house, which began as four rooms in about 1840 is available for tours. When the Bixby family donated the site to the city, they took many of their possessions with them, but over the years, persuaded by how the site has been maintained, have returned many of these household and artistic objects to complete the interior. Some of these items carry compelling stories such as the billiard table that was donated to the YMCA, only to have it refused and placed inside a parlor, the furniture of which had to be moved to adjacent room.
In keeping with the times, the interior lighting is dim in the various rooms. Books and original paintings of a variety of schools are on display. A handful of these paintings are carefully crafted reproductions and some are original.
It’s clear the volunteers are involved in very personal ways and have a depth of stories about the rancho before and after the current alterations. One story has to do with seismic reinforcement. Seems the city inspector insisted on a rigid wall, about which the staff had doubts. When that inspector retired, plans for a more forgiving system, similar to what’s used in the new 911 center was proposed and quickly accepted by the city.
Located at 6400 Bixby Hill Road, the Rancho Los Alamitos is open to the public free of charge, Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. with school tours and cultural workshops scheduled for weekday mornings.