By Diane Welch

Helen Hunt Jackson’s blockbuster novel, Ramona, published in 1884, helped solidify the nation’s picture of California as a romantic territory characterized as the land of idyllic ranchos overseen by dashing Dons. This impression with its storied past would become the poster child for the railroad’s successful marketing campaigns as tracks of steel pushed ever westward and East Coast immigrants were courted to settle in California. Purchasing former Mexican land grants, the railroad companies – through their real estate subsidiaries – developed California.

It was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company which purchased the almost 9,000 acres of former land grant, Rancho San Dieguito, for $100,000, according to archives in the Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society. Once owned by the patriarch of the Osunas, Don Juan Maria Osuna – the former first alcade or mayor of San Diego – the rancho had been sold off in sections over the years following his death in 1851. At its peak the ranch raised livestock, sheep and, most importantly, horses. Osuna’s widow, Juliana, who died in 1871, left her daughter Felipa to oversee the ranch. By 1906, six individuals were listed as owning the land grant acres.

That year, the railroad purchased the entire former land grant through its real estate subsidiary, the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company. The commonly held theory, that the land was used for a costly failed experiment planting 3 million eucalyptus seedlings, ostensibly for railroad ties, seems unlikely. More feasible is that the trees were planted as part of an investment scheme – reselling the fast growing lumber for profit– that was taking the country by storm in the turn of the century, as reported in contemporaneous news articles.

Railroad Vice President W. E. Hodges accepted San Diego developer Ed Fletcher’s help, who initiated a temporary solution to help recoup some of the railroad’s financial losses. He had several of the groves cleared, leasing the land to farmers, several of them Japanese, who successfully cultivated tomatoes, beets, grain and beans. Bored wells provided irrigation, and the agricultural scene faired much better than the eucalyptus groves.

However, Hodges understood the value of the land and a plan soon emerged to build a dam, providing the catalyst to create a high-class community. Hodges Dam, officially opened in 1918, as memorialized on its dedication plaque. Within three years Leone George Sinnard, a former colonization expert with Southern Pacific Railroad, was hired to design, develop, and sell subdivided acreage in the newly irrigated lands of the renamed Rancho Santa Fe.

Construction began in the village in 1922. Known then as the Civic Center, the scene there was one of industry, dominated by laborers, contractors and project managers. A master plan creating the ambiance of a Spanish village – with a mixed-use residential and commercial purpose – surrounded by large Mediterranean-type estates with dedicated land for mostly citrus groves, formed the blueprint for the restricted community. The firm of Requa and Jackson was commissioned as project architect, with its design and implementation becoming the responsibility of their junior partner, Lilian J. Rice, as noted by author and architectural historian David Gebhart.

Several buildings were completed by 1923 – first La Morada, the guest house, (now The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe), followed by the commercial block (now housing businesses on Paseo Delicias), and then just east of there the garage block with its quaint wishing well gasoline pump. With an aggressive marketing campaign and comfortable accommodations offered by La Morada, people soon arrived on the Ranch to purchase lots.

The Nelson family, headed up by Sidney Nelson, hired as Sinnard’s assistant, arrived that same year. The family occupied one of the roughhouses in Paseo Delicias in 1926. A year later, when Sinnard’s health failed, Nelson took over as project manager, overseeing sales and the running of the guesthouse. His wife, Ruth, was an avid local historian and penned the early records of the Ranch as it emerged into a lively social community.

With the building of the three-room school on the north side of Paseo Delicias, Mrs. Fidero, Sidney Nelson and resident architect Lilian Rice were appointed as trustees, wrote Ruth Nelson. With the forming of the PTA, the first social group in the Ranch emerged. Supper parties, dances, concerts and flower exhibits were organized. An interest in horticulture, fostered by Dr. A. R. Sprague who created an orchid variety of Gladiolus, led to the formation of the Garden Club. Ruth Nelson was one of the charter members. Other social groups soon followed, the Bowlers and the Supper Club, Los Ancianos, the Book Club, and the Boy Scouts, to name a few. In 1927, the golf course, designed by Max Behr, became a reality, the same year that articles of incorporation were signed for the formation of the Rancho Santa Fe Association.

A year later, the S.F.L.I. Company pulled away from its obligations to the homeowners in the Ranch and the Association began its role to oversee adherence to the property restrictions and to facilitate self-government. Sidney Nelson, Briggs C. Keck, Marton Millard, Ranald Macdonald and Arthur H. Barlow were its founding stewards. One of the early responsibilities was the operation of the golf course, which became official with the filing of its articles of incorporation as the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club in 1928. This was also the year that the Protective Covenant was adopted, originally drawn up by planner Charles H. Cheney, who was modeling word for word the Covenant of Palos Verdes. Writer John Steven McGroarty called the Ranch a “Masterpiece Community” and referred to it as “the Endless Miracle” in his carefully worded publicity documents.

The first newspaper for the Ranch shared that moniker. Landscape architect, Glenn A. Moore, wrote of his projects in the publication as did resident architect Lilian J. Rice who was also on the first Art Jury, keeping homeowners informed as neighbors moved in and built their dream homes.

The Great Depression of 1929 brought about a period of uncertainty and several owners walked away from property they could no longer afford. A Pasadena-based syndicate, which had purchased the remaining acreage in the Ranch, plus the land west to Solana Beach, known then as the Whitney Land, defaulted. The land reverted back to the S.F.L.I. company a year later and further development was halted until after World War II.

As the postwar years pumped new life into development projects, the Ranch once again witnessed growth. In 1945 the Riding Club was formed, in the 1950s the Country Friends was founded and the First Church of Christian Science completed, as was the Village Community Presbyterian Church. In the 1960s the Library Guild was formed to raise funds for a permanent facility for the community library, which opened on Avenida de Acacias in 1968.


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