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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Battle for Beverly Hills

A City's Independence and the Birth of Celebrity Politics

Nancie Clare

St. Martin's Press

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Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas and the Invention of Beverly Hills


The Beverly Hills where Douglas Fairbanks bought his first house in 1919—a hunting lodge that lacked water and electricity where he could have his secret assignations with Mary Pickford—was not too far removed from the days when the area was the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas. Although the land Beverly Hills occupies had been part of the vast stretch of western North America claimed by Spain in the early sixteenth century, it wasn’t until 1769 that an official exploration party, led by Gaspar de Portola on behalf of the king of Spain, traveled there. It’s with the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas land grant, awarded to Vicente Valdez for his service to Mexico in its war of independence against Spain, that the history of Beverly Hills really begins.

Present-day Californians tend to view the Rancho Period—the time between Mexican Independence from Spain in 1822 and California’s admission to the United States in 1850—with a romanticized nostalgia. The reality of California’s Rancho Period, however, was certainly much harsher for its denizens. They were probably not, as Pierce Benedict, scion of one of the city’s founding families, wrote in his 1934 history, “a people prosperous and carefree, browned by the bland sunshine with nothing more urgent than watching the clouds shift patterns,”1 or what present-day festivals around the state celebrate as a time of endless barbecues, dances, and mariachi music. In fact, considering Mexico’s enormous political instability at the time, the California Rancho Period of Alta California didn’t stand a chance of sustained existence. The wheels had started to come off the bus of Mexico’s expanded country almost immediately after its independence from Spain. First Texas broke away, was briefly an independent republic recognized by the United States, France, and England, and then, in 1845, subsequently joined the United States. Even before gold was discovered in 1848, Alta California was in play as well. The United States made the first move on Mexican California in 1845, when the U.S.-commissioned explorer John C. Frémont and a group of armed men under his command assisted in the “Bear Flag Revolt” in Sonoma, helping local U.S. immigrants in Alta California take the same tack Texas had by declaring California a republic. Pretty much all that is left of that endeavor is the state flag, which features a California grizzly bear and the words “California Republic.”

What the actions of Texas and Alta California in the 1840s made clear, though, was that Mexico in the post–New Spain era was wobbly. With pressure coming from Texas in the east and California to the north, it was only a matter of time before Mexico really started to break apart. And that time came in 1846 with the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. When the war ended in 1848, Mexico had lost about half of its territory, including what is now the state of California as well as New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and western Colorado. So much of history is timing, and although the Mexican-American War was the first military action in which the United States utilized the new technology of the telegraph, with news from the front arriving within days and sometimes hours of events,2 communication in the mountains of California still depended on men traveling to cities and towns by horse or on foot. The ramifications of this disconnect could not be more profound in terms of what Mexico gave up to put a stop to the war. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and defined the new border between the United States and Mexico in the region of California as a straight line from the mouth of Gila River to one marine mile south of the port of San Diego, was signed on February 2, 1848, in Mexico City. Nine days earlier, on January 24, 1848, James Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains—a discovery that would not be reported in any newspaper until late in March of the same year.

With the dual benefits of a port on the Pacific and gold in the mountains, there was no “territory status” interregnum for California after the end of the Mexican-American War. By 1850 statehood was signed, sealed, and delivered. (By contrast, California’s neighbor Arizona remained a territory and would not become a state until 1912.)

Some of Spain’s common practices had carried over after Mexican independence, though, including granting huge swaths of land to friends, relatives, and political allies in Alta California. That included Sergeant Vicente Villa, who had fought for Mexico in its war of independence from Spain. Villa, who had come to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels) as a six-year-old boy, eventually married Maria Rita Valdez, the daughter of Sebastiana and Eugenio Valdez, who had come to Los Angeles in about 1771, in one of the earliest group of emigrants from Mexico to Los Angeles. By most reports, Maria Valdez and Vicente Villa were married in 1808. As for how in the late 1830s Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas wended its way to Señora Valdez Villa, in the original typewritten draft of an article published in Holiday magazine in October 1952, Irving Stone wrote: “Sergeant Villa was given the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas as a pension when he was invalided out of the army.”3 Upon his death in the 1830s, the land eventually became Maria Valdez Villa’s.

The procedure to secure the title to a land grant was straightforward, but also cumbersome and time-consuming; it could take several years to complete the process. A parcel of uninhabited land was identified and a petition accompanied by a rude map was submitted. Once he received it, the governor of Alta California—in the case of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas it was Juan Bautista Alvarado—would send the petition to the local alcalde, the municipal magistrate, who investigated the individuals involved and checked records to make sure there were no previous claims on the same parcel. Once the alcalde signed off, the governor made the grant. Considering the precision with which land is surveyed now, the process of determining exact boundaries and recording acreage was shockingly casual. The boundaries of the property were drawn by sighting natural landmarks that the alcalde, accompanied by two witnesses, confirmed by riding the borders of the land and measuring it with a riata, a woven leather rope, fifty varas in length. (A vara is approximately one meter in length.) Estimates were rough, poco más o menos, “a little more or less.”

The exact year title to the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas became Sergeant Villa’s is even fuzzier than its original borders. Maria Valdez Villa testified the grant date was 1838, but according to the official record, Governor Alvarado granted the land to the former soldier in 1831. However, it’s quite possible the written date is in error because Juan Bautista Alvarado didn’t become Alta California’s governor until 1836.

In Articles VIII and IX of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,4 the United States indicated it would confer United States citizenship to those living in Alta California and honor the land grants that had been awarded by Mexico. So even though the land was now in a different country, Maria Valdez Villa remained the owner of the Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas.

Regardless, for Maria Rita Valdez Villa, who inherited Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas from her husband in the 1830s, it was a tough slog. Maria, mother of eleven children according to Stone’s account, lived with her family in two adobe houses at what is now the intersection of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. When she was working at the rancho, she ran cattle and horses and did her best to cultivate crops. But while the rancho got its name, which translates to “gathering of the waters,” from the intersection of two underground streams that coursed under Cañada de las Aguas Frias (Coldwater Canyon) and Cañada de los Encinos (Canyon of the Oaks, which is now Benedict Canyon) and joined approximately where the Beverly Hills Hotel is now situated, the water’s abundance could be capricious. Crops and herds would wax and wane depending on whether or not water flowed. Even though there wasn’t a critical mass of people whose lives depended on the water—Los Angeles’ first census, in 1836, counted less than thirty residents on the Ranch of the Gathering of the Waters—lack of a consistent water source made ranching as a profitable endeavor difficult. Maria Valdez Villa didn’t even live on her rancho full time; she owned another home on Main Street in the pueblo of Los Angeles. And in some ways, not much has changed in L.A.: It took a full day to travel between the two residences, a distance of twelve or so miles.

Having another house in the relatively civilized Pueblo de Los Angeles would come in handy for Maria. California may have become a state, but it was still the Wild West. In 1852, with the ink on the statehood paperwork barely dry and the Gold Rush raging to the north, Native Americans ambushed Maria Rita on her rancho in a scenario that would become a staple in Westerns filmed in nearby neighborhoods some fifty years later. Accounts of the number of attackers at the ranch house differ. Some reports are specific, reporting three attackers; some accounts refer to a “band.” Regardless, it was a pitched battle that lasted the better part of a day. When the ammunition for Maria’s muskets began to run low, a nine-year-old boy managed to slip out of the ranch house, evade attackers, dodge bullets, and crawl for half a mile along a ditch to get help from ranchos in the neighboring town of Sherman, which is now West Hollywood. According to the original typewritten draft of an article published in Holiday magazine in October 1952, by Irving Stone, the ranchers came to Maria’s aid and “drove the redskins northward to a walnut grove on which now stands the Beverly Hills Women’s Club. There they shot and buried the Indians.”5 And according to Benedict’s history, in 1869 three Native American skeletons were exhumed near the current site of the Beverly Hills Women’s Club. In fact, Pierce Benedict’s father, Edison A. Benedict, kept the largest skeleton in the family home.6

Even though her family escaped the ordeal unharmed, Maria Valdez Villa had had enough. Not long after the attack, she obtained a copy of the land grant deed and sold the 4,539-acre Rodeo de las Aguas for $500 in cash, $500 in notes, and the promise of an additional payment of $3,000 after the full confirmation of the title by the U.S. government to Benjamin Davis Wilson (for whom Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains is named) and Major Henry Hancock, who eventually owned the land that became Hancock Park. Maria would have to wait more than two decades for that last 75 percent of what was owed her because the title wasn’t confirmed by the U.S. government until 1871. Not long after becoming a partner in the rancho, Major Hancock transferred his half of the property to William Workman, who would become mayor of Los Angeles in late 1886 and serve two terms. (Because the majority of the payout took almost three decades, there was some scuttlebutt, never proven, that Wilson and Hancock had put the Native Americans up to attacking Maria Valdez in order to force her off the land. Considering the far-flung location of the parcel, its seemingly unfit-for-much condition, and the fact that Hancock almost immediately bowed out, the consensus is that this is unlikely. Yet it remains one of the city’s origin myths.)

Over the next forty-plus years, subsequent owners would graze cattle and sheep, grow grain, endure devastating droughts, and drill for oil. In 1881 hoteliers Henry Hammel and Charles Denker bought the land that had been Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas from Wilson and Workman and renamed it the Hammel and Denker Ranch. They grew produce for their hotels, including lush fields of lima beans. In the late 1890s, Hammel and Denker decided to get involved in land speculation by subdividing their holdings. They called their development Morocco. No houses were ever built during the pair’s stewardship.

* * *

Hammel and Denker were just too early to the party, because things were about to change. One look at photographs of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Los Angeles, with its wide-open, seemingly endless, unpopulated space, and it’s easy to understand why men willing to take a business risk saw a city waiting to happen. Stretching as far as the eye could see was a blank vista just aching for roads, homes, offices, factories, stores, and the people who would drive, live, work, and shop there. And after the 1905 bond measure that would fund an aqueduct from the Owens Valley was passed by voters in the City of Los Angeles, there was the promise of seemingly unlimited water, the land was fertile and underneath it all there was oil.

For those with gumption and grit and a bit of luck, opportunity was everywhere. They found the business environment of lax-to-nonexistent government oversight at the turn of the twentieth century an ideal medium for growth. Huge strides in technology and transportation had been made in the three decades after the end of the Civil War. There was a transcontinental railway, first telegraph and then telephone wires were strung, and electricity was replacing candles and oil lamps as a light source as well as providing power for factory machinery. Still photography, invented before the Civil War, had evolved into moving pictures, which were eventually illuminated and projected by electricity.

The West had missed out on much of the huge surge of industrialization that had taken place to the east in the run-up to 1900. But by the turn of the twentieth century, it was as if the greater Los Angeles area was making up for lost time in its development. The region’s speculators were on a mission, committed to growth and prosperity—specifically their prosperity—at an unprecedented pace. In 1880 the Los Angeles region’s population was about 11,000; in 1890 it had grown to 50,000; by 1900 it had doubled again to just north of 100,000. Oil had been discovered in the region in 1892 and by the time of the vote in 1923 to determine if Beverly Hills would annex itself to Los Angeles, the region was providing a quarter of the world’s oil output. Manufacturing had followed on the heels of the discovery of oil. By 1900, before water from the Owens Valley started to flow into the city through the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, William Mulholland, as head of what would become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was wresting enough water from the rivers and groundwater resources within the city limits for the municipal water supply to power this exponential growth.7

The land that had once been Maria Rita’s Rancho de las Aguas and would become Beverly Hills was purchased from Hammel and Denker’s heirs in 1900 by the Amalgamated Oil Company, a partnership that included some of the region’s wealthiest citizens: oilmen and real estate developers Charles A. Canfield, Burton Green, and Max Whittier; railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington; and businessman William G. Kerckhoff. The idea was to drill for oil, in spite of the fact that owners during the previous fifty years, including Wilson and Hancock, who had bought the land from Maria Valdez, had searched for oil and failed to find it (or failed to find enough to make it economically feasible to start a full-scale drilling operation). Amalgamated Oil dubbed its purchase Morocco Junction—no doubt a nod to Hammel and Denker’s subdivision idea—and began drilling. They weren’t any more successful than the previous owners in finding abundant deposits of oil, but they did find groundwater. With water seemingly plentiful (the partners realized that although there would not be enough water to sustain a new residential development far into the future, there was enough to get started), in 1906 Green and his partners reorganized into the Rodeo Land and Water Company and entered the world of land development. Beverly Hills was born.

The partners who made up the Rodeo Land and Water Company were businessmen who kept their eyes and ears open and were quick to seize opportunities. They were in it for the money, the more the better. If, along the way, enrichment brought a better social position and more influence, that was fine. They weren’t averse to wielding the influence wealth brought, but their motivation wasn’t to become famous, it was to get rich. They were certainly a mercenary lot, but not inherently bad, extraordinarily venal, or particularly nasty. If they suffered from any of the seven deadly sins, it was greed.

Burton Green, the principal in the Rodeo Land and Water Company who lived the longest, tends to get the lion’s share of the credit for founding Beverly Hills. But it was Charles Canfield, backed by fellow oilman Max Whittier, and railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, the company’s largest stockholder, who were the initial driving forces behind the development. It was Henry Huntington who kick-started the idea of a residential development on the land that had been a bust as an oil field8 by placing an ad in the October 21, 1906, edition of the Los Angeles Times. According to notes of a 1946 conversation on the history of Beverly Hills, the first city engineer, Arthur Pillsbury, stated it was Canfield who decreed that the new development would feature the best of everything.9 That sentiment to strive for excellence and beauty on Canfield’s part may have stemmed from his own personal tragedy: His wife had been murdered by a household employee at their Los Angeles home in 1902—in front of the couple’s youngest daughter. Canfield was not at home at the time, he was in Mexico with Edward Doheny drilling for oil.10 (Doheny’s life would also be visited by murder in later years when, in the wake of the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal—when the administration of Warren G. Harding sold leased government petroleum reserves to private oil companies without competitive bidding in exchange for suitcases full of cash—his son, Ned, and an employee would both be shot through their heads in what was ruled a murder-suicide.) Regardless of whether Canfield’s tragedy inspired his no-expense-spared approach to creating the new city, all the men of the Rodeo Land and Water Company were business success stories in the truest sense. They were canny, visionary, and had extraordinarily good timing. While they all certainly had outsized egos, they managed to stay focused on their shared goal. They knew the ropes of Southern California speculation and they knew each other—all of them had had business dealings with one or more of their fellow partners in the preceding years. Burton Green and Max Whittier had founded the Green & Whittier Oil Company, which had merged with other oil companies in which Charles Canfield and William G. Kerckhoff had stakes to become one of the largest petroleum concerns of the time, Associated Oil Company. Henry Huntington knew that to make his considerable investment in Rodeo Land and Water pay off, he would have to make sure people could get there on one of his rail lines. Easy to do when you are the titan of Southern California transportation: A light rail line to Beverly Hills was built.

* * *

Land speculation may have been familiar territory to Green and his partners, but as a residential community, Beverly Hills was a unique proposition from the get-go. In addition to a commitment to luxury, it was one of the first communities to be planned before ground had even been broken.11 The company hired landscape architect Wilbur David Cook, who early in his career had worked with the famed Frederick Law Olmsted on many projects, including the White House grounds, to design a garden-inspired city. So instead of streets laid out in a grid, the roads of Beverly Hills were designed to be curvilinear, resembling, some said, early silent screen siren Theda Bara’s torso. Each of the residential streets was lined with one variety of tree, reinforcing the park-like setting. In other, more regrettable ways, Beverly Hills followed the lead of other communities by including covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&R) in deeds for its lots that prevented non-Caucasians and Jews from owning, leasing, inheriting, or renting in the city.

The most frequently referenced urban legend as to where Beverly Hills got its name is that Green named it for his hometown of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. A nice story, but it’s not true. Green was from Wisconsin. Another version of the story is that Green got the idea for the city’s name from reading a newspaper article about then-president William Howard Taft’s summer White House in Beverly, Massachusetts, and thought “Beverly” was a pretty name. Except that Taft didn’t take office until 1909, after the city had been named. Further urban legend has it that Green’s wife, the former Lillian Wellburn, upon noting the topography, contributed “Hills.” In fact, how Messrs. Green, Canfield, Whittier, and their fellow partners in the Rodeo Land and Water Company and their respective spouses—if they were involved at all—conjured up the city’s name will probably remain a mystery.


Copyright © 2018 by Nancie Clare