Historical lecture will cover Ranch’s origins

Don’t take those eucalyptus trees for granted. They are very much the reason Rancho Santa Fe is here today, historian and cultural landscape specialist Vonn Marie May said.

The Rancho Santa Fe Historical Society will present “Rancho Santa Fe: The Town the Railroad Built,” a lecture by May at 4 p.m. July 12 at the Village Community Presbyterian Church.

May’s talk will cover the history of how the railroad industry built Rancho Santa Fe. May said she’s heard the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co. referred to as a failure - she disagrees.

“It was a noble experiment that failed,” May said, noting that without the company peppering the landscape with eucalyptus for railroad ties, there would be no Rancho Santa Fe.

Because of the hardwood timber shortage in the early 1900s, the government was urging companies to plant as much eucalyptus as they could. The Santa Fe Land Improvement Co. took hold of the Rancho San Dieguito land grant in 1906 and planted the trees in a flurry.

“It was a mania,” said May of the rush to plant eucalyptus.

The government hadn’t tested the eucalyptus at all, basing the use of trees off their success as railroad ties in Australia. It turned out that the reason the trees were successful in Australia is because they were centuries old.

“They figured that out 3.5 million trees later,” May said.

The company figured out it was cheaper to use Oregon’s Douglas firs but there was still the issue of what to do with this land in California, lush with trees.

May said from 1916 to 1921, the company had no idea what it was going to do with Rancho Santa Fe.

In 1922, it hired the firm Requa and Jackson to design the downtown civic area, bringing a 34-year-old architect named Lilian Rice to the Ranch.

Before the company left in 1928, it hired Charles Chaney to write the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant.

“It was almost as if they were so proud of what they’d done that they didn’t want anybody to ruin it,” said May of the Covenant.

That Covenant saved Rancho Santa Fe from becoming another sprawling set of subdivisions, May said.

Part of her talk on July 12 will cover how Covenant restrictions are applied today.

“The guidelines were written very well, but they’re only as good as the people who administer it,” May said.

May just completed a book on Rancho Santa Fe, which should be published in about six months as part of the Arcadia History Images of America series.

The book has some amazing photographs, as the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co. hired an official photographer to document all of its work. There are photos of the origins of the Lake Hodges Dam, a dusty Paseo Delicias and many shots of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe from when it was known as La Morada, a guest house frequented by prospective investors and movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Photos in the book also reveal a picturesque Ranch life, such as the shot of the village market owner Fred Ashley carrying Connie Clotfleter’s groceries to her car in the ‘50s, something he was known to do for all his clients.

Tickets to the July 12 lecture are $15 for members, $20 nonmembers. For more information, call 756-9291.