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Around the South Bay

Remembering the Peninsula's Past

November 21, 1985|ANN JOHNSON

Red, white and blue helium balloons tugged against their tethers in the morning breeze last weekend as a pioneering Palos Verdes family was honored in Rolling Hills Estates.

Members of the Rancho de los Palos Verdes Historical Society gathered to place a bronze plaque--set in white Palos Verdes stone--near Rolling Hills Road and Lariat Lane. Cars roared by and airplanes droned overhead as speakers addressed the crowd seated on rows of folding chairs.

It was a scene that would have jolted the senses of Harry and and Mary Ann Phillips. The speakers noted that on a site nearby, the Phillipses built a house that was the first Anglo residence on the Peninsula.

Harry, an Englishman, brought his Scottish-born wife to this wild, terraced land in 1887, settling in San Pedro. The Peninsula, covered with chaparral, had almost no trees, and the only noise was the occasional screech of a hunting birds of prey. Water was scarce.

In 1894, Phillips was hired to manage the 16,000-acre Bixby Ranch, which included all of the Palos Verdes Peninsula except San Pedro. The Bixby family had acquired the land a few years earlier from the Sepulveda family, who had title to an old Spanish land grant.

Phillips got the job partly because of his knowledge of the Peninsula's limited water resources. He built his first home near where Rolling Hills City Hall now stands, close to a water source he dubbed Bent Spring. A second home was later built near what is now a cul-de-sac off Lariat Lane to better accommodate the couple's six children.

Phillips brought agriculture to the region. He upgraded the Bixby cattle by introducing thoroughbred Hereford bulls and marketed the beef to a growing, hungry Los Angeles. He is credited with encouraging Japanese farmers to rent land for $10 an acre to cultivate vegetables, according to historical society President Jeannette Mucha. One family of Japanese descent, the Ishibashis, still farms Peninsula land near Marineland, she said.

A Johnny Appleseed of sorts, Phillips also was responsible for planting for firewood the extensive groves of eucalyptus and pepper trees in what is now Palos Verdes Estates.

The Bixby Ranch was sold in 1913 to New York banker Frank A. Vanderlip Sr., who ultimately developed the Peninsula. Phillips continued to run the ranch until 1920. Two years later, he died of cancer in Lomita at age 59, according to his grandson, Harry Phillips III.

The plaque dedication brought together some of Phillips' descendants who had not gathered since the death of Mary Ann Phillips about 30 years ago, said Harry Phillips, who is 66. He and two other grandsons of the pioneering couple spoke of their early days when ranching was still the major industry in the area. The conversation was moderated by John Vanderlip, 70, youngest son of the developer.

Le Roy Phillips, 74, recalled driving in a buckboard to Redondo Beach for groceries. Driving across the sand dunes made it "almost a day's trip," he said. He was raised in a ranch house about 300 yards from what is now the 11th green of the the Palos Verdes Golf Course.

Gary Phillips, 55, who spent a good part of his boyhood in the old ranch house near Lariat Lane, recalled that a sheet would be hung out on a line to indicate that family members were wanted at home.

Since its founding in 1977, the Rancho de los Palos Verdes Historical Society has dedicated a plaque each year commemorating an historical site on the Peninsula. "The Farmery," as this latest addition is called, is the ninth.

Others include Malaga Cove Intermediate School, which is near the site of an ancient Chowigna Indian village; the La Venta Inn, an early hostelry where would-be land buyers were entertained, and the Point Vicente Lighthouse.

"I have a deep appreciation for the traditions and the people who sacrificed, the people who preceded us," said Mucha, who has been a member of the society for six years. "I think we really lose our sense of community if we don't know the sacrifices of the people who came before us."

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