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Celebrate! : Orange County's First 100 Years : Forging An Identity : The Irvine Saga

May 22, 1988|LESLIE BERKMAN | Berkman is a business writer for The Times

'He was a great, great lover of land. I think the money was secondary. It was a great expanse of land that he loved and cherished. I always thought he was married to his land.'

In 1889, the year Orange County won its independence from Los Angeles County, James Irvine Jr. made a long journey from his boyhood home in San Francisco to look at the 108,184-acre ranch he had inherited from his father, who had died three years earlier. The adventurous mode of transportation the 22-year-old heir chose for his trip to Orange County--pedaling atop a high-wheel bicycle--gave some indication of the bold style that would characterize his 50-year stewardship of the ranch.

James Irvine Jr., known as J. I., was criticized as being stern, autocratic and tightfisted. But those who knew him best forgave those traits. They say that toughness was required of the man who owned about a fourth of the county's land and constantly was called upon to protect his interests against squatters and cattle thieves.

J. I.'s force of personality is credited with having turned rangeland that supported only sheep, cattle and chaparral into one of the state's most profitable agricultural holdings. A man of vision, he supervised the planting of lima beans, citrus, sugar beets, asparagus and other crops that yielded a fortune for himself and his descendants long before the Irvine Ranch gained national prominence as a mecca of planned community development.

While J. I. had many interests--he liked to hunt and fish and played the piano as well as a mean game of bridge--no one disputes that his biggest passion was the family ranch.

"He was a great, great lover of land. I think the money was secondary. It was a great expanse of land that he loved and cherished. In fact, I always thought he was married to his land," says Athalie Clarke, who in 1929 married J. I.'s elder son James (Jase) Irvine III.

During J. I.'s early tenure, what is now known as the Irvine Ranch was called the San Joaquin Ranch after one of three Mexican and Spanish land-grant ranchos that once were owned by the Sepulveda and Yorba families and together formed the Irvine family's land.

When a drought crippled Southern California's ranchos in the 1860s, J. I.'s father, James Irvine Sr., joined three business associates, Thomas and Benjamin Flint and Llewellyn Bixby, and bought the bulk of the land that became the Irvine Ranch in two purchases--one in 1864, the other in 1866--for a total of $25,000. For decades, local newspapers touted the land acquisition as "about the most remarkable transaction in real estate ever known in this section."

In 1876, James Irvine Sr. bought out his partners for $150,000 and became sole owner of the ranch, which he used principally to raise sheep because the disruption of cotton production during the Civil War had sent wool prices soaring.

Irvine, of Scotch Presbyterian ancestry, had been born in Ireland in 1827. He set out for the United States in 1846 to seek his fortune. After working a few years in paper mills in New York, he joined the gold stampede to California, where he made more money selling provisions to miners than from mining gold. He went into business as a San Francisco wholesale produce and grocery merchant and reinvested his considerable profits in real estate.

When James Irvine Sr. died in 1886, his estate was valued at $1.28 million. The ranch he left in trust to his son, J. I.--who would receive his inheritance at age 25--was appraised at $748,500.

Trustees of the ranch almost sold it at an auction before J. I. got it. But the official timekeeper at the auction became momentarily confused and designated one person, then another as the successful bidder. A judge ultimately determined neither bidder was entitled to the ranch.

Like his father, J. I. was attached to Northern California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and maintained offices in San Francisco as well as Orange County. In 1892, J. I. married Frances Anita Plum, who bore him three children--James, Kathryn Helena and Myford. The family initially made its home in San Francisco, but the San Francisco earthquake and fire 1906 prompted Irvine to permanently move his family to his Orange County ranch, which he had incorporated in 1894 as The Irvine Co.

Unlike his father, J. I. had no interest in raising sheep. He wanted to be a farmer.

Clarke recalls that when she came to live at the family ranch house as a young bride, her father-in-law took her for long walks and talked about his agricultural plans--and especially about the need to provide the often drought-plagued ranch with a sufficient supply of water. Through his efforts, an extensive system of wells, irrigation canals, dams and storage reservoirs was built on the ranch.

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