Two of Southern California's leading "supermarkets" -- a term that caught on nationwide -- started out as two little family-owned grocery stores.
Ralphs and Vons are part of huge corporations today with tens of thousands of workers and front-page labor troubles. But they brought their founding families a measure of regional immortality.
George Albert Ralphs -- with an S and without an apostrophe -- was born in Joplin, Mo., in 1850. As a baby, he embarked on a grueling 18-month journey with his devout Mormon parents, Richard and Mary Ralphs, across the plains to Salt Lake City and the fledgling Mormon community of San Bernardino.
In 1851, they joined more than 400 pioneers on an arduous trek across the desert. Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent colonists to establish an outpost to serve as a major link in the church's supply line between San Pedro's harbor and Salt Lake.
While crossing the Mojave Desert, the parched children cried out for water. Richard Ralphs found their delirious wails worse to bear than his own killing thirst. With swollen tongues, he and some of the others went looking for a water hole.
They found what they were looking for, but not quite where they had hoped.
"When the horses started to urinate, someone grabbed a coffee pot and caught the urine," said Walter Ralphs, George's great-nephew. "They took it back to camp, boiled it and drank it. It saved their lives."
Finally, the travelers reached their destination. Settling at the base of the Cajon Pass, Richard Ralphs, an English immigrant and potter by trade, set up San Bernardino's first brick factory. In 1857, when San Bernardino colonists were recalled to Utah, Ralphs stayed, as did several hundred others.
Young Ralphs grew up on the family's 400-acre ranch in San Bernardino and, as a teenager, apprenticed with his father as a bricklayer. He became so good that he won the title Champion Bricklayer of California.
But in 1872, when he was 22, his career took a twist. Ralphs was traveling in his horse-drawn wagon with his younger brother, Walter, out of downtown Los Angeles to do a little hunting in the San Fernando Valley.
"They shot game and sold it to local butchers: Dove and quail went for two for 15 cents, while cottontail rabbit and ducks went three for 25 cents," said Walter Ralphs, the great-nephew.
"George was driving and resting his left arm on the barrel of his shotgun when the wagon hit a deep hole," the great-nephew said. "The shotgun went off, wounding his left arm." It took hours to travel back to town. By the time George got medical treatment, a doctor had to amputate his arm at the elbow.
Ralphs turned to clerking in a small grocery at 5th and Spring streets that was owned by a man known to history only as Francis. Within a year, Ralphs had parlayed his earnings into a partnership with his boss at a second store, at 6th and Spring.
Walter Ralphs joined his elder brother in the business in the mid-1870s. They bought Francis' interest in the 6th and Spring store for about $2,000 and changed the name to Ralphs Bros. Grocers. The store remained at the site until 1901, when it moved a few doors away on Spring. That allowed construction of the Hayward Hotel, which still stands.
Seeking an imaginative way to tap the rich market of Los Angeles, the brothers came up with a daring and innovative concept. By providing free lodging and stables for farmers bringing their crops to market, the Ralphses could lock up huge supplies and offer customers lower prices than their competitors.
By the 1890s, business was booming, and they added free home delivery. But by then George was a widower and drinking heavily. Walter went into real estate, selling his share to another brother, Oscar Newell Ralphs, also a widower.
George and Newell, as he was known, became drinking buddies, and the business began to slide. Brother Walter believed George was a bad influence on Newell and wanted to get Newell as far away from downtown Los Angeles as possible.
That's when Walter began buying up land from the Tehachapis south into Mexico, including virtually the entire rustic town of Gorman and nearly 3,000 surrounding acres. He put Newell in charge of managing the land, then deeded it to him, according to Walter.
In 1896, George pulled himself together when he met and married Wallula Von Keith, a strict Christian Scientist. Again, the business boomed.
By 1907, Ralphs grocers had expanded to non-food items. Customers could order anything from oil stoves to sadirons -- heavy clothes irons.
The business was incorporated as Ralphs Grocery Co. in 1909, with the family retaining all the stock.
Ralphs' main competitor was already in business just a few blocks away.
Danish immigrant Charles T. Von der Ahe had moved from Copenhagen to Los Angeles with $1,200 in his pocket. In 1906, he opened his first Vons Groceteria, a 20-foot-wide neighborhood store at 7th and Figueroa streets.