One of my favorite things to do when I’m on vacation is visiting historic sites, whether it be churches and castles in Europe, temples in Asia or ancient structures in Mexico, I love envisioning what life was like in that exact spot hundreds or sometimes thousands of years ago. It’s important to note when you visit a historic home that the last people to live in it were not the only people to live there. Often the house changes hands several times over it’s history and of course there were people living on the land even before the home was built. In California alone, there were almost a hundred Indian tribes living all over the state.
But don’t book your flight just yet. I’ll bet if you do a little research, you might not have to travel outside your own town to find a hidden gem to explore. My favorite place to explore in my own backyard is the Rancho Los Cerritos, an 1844 adobe ranch house in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of North Long Beach. The beautiful two-story adobe house was built by John Temple, a merchant living in Los Angeles, as the headquarters for his cattle ranch. But before he arrived and after he left many other people lived, owned and loved the house and the land it was built on including the Tongva Indians, a retired Spanish soldier, and the Father of Long Beach himself, Jotham Bixby.
A Little History
The Tongva Indian tribe was a hunter/gatherer group who built straw huts near the river and foraged for berries and other edible things to supplement their diet of wild game. When the Spanish Missionaries came to California they renamed the Tongva the Gabrielinos after the Mission San Gabriel that was built nearby. From 1542 when Cabrillo landed in San Diego to the building of the first Mission there in 1769 the Spanish lived sparsely throughout Alta California. When the Russians started showing a presence in the north at Fort Ross the Spanish knew they needed to do something to make sure California remained secure. So, they started giving away parcels of land to soldiers if they promised to map the area and build a structure in which to live.
One of these soldiers was named Manuel Nieto and his piece of land was one of the largest granted during this time. 167,000 acres that ran all the way from the Pacific Ocean north to Whittier and lying between the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers was mapped and a small adobe building constructed. After his death it was separated between his children and 27,000 acres that would later come to be known as Los Cerritos was given to his daughter, Manuela, who sold it to John Temple an Anglo from Massachusetts who made a name for himself in the Pueblo in Los Angeles. He decided to spend much of his hard earned cash on this land for a new venture – cattle ranching. He also built a two-story, three-winged adobe house complete with a two acre English style garden for his ranch headquarters and occasional vacation home.
After severe a drought crippled the cattle ranching business in California, Temple decided to sell his property and retire. He sold it to the Flint, Bixby, & Company – brothers and cousins from Maine who had become sheep ranchers in Northern California after trying their hand at gold mining had not panned out. They sent their brother/cousin Jotham Bixby to manage this new ranch in the south. He brought his wife, Margaret, and their first son to live in Mr. Temple’s house soon making it their own. A few years later Jotham bought his brother and cousin’s share of the ranch becoming the sole proprietor. For twenty years the property was used as a sheep ranch until the family decided to move to Los Angeles.
By then Jotham had shifted focus to farming and property management with the influx of people to the area after the railroads were extended down south. Rancho Los Cerritos became an apartment of sorts, rooms and sometimes full wings of the house were rented out to local farmers and their families. Then in 1930 Jotham’s nephew Llewellyn Bixby decided to move his wife and children back into the family home. He had a lot of work to do as the old adobe house was still in its original 1844 condition and deteriorating at an alarming rate. After a year of renovations the new branch of the Bixby family moved into the house. By the time that the house became a museum in 1955, all but four of the original 27,000 acre Spanish land grant had been sold to various developers and was now called the city of Long Beach.
What to See
Tour the House
A tour through Rancho Los Cerritos covers ten rooms plus the veranda on the second floor and takes about an hour. Each of the rooms are styled after the time period they are representing, often with pieces of furniture or personal items actually owned by the Bixby family. Since Jotham Bixby and his wife and children were the first family to live in the house full time, and because Jotham and Margaret were so influential in shaping the city of Long Beach into what it is today, most of the rooms in the home depict what life was like for these 19th century sheep ranchers.
Long Beach was pretty isolated (if you can believe it) having no school, no hospital, not even a church, so the Bixbys had to be relatively self-sufficient. They kept chickens and pigs, had fruit trees for jarring preserves and baking pies, a cousin that was a dairy farmer, and of course, ate a lot of mutton. They also had a blacksmith shop on site to fix anything that needed fixing, like a wagon or a piece of furniture, shoe their horses, as well as make tools for doing other jobs. Out of all the rooms the tour walks through, there are only two that are from a different time. John Temple never lived at his house in Los Cerritos full time. He and his wife used it like a vacation home and a place to crash after fiestas during the round up season. He remained in his home above his mercantile store in the Pueblo of Los Angeles. So he had someone else manage it while he was away and that person was the Foreman or Mayordomo, in Spanish. In his room, the first stop on the tour, you’ll learn all about the cattle ranching period in California. The second room that falls outside of the Victorian Period is my favorite room in the house, the Library, which was part of the 1930s renovation done by Llewellyn Bixby Sr.
The best part about visiting the Rancho is that you never know when you might meet a former resident of the house. You might be given a tour of the house by Mr. or Mrs. Bixby themselves! Family members of the Temples as well as both sets of Bixbys have been known to make appearances as well. How can this be? Will you be lead by a friendly ghost, like Casper? Not quite. Many of the docents who lead tours of the house portray these “visitors from the past” as Living History tours. They dress and act as one of many important figures involved with the Rancho and during their tour reminisce about their life there and often baffle over the changes that have been made since last they visited. Not all tours are given in this fashion, so if it’s something you’re interested in – call ahead.
Tour the Gardens
Not only is the Rancho Los Cerritos a beautiful example of Monterey Colonial style adobe architecture, the historic gardens behind the house are a living museum of plants, flowers, and trees plus artifacts of life outdoors in the 1800s. The garden was originally planted by John Temple – a staggering two acres of raised planter beds in a symmetrical pattern planted with seeds sent by friends and relatives in Massachusetts. It’s seriously crazy that someone would go to such lengths for a house he didn’t live in but, hey that’s what wealth does to you, I guess.
When the Bixby family moved in in 1866, the garden changed slightly. There was a gazebo for afternoon tea, the addition of orchards for fruit harvesting and a large cistern with gravity fed hoses for watering the planters. (which were still raised) Eventually the cistern was removed and they built a water tower to collect more water. There is a replica of that tower in the side garden, where you will also find the Horno, the outdoor adobe oven used to bake bread and other such things (still operational), and a tallow rendering pot that was actually dug up in the garden during a renovation. The tallow is the fat of the cow, which when rendered was used to to make soap and candles.
The centerpiece of the historic garden is definitely the Morton Bay Fig Tree (above), which takes up a good portion of it. Originally planted as two trees side by side sometime in the late 1870s, when Llewellyn Sr. added underground irrigation during the 1930s renovation the trees finally got what they had been waiting almost a hundred years for; growing so fast and so big that they grew right into each other and became one giant tree.
The tree is really a sight to behold, something you really need to see in person. Other gems found in the garden include a Ginkgo Biloba tree whose leaves turn a enchanting yellow in the fall, white and purple orchid trees, a twenty foot tall Night Blooming Cereus Cactus of unknown origin (seriously, they don’t know who planted it but it obviously likes it there) and Italian Cypress and Black Walnut trees from the original 1844 garden, still living. Separate garden tours are given on the weekends by docents trained by the Rancho’s horticulturist – they know a thing or two about plants and some fun stories attached to them. Every season is different in the garden since the multitude of plants bloom at different times of the year. Spring is especially exciting as the wisteria vine on the arbor blooms only once a year for about a week in April. The historic gardens are also open for visitors to wander through on their own, without a tour.
Grab a Bite to Eat
If you need a little sustenance to let everything you just learned sink in a bit, just a few blocks away, on the corner of Long Beach Boulevard and Bixby Road is a super fun spot to grab something to eat and/or drink. SteelCraft is an outdoor ‘beer garden’ style venue that hosts multiple restaurants in recycled shipping containers. It’s great for groups who don’t always like eating the same thing. You can choose from ramen, pizza, or over the top hamburgers, grab a beer or a coffee, and have a shaved ice or waffles for dessert. It’s kid and dog friendly too.
Rancho Los Cerritos is located at 4600 Virginia Road, Long Beach and is open Wednesday thru Sunday from 1 – 5:00 pm. Tours last about an hour and start approximately every half hour starting when the first visitor arrives. If you are interested in following a tour given by a visitor from the past, call ahead to see who might be visiting that day. The hour long garden tours are only given on the weekends. Throughout the year the Rancho hosts various special events, many of which are free or low cost. In the Summer there are free concerts on the historic garden lawn, at Christmas you can attend the Olde Time Christmas Festival with Dickensian carolers and bell ringers or Cocoa with Santa and hear traditional Christmas stories read by Santa and Mrs. Claus. Check their website for updated information.
Rancho Los Cerritos is truly a hidden gem tucked away in the sprawling metropolis of Long Beach. When you step onto its property you might be surprised by how quickly the sounds of the city fade away, as well as how familiar the life of 19th century sheep farmers feels as you wander the halls of the adobe home.