Jul 26, 2014

From Equine 'Gasoline' to Orange Groves

The shift from horse fuel to liquid sunshine required one very important ingredient.

From Equine 'Gasoline' to Orange Groves

When John Osterman lost his young wife, , to tuberculosis in February 1900, he was left with their two small sons—Bennie, four years of age, and George, 2½—and was, quite understandably, overwhelmed. Others understood as well. How could the young Swedish emigrant continue to maintain his canyon homestead and take care of two little boys as well? And so it was arranged that both boys would live elsewhere: Bennie with his Uncle Charley Havens, and and George with the Fox family in Santa Ana.

Two years later, however, the boys returned to the homestead upon the marriage of their father to Mary Lillian Havens, the younger sister of Sadie. Having just turned 18, she was as much of an older sister to the Osterman children as a mother replacement.  And they loved her dearly, for "Mim," as she would come to be known, read to the boys and played their games.  


Life up in the canyon and adjacent Trabuco—now the site of the city of Rancho Santa Margarita—continued on until 1907, when John was offered a lease partnership on the Cañada de Los Alisos ranch owned by the Whiting family. The land originally had been worked by the Schwartz family. Of late, however, it had passed to a Mr. William Waller who needed a reliable partner.  

John Osterman was widely known for his integrity and ability to make a success of whatever venture he took on. So a partnership was struck, and he and Mim and the boys moved to the ranch adjacent Serrano Creek and just up the hill from the .

In time, Waller left the partnership to farm up on the Trabuco with another pioneer, James Sleeper.  John then took over the lease, and it was here that he, Mim, Bennie, and George, as well Ethel (born in 1908) and Elmer (born in 1914) lived for more than ten years, raising mostly barley, beans, and livestock.

By the summer of 1919, however, John had set his sights on something different.


Like so many of the first wave of El Toro pioneers, he was now looking for a less strenuous means of making a livelihood. In the meantime, his sons, Ben and George, had completed high school in Santa Ana and were now each newly married: George to Lois Smith of Santa Ana the year before, and, just a few months previous, Ben to Cynthia Munger of El Toro. 

George and Lois had spent the first year of their marriage ranching on the ; oldest son Ben and his father had gone into a partnership regarding the Canada de Los Alisos ranch. But now that his dad, Mim, and younger siblings Ethel and Elmer—soon to be followed by baby John in early 1920—were moving to acreage on 17th Street in Tustin, Ben and Cynthia would be the on-site ranchers.

John Osterman’s plan was to plant citrus on his newly-acquired Tustin acreage.  And he continued to commute from Tustin for about five years, co-managing the El Toro ranch with with his oldest son, until his own orchards were established.  At that point John sold his interest in the lease to Ben.

Ben and his dad could see the future, for with the waning use of horses and mules, barley—the equine “gasoline” of that time—would no longer be as much in demand. But citrus groves in places such as Anaheim, Orange, and Tustin, were multiplying across the county and, after that five-year start-up, showing a healthy profit.

All the same, citrus needed water. So as would write, many decades later, in Fifty Years in Old El Toro, "Ben Osterman began a long-term investment in the search for water in the El Toro area.”


In the meantime, Tustin pioneer Charles Bennett had been living for many years on a citrus ranch located on the east side of Tustin Avenue, north of First Street.  The Bennett ranch initially had been 10 acres, but in time the savvy rancher acquired an additional 22 acres in Tustin.  What's more, he’d also been one of the few buyers of El Toro land during .  In fact, Charles Bennett's El Toro holdings now amounted to 60 acres.  He'd also built , where one of his sons, Harvey, now lived with his wife, Frances, and their increasing brood of children. 

Irrigating in the flatlands of Tustin had been relatively easy; irrigation in the El Toro area was another matter.  As would write in her 1939 book, A History of El Toro, “Nearly every ranch had its domestic well with just enough water for house use and for stock and a few trees and flowers.”

But by 1919, she added, El Toro’s wells were still “not more than eighty feet deep . . . Most families had their own wells, but they provided just enough water for basic needs, and so dry farming had come to predominate. Eventually apricot and walnut orchards would become popular; they did require a certain amount of irrigation, they did not require nearly the amount of water as citrus."


Fortunately, well-digging machinery had been improving. And men such as Charles Bennett, who was already well-versed in the ways of citrus irrigation, and John Osterman, who was serving as a consultant to his son Ben, even as his own grove matured and began to bear fruit, realized that reliable irrigation was the key. Once that was provided, El Toro would be just as successful—if not more so—as those growing citrus further inland.

According to Fox, “James Pesterfield had the first drilled well [with a] centrifugal pump. Other drillings promptly followed, and orange trees took the place of apricot trees, or were interest in walnut orchards.”

Charles Bennett and his son Harvey soon followed Pesterfield, installing a system that took water from Aliso Creek plus a well and pumping plant.

In the meantime, Ben Osterman took a cue from the Whiting operation, now headed by Emily and her young adult sons, Dwight Anson and George.  Water had been found at the corner El Toro and Trabuco Roads, and so 20 acres of lemon trees had been installed. Next, the Whitings began installing orange trees on some of their hillsides. In turn, Ben began converting his own “flats”—once devoted to beans—to citrus.  Not to mention installing groves around his ranch house adjacent the creek. 

“With exceptionally good, deep soil, mild winters, and considerable protection from desert winds,” wrote Clara Mason Fox, "the district is ideal for oranges. Nowhere are to be found trees of deeper color or denser foliage.”

Frances Bennett agreed.  Many years later, in an interview published in Saddleback Valley in Review, 1977-78, she expressed concern about the turn of events—including increased irrigation costs and higher taxes—that had caused so many citrus growers, her own family included, to sell their ranches. “This is some of the finest farming land in all the world for oranges. We have warmth and cooling breezes and the trees hold their fruit late, which gives it distinction. I don’t know where growers can go to duplicate this.”


Recently Carey Baughman, historical research specialist for South County Historical Parks, OC Parks, introduced me to a website that has aerial views of the United States from as far back as the late 1930s. 

First I checked the site of my own Baby Boomer home in suburban Orange—until 1957, orchards and farm houses—then entered the cross streets of El Toro Road and Front Street, along with El Toro, California.  Within seconds I was gazing down at the Community Hall, the El Toro Mercantile, the original one-room schoolhouse, the Bennett ranch, and rows and rows of eucalyptus as well as a seemingly unending dotted patchwork of citrus groves!  

So if you’d like to see what your own home site used to look like, go to  this website, http://historicaerials.com, and enter your own nearest cross streets.

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