Cultivating California: Founding Families of the San Marino Ranch

Feb. 16, 2013May. 14, 2013
Library, West Hall

A special exhibition marks the city of San Marino’s centennial with a look at three families who helped found it

One hundred years ago, Henry Huntington and several of his neighboring landowners decided to found the city of San Marino—a rural community covering four square miles of fertile agricultural land. The city took its name from Huntington’s property, known as the San Marino Ranch. But three families who farmed the land before Huntington’s arrival played key roles in the history of the region.

To mark San Marino’s centennial year, The Huntington has mounted a special exhibition titled “Cultivating California: The Founding Families of the San Marino Ranch,” on view Feb. 16–May 13. The exhibition tells the story of the Wilson, Shorb, and Patton families, who helped transform a region of one-time Spanish land grants into an agricultural paradise. Rare family photographs, letters, legal documents, and artifacts will be among the objects displayed.

Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811–1878) was the first elected mayor of Los Angeles and an early transplant to the tranquil San Gabriel Valley. He named his homestead Lake Vineyard, an appropriate title, as his land included both a lake—now Lacy Park—and commercial vineyards. When Wilson’s daughter Maria Jesus (“Sue”) married, Wilson gave the young couple the adjoining property to the east, the present-day site of The Huntington. Sue’s husband, James De Barth Shorb (1842–1896), soon started to manage his father-in-law’s commercial and agricultural properties. He grew Wilson’s small existing winery into the large San Gabriel Wine Company.

Shorb named his ranch San Marino, after the Maryland farm on which he’d been raised. In a large Victorian house on the edge of a bluff (where the Huntington Art Gallery now stands), the Shorbs raised their own large family and hosted many distinguished guests, including Henry Huntington.  But overextension on business ventures and a costly struggle with agricultural pests eventually led Shorb deeply into debt. Following his death and a contentious court battle, the San Marino Ranch and other Shorb properties were ordered sold.

The court put the properties under the receivership of lawyer George Smith Patton (1856– 1927), the husband of Sue’s youngest sister, Ruth. Patton had been elected district attorney of Los Angeles at age 30, but health problems forced him to give up his practice, so in 1888 he moved his family to Lake Vineyard, where he could oversee the Wilson properties and assist with Shorb’s businesses.  Patton’s son, George Jr., was known around Lake Vineyard as “Georgie,” but he is best known today as the general who led U. S. troops in Europe during World War II.

In 1903, Henry Huntington purchased the San Marino Ranch, which Patton continued to manage until he hired William Hertrich as ranch superintendent in 1904. Huntington and Patton remained neighbors and close friends for more than 20 years and were two of the major influences behind the move to cityhood in 1913.