Farming in San Bernardino


Reprinted with permission from "CALIFORNIA: A BOOK FOR TRAVELLERS AND SETTLERS" by Charles Nordhoff. First published in 1874. Republished by Ten Speed Press Printing in 1973. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. Only paragraph headings have been added to the original text.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley
Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley

San Bernardino, which is a point seldom visited by tourists, and but little known to the Eastern settler or farmer, lies sixty miles east from Los Angeles, under the mountain range from which it take its name. It has a climate more charming and healthful in winter than Los Angeles, and no hotter in summer; but there have been cases here, in the low grounds, of a mild type of intermittent fever. This is not prevalent, however, and occurs; I was told by an intelligent physician of the place, chiefly among the class who drinks the strong grape brandy of the region and live otherwise carelessly.

History of the Valley

The San Bernardino Valley, which contains 36,000 acres, was bought many years ago by the Mormons. In 1861 [sic. 1857], Brigham Young recalled his disciples to Salt Lake, but a large number refused to go from here, and are still living here in peace. They call themselves Josephites, I believe, and are an industrious, quiet people. The valley they bought is abundantly watered, and appears to me one of the most fruitful parts of the Southern country. All the fruits and grains which are raised in Los Angeles grow here as well, some even better. I have not seen anywhere more thrifty orange and olive trees than at one or two farms near this town.

The valley has not only abundance of running water, constant the year round, but a large number of spouting artesian wells have been bored; they get flowing water of very good quality at from one hundred and fifty to three hundred feet, and it is usual to make a seven-inch bore, which gives water enough to irrigate a large space of ground.

From L.A. to San Bernardino

The country between Los Angeles and San Bernardino varies greatly in quality. Some parts are very fine. About Ruebottom's [North of Pomona], where stage passengers stop to dine, there is first-class farming land; ten miles beyond you reach the famous Cocamungo vineyard, which produces a great deal of what seems to me a poor and very spirituous wine, and also a good deal of brandy. Beyond that you cross for ten miles a tract which was once, I believe, fertile, but has been covered by a wash of boulders, stones, and gravel from the mountains. Then you enter the valley after which San Bernardino is named, which, with the adjoining foot-hills, contains a great tract of first-class farming and orchard land - perhaps as much as half a million of acres, most of it easily watered. A part of this is in private hands, some in considerable tracts; but a large part of it is Congress land, now reserved from entry until the Southern Pacific Railroad shall have located its alternate sections, but likely to be open to entry at the double minimum rate within the year 1872.

Farm Land

In the mean time I noticed that farmers are ploughing (early in February) large spaces of this Congress land, and sowing it with wheat and barley, intending to get a crop off before it is open to entry, and to buy the land of Government or of the railroad company by-and-by. Unimproved farming land near the town, with water easily accessible, is sold for from three to ten dollars per acre, in tracts of from fifty to one hundred sixty acres. Improved farms are not readily bought, as there are but a few and they are too valuable to sell. A company of Costa Ricans have recently bought 2600 acres near the town, and intend, I believe, to raise sugar-cane as well as sub-tropical fruits; and, as they have capital, they will, no doubt, succeed.

Fences, Horses, and Crops

Fencing costs one dollar and fifty cents per rod [16 ½ feet], for a proper board fence; lumber, such as is used for houses and fencing, twenty-five dollars per thousand. Common farm-horses cost from twenty-five to fifty dollars, and cows thirty dollars. One of the oldest settlers in the place, a very intelligent practical farmer, told me that irrigation was not necessary for grain crops. They sow barley here on the first of January, and, after taking off a crop of from forty to sixty bushels to the acre, plant corn on the same land, and get their second crop fully ripened, and often as much as sixty or seventy bushels per acre. On new land, one hundred bushels of corn or seventy bushels of barley is not an uncommon crop; and I was shown a large field which for seven successive years has given a crop of barley and one of corn every year. Alfalfa is cut seven times in the year, and yields from ten to fifteen tons per acre; it is fed to milch cows and to plough horses, and hogs keep fat on it in this climate.

Cultivation is Often Careless

Where nature has done so much, you would perhaps expect to find that man had made a beautiful garden of this valley. You would be grievously disappointed. Cultivation is often too careless; men live for years on a place without planting the most valuable fruit-trees; and there is a lack of neatness in the farm surroundings, and an air of shabby thriftlessness about the houses, which disappoint an Eastern man. I supposed at first that the people were sluggish and thriftless because they lay out of the way of a market; but this is not true. San Bernardino has an important traffic with Arizona. I found a miller who has to buy wheat in San Francisco to keep his mill running; oats, which grow perfectly here, were brought from the upper country. For this place, in the same boat in which I came to San Pedro; barley brings two cents a pound here, and only one cent and a half in San Francisco; and I believe there is but one market garden near the town, though a man might make a small fortune in a year from vegetables and strawberries. "There is no market for a man who has nothing to sell," is an old adage.

Of course this unthrift is not universal. I found several well-kept farms near the town; and their owners were all doing well and making a good deal of money. In fact, wherever I found a farmer with produce to sell, he amazed me by telling me how readily he found a profitable market. Wine, from its bulky nature, is perhaps the most difficult article to see in such a place as this; but a farmer who makes 2500 gallons a year assured me that he sold it all, on the ground, for fifty cents per gallon; and he had not even a barrel left over a year old.


As you drive over the uncultivated part of the plain you see occasionally the white floury efflorescence of alkali. Frequently a farm would extend into the midst of this alkali land; and I was assured by the farmers that with proper handling it became, after the first crop, their best land. They plough in barley-straw, which rots quickly, and they say, so ameliorates the soil, or decomposes the alkali, that the following winter they put in barley, wheat, or corn.

Grasshopper Damage

Of course, where irrigation is practiced, the farmer is tolerably independent of droughts; but much of the farm land in this valley is not irrigated; and farmers told me that on such land they counted upon seven good seasons in ten years. The grasshopper, which did some damage last year in all this Southern country, comes, it is said, after a dry season. Some farmers thought that grasshoppers could not breed on ploughed land; I do not know how this may be, and they spoke from but a limited experience; but it seems probable, from what I was told, that the scourge is lessened when the soil is frequently and thoroughly cultivated.

Land is Cheap

The neighborhood of San Bernardino appears to me an admirable country for thrifty farmers. Land is cheaper than near Los Angeles; water is abundant; there is still much valuable Congress and railroad land; there is a good market for all products; the soil is almost universally excellent, and I do not doubt that a thrifty New England or New York farmer would have raise a large family in comfort and independence on forty or at most eighty acres of land; and if he planted ten or twelve acres in oranges and walnuts, would, in ten years, have a handsome income with trifling labor for the rest of his life. By the time the valley is settled, the Southern Pacific Railroad, whose engineers are already working this way, will run through or near it, and the Arizona trade, which it already possesses, it will not lose.

The Foot-hills

It struck me here, as elsewhere in this lower country, that the foot-hills contain the best lands for thrifty farmers. The soil is usually loose, though probably of less lasting fertility; water comes from the mountains; the views are enchanting; and the orange will certainly do better there than on the plain. The old Mission of San Bernardino, now a shapeless ruin, lies high up among the foot-hills; and 2000 feet above San Bernardino, in the San Gorgonio Pass, lies Dr. Edgar's vineyard, which produces the best light wine I have tasted in California - proving once more, what is now generally suspected by the thoughtful vine-growers of this State, that the hill and mountain sides will produce the best wine here.

Farmers Make Two Mistakes

Farmers in this country make two mistakes not uncommon to American farmers, but less excusable here than elsewhere. They try to own too much land, and they are content with shabby houses. Eighty acres will make an industrious farmer rich in this climate; his living ought to cost him very little money after the first year, for he may have fresh vegetables out of his garden every month of the year; of potatoes, one hundred bushels to the acre is but a moderate crop; the tomato-vine bears for two or three years in succession; every fruit-tree of the temperate zone bears here far more quickly than with us in the East; and when the pepper-tree and the acacia and eucalyptus grow from ten to twenty feet in a single season, there is no excuse for a lack of shade about the house.

Shabby Houses

As to the house itself, the family lives so much out-of-doors and the weather is so fine all the year round, that a dwelling appears, no doubt, a secondary consideration. But it is abominable to see well-to-do farmers living, as they do hereabout, in shabby little shanties, and to find the rarest and loveliest flowers adorning what looks to an Eastern man more like a pig-pen than like a house. No doubt many of the people of whom I complain come hither poor, and have become accustomed to live as they continue to do; but half a dozen thrifty, neat, New England families would make such a change in the appearance of San Bernardino as would amaze the old settlers - unless, indeed, they too fell into the ways of their predecessors.

Indians as Laborers

Fences and houses are best built by contract. Ploughing can also be done by contract. The common farm laborers are Indians. They are docile, know how to handle horses, and are used for every kind of labor. They receive from fifty cents to one dollar and twenty-five cents per day, and are a useful people; their only faults being a propensity to get drunk on Saturday night - no irregularly during the week, however - and to wander from place to place. There are but few Chinese at San Bernardino.

Churches and Schools

San Bernardino has a Methodist, Presbyterian, and a Mormon, as well as a Catholic Church. It has also, what you would hardly find in a town of its size and character outside of California, a large, well-built, and well-kept school-house. The school-houses in this State are a constant surprise to an Eastern traveler. You find them everywhere; and if you are interested in education, you will easily discover that the people take great interest and pride in their public schools. The school building at San Bernardino would be creditable to an Eastern town of 10,000 inhabitants.

Artesian Wells

Artesian wells are made here by the simple pressure of a lever upon a wrought-iron tube. The double sheet-iron tube, seven inches in diameter, costs one dollar per foot here; and for boring, in which a sand pump is used to bring up the contents of the pipe, the charge is one dollar for every hundred feet lower. The water usually flows with force enough to carry it through a two-story house, and in such abundance that it is used for irrigation.

Riverside Colony

Near San Bernardino lies the land of the Riverside Colony. The Company owns 8000 acres; it has brought water down in a flume, at considerable cost, enough to irrigate not only this trace, but 15,000 acres more of a plain lying somewhat lower down. The land has been but lately open to settlement; and as it is a large, open, treeless plain, with but a few small houses scattered over it, it does not look very inviting. The company offer land for from twenty to forty dollars per acre; and the charge for water would, the agent told me, be about two dollars per annum per acre. The land is good, though I think a little less kindly than that of the valley and foot-hills of San Bernardino. I have no doubt that it is good wheat and fruit land, and it offers some advantages to persons who desire to settle in a colony. There is already a school-house, a post-office, and, of course, an abundant supply of water. But the price asked for land is high for this region, and the company proposes no restrictions about liquor-selling, nor conditions for the planting of shade-trees or the style of improvements - nor, indeed, do they stipulate that a purchaser shall improve at all.

I was not surprised to be told that several of the settlers had bought ten or twenty acres of the company lands, but were raising a crop from two or three hundred acres of the adjoining government and railroad land. The agent assured me that ten acres would support a family, and that more than twenty acres were not necessary to a farmer. But he is mistaken; no man should come out to this part of the country to make his living from the land and get less than forty, or, better yet, eighty acres. It is true that when his orange, or olive, or walnut, or almond orchard comes into bearing, he will have a handsome income from ten acres; but for this he must wait at least eight to ten years, and he must live in the mean time.

Consumptives are Healed

There is no doubt that Riverside has, in common with the surrounding country, uncommon advantages for consumptives and person subject to bronchial troubles. The air is dry and bracing, and the temperature uniform and equal. One may live out-of-doors almost every day of the year in this Southern California, and I have seen, on my journey, dozens of people deeply gone in consumption when they came here, who had been restored to health by residence in some one of the southern counties, or in sheltered spots like San Rafael, north even of San Francisco.


It will, perhaps, occur to you, as it did to me, to ask what people do on such a great plain for fire-wood. They plant live fences of willow or cotton-wood, which grow so rapidly that after two years a man may cut from his cotton-wood fence not only fire-wood, but poles to support the over laden fruit-trees. This is the common custom about San Bernardino, where several thousand acres have been newly inclosed this winter - how droll it seems to call it winter, while I am writing in an open porch, and in the shade! You may see everywhere long rows of gaunt poles, from three to six inches in diameter, stuck into the ground, which will presently take root, throw out leaves, and become substantial trees; and these are at once fence and fire-wood.