rancho history

The three Bixby girls (from left to right), “Sister” (Elizabeth), Katharine and Deborah were raised on the Rancho and were renowned cattle women. This photo shows them at a Roundup at the Nacimiento Ranch in Paso Robles in April 1912.

Rancho Los Alamitos is celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage by producing a series of virtual tours and programs that honor the contributions of women who lived and worked at the ranch.

Ambyr Hardy, RLA’s education associate and an anthropologist, has led the Women’s History Research Group — a collection of Rancho staff, volunteers and five Long Beach State interns — who have combed the Rancho’s oral and written archives for stories about women. 

“We recognized in 2018 that 2020 would be 100th anniversary,” Hardy said. “We know many of the women were remarkable. It was the perfect time to promote these women’s stories. As an anthropologist, I have a background in research. But then COVID-19 took over and changed our time frame, but it allowed us more time to developed our stories in greater detail.”

According to longbeach.gov, Abel Stearns acquired the Rancho property from the Nieto family in 1842. Stearns lost the property to the J. Bixby Company, which purchased the site in 1878. The Bixby family lived on the rancho until 1968, when the property was donated to the city.

Hardy said the research group has had fun developing a deeper understanding of the people who lived at what is now 6400 E. Bixby Hill Road. Understandably, the Bixby family archives are the most extensive.

“There was a lot of good information we uncovered, especially about the Bixbys,” she said. “We have spent around 1,500 hours doing research so far. We are working on matching up images and artifacts to the stories we will be telling. We are going to have recordings so that people can hear the voices of these characters. We had to dig a little deeper to find voices other than the Bixby family.”

Two of the more interesting stories that will be showcased concern one of the Bixby’s daughters and the first woman cook at the ranch.

“Fred and Florence Bixby had three daughters — Katherine, Elizabeth and Deborah — come of age during the suffrage movement,” Hardy said. “One of our favorite characters is Elizabeth Bixby; she was called Sister.”

Hardy said the Bixbys were hoping that their second child would be a son; they even had the name John selected. But when the second child was a girl, they gave Elizabeth the nickname “Sister.”

“Sister was a a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl,” Hardy said. “She did things her own way. She remained a cattle woman, but she waited to get married and when she did, it was to a ranch hand. She never had children, and she went against the grain concerning women’s roles. How do you, in 1920 say, ‘no, I’m not going to marry the right person, I’m doing things my way.’ The three girls were outspoken and fought for what was right.”

And then there was Lydia Shinkle, the cook, the second-highest paid staff member at the time, who will be featured in a June summer workshop called Cooking for a Crowd.

According to the Rancho team’s research, Shinkle was born in 1876 in what is now Oklahoma. She was one of 19 children. She moved to Long Beach in 1907, where her husband made a living as a lobster fisherman at the foot of Cherry Avenue. After her husband died, Shinkle happened to meet Florence Bixby at a volunteer event and was hired on the spot.

“At the age of 44, Shinkle was the first woman cook at Rancho Los Alamitos, arriving the same year women got the vote, 1920,” Hardy said. “Despite being deaf and a single woman, Shinkle was admired and successful. She managed daily food service for the Bixby family and their ranch hands, not to mention society gatherings, for over 20 years.”

Hardy said she is hoping that the virtual museum will be opened this month. People will be able to link to it from the RLA website, www.rancholosalamitos.com/. Exhibits will be added throughout the year.

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