Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Thursday, July 12, 2018
William H. Crocker, member of the famous railroad and banking family, was involved in a number of business enterprises on the South Coast. One of these enterprises was a large lemon ranch in Montecito, the Crocker-Sperry Ranch, also known as Las Fuentes (The Springs). The packing house was the operational center of the ranch; it now serves as the clubhouse for the Birnam Wood Golf Club.
In 1887, Crocker; his mother-in-law, Caroline Sperry; and John Cutting bought more than 218 acres around the area where East Valley Road and Sheffield Drive intersect today. Originally the trio had plans for a housing development of 33 parcels, but real estate prices crashed in the late 1880s, and they turned to ranching.
After Cutting left the partnership, Crocker and Sperry decided to plant most of the ranch in lemons. Some 25,000 olive trees were cleared off the land to make way for 28,000 lemon trees, and, in 1891, construction began on a packing house. The ranch had three reservoirs, which could hold some 3,000,000 gallons.
The three-story, 10,000-square-foot packing house was made of cut stone. The architect was Arthur Page Brown, who had designed the Crocker family mansion in San Francisco and would design the five houses that make up Crocker Row in the 2000 block of Garden Street. The facility went into operation in 1894; masonry costs came to $6,000.
The company paid close attention to market prices. If prices were high, the green fruit was placed in heated rooms to quickly ripen and be shipped out. If the market was sluggish, the fruit could be stored in cooler facilities until prices improved. The packing house served not only Las Fuentes, but ranches up and down the South Coast until it closed in 1942.
A new partner appeared in 1894, with the arrival of Andre Poniatowski, a Pole of noble lineage who married into the Sperry family. The ranch prospered; by the early 1900s, it had grown to more than 250 acres, most of which were planted in lemons, although grain was also raised. Avocados would later be added to the mix. It was one of the largest lemon ranches in the state.
In 1943, the ranch came into the hands of the four Poniatowski sons, one of whom, Casimir, became ranch manager. The ranch continued to produce lemons until 1964, when the East Valley Ranch Company, headed by Robert McLean and William “Pete” Sears, bought the property. McLean, a former president of the Associated Press, was publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press. Sears was a local Realtor. The partners’ plan to build houses on the ranch harked back to the original idea for the property.
The centerpiece of the development was an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, one of the world’s foremost golf course architects. An ardent reader of Shakespeare, McLean took a line from Macbeth and named the property Birnam Wood.
The packing house, by now in sad shape, was earmarked to become the clubhouse. The top two floors were removed and a second story rebuilt with steel reinforcing. The club opened in 1967 and soon after the first lots offered for sale. Echoes of Las Fuentes remain, not only in the packing house/clubhouse, but in the lemon trees that still dot the property.