On the NE corner of Bessemer and Vesper, here in Van Nuys, there is a steel walled storage warehouse with three pitched roofs.
Unmarked with any signs, it seems to have been there many years, and is characteristic of structures that once stood alongside rail lines to receive and to send out produce, grains, and manufactured products to faraway markets.
I dug up information from the city and found that “14551 Bessemer St.” was built in 1922, at a cost of $4,000, for the Fernando Feed and Fuel Co. It stood alongside the freight lines and was serviced by a dedicated Southern Pacific rail spur that went right into the property.
By 1925, chicken ranches were a big business in the San Fernando Valley, with an estimated 1,000,000 laying hens in the valley producing some 12 million eggs at a gross return of $5 million dollars. (In 2019 dollars, about $72 million.)
A 1925 LA Times article said that the Fernando Feed and Fuel Company started in 1916 as a feed store, but grew, in nine years, to 1,500 customers, large and small. Several other facilities for warehouse storage were located in Owensmouth and Van Nuys with a crew of 45 men and 15 trucks delivering feed and other orders to customers.
Chicken ranches, on one, two or five acres were a type of housing development that sprung up all around Southern California. They allowed families to feed themselves and also make a living selling chickens and eggs. At that time, other orchards grew oranges, walnuts, lemons, avocados, asparagus, and strawberries.
A 1916 LA Times article praised “rose lined Sherman Way” (later renamed VNB) and the white feathered leghorns that dotted recently established (1911) Van Nuys.
Scientific work to bolster the agriculture industry and promote poultry farming was often shown.
In 1920, a four-day poultry institute was given at Van Nuys High School, by Prof. Dougherty, head of the poultry division, college of agriculture at U of CA, under the auspices of the LA County Farm Bureau and the Van Nuys Poultry Association. A vaccination to fight chicken-pox was demonstrated there.
Entrepreneurs and peripatetic innovators flocked to Van Nuys to raise chickens in advanced ways.
At a five-acre ranch on Woodman Avenue, in 1925, a recently transplanted Englishman, JCF Knapp, who had run plantations in Sumatra and India, had finally realized his lifelong dream to become a poultry farmer in Van Nuys. His operation had the capacity for 4000 chicks, and Mr. Knapp confidently asserted that he had not only a successful business model but a new kind of assembly line efficiency [for producing Grade A chickens on the scale of Model A’s.]
Also in 1925, WW Todd Realty Co. reported that a new set of chicken farms, totaling five acres, were to be built on Ranchito Av. near Tulare St. in Van Nuys. Some 100,000 laying Leghorn hens were expected to arrive in the valley within six months.
[Ranchito Av., for the geographically ignorant, runs parallel to Woodman and Hazeltine, halfway between both. I found no modern maps with a Tulare St. however]
A 1920s aerial photograph of downtown Van Nuys shows the Fernando Feed and Fuel storage warehouse and the combination of commercial buildings along “Sherman Way” (renamed in 1926 Van Nuys Bl.) and orchards that were planted right inside the middle of town. VNHS is in the upper center/right of the photo. (below)
The chicken farms of the 1920s, which boosters never stopped boosting, gradually died out when the Great Depression hit after 1930 and sank agricultural prices. By the late 1930s, suburban development came to the San Fernando Valley, and during the war (1941-45), industrial and defense plants, soldiers, military hospitals and the urgencies of war supplanted the rural way of life raising chickens.
After 1945, the San Fernando Valley was the fastest growing place in the world, and every acre of land was transformed by housing developments, shopping centers, and car centered designs.
The chicken farm, with its odors and mosquitos was now a menace, and housewives in Reseda were scared to let their children play outside.
Lost in the stories about the chicken farms is an old America that valued challenges and thought itself capable of surmounting them. Poor, barely educated and hard-working people came here and somehow transformed Los Angeles into an advanced city that also grew its own food and sold off the surplus to an amazed and grateful nation.
Van Nuys, once a proud and admired center of advanced agricultural innovations, committed civic suicide. It destroyed its downtown by ripping up diagonal parking, widening the road to freeway widths, removing the streetcar, tearing down old buildings and replacing them with empty plazas and zombie moonscapes of trash and concrete. It embarked upon decades of laying down asphalt and laying out the red carpet for criminals, malcontents and derelicts.
Porn, marijuana, prostitution, bail bonds and slumlords were the largest industries by year 2000. Hopelessness replaced optimism and dystopia seized this district like an incurable disease.
And politicians were thought worthy, not for their works, but only if their last names ended in the letters S or Z.
At least we have the Internet to thank for a glimmer of what it once was.