‘Walnut Queen’ Broke Lots of New Ground
She had to fight sexism, the loss of her husband and his fortune and her own spinal problems, but Harriet Russell Strong persevered to become the “Walnut Queen of Southern California.”
From an arid 220-acre farm near what is now Whittier, Strong parlayed her home-grown walnuts into a thriving food empire and turned the feathery fronds of the drought-tolerant Argentine pampas grass she planted around her orchards into a trendy fashion statement that swept the nation. Ultimately, her success made her the first female member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Eventually, Strong--the widowed mother of four and a semi-invalid for many years--designed canal and reservoir systems used in the Colorado River project that transformed Southern California into one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1844, “Hattie” Russell moved to Northern California at the age of 10 with her parents and six siblings. A persistent “affliction of the spine” made her childhood difficult, but never diminished her appetite for learning.
In 1863, four years after the Comstock Lode discovery lured the Russell family to Nevada, Hattie met and married Charles Lyman Strong, a prominent mining engineer nearly twice her age.
Her husband’s vault to fame and fortune in the mining field brought heavy pressure. Falling into a deadly downward spiral, Strong suffered a mental breakdown and was forced to resign from his position as superintendent of the Gould & Curry mine. He moved his family to Oakland and focused on rest, farming and travel.
One trip brought the Strongs to Los Angeles, where they purchased 220 acres near the current city of Whittier from Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor. They built a home there, hopefully called Rancho del Fuerte (Ranch of Strength), while continuing to live in Oakland.
Afflicted by continuing bouts of depression, Strong committed suicide in 1883 when he learned that a mine he had invested in had been “salted” with phony ore.
Husbandless and temporarily broke while the bulk of the estate was tied up in what became eight years of litigation, Strong had to carry the burden of holding her family together.
Fleeing the scandal that followed her husband’s death, she decided to make the Southern California ranch her permanent home. The 39-year-old Strong began planting and experimenting with walnut trees--a crop new to California--as well as citrus fruits, pomegranates and pampas grass.
But to make her experiments pay off, she studied irrigation and flood control and was granted patents on her designs for a sequence of storage dams. Other inventions followed.
Strong’s success with the popular walnut tree established what ultimately became one of the state’s most lucrative tree crop industries. Her own walnuts were particularly in demand for their unique buttery flavor and fashionable, upscale image.
That image emerged from her early recognition that sales were just as important as harvests. With that in mind, Strong studied, developed and applied new marketing techniques. Similar success followed with her promotion of the exotic, feathery grass into an industry that earned her still another title: “Pampas Lady.”
Exotic Grass Fad
Tapping the lucrative East Coast market first, she hopped a train for Philadelphia, where she dazzled a department store magnate with her ornamental pampas grass plumes. Decorating the store’s entryway, she captured the fancy of the city’s shoppers, who bought 134,000 plumes at a buck a stalk.
In 1892, Strong expanded her marketing effort to New York, where she called on the Republican National Committee, which was preparing to run President Benjamin Harrison against Democrat and former President Grover Cleveland. Taking a red, white and blue pampas plume, fanned out torch-like on a polished wooden staff, she convinced the committee to adopt her exotic creation as the party’s national emblem. Republican clubs nationwide bought the trinket. Using a different design, she sold similar plumes to the Democrats, supplied the Prohibition Party with thousands to decorate its national convention hall in Cincinnati, and introduced them at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s first World’s Fair, in 1893.
When the exotic plant fad died down, her ranch and others nearby turned the area into a walnut producing center. (In 1912, 1,164 growers formed the California Walnut Growers Assn., stamping the Diamond brand on all top-grade walnuts.)
Strong was a tough nut to crack, and no ordinary farmer. A strong-willed, outspoken advocate of “women in business,” she believed it took brains, not brawn, to run a farm.
Seventeen years before women could vote, Los Angeles’ Wilshire Ebell Club was born of a meeting of forward-thinking women, headed by Strong, in 1894.
During the suffrage movement, Strong played host to the Rev. Ann Shaw and Susan B. Anthony, who warned her to moderate such sentiments as her bluntly stated view that: “It isn’t any more masculine for women to vote than for men to cook dinner, and it would be all right for either to do both.”
She also founded the first Christian Science Church in Whittier, and stimulated the area’s historic consciousness by leading an intense battle to save the Pio Pico mansion--the birthplace of her second daughter--with the help of onetime Times city editor Charles Fletcher Lummis and his Landmark Club.
Politics interested her, but agriculture, flood control and water supply were her primary concerns.
Her idea to tame the unruly Colorado River by damming it and to provide silt-free water for irrigating a million acres in the California desert by constructing the American Canal was presented to Congress in 1918.
The plan was hogtied for several years, until Phil Swing and Hiram Johnson, both Democratic congressmen from California, supported Strong’s concept. It was adopted in 1928, two years after Strong was killed in a Los Angeles traffic accident.
It was a tragically prosaic end for a woman who had spent so much of her life on the road less traveled.
Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.