Farm for Ill and Destitute Grew Into a Place of Hope
When a bit of sunshine hits ye,
After passing of a cloud,
When a fit of laughter gits ye,
And ye’r spine is feelin’ proud,
Don’t forget to up and fling it
At a soul that’s feelin’ blue,
For the minit that ye sling it
It’s a boomerang to you.
Captain Jack, 100, a former sea captain and a patient at the County Farm in 1931
Rancho Los Amigos has always brought sunshine to the unfortunate, first as the County Poor Farm and now as a leading rehabilitation center for patients with disabilities ranging from severe spinal cord injuries to brain damage. But 115 years after it opened, the center is battling a county budget crunch to keep its lights on.
Meantime, Rancho goes about its business of helping the unfortunate. Built with county bond money, Rancho opened in 1888 as a catchall institution for what is now the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. It was a haven for the homeless, the mentally ill, the handicapped and the elderly -- often unlucky ‘49ers -- as well as a working farm with cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, a dairy, vegetables, flowers and fruit trees.
One of its first residents was a feisty humpbacked Irish immigrant named Paddy, who loved to smoke his pipe and cheerfully greet visitors. But not all the residents were so happy.
“Too much work,” grumbled a stout little man who served the food. “It don’t matter none how soon I git through that, ‘cause there’s always something else to do all the time.”
Once, the complex sprawled across nearly 600 acres in Downey, straddling Imperial Highway. But over the years much of the land was sold and transferred, and today Rancho occupies 55 acres, mainly on the north side. A few dilapidated structures remain to the south, including a two-story, 5,000-square-foot Craftsman-style house, built in 1915 as a home for the superintendent. It is vacant and boarded up.
Hospital practices now taken for granted, such as identification wrist tags, came from Rancho, it is said. Major innovations such as “the halo,” used to support the head and neck of a patient with a spinal cord injury, were invented there. Rancho was the first to use plastics for prosthetic limbs instead of wood.
When it began as the County Poor Farm, it was a place where officials tried to steer derelicts back onto the right track. The “bums,” motley men whose problem was the bottle and whose cure was a few sober weeks on the farm, became caretakers. So did other able-bodied indigents whose labor offset the cost of their food and care.
A train line ran through the property to pick up passengers as well as farm products, including rugs and handmade woolen underwear for sale to the public. At one time, there was even a zoo and an aviary.
When many patients died, they were buried in paupers’ graves at the southwest corner of what is now Downey, between Garfield Avenue and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Some were merely worn out, like the 100-year-old British immigrant who remembered fighting against Napoleon’s troops at Waterloo in 1815, according to the hospital’s centennial book, “Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center 1888-1988,” by Colleen Adair Fliedner.
Another man who ended up in the graveyard was James Eastman, once a prominent Los Angeles attorney and orator who “drunk himself to death.”
But the cemetery is no longer there, and no one’s sure where the bodies were moved. In 1914, when the Los Angeles and Rio Hondo rivers flooded the community, torrential waters swept many of the old pine boxes downstream. The old cemetery records are sketchy at best, but historians believe that traces of unearthed human remains were buried elsewhere.
During the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, the hospital began to treat all victims, not just the indigent. The County Poor Farm became simply the County Farm in the town of Hondo, which would be absorbed by Downey in the 1950s.
By the 1930s, Capt. Jack had become a living landmark at Rancho. He had seen the world and left behind brokenhearted women in every port. “In spite of his failing health, he always had a yarn to tell,” Fliedner wrote. He left behind a poem explaining his philosophy.
In 1932, the hospital’s name was changed to Rancho Los Amigos, “Ranch of the Friends.” By then, it was becoming legendary for occupational therapy. Exercise provided by the various crafts, such as weaving and woodworking, helped to restore limbs and spirits.
One patient had a badly crippled left hand and arm, so a therapist placed a sanding block in it and told the patient to sand furniture. Not only was the task therapeutic, but the man earned a monthly stipend to be spent at the hospital store.
In 1933, after the Long Beach earthquake damaged most of the buildings and a “Tent City” was set up, a large group of Rancho patients flooded county Supervisor Roger Jessup’s office at the Hall of Records, urging him to make improvements.
Jessup’s secretary, Grace Wagner, 35, became so distressed that she leaped to her death from the office window.
“Some of these people told tragic tales,” Jessup said. “There was a woman ... who screamed out the need of a family on Christmas. She was hysterical and wrought havoc with Miss Wagner’s nerves.”
Other stories from the hospital wards are rich with the improbable. Poliomyelitis patient Irene Ridgeway, who arrived at Rancho in 1948 and stayed 10 years, learned to wield an artist’s brush, which she held in her teeth. A prolific artist, she helped raise money for the hospital with her beatific oil paintings, pencil sketches and holiday card scenes.
During World War II, an enterprising group of Rancho patients formed WARCO, contracting for piecework in the aircraft industry. At the same time, Rancho began operating as an emergency hospital. The Army became its neighbor, turning part of the hospital grounds into Camp Morrow.
Polio invaded before war’s end, and the hospital was restructured to provide long-term care and rehabilitation. Enormous black and white photos from that time line the corridors. The grainy images show children and adults encased in iron lungs, their heads sticking out, while the machines help them breathe.
In 1954, 1,865 people in Los Angeles County caught polio; across the nation, more than 38,000 were stricken. Most of those local victims were treated at Rancho, where rows and rows of iron lungs lined the wards.
Discovery of the Salk polio vaccine the next year would send hundreds of iron lungs into storage. But not all. A batch of improperly made vaccine spread the polio virus to 79 children.
One of them was Brian May, then 5, of Pacific Palisades. Almost completely paralyzed, he spent 16 months in an oversized steel cocoon that encased his tiny body and filled his lungs with air. From an overhead mirror, he learned to read backward.
“What I did was, mostly it was very little, it was amazingly little,” he said in a 1985 interview. “I listened to the radio. To go to the bathroom or to get bathed in any way was like a life risk, because you stop breathing. The way they handled that was, eventually, to have me breathe trach [tracheotomy] air, to have an air hose hooked up to my neck.”
Doctors predicted that Brian would live only 15 years; the vaccine manufacturer paid a settlement calibrated to provide 24-hour care for life. Brian outlived the prediction and the money. He died in 1995 at the age of 45.
Pioneering orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jacquelin Perry performed spinal operations that helped Brian and other patients regain mobility. Perry, 85, remains the grande dame of polio physicians and the longest full-time professional employee at Rancho, despite struggling with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
“Patients are coming back to me whom I treated in ’55 and ’56,” Perry said. “You don’t look back. You look at what you can do to help them.”
Pediatrician Donna M. Barras, a polio victim since the age of 9 months, began working at the hospital in 1957. She encouraged the children she treated to believe that they could become successes in spite of disabilities.
“I’m sort of an example,” she said in a 1972 newspaper interview. “Even as a child I would hit the ball and have someone run for me. I even roller-skated by holding onto the fence.”
In the late 1950s, the farm, dairy and mental health wards closed, but Rancho remained, converted into a modern chronic-disease hospital and, later, a renowned rehabilitation center. Only a few able-bodied patients still lived there; thousands had once marked their days by the steam whistle that signaled meals, quitting time and lights out.
Where County Farm cattle once roamed and a dairy once stood, scores of electric golf carts now maneuver through Los Amigos Golf Course.
But Rancho’s Mission-style bell tower, visible from the highway, still serves as a landmark. So does a Moreton Bay fig tree, one of the largest in Southern California, with roots as broad as an infield -- and almost as intricate as the roots of Rancho itself.