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Fire writes the final chapter for the world’s largest egg ranch

Times Staff Writer

Egg kingpin Julius Goldman founded the world’s largest egg ranch here in Southern California, ruffling a few feathers along the way.

At its peak in the 1970s and ‘80s, Egg City produced 2 million eggs a day, laid by 3.5 million hens. It also exuded a major stink that offended noses in much of Ventura County.

Earlier this month, the Shekell fire near Moorpark ravaged 13,600 acres, destroying five houses as well as the large egg factory, which had been abandoned since 1996.

Almost since it opened in 1961, the agricultural landmark had been imperiled by fires and Newcastle disease; rattled by high winds and earthquakes; and attacked literally by vandals and figuratively by lawyers. Finally, development henpecked it into oblivion.

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But in Egg City’s glory days, it was emblematic of the San Fernando Valley’s moment in the sun as a great agricultural power, bringing 400 jobs to the area. Its story is told from earlier articles in The Times and the Ventura County Star Free Press.

Whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, Goldman arrived in the world in 1914 in Germany, where he studied to be a metallurgist.

More than 20 years later, the Nazis shot and killed his Jewish father. Goldman escaped to Poland and later to Switzerland, where he joined the International Brigades, a group of about 35,000 to 60,000 men and women from more than 50 countries who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939.

Later, the rest of his family perished in World War II concentration camps.

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After the war, he and his wife, Mary, moved to the United States, settling on a friend’s Van Nuys egg farm in 1953.

Goldman decided that he too would go into eggs, but just for three years. He figured that would give him time to learn enough English to practice his trade as a metallurgist.

“I was a city boy,” he told the Ventura County Star Free Press in a 1974 interview. “Didn’t even know how many legs has a chicken.”

But with a $5,000 bank loan, a piece of Van Nuys land and 3,000 chickens, he went into business later that year.

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Housing was springing up everywhere in postwar Los Angeles, especially in the Valley. Residents soon began to complain of “nose” pollution from Goldman’s egg ranch. So he found greener pastures in Montebello, where he bought land, built a feed mill and processing plant and filled henhouses with 200,000 chickens, the Star Free Press reported.

Again, there were problems. Locals complained about the flies and the stench.

With money, vision and a yen for country life, the “city boy” flew the coop again in 1961 to a rugged notch in the Santa Susana Mountains. There, Goldman built Egg City, a 205-acre ranch where the mountain breezes could keep the chickens cool in hot weather -- and whisk away the smells. Here, he believed, urban expansion would take a long time to reach him and the smaller egg ranches that had been in the area since the 1950s.

Four miles north of Moorpark, off a former stagecoach road -- now California 23 -- Goldman began scraping the tops and sides off the dry hillsides to make room for poultry coops, a veterinary staff, a research laboratory and a computerized feed mill. Within seven years, he was known as the “No. 1 egg man,” a leader in the industry. He pioneered a fully integrated egg production and processing plant that became a benchmark for the world’s egg industry.

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At Egg City, he depended on Jerry Hokoda, a professional chick sexer, who could glance at the ambiguous back end of a chick and distinguish tomorrow’s hens from cockerels. Twice a week, Hokoda took his team of sexers to scrutinize tens of thousands of cheeping yellow newborns in the glare of 200-watt light bulbs. They operated at a rate of 1,000 an hour with an accuracy of “99.5%,” according to a 1985 Los Angeles Times story.

By the late 1960s, Goldman and other breeders had discovered a simpler way to sort chicks: “feather” sexing. They had noticed that the wings on some female chicks were longer than those on males. Old-fashioned chick-sexing became a sunset trade and nearly vanished. Nevertheless, Goldman kept Hokoda on -- just to avoid any mistakes, The Times reported in 1985.

Goldman, along with other members of the egg industry, hatched a plan to promote egg consumption. In 1964, the California Egg Commission named actress and radio talk-show host Pamela Mason, the former wife of British actor James Mason, as “Egghead of the Year.” The “Pamelette Omelette” -- with shrimp, mushrooms, black olives and herbs -- was named for her, The Times reported in 1964.

“I love eggs,” Goldman told the Star Free Press. “Mrs. Goldman, on the other hand, hates eggs.”

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In October 1966, Egg City’s employees were burning cardboard egg cases when a gust of wind blew embers onto the food processing building. The resulting fire destroyed the building, doing more than $100,000 in damage. No one was injured.

The next year, the neighbors that Goldman had thought would take so long to arrive were populating Moorpark and Fillmore. Soon, they were complaining about flies and mosquitoes that bred in chicken manure.

One local gadfly made his feelings clear.

In the late 1960s, Joseph Latunski built a giant fly, 6 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, out of 100 pounds of plaster. He mounted it atop his truck along with a sign: “Moorpark -- Fly Capital of the California. Help!”

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He drove around the county and parked the truck in front of the state Capitol for three days but got no help from state agencies, according to the 1985 Times article.

Finally, to a hearing before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, Latunski took a large shopping bag filled with dead flies.

“I caught 1,900 flies in my vestibule that I had sprayed with DDT a half hour previously,” he told The Times. “I counted them, then I took them and shoved the sack in front of the supervisors.”

With new zoning, the county encouraged the egg ranchers to move farther from cities, but Egg City stayed put.

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Goldman’s business soon faced other problems. In 1972, it had to kill 2.8 million birds as part of a statewide effort to eradicate Newcastle disease. Most of his 400 workers -- whom he had given five dozen eggs each week for years -- were out of work. They remained jobless for 10 months, until the disease passed and Goldman could buy more chickens. Meantime, egg prices soared.

Egg City was having labor troubles too. The Teamsters had unionized the plant in 1970. In 1975, the union walked out to protest a firing. The company fired the strikers and hired replacements, who joined the Teamsters.

Unhappy strikers then joined the United Farm Workers.

Three years of court fights between the unions ensued. After two elections among Egg City workers, the UFW prevailed.

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But labor problems -- and neighbor complaints -- continued. Finally, after more zoning changes, Goldman sold Egg City in 1978 to Kroger Co., the Cincinnati-based grocery chain. The ranch changed hands several times after that.

In 1986, the Guinness Book of Records listed Egg City as the world’s largest egg ranch, The Times reported. But that year the ranch began cracking under high labor costs, and the owners filed for bankruptcy.

After a bitter court battle over control of the ranch, new owners downsized it in 1992, selling half of the chickens and focusing on such products as dried egg white for cake mixes.

For a few years, the ranch was leased by yet another company, which bailed out in 1996. Egg City was abandoned.

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What little that remained burned in this month’s fire.

Goldman, who had retired to his home in Sherman Oaks, died of cancer in 1987, at age 73.

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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