Walk to the top of the hill that was once home to the Northam Ranch and imagine the view as it was in the late 1800s. Robert "Diamond Bob" Northam--owner of the Rancho las Bolsas and fiduciary manager for the Stearns Rancho--looked out over what would become downtown Huntington Beach and off to the Pacific Ocean. The palm trees that once greeted visitors as they arrived at the home's porte-cochère still stand, encircling the grounds that held one of the oldest homes in Huntington Beach.
Robert Northam's life would have been fodder for any of today's reality shows: he was a target for burglars, had to fight for his million-dollar inheritance, dabbled in ostrich farming, was accused of fund mismanagement by the Stearns Rancho board, scandalously married a much younger woman, publicly objected to his society daughter running off with Madame Modjeska's theater group, and made headlines in an incident about missing pants.
Northam was described as owning "more miles of California ranches than there are streets in New York." Diamond Bob was rich, and for a while, lived large in Orange County.
Above: Colonel Robert Northam. He moved the Northam Ranch House to a hill in Huntington Beach in 1896, where it became the center for a cattle operation. Northam owned approximately 1,300 acres in the surrounding area, along with numerous business enterprises in Southern California. (Image, Hollywood Heritage Museum)
Left: The porte-cochère of the Northam Ranch house, surrounded by a garden and palm trees. The main portion of the home was moved by mule team from Buena Park, and Northam added more features. The home was sold to the Huntington Beach Company in 1904. One of the oldest structures in Huntington Beach, it was lost to fire in 2000. A private park containing the heritage palm trees is open to the public, providing a glimpse into the life of one of California's wealthiest men. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
"Colonel 'Bob' Northam is one of the most popular and widely known men in Southern California," declared the Los Angeles Herald in 1901. "His uncle was one of the owners of the Stearns rancho, a vast tract of land on which Fullerton, Santa Ana and Orange now stand."
The Northam Ranch House site, as it appears today, still retains the ring of historic palm trees that once surrounded the home. (Photo, June 2013)
The Stearns Rancho land was acquired in 1858 from Joaquin Ruiz for cattle and sheep grazing until the drought of 1861, which forced the company to divest itself of land holdings. The last sale of the Stearns Rancho Company was the Huntington Beach mesa to Colonel Robert Northam.
Northam was "one of the most prominent land speculators in Southern California." In 1901, he sold part of the "Los Bolsos" rancho (Rancho las Bolsas) for $100,000. Northam had taken $10,000 as a down payment, the remainder to be paid in $5,000 annual installments with four-percent interest, only terminating on his death. Considering this was only one of his enterprises, it's safe to say he had a comfortable income for the time.
A view of the Northam Ranch House from the roof of Huntington Beach City Hall on Yorktown Avenue, circa 1974. Today, a townhome complex is to the right of the Ranch House and senior citizen assisted living housing fronts Yorktown. (Photo snip, City of Huntington Beach archives)
Fight for inheritance
In 1887, Robert Northam's uncle, Edward Fernandez Northam, died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Edward Fernandez Northam was a longtime Californian who had been an examiner of Mexican land grant titles, real estate broker and self-described capitalist.
Edward Northam had entrusted his will to the Palace Hotel manager, C. H. Livingston, which had been locked away in the hotel safe. Robert Northam immediately petitioned to examine the will--stating he and his brother were the only heirs--but the hotel manager protested, indicating there was a legal executor to whom he must present the will. Relatives in the east had also been left assets and had to be notified; the will was in question. The squabble about the will made the front pages of California newspapers.
In the end, Northam received the inheritance from his uncle, including shares of the lands in Orange County known as La Bolsa Chica. With the Stearns Rancho Company, he sold land in what would become Wintersburg Village and Huntington Beach.
An advertisement for the Stearns Rancho Company, offering for sale farm and ranch land with railroad access. (Image, Los Angeles Daily Herald, April 26, 1889)
With additional money to invest, Northam had many business ventures. One of Northam's first business experiments was the first commercial ostrich farm in the United States, located on Stearns Rancho Company land in Anaheim. South African rancher Edward Atherton brought ostriches to Orange County and by 1891 he partnered with Northam on the California Ostrich Farming Company. At that time, Northam had a mansion in Los Angeles at Pearl (now Figueroa) and 6th Street.
Left: Mrs. William (Sara Jane) McFadden at the Atherton Ostrich Farm in Fullerton, circa 1890s. (Photo courtesy of the Yorba Linda Public Library)
The History, Los Angeles County, blog reports on the late 1800s fascination with ostrich farming, mentioning the Anaheim-area farm of Northam and Atherton, which was the first commercial ostrich farm in California.
The big money in ostriches was in the plumes, for fashion and for home decoration, at a reported three-dollars per plume (over $60.00 present day). Newspapers like the Los Angeles Herald reported on the shipment of ostriches to the farm, calling them "distinguished arrivals" in one headline.
Right: The first ostrich farm in Orange County, west of Anaheim, near Buena Park. Robert Northam partnered on the ranch for about eight years. Ostriches live for 50 to 75 years.(Photo courtesy of Anaheim Public Library)
"A farm started in Anaheim in 1882 was the first, and spawned a second farm (same owner) at Los Feliz Rancho, soon connected by rail line to 2nd Street and Beaudry in LA. These were followed by Al Cawston's Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena...then there was the Wilshire Ostrich Farm on Grand and 12th and an Ostrich Park Farm in Glendale in the 1880s. Briefly, there was one at 2nd Street Park, and one in Norwalk and even Santa Monica," writes History blogger Vicky Kall. "We were awash in ostriches."
In a dispatch from the San Francisco Bulletin to the New York Times in 1883, the Northam-Atherton ostrich farm is described as "a curiosity in every respect. It is reached by driving out from a very sandy road in Anaheim, part of the way over the old bed of the Santa Ana River, through fields thickly strewn with millions of yellow mock oranges...should (the ostriches) live and the experiment prove successful, Southern California may yet contain thousands of ostriches."
"Hard-Boiled Ostrich Eggs" from Robert Northam made the news. The American Ostrich Association advises it takes about 90 minutes to hard boil an ostrich egg. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, May 17, 1895)
Northam showcased his ostrich farm by serving up the eggs at a chamber of commerce luncheon. Ostrich eggs are roughly three pounds, about the equivalent of two-dozen chicken eggs; a modern-day food blogger reports you need a handsaw to crack them open.
It was a short-lived, fantastical venture, Atherton buying out Northam eight years later in 1899 and establishing his own ostrich farm in Fullerton.
Left: Letter to the editor from an unhappy Republican mentions Northam and hints at his influence. (Los Angeles Herald, April 8, 1892)
Diamond Bob living large in the OC on OPM (other people's money)
Around the same time as the ostrich farming venture, Northam was considered a mover-and-shaker in the California Republican party. His personal wealth and position with the Stearns Rancho Company made him a darling of society and a political power. Some of the money Diamond Bob used with great effect may not have been his.
"The directors of the Stearns Rancho Company have determined to call Colonel Robert F. Northam to account for the manner in which he has managed their business affairs," reported a dispatch from the San Francisco Chronicle in January 1894. The board had appointed a special committee to investigate Northam and "before an adjournment was taken, the colonel received some pretty hard knocks."
The committee charged that "nearly $150,000 passed into Northam's hands as manager of the company, for which he failed to render any accounting." The accusation was that Northam had received payments for land, timber and fertilizing material, had "appropriated the money to his own use." Northam's defenders on the board were in the minority and he reportedly presented a weak case.
"In refutation of each charge, he simply made a general denial without trying to produce facts or figures to prove the falsity of the documentary evidence against him," reported the Herald, which noted Northam had acted on behalf of the Stearns Rancho Company without informing them of his deals and transactions. The board majority report stated they would not make criminal charges but "that his services might be dispensed with."
Northam managed to land on his feet; the late 1800s finds him still living large. Although the drama was only beginning.
Madame Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska), famed Polish actress known for her Shakespearean roles, took up residence in Orange County. Modjeska Canyon in eastern Orange County--where she established her home, Arden--is named after her. (Image, HelenaModjeskaSociety.com)
Daughter runs off with Modjeska troop
In 1898, Robert and Fanny Northam's daugher, Maude, decided she was tired of society life and decided to take to the stage with famed actress, Madame Helena Modjeska. Alan Dale with the New York Journal, interviewed Maude Northam in February 1898, "Millionairess goes to work as a twenty-dollar a week soubrette," and gushes with tabloid enthusiasm.
"Little Miss Maude Northam of California and Mme. Modjeska's company has youth, prettiness, vivacity, enthusiasm and a millionaire popper," writes Dale, referring to Robert Northam. "Miss Northam has left it--I mean him--on the Pacific slope, in all its--I mean his--mercenary and tinkling glory."
"I'm dreadfully sorry that this society business has leaked out," (Maude) said smiling, "because it is such an old gag. I wanted to get along without that odious chestnut, but the gods were unkind. I'm found out--brought to bay, as it were."
Left: Madame Modjeska, at the center of the back row, with friends at Judge Egan's home in San Juan Capistrano, circa 1880s-1890s. (Photo, San Juan Capistrano Historical Society)
Maude Northam explains she sickened of society and that her "soul rebelled. There I was, simply living for pink teas, and yellow luncheons, and crushed strawberry dinners and--and, all the rest of it....These gayeties were all very well in their way, but they left the mind so dreadfully inactive." She continues to tell Alan Dale that her decision to become an actress did not go well with Robert Northam.
"Popper was always dead against the stage. He hated it," Maude Northam is quoted as telling Dale. "Mommer is such a dear thing that she is like clay in my hands....So I got into Modjeska's good graces. I explained to her my aspirations, and she agreed to give me a chance in her company."
"I went home and like a dutiful daughter broke the news to popper. He was furious, and--" continued Maude Northam, who Madame Modjeska promised to chaperone, "He cried out, 'Maude, don't be an idiot.' I suppose he said it in a nice fatherly way, but I didn't think so at the time....Madame wants to take me home when her tour closes and deliver me safe and sound into popper's hands, but it seems dreadful to me."
Right: Madame Helena Modjeska in her heyday. She was a friend of Robert and Fanny Northam, and befriended their daughter, Maude.
Maude later describes her father, Robert Northam, as "growling and fuming." Maude Northam tells Dale as she ends the interview, "Wish me luck...and forget all the wretched society business."
Four months later in June 1898, Maude Northam had managed to find a way to continue her independent life away from "popper." She married the treasurer of the Madame Modjeska company, Thomas M. Reilly, in a surprise ceremony. A San Francisco Call headline reads, "Parents of the California heiress consoled by the fact that their son-in-law is a worthy man." The Call reported that "both mother and father were surprised when informed of the marriage of their daughter."
Two years later, Maude's mother, Fanny Eccles Northam died, "seized with a hemmorhage," at age 43. Robert Northam's next move is classic Southern California reality show.
The 20-year-old blonde
Three months after the sudden death of Fanny, Northam married Miss Leotia K. Stoney, a typist with the Los Angeles Herald newspaper in July 1901. She was 20 and described as a "tall, handsome blonde." He was 52 and one of the richest men in California. Northam reportedly met Leotia two months before the marriage.
Right: Leotia K. Stoney Northam, then 20, upon her marriage to Robert Northam, then 52. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, July 24, 1901)
The Los Angeles Herald reported, "Cupid scored at high noon yesterday when Colonel Robert J. Northam, capitalist, bon vivant and aide de camp to Governor Gage, was married to Miss Leotia Stoney, his pretty stenographer." The Northams married in San Jose and the Herald reported, later "in the season, they will go to Europe, stopping en route at the Pan American Exposition."
Leotia was from the mining town of Jerome, Arizona, and described as a "belle" with some influential friends. Her contacts helped get her appointed as a committee clerk for the territorial legislature, "a position filled in a highly creditable manner." When her family moved to Los Angeles, she took a position at the Herald.
The newly married Northams' 32-year age difference might have been enough to raise a few eyebrows. However, when a former suitor of Leotia sued six weeks later, the headlines made for some juicy society gossip.
Left: Stanley Gilkey, a Harris & Frank clerk making $60 a month, sued Leotia Northam after she allegedly broke their engagement to marry the much wealthier and much older Northam. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, September 4, 1901)
Twenty-two year-old Stanley D. Gilkey sued Leotia Northam for $50,000 for "breach of promise" and claimed they had been engaged to marry. Gilkey's complaint detailed that he and Leotia had met while she worked at the Herald, and that they had an understanding that was known to all their friends.
Gilkey stated Leotia's marriage to Northam caused him "great mental suffering and humiliation" and that he has "been greviously injured in his feelings and affections and wounded in his pride to his damage in the sum of fifty thousand dollars."
Leotia, in turn, responded that "Mr. Gilkey and I may have imagined we were in love, but I, for my part, know now that I was mistaken. I am now positive that I have never really loved anyone until I met Colonel Northam." Leotia admitted that Gilkey had taken her out, showed her a "good time," and had gentlemanly manners, but that her mother had intervened.
"When my mother began to see that a serious engagement might result from our acquaintance, she showed me plainly that a marriage to a young man in Mr. Gilkey's financial position would not be wise," Leotia stated to the Los Angeles Herald. "His income was not sufficient, in my estimation, to warrant marriage." Leotia then puts Gilkey once-and-for-all in the friend zone: "I liked him as a friend, but as a husband he would never do."
Northam stated he would counter-sue Gilkey for "malicious persecution." By November 1901, Gilkey and his lawyer got the case dismissed. Robert Northam did not offer any settlement, but did rescind his threat to counter sue according to the Herald, which headlined their report on Gilkey, "No balm for his shattered heart."
The Harris & Frank store in downtown Los Angeles, where young Stanley Gilkey worked. They sold men's pants, something that would come in handy later for Robert Northam. (Photo, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)
The bit about the pants
By the time Robert Northam was close to 60, he was settling down and not making as much news for his lavish lifestyle or younger wife. But, he was still in the news now and then, a product of the public fascination with one of Southern California's richest men.
Right: Leotia Northam was featured driving her Baker Electric automobile in the Los Angeles Sunday Times, June 6, 1909. The Times reported she learned to drive in an hour "and in three weeks became as skillful as the best chauffers." (Image, Los Angeles Times, latimes.blogs.com)
Mrs. Col. Robert Northam learned to drive a Baker electric car in an hour and in three weeks became as skillful as the best chauffeurs. - See more at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/transportation/page/21/#sthash.kDyREvbI.dpuf
In 1908, the media reported on Northam arriving to see a parade a week early, in the manner today's paparazzi report on celebrities lunching at The Ivy.
"He found, after arriving in Los Angeles, that he was a week head of time and was so indiscreet as to tell the story to some friends," reported the Los Angeles Herald, "The way they kidded him the remainder of the day was good enough to make anyone but the good natured colonel 'sore'...he will return next Wednesday."
The next year, a Los Angeles Herald headline read, "Col. 'Bob' Northam loses his trousers while guest at hotel." The Herald on February 28, 1909, pushed the envelope in reporting the incident by starting with a lyric:
"There once was a big man named Northam
Who had trousers and frequently wortham,
But one night in a trance
Someone grabbed off the pance
And said they were just the thing fortham."
The Herald then explained that Northam had been robbed "of what man holds most dear--money--and what he holds most necessary--trousers...In despair the Colonel looked about for a barrel, but could find nothing, and being too large to encase his form in a pillow cover he was in despair." Ouch. Perhaps Northam should not have married one of the Herald's typists. A tailor was sent to address the pants emergency.
At the turn of the last century, Robert Northam was constructing a lavish Hollywood home at Selma and Vine for his wife, Fanny. After her demise in 1901, Northam and his new wife, Leotia, made it their home the same year. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, July 24, 1901)
Trouble at the mansion
By 1911, ten years after marrying Robert Northam, Leotia filed for divorce. It may not have been amicable. And, it may have involved other women.
The Los Angeles Herald in May 1912 reports Leotia hospitalized for knife attacks with the headline, "Woman is attacked by three of her own sex." She was visiting Robert Northam's mansion to see several dogs who had been her pets. Northam appears to not have been home, but three women who were in the home without explanation attacked Leotia.
"While in the billiard room, looking at a newspaper, Mrs. Northam said three women attacked her, one of them slashing her about the body and arms," the Herald describes the incident per Leotia's account. "She said she recognized one of them as the wife of a local lawyer."
Robert Northam died that year in October 1912, the divorce never finalized. Leotia inherited the Northam estate. Leotia's mother, Mary Stoney--who had advised her daughter to marry Northam and not the young clerk, Stanley Gilkey--died in a Pacific Electric Railway accident in 1913, having seen her daughter become a very wealthy woman.
A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs--published in 1915--contains an entry for Leotia K. Northam, "a resident of Los Angeles for many years." The notation cites her marriage to Robert Northam and that "his widow has given her attention to the management of the business left by him and has become well known throughout the southwest."
At the top of the hill, the Northam Ranch House park contains a historical marker with information. The hilltop can be accessed by stairs or ramp (wheelchair accessible), with parking behind the senior living complex, Sunrise of Huntington Beach, 7401 Yorktown Avenue. Visitors are asked to be mindful about senior pedestrians and parking. (Photo, June 2013)
Lost to fire
The Northam Ranch House was lost to fire on March 22, 2000. Preservationists had been working to save the historic site and the property was under discussion for development. The fire remains the subject of speculation more than a decade later.
However, the humble 1901 barn from Northam's Los Angeles estate (at Selma and Vine in Hollywood) was preserved, due to its role in Southern California's movie industry.
The barn became the first make-do movie studio for future film giants Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille in 1913. In the 1950s, the beloved barn was moved to the Paramount Pictures lot and listed as California Historical Landmark No. 554. Robert Northam's barn again moved in the 1980s to a lot near the Hollywood Bowl on Highland Avenue. Now known as the Lasky-DeMille Barn, it now serves as the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
A bit of Robert Northam lives on at the Hollywood Heritage Museum, http://www.hollywoodheritage.org/, their building once having been the horse stables at Northam's lavish Los Angeles estate. The museum is open to visitors. (Image, Hollywoodland, allenellenberger.com)
Although off the beaten path, the Northam Ranch House site is a tranquil place to visit in Historic Huntington Beach. Take a few minutes to step back in time and imagine the view from the hill, and the drama-filled life of Southern California's Diamond Bob. Hollywood, there's a movie in this!
The Northam Ranch House site in Historic Huntington Beach provides a glimpse into old California. (Photo, June 2013)
Note: In a sad historic preservation tale relating to the Northam Ranch House, a 1984 historical assessment conducted for the City of Huntington Beach stated, "The structures and grounds were inspected and the following evaluation was made: The landscaping and grounds do not date to 1900. The structure itself was originally of a rather modest, if not standard, design. Extensive interior modification and alterations have removed the structure from the condition of its original historic period. Location and maintenance of the building and grounds make it aesthetically pleasing, but it does not now, nor did it ever, represent any unique, interesting or innovative architectural structure. The house is not an historical significant site worthy of preservation."
It was one of Huntington Beach's oldest homes--not to mention the headquarters of the famed Stearns Rancho operations, dating back to Orange County's post-rancho settlement.
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