Long before the movie industry came to town, the little farming community of Hollywood grew crops that helped feed the state of California as well as the nation. Thanks to the climate and fertile soil, farms and ranches produced a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, some considered exotic and rare today. Chief among these was German immigrant J.B. Rapp’s astounding crop of pineapples.
For its first several years after its founding, Harvey Wilcox promoted Hollywood for its fertile land in the “frostless belt,” healthy location, and views. In a September 7, 1888, Los Angeles Herald ad, he stated, “It possesses the finest soil in the world – nothing equal to it elsewhere. It will grow successfully the most delicate flower or tender plant in midwinter, without irrigation; in fact, we never irrigate this foothill land. It does not require it.”
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Dr. Edwin O. Palmer in his in-depth early history of Hollywood stated, “The Cahuenga Valley seemed one great barley field dotted here and there by a windmill with its surrounding garden and young orchard.” Immigrant after immigrant arrived to buy up land and establish farms of all types, with German Henry Claussen leading the way.
Fellow German J.B. (John Baptist) Rapp soon followed. Born 1848 in Germany, Palmer wrote that Rapp served in the Prussian cavalry, winning the Iron Cross during fighting in France. Cannon explosions destroyed his hearing. Rapp arrived in New York in 1872 before moving to Oregon in 1874. After arriving in the Cahuenga Valley in 1879, he purchased 40 acres at what is now the northeast corner of Franklin and Beachwood Canyon Drives up into the canyon. Rapp grew a diverse group of crops: oranges, lemons, tomatoes, dates, beans, avocadoes, cherimoya and pineapples.
At this time, farmers raised a variety of fruits and vegetables around the frostless belt of the Cahuenga Valley, including musk melons, watermelons, citrus, pumpkins, peaches, artichokes, apricots, pears, grapes. Many experimented with crops, trying to discover what grew the best in the rich soil and climate.
Rapp was not the only farmer to experiment with pineapples, but the conscientious rancher was the only one to see his plants live. The Pacific Rural Press reported on August 27, 1898, that Rapp, “an enthusiastic and painstaking horticulturalist,” served as the only commercial grower of pineapples in California. “Mr. Rapp’s place is in the famous Cahuenga Valley, and in that part of the Valley which is known as a frostless belt.”
The farmer set out 25 plants in 1891, struggling to keep them alive for three years until his first fruit grew in 1894, growing very slowly and only “half a pound.” Each year the crops improved, and by 1898 the pineapples weighed two to four pounds each, grown between May and November.
J.B. Rapp’s pineapples were featured in “In the Valley of the Cahuengas.”
Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce often employed Rapp’s pineapples in exhibitions of the city’s and county’s fruit and produce at state and national expositions, like the Omaha National Exposition in 1900. They spent time trying to get a good photograph of the crop over several years.The September 23, 1897, Los Angeles Herald reported that they successfully photographed Rapp’s pineapple crop the day before, which would be reproduced in Klondike pamphlets.
Over the next ten years, the book “California Fruits and How to Grow Them: A Manual of Methods Which Have Worked” mentioned Rapp’s proficiency in growing pineapples, as did the American Pomological Society.
By 1899, Rapp raised another tropical fruit, the “monstera deliciosa.” The April 19, 1902, Los Angeles Times described it as “growing on a plant similar to an artichoke, is shaped like a cucumber, but is longer, a protruding fin…somewhat like the tongue of a calla lily.” They claimed that it tasted like strawberry and banana combined.
Rapp did well; he constructed a six-room, octagonal house in the canyon with seventeen-foot ceilings in 1906, and in 1916, built a two-story, eight-room stucco home at 2212 Beachwood Drive opposite Cocoa Drive, designed by C.S. Albright.
Though his pineapples failed to turn into a major cash crop, Rapp proved that tropical fruit would grow well in the Cahuenga Valley. Albert Beach began subdividing Beachwood Canyon in the early 1900s, with farms replaced by homes and apartment buildings. As the city of Hollywood saw itself transformed into the movie capital, farming disappeared in the area. Rapp passed away in 1936, but the cherimoya he grew eventually became the name of the elementary school on part of what was his former ranch.