Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Hollywood Pioneer Eugene Plummer and His Park

Los Angeles Times, Sept. 5, 1938
Eugene Plummer holds what he claimed was Joaquin Murrieta’s 12-shot pistol, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 5, 1938.

Virtually forgotten today, Hollywood pioneer Eugene R. Plummer preserved many romantic traditions of old Los Angeles throughout his 91 years. Generous to a fault, he arranged the sale of the last few acres he owned to Los Angeles County to establish a park honoring the area’s rural and Spanish past. As much raconteur as historian, Plummer propagated stories and events honoring the area’s vaquero and Spanish land grant days, sometimes embellishing the facts.

Plummer helped keep alive the memory of the Spanish land grant Rancho La Brea, 4,444 acres given by Mexican governor Jose Maria de Echeandia in 1828 to Antonio Jose Rocha and Nemesio Dominguez. Henry Hancock served as the Rochas’ surveyor, helping them defend and prove their claims after years of legal fighting. Broke after all these expenses, Jose Jorge Rocha deeded the rancho land to Hancock in 1860, with his family later subdividing and selling the property.

A still from what may be the first film shot in Southern California, taken by Biograph, of a party on Plummer’s rancho in 1906.

Born in December 1852 in Alta, California, most likely around San Francisco, Eugene Rafael Plummer celebrated the area’s Spanish heritage as well as the striving spirit of early settlers and colorful bandidos throughout his life. In fact, Plummer’s early life is shrouded in mystery, allowing him to craft a dynamic establishing tale. In J.P. Buschlen’s 1942 biography, Senor Plummer: the Life and Laughter of an Old Californian, the man described as a “…symbol of adventure, an oracle of humor,” recounted a tale as colorful as the state itself.

Plummer’s Canadian sea captain father, John Cornelius, and French Canadian-born mother Maria Cecilia met and married in Canada before seeking riches in California’s gold fields. Meeting with little success, Plummer’s father returned to the sea, which often kept the family apart. Tired of waiting for her husband, Maria Plummer boarded the steamship Oregon in April 1865 with her sons to move to Sinaloa, Mexico, while Plummer’s father was in Japanese waters. Failing at raising cotton after a short time, the family moved to Guaymas, Mexico, struggling to survive.

After Maria and her sons spent a few months there, Emperor Maximilian’s French troops began bombarding the port town, and a determined Maria borrowed a small boat, traveling through the night to take her sons, two acquaintances, and two Yaquis to safety in Baja, California, before making their way to Fort Yuma, Arizona, where she operated a small hotel. Eugene claimed that during their short time in Arizona, he learned self-sufficiency and expert riding skills from Apaches before they trekked by wagon to the small settlement of Los Angeles in 1867.

Purchasing a 160-acre homestead adjoining the eastern flank of Rancho La Brea from Joel A. Jennings, land set aside for the railroad, Maria ran a hotel near the town’s puebla while her sons managed the property’s ranch. The two elder Plummers filed a homestead on 640-acres catty corner to Jennings, with the sons working these lands as well. The family soon lost their property when they missed a mortgage payment to the railroad. They determinedly defended the rest of their property from those who had stolen land grants from old California families like the Rochas and Urquidezes. They later purchased Francisca Perez’s ranch for the two young sons to own and work, between what is now La Brea Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Gardner Street, featuring a farmhouse they constructed, with the sons later splitting the 160 acres.


A still from what may be the first film shot in Southern California, taken by Biograph, of a party on Plummer’s rancho in 1906.

Plummer planted pepper trees in 1867 to provide shade for the home and windmill. To give color and beauty, he “enclosed in a screen of olive trees as soft as gray velvet against the brilliant southern sky, together with giant peppers, elders and locusts fragrant with creamy bloom in their season, dark cypresses, pomegranates, palms, oleanders, and a wild riot of flowers — geraniums, lilacs, roses, blue lilies, poppies, verbenas, petunias, crimson canna, lantana and cactus,” as the 1928 Los Angeles Times colorfully put it. Eventually the family constructed the first “gingerbread” house in the Cahuenga Valley.

A dreamer, Plummer saluted the old days, often referring to himself as Don Eugenio. Marrying Marie Amparo Lamouraux, the granddaughter of the Cahuenga Valley’s first resident, Tomas Urquidez, on August 16, 1882, in the old Plaza church, Plummer split his time between raising crops like grain, melons, pumpkins, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes while also working as a Spanish interpreter for the Los Angeles court system to maintain a steady income and to prevent Spanish-speaking residents from being swindled. When not working, he often threw fiestas and barbecues for the family and other residents, while also relaying adventurous tales of unexpected rendezvous with characters like legendary bandido Tiburcio Vasquez, bear hunts at Antelope Valley’s Elizabeth Lake, and inspiring characters in Helen Hunt Jackson’s classic tale of California, Ramona.

Plummer saluted longtime residents and early traditions, founding and hosting events to “preserve the old joyous spirit of Spanish days in the Southwest.” To honor this heritage and history, especially events such as Mexican Independence Day, Plummer established the Vaquero Club in 1906, bringing together residents from all over the state to race horses, eat barbecue, dance, and organize a group to ride in parades. Renowned citizens such as the mayor and police commissioners and longtime residents joined the organization to honor the memory of Spanish cowboys who herded cattle on the early ranches and fields of Alta California. The Los Angeles Herald called a typical club meeting “like a page torn from the early history of Southern California, teeming with the sights and sounds of another day and tearing one away from the humdrum of routine existence into a life of hardihood and happiness.”

Eugene Plummer
Eugene Plummer at his home, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1907, Plummer helped organize the first Hollywood old settlers’ reunion on his ranch, a full day’s fiesta of barbecue and reminisces of Hollywood and Los Angeles’ rural past under his decades-old pepper trees. Guests included Mary Sackett, whose family operated the first hotel; G.T. Gower, one of the first sheriffs; pineapple grower J.B. Rapp; Daeida Wilcox’s mother Amelia  Hartell; Sanford Rich and George Dunlap, the only mayors of Hollywood during its short period of independence.

The ranch even hosted the first film shot in Southern California on June 10, 1906, per Earl Theisen of Los Angeles County Museum, when one of his impressive barbecues for the Vaquero Club was recorded by moving picture cameras operated by A.H. Van Guysling and Otis M. Gove for the Biograph Company.

Over the decades, Plummer often found himself land rich if cash poor. Needing money to pay off debts and mortgages, he gradually sold off small pieces of the ranchito, watching it slowly dwindle. Selling off some of his property in the 1890s, Plummer saw it shrink to 15 acres by the 1920s, and down to three acres by 1937.

For 20 years, Plummer struggled to establish part of the property as a park for the public, one demonstrating the early history of the Rancho La Brea. In 1928, Plummer won an injunction to remove obstructions from the right of way on Santa Monica Boulevard preventing improvements to the park. Los Angeles County finally began formal negotiations with him in 1937 to acquire the acreage along with the ranch house, barns, barbecue pit, windmill, and rodeo grounds, and then maintain it in its present “romantic state as a public gathering place; a quiet place a few blocks away from Hollywood Boulevard, the film studios and gay night spots… .”

The county would allow the park to serve as respite and recreational facility for various groups, with Plummer to serve as supervisor and live in his vintage residence. On December 7, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved the $15,000 purchase from Plummer and with the Works Progress Administration constructed a $65,000 recreational building officially dedicated on December 4, 1938. Plummer continued living in his more modern bungalow while the vintage gingerbread house served as the headquarters for Los Angeles’ Audubon Society.

Others also recognized the park’s value. On January 11,1935, California added it to the register of historic places along with other sites. Unfortunately the state historic plaque was stolen from the site in 1940.

While most enjoyed and honored the property, others desecrated and damaged it over the years. Vandals set fire to the rear portion of the old Plummer ranch house in 1980. After hearing that Los Angeles planned to demolish the structure, the Leonis Adobe Association arranged to receive it as a donation from Los Angeles County, moving it to the museum site in 1983, restoring it and opening it as visitor center and gift shop. The Recreation Hall was threatened several years ago for the construction of a parking garage.

One of the last remaining examples of Spanish land grants and early Alta California settlements, Plummer Park celebrates the Latino heritage of the state, if not completing acknowledging its earliest Native American founding.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Parks and Recreation, Preservation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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