Looking back on... Rancho Los Amigos

DOWNEY - Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center is renowned in the field of medical rehabilitation. As one of the largest comprehensive rehabilitation centers in the United States, Rancho Los Amigos has provided quality care for people with physical disabilities for over 50 years. Consistently ranked as one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report, Rancho Los Amigos treats nearly 55,000 patients every year in its 395-bed facility. But interestingly enough, Rancho did not start off as a hospital, but rather a struggling Los Angeles County poor farm where the community's homeless, sick and elderly could find rest, food and shelter. In the late 1800's, the County of Los Angeles was facing a unique crisis. As railroads began to go up all across the southland, more hopeful settlers began to travel in search of land, wealth and prominence. While some managed to achieve such aspirations, others simply did not and became dependent on the county for food and shelter. As the demand for such housing grew, the County Board of Supervisors had no choice but to develop poor farms for the indigent. Judge J. W. Venable, a Downey resident and member of the Board of Supervisors, suggested some land just southeast of Los Angeles. Venable proposed that a parcel of 124.4 acres be purchased from community leader Andrew W. Ryan near the growing community of Downey. Full of orange and lemon orchards, fig and walnut trees, Downey was already known as the center of the agriculturally rich Los Nietos Valley; the small city seemed a prime location for the new poor farm. Paying just $100 an acre, the county purchased the land in 1887 and construction of the new farm began immediately. In 1889, the board appointed Dr. Edwin L. Burdick, a physician and farmer, as the new county poor farm's first superintendent. Burdick managed the farm, including its livestock and citrus orchards, and supervised the construction of several large buildings on the property. According to historian Colleen Fliedner, "the inmates who were at the farm during Dr. Burdick's time were generally blue-collar workers…Many laborers had come to the County Farm to recover from injuries that prevented them from working, such as a sore arm, injured ankle or broken leg. The farm provided shelter and food until they were well enough to return to work." When Burdick retired in 1901, the farm was respected as an exemplary institution for the care of indigents, however, as a result of several natural disasters in the region and poor leadership for many years thereafter, the farm would suffer. But in 1915, the board hired a 26-year-old businessman to take the helm of the struggling poor farm, and its 500 needy men and women. William R. Harriman succeeded a long line of directors who made little progress in making the farm self-sufficient. In order to change that, he traveled every Monday to the Board of Supervisors meetings in Los Angeles and presented the members with flowers raised on the farm. Harriman spoke up, adamant that, "tax funds provide the necessity of life for the dependent poor. The spirit of Rancho Los Amigos provides the necessities of happiness without which life would be unbearable." More finances began to come in and Harriman offered plots of land to the ambitious residents so they could do horticultural research. He also improved the farm's dairy herd, which began winning prizes every year at the state fair. Under Harriman, the purpose of the poor farm also began to expand as more medical facilities and infirmary wards were added for the growing population of sick in the county. In just several years, Harriman would oversee the development of a new administration building, auditorium, and several men and women's wards. In 1931, a new medical building, now known as the Harriman building, was completed. Fashioned after the Mission San Luis Rey and designed hacienda-style, its familiar facade is still synonymous with Rancho Los Amigos today. Concerned about its negative connotation, Harriman began coming up with new names for the county poor farm. In 1932, Harriman changed the name to "Rancho Los Amigos," which meant "Ranch of the Friends." He felt the name summed up what he wanted people to think of the place. Though the name change received some criticism, Harriman kept it. In 1944, a group of 32 patients was transferred from County General Hospital to Rancho Los Amigos for the treatment of poliomyelitis. As a result, Rancho began a long-term rehabilitation program for the victims of polio before the disease was finally overcome with the discovery of the Salk vaccine. Rancho's success with polio victims made it quite natural for the rehabilitation center to pioneer the treatment of other long-term rehabilitation cases, such as spinal cord and brain injuries. In 1968, Rancho became a branch campus of the University of Southern California and affiliated with its Schools of Medicine. Today, Rancho patients are treated by highly specialized teams dedicated to specific disability categories and injuries. While the newer Rancho facilities are north of Imperial Highway, older structures are still standing on the south campus of the Rancho property. From the original infirmary wards to the 5,000 square-foot, four bedroom home once occupied by superintendent Harriman, there are many aging structures on the campus that are vacant and unused. Currently, the County of Los Angeles, which still owns the property, is planning to raze many of the buildings and construct a 58,000 square-foot data center and 27,000 square-foot office building on the campus. Overall, Rancho Los Amigos, which developed out of a spirit of patience and compassion for the poor and sick, is now a historical treasure. Today, Rancho can celebrate its modest beginnings as a county poor farm that persevered through floods and fires to become a world-renowned institution of recovery and healing.

********** Published: May 28, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 6