Who was Albert Ball?
DOWNEY - In an era when brave men and women of all ages ventured into an uncharted West seeking fame and fortune, Albert Louis Ball, a Pennsylvania native, found his gold in California oranges. It was 1877 when Ball, void of family and money, arrived in California. Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to parents Joseph and Matilda Ball, natives of the Keystone State and Germany respectively, Albert Ball, just 24-years-old at the time, traveled across the country hoping to make a name for himself.
Originally, Ball settled near present day Orange County, working first on the Alamitos Ranch earning just $25 a month. Later, Ball would be employed by the Anaheim Lighter Company where he delivered grain to steamboats at Anaheim Landing, Orange County’s first seaport and seaside recreation area, now Seal Beach.
But in 1890, in addition to serving as both an engineer and fireman for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, Ball started his own business buying, seeding and harvesting Downey farm land for its desirable produce.
Throughout his more than 40 years in Downey, Ball not only established a name for himself, but his successful business would help put Downey on the map as a thriving community of farmers, merchants and innovators. Although not much remains in Downey to remind one of Ball’s accomplishments, the late farmer’s property is still intact though the beautiful, two-story home that once graced the acreage has been all but demolished.
After his marriage to Illinois transplant Birdella Leffler in 1884, Albert Ball, along with his brother and business partner, W.F. Ball, began purchasing large tracts of undeveloped Downey land. In 1890, the brothers bought nearly 71 acres of farm land in northeast Downey near Gallatin Road.
On this first farm, they planted 35 acres of English walnuts, a popular crop, which yielded between $250 and $300 per acre. The site also included four acres of oranges and lemons, four acres of Winter Nellis pears, and 20 acres of alfalfa.
Later, in partnership with his brother and a Mr. T. Woods, Ball would purchase another 100 acres of land, near the James K. Tweedy estate, off of Telegraph-Jaboneria Road, which is now Tweedy Lane. Today, Maude Price Elementary School and Griffiths Middle School reside on the land. Here, Ball planted 45 acres of walnuts and filled the remaining acres with corn and alfalfa.
After launching these farms, however, Ball, as well as other local farmers, began to experience major setbacks. In addition to the growing fight against unfair middlemen’s prices, early Downey farmers also saw acres of crops destroyed as a result of bugs, wind, and frost.
With all of these issues threatening to wipe out the growing industry, Ball and James J. Tweedy formed an orange grower’s exchange in 1893 to help mobilize the community’s farmers to solve these issues. By 1895, the group had evolved into the Ball and Tweedy Sunkist Packing Co., a cooperative that grew, harvested, packed and shipped its own fruit throughout the Los Nietos Valley.
Operated by both families, the Ball and Tweedy Sunkist Packing Co. was located on Firestone Boulevard between Brookshire and Dolan avenues. By the time of Ball’s death in 1927, the company had proved to be a very successful venture for the Tweedys, the Balls, and Downey’s community of citrus farmers.
Following this success, Ball and his wife built three separate homes for their family of five children, two of which married into the Rives family, owners of the Rives Mansion on Paramount Boulevard. The last Ball home, located at 8572 Cherokee Dr., was a large, two-story mansion located on their own personal, 68-acre fruit ranch, which stretched from Lakewood Boulevard to Dolan Avenue.
Birdella Ball planted rows of Cherokee rose bushes on the lane leading to the home, thus the name “Cherokee Drive” came into existence. Built in 1920 for $30,000, the Ball residence once included a huge entry hall, a spacious living room, a music room, formal dining room, a ranch-size kitchen with a service porch and maid’s room - all downstairs.
The second floor featured two and a half bathrooms, five bedrooms, a sewing room and an office. Designed in Spanish Colonial style by Los Angeles architect H.H. Whitely, the rectangular structure sported a red tile roof and arched windows. A sheltered porch extended from the home’s main entrance and made a covered carport, supported by round white columns.
After its construction, the Ball mansion was one of the most prominent homes in Downey, situated in the midst of the family’s vast orange groves.
Prior to her death, Birdella Ball sold the home on June 15, 1944 to a Downey physician and his family, Dr. and Mrs. Richard Steere. The Steeres had been in Downey about 10 years at the time as Dr. Steere was involved with the ownership of Downey Community Hospital, now Downey Regional Medical Center.
Steere, who finished medical school at the University of Nebraska, came West himself in the early 1900s, first taking on a public health position in San Francisco, then San Diego. He came to Downey in the 1930s to build his medical practice, and for many years he and his wife would serve as Downey civic leaders.
According to a September 20, 1973 article in the Southeast News, “their home was often the location of large fund raising parties for their favorite philanthropies and interests…one of the biggest parties ever held at the house was to raise money for the hospital. That was about 1959.”
In June of 1973, Dr. Steere died and the home was sold to Bob Maniaci, president of Boman Industries, and his wife, Mary in 1975. The couple, along with their four children took on the task of restoring the home, which needed much renovation after decades of use.
Today, just twelve columns remain, holding up what is left of the historic property.
After initially agreeing to reconstruct the home in 2008, while maintaining its architectural integrity, the Cerros family razed the home, leaving just the foundation intact. Currently, the property is gated and all construction has ceased.
Nevertheless, the large lot once occupied by the home still resides, all that remains of the huge Ball fruit ranch.
Today, Ball can truly be called an American success story, going from a penniless farmer to a wealthy rancher and influential community leader. Though the home is no longer intact, Ball’s life still gives residents today a glimpse into a former world where success came by diligence, perseverance, and camaraderie.
Published: Feb. 19, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 45