Judson Grenier spins spellbinding tales about the South Bay: how rattlesnakes once overran what is now Terminal Island; how gunfighter James Watson could fire six bullets into a wood knot from 50 feet; how John Carson employed 32 mules to move his house from east Redondo Beach to an area close to what is now Normandie Avenue and Carson Street in Torrance in 1902.
Still vibrant at age 82, semi-retired, the Professor of History, Emeritus, of Cal State University Dominguez Hills continues to work on various projects at home in Manhattan Beach, where he lives with his wife of 60 years, Nancy, a prominent South Bay watercolorist and printmaker.
A joyful man whose soaring intellect and playful nature easily compensate for what he lacks in height, Grenier admits that his lifelong interest in history, particularly that of the South Bay, is what drives him to keep lecturing, publishing oral histories and writing books and articles.
“It’s the food of my life,” he said during an interview in his charming art- and book-filled home last week. “It’s everything, besides my family, that I’ve ever been interested in and concerned about.”
Currently in the midst of writing a book about George Cady Carson, son-in-law of Manuel Dominguez, patriarch of a Spanish land grant that today encompasses 11 South Bay Cities, Grenier has been fascinated with the Dominguez family since he first signed on as a professor at CSUDH in 1966.
“Here you have California history civilized and symbolized by this one family,” the professor said. “So that excites me. We’re telling the story of a family, but we are really telling the story of Southern California.”
It all started in 1784, when Juan Jose Dominquez, a Spanish soldier came to California with the Gaspar de Portola expedition and traveled with Father Junipero Serra to colonize the area and establish missions and presidios. For his help to the Spanish Crown, Juan Jose was awarded 75,000 acres by the governor of what was then a Spanish province on behalf of King Carlos III.
It was called Rancho San Pedro.
“Juan Jose’s original grazing permission stretched from present-day Compton to the Palos Verdes Peninsula,” Grenier writes in Walking in the Footsteps of the Dominguez Family, a publication produced for a CSU Dominguez Hills 50th Anniversary Alumni Event. “But the grant didn’t become a title to land until it was ‘re-granted’ to Juan Jose’s nephew and heir Cristobal Dominguez in 1822.”
Putting history into today's context
Rather than become buried in all the names, places and connections that flow from Grenier’s fertile brain, perhaps it’s best to cut to the chase by putting history into today’s context. Suffice it to say that Cristobal’s three sons inherited the property, only one of whom, Manuel Dominguez, will be forever regarded as the patriarch of Rancho San Pedro.
A signer of the first California State Constitution, Manuel became an institution in the state, his integrity and foresight responsible for what came later, Grenier said.
“He was a civic builder, often a mediator in disputes between his countrymen … and the (U.S.) government; he was a councilman and mayor during the years of Mexican sovereignty and almost universally popular, as exemplified by his election to the California Constitutional Convention,” the historian explained. Offered the governorship at one point, Dominguez turned it down.
Manuel and Engracia Dominguez bore eight children, but two sons died in their 20s, leaving the couple with six daughters. “Children died because of scarlet fever and diphtheria,” Grenier said. “And there was no cure for them at the time.”
In 1855, one of the girls, Maria Dolores, married lawyer/gunfighter James Alexander Watson, who served three terms in the California legislature. His heirs formed the Watson Land Company, which is still a thriving industrial development firm in the South Bay.
Susana Delfina married Spanish-born Dr. Gregorio Del Amo in 1890, a prominent Los Angeles physician, who also served as a Spanish consul in California. Del Amo formed the Del Amo Estate Company, which was eventually instrumental in creating the Del Amo Shopping Center.
A third daughter, Maria Victoria, married George Carson, a successful businessman and the subject of Grenier’s current book. To immerse himself in Carson’s “milieu,” the professor drew a map of early Los Angeles that shows where Carson’s two hardware stores and two livery stables were located.
But Carson eventually sold his Los Angeles businesses and moved to the Dominguez ranch in order to come to the aid of his father in law after a terrible drought decimated thousands of head of cattle in the late 1800s. Carson, who once drove sheep across the Mohave Desert in mid-summer, Grenier said, replaced the cattle herd with sheep. His heirs formed the Carson Estate Company, which eventually became The Carson Companies.
The Carsons had 15 children, 13 of whom lived to be adults, the historian said. That meant that Victoria, who married at 15, “had a kid every two years for 30 years.” Grenier laughed and stroked his goatee. “That’s what they did in those days.”
'Man in the attic'
Grenier’s love of history and efforts to preserve it are infectious. They even spill over into his wife’s watercolors, paintings of old Victorian homes in Torrance, a long-gone motel-like structure on the Strand, Tony’s on the (Redondo) Pier, Pollywog Park.
Still, Nancy Grenier is just as happy that their creativity took two different routes. "I can't write," she said, "and he can't paint."
Son of a French immigrant father and English teacher mother, Grenier (whose name, ironically enough, means “man in the attic”) grew up in Minneapolis. He minored in history at the University of Minnesota and majored in journalism, earning a BA in 1951. His brother, Robert Grenier, 11 years younger, “is a pretty well-known poet,” he said.
He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with an MA in communications in June, 1952, the same year he enlisted in the U.S. Army, during the Korean War: “I wanted to spend it at the Army Language School in Monterey learning Russian, because Russia was our evil enemy in those days.”
In Monterey he met Nancy Hicks, who was teaching kindergarten, “her very first year after Occidental College,” he said, a twinkle in his bright blue eyes every time her mentions his wife. “We met in January 1954.”
Nancy, born and raised in San Marino, explained the attraction. “We started talking and we just sort of clicked, like bam!” she said with a clap of her hands. They married eight months later in Germany, where Grenier and his troops monitored the Russians across a river in occupied East Germany.
After he was discharged, Grenier planned to enter the London School of Economics when the couple “realized that we were pregnant,” he said, adding with a laugh, “That happens. So we came back to (Northern) California and I got my teaching credential. This is now in 1956 with the baby,” a daughter, Karen.
Prepared to teach history, Grenier was interviewed for a teaching position by a “crusty old gentleman from a place I’d never heard of, El Camino (College).” President Forrest Murdock asked him if he could teach history, English and photography. Grenier said, “Of course!”
He says now, “I needed a job. So we moved to Manhattan Beach.”
While teaching at El Camino, Grenier was getting his PhD in history at UCLA, “mostly in the evening,” he said. That left Nancy with the major care of what evolved into a family of six, including two sons and another daughter. “I’m very grateful to her for shouldering much of the burden,” he said.
In 1966, Grenier was elated to sign on as an assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills and teach upper class and graduate students. Almost immediately, he became friends with Robert C. Gillingham, an elderly college administrator, who introduced him to the saga of Rancho San Pedro. (Grenier became Professor of History, Emeritus in 1993.)
Gillingham helped with Grenier's 1987 book: "California Legacy: The Watson-Dominguez Family, 1820-1980."
“That’s how I got into history,” said the professor who became the founding chair of the CSUDH History Department.
Droughts, floods, earthquakes, squatters
Manuel Dominguez’ management of what is now Compton, Gardena, Carson, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Palos Verdes Estates, Lomita, Rolling Hills Estate, Rancho Palos Verdes, San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and a part of Long Beach was not without hardship and peril, Grenier said. Dominguez faced droughts, floods, earthquakes and squatters, among other issues.
But he fought for a woman’s right to own property, voted against California becoming a slave state, and was “a loving and responsible father,” the professor said. Most of all, Manuel was “a man dedicated to preserving his land holdings for future generations.”
In 1827, Manuel built a six-room adobe hacienda on the rancho. The home, now the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum, currently stands on the east slope of Dominguez Hill at 18127 Alameda Street in Dominguez Hills.
Before he died on Oct. 11, 1882, Manual reminded his six daughters of his long-held precept.:“Hold onto the land. Don’t sell.”
“The amazing thing is,” Grenier said, as if the news were brand new, “that holds true today.” Dominguez descendants still retain a sizeable portion of the properties.
Manuel learned the hard way how important the land was, Grenier said, when he fought the two oldest Sepulveda brothers in a long-running dispute to retain 31,000 acres of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, including what is now San Pedro, where Jose Dolores Sepulveda had been allowed by an executor of Juan Jose’s will to graze a thousand head of cattle.
The final land grant, signed by President James Buchanan in 1858, was eventually divided between the two families, Dominguez retaining 43,000 acres, the Sepulvedas, who had improved the PV property, the rest.
The patriarch was a willing partner in other instances, however, selling what is now Wilmington to Phineas Banning, Benjamin D. Wilson, John G. Downey and William Sanford for $20,000 in 1854. Their aim was to build a harbor for the city of Los Angeles and build a railroad, for which Manuel donated land.
After Manuel died in 1882, the entire rancho was divided between his daughters. What is now Redondo Beach was given to his four unmarried girls, who sold the property to resort planners. The railroad and eventually electric cars allowed Redondo residents to live near the beach and work in Los Angeles, the historian said.
The youngest daughter, Reyes Dominguez, who was “mistreated by everybody,” Grenier said, inherited Dominguez Hill “because nothing would grow there.” But “the prodigal girl they all tossed off” got the last laugh, he said. Bubbling underground? Oil. “She became, for a while, the richest woman in California.”
But she was generous, and the entire family prospered.
“Torrance didn’t come along until the 1920s,” Grenier said. Jared Sidney Torrance billed it “as a model industrial city. Industry and education and homes would all coexist happily.” Gardena was owned by “a Dominguez family brother who frittered it away,” he added.
Largely grain farmers in the beginning, the family later moved into truck gardening, soybeans and such. “When the Japanese came here shortly after the turn-of-the-century, they were not allowed to own land, according to California land law, so they rented it.” Gardena became famous for its strawberry fields.
Although the women were homeschooled and deprived of a college education, every one of them was a model mother, Grenier said. “They really were the schoolteachers. If you have 15 kids and you raise them to maturity and all turn out pretty well, you’ve done a pretty good job.”
The men’s job was to “rope the bulls and shoot the bandits and hunt the fox,” he added.
Although there were no real foxes in the area, the families liked “to ape the amusements of the British,” Grenier said. “So they would hold a fox hunt. And they would dress in formal livery and climb aboard their horses and go after coyotes. Coyotes lived in these river valleys.”
There were lakes and rivers in those days, and heavy rains would wash hundreds of rattle snakes down into the low lands. “The Los Angeles River and its tributaries in the early days had no clear stream beds, which periodically shifted during heavy storms, but they all came together when reaching the harbor and the snakes desperately saved themselves on the last remaining spit of land.” That would be Terminal Island, known as Rattle Snake Island back then.
Another story pertains to James Watson, Delores Dominguez’ husband. A notorious gunfighter, he liked to demonstrate it by throwing coins in the air and shattering them.
“He was also an attorney,” Grenier said. “So the old man, Manual Dominguez, marries his daughter Dolores off to a guy who could deftly handle himself in a violent confrontation, which there were lots in those days.” He was also an attorney who could handle all the challenges of squatters who routinely threatened the property.
“So Manuel got two birds with one stone,” Grenier said, chuckling. “But (Watson) was also, unfortunately, an alcoholic and died at a relatively early age after being elected to the assembly of California.”
Thanks in part to one prolific historian, what Dominguez Family left behind blends into the present and heads into the future, an inheritance that is as rich for South Bay residents as it is rewarding.