Women Activists In Fallbrook At The Turn Of The Century

Property rights versus assessment for local improvements

One of the earliest landowners in Fallbrook District was Lugarda Alvarado Palomares, who owned nearly 4000 acres of the Monserate Grant. She inherited the land from her father, who did not live to see his boundaries and title approved by Congress. Lugarda had grown up in our area in the 1850's, but she moved to Los Angeles after marrying her childhood sweetheart. In 1891 she was the mother of four children, two of them minors. Lugarda placed her son-in-law, Henrique Abila, in charge of her property in Fallbrook, to collect rents and to look after the ranch. He was to hold the profits in trust for all the Palomares children. Henry built the little ranch house which is today on Stage Coach Lane (the Palomares House) as headquarters for the supervision of affairs on the ranch. Soon his brother-in-law, Porfirio Palomares, turned eighteen, and he also moved to Fallbrook.

Maria King Bradley came to Fallbrook in 1890 with her daughter and new granddaughter, and soon her husband, son, brothers and a sister followed. They were from England, and they came because Mrs. Bradley's daughter had married New Yorker and Oxford student, James T. Van Renssalear, who later purchased land in Fallbrook. The Bradley's home was situated on the north side of today's Rod Street, not far from the Palomares House. Maria's Van Renssalear grandchildren grew up on a 160 acre ranch where Live Oak Elementary School is now located.

May Eastwood Van Velzer had arrived in 1887, with her husband and two babies. They came from Kansas, where G.F.Van Velzer had been a newspaperman. He became editor of the three-year-old Fallbrook Review. During the 1890's, while G.F.'s aunt cared for their increasing number of children, May often worked with her husband at the newspaper office, setting type, reading proof, and making up pages. Her father, Seth Eastwood, moved from Kansas to live with them on their ten acre farm near today's O'Hearn Road.

What do these Fallbrook mothers have in common? They were all involved in some way with the celebrated water case of the 1890's, when residents of our town formed an irrigation district, authorized under a new California law. Because the law was in conflict with the State Supreme Court's doctrine of riparian rights, in which the owner of the stream bank was the owner of the water, the settlement of Fallbrook's case had implications for owners of land all over California. Newspapers throughout the State featured articles on the Fallbrook Irrigation District, its legal problems, and how its case was progressing. Even the Harvard Law Review commented.

The first step in the formation of the Fallbrook Irrigation District had been to set the boundaries and obtain fifty valid signatures of landowners within those boundaries. One of those who signed the petition was Mary Jane Woodbury, who, with her husband and married daughter, Mrs. George Westfall, had moved here from Washington State a few years earlier. Others who signed were May Van Velzer's husband, who also published the required notices in the his newspaper, and wrote enthusiastic articles supporting the District. Some who signed, like Maria King Bradley's son-in-law, James T. Van Renssalear, changed their minds, and later asked to have their land excluded from the District. At least ten property owners in the Fallbrook District requested that their land be excluded and were denied.

After the petition for a Fallbrook irrigation district was approved by the County Board of Supervisors, the Collector for the new District levied an irrigation assessment on individual property owners within the boundaries. When some did not pay the assessment because they were contesting the validity of the district, their lands were placed on a public delinquent tax and sales list. Then the Collector bought the lands for the amount of the delinquency. If the owners did not contest the sales within twelve months, they would lose their property. The Palomares land had a large assessment, for it made up one quarter of all the lands in the District. Five members of the Palomares family became plaintiffs in the suit challenging the validity of signatures on the organizing petition of the Fallbrook Irrigation District.

Maria King Bradley also sued. Because she was a citizen of Great Britain, she filed in Federal Court to prevent the deed to her property from being delivered to the Fallbrook Irrigation District. The decision rendered in her suit shocked California investors, for the judge declared that the California law authorizing irrigation districts was unconstitutional (because it provided for the taking of property without due process).

The Fallbrook Irrigation District appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which in 1896 reversed the decision of the lower Federal courts. The constitutionality of the California irrigation law having been established, the California legislature tightened that part of the law governing the formation of irrigation districts, requiring that County Supervisors be stricter in overseeing its provisions.

By the time the Palomares case was remanded to the Superior Court in San Diego, it was clear that there had not been fifty valid signatures on the original petition, and the Fallbrook Irrigation District and all its activities became void. Lugarda Palomares still owned her land and would have an inheritance for her children. Maria King Bradley had saved her home, as did thirteen other Fallbrook residents whose lands had been placed on the delinquent tax list. Ironically, May Van Velzer's father was probably one of those who caused the irrigation district petition to be declared invalid. He was not a landowner.


Copyright © 1998 by Fallbrook Historical Society
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Comments and feedback: Elizabeth Yamaguchi
Last update: 2 November 1998.