Perhaps no other structure at the Irvine Ranch Agricultural Headquarters was more beloved than the original Bunkhouse. Part dormitory, part mess hall, this two-story frame bunkhouse was the heart of ranch operations and was the place where everyone would gather for daily meals.
Originally, ranch staff ate at the Irvine family home’s dining room and the workers at on a screened porch at the south of the house. The Irvine Family still lived in San Francisco at the time. The “new” bunkhouse was built in 1906 and housed employees in the dormitory upstairs with a kitchen and dining hall below. As ranch operations grew, another two-story bunkhouse was built nearby to house laborers and maintenance men.
Today, both buildings have been restored and are part of the Orange County Parks campus. The first Bunkhouse/Mess Hall is used for office and meeting space and is not open to the public. Visitors are welcome to walk the grounds of the Irvine Ranch Historic Park and read the informative plaques outside each restored structure.
The following is an excerpt from the “Irvine Ranch Newsletter” published April 1967 and written by iconic local historian Jim Sleeper.
In 1906, extensive barley production required a large number of employees, creating the need for housing….Lumber for the present bunkhouse was shipped from Los Angeles to Tustin, then carted by wagon to the site. Considered extravagant for the time, building materials for the two story frame bunkhouse came to $904.65. Plumbing ran this figure up another dizzying $80. Likewise, plastering proved steep at .30 per measured yard. John A McFadden’s bid was lower than the others and covered all work and material within the walls of the building except the wash bowl.
Adding to the elegance of running water “right inside,” the bunkhouse was soon plumbed for gas lights. Later, it achieved still greater luxury with the installation of a 25 candle machine which operated 10 to 12 electric lights.
Company records show that by mistake the Southern California Lumber Co. sent windows for the bunkhouse which had two large panes of glass instead of eight small ones. The Ranch superintendent wrote back : “We cannot keep these windows. You know what it would mean in the sleeping department of a laborer’s bunkhouse. It would keep us busy buying glass!”
Bunkhouse life was a bit friskier than it is today…
By mid-year of 1906, Ranch Manager Roy Browning could boast to employment agencies that the Irvine Ranch was now “paying $30 and board. The men are not at the house as they used to be. We have a new bunkhouse and quarters for 40, and a well-appointed kitchen with a good, large range.”
Now, six decades later, the bunkhouse remains much the same apart from a few plumbing refinements and TV antennas. The kitchen is still “well-appointed” though the wood stove has long been replaced.
Louise Craft, who heads the kitchen crew of six, is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the traditional “thrashing crew” meals. “You don’t serve crab salad twice a month around here without hearing about it,” she declared.
Meals are still served “ranch style” despite the additional table settings for some 80 or so office workers who lunch regularly at the bunkhouse. From four, full-time desk workers in 1906, the Irvine Company staff has jumped to 125, embracing many specialized fields.
Someone asked Mrs Craft, “Shouldn’t we have a staff dietitian too?”
“Lord no!” she replied. “These people aren’t sick, they’re just hungry!”
They are if a typical week’s meat order is any indication. It includes 50 lbs of chicken, 50 lbs of ham, 65 lbs of steak, whole pork loins, and 55 lbs of roast beef, not to mention the fish. Fifty gallons of milk pass through the kitchen each week.
Are office workers any pickier in their eating habits than ranch hands? “Less,” says Mrs. Craft. However, the pencil-pushers sometimes ease off on the dessert course as a concession to their waistlines. From time to time, fewer potatoes are served in an effort at “girth-control.” As for this, Mrs. Craft observes, “when there’s no potatoes, they just eat more meat. So, what’s the difference?”
While all the meals are uniformly husky, Mrs Craft prepares one of her “fancier” dishes when members of the Irvine Foundation or the Board of Directors meet. They, too, make a habit to break bread in the mess hall.
Charles Thomas, the former Irvine Company president, once walked into the kitchen to announce that he was having fifteen distinguished foreign visitors for lunch. He asked that Mrs Craft prepare her specialty. The affair proved to be an international success. It was an even greater triumph considering the guests were all Frenchmen and the main course was enchiladas, tacos and beans!
Just as it did sixty years ago, the clanging of the cook’s triangle brings Ranch employees on the run three times a day. The strength of this Irvine tradition is suggested by the fact that since 1906, in that “well appointed kitchen with a good large range” some 64,880 menus have been prepared.
Give or take a thousand, that represents 1,772,500 meals served at the old Irvine bunkhouse!
Irvine Ranch Newsletter, April 1967