James Harvey Irvine was born on October 16, 1867….150 years ago.
Chance are, the intensely private founder of the Irvine Company wouldn’t have wanted much of a birthday celebration. Irvine was a man of few words who preferred to let his actions speak for him. No other member of the Irvine Family had greater impact on the future of the city that would someday bear his name.
His father, James Irvine, was an Irish immigrant who was lured to California during the Gold Rush. James Harvey Irvine didn’t have to seek his fortune.
He was born into San Francisco high society as the privileged son of a newly-wealthy man. But Irvine never rested on his father’s success. He was serious and determined and believed in the ability of every man to make his own way in the world. Instead of observing life from the lofty distance of advantage, Irvine preferred to experience things firsthand, choosing to ground himself in the natural world.
On his 25th birthday he inherited the 110,000 acre Rancho San Joaquin, also known as the Irvine Ranch, which covered more than one fifth of present day Orange County. At the time, the only asset of the Irvine Ranch was its potential. The vast, undeveloped pastureland was populated with more sheep than people. James H. Irvine not only inherited his father’s land, but his love for it as well. He preferred to think of himself as a farmer, not a landowner. With shrewd business judgement and formidable self-discipline, James Harvey Irvine transformed the sleepy, sheep-grazing operation into an agricultural powerhouse.
His critics said he was aloof, distant and unemotional. Those who knew him best defended his reticence as the defense mechanism of a wealthy and powerful man. They also spoke of his tremendous personal loss and natural shyness that caused him to guard his emotions in public. Irvine did not suffer fools easily. He thought that social niceties were a waste of time. But he was a man of his word, fiercely loyal to his family and generous with those in need.
James Harvey Irvine, also known as “J.I.,” believed that sharp focus and hard work could solve any problem. Yet his watchful eye and close management could not prevent change from coming to the Irvine Ranch.
He could not protect his family from tragic illness and premature death that would claim many of his loved ones. He could not stop the economic pain of the Depression, although he did his best to ease the strain on farmers. Finally, he could not prevent the government from turning his most productive bean fields into military bases at the start of World War II. This final change altered life on the Irvine Ranch forever, ultimately ending its agricultural dominance.
Today, the legacy of James Harvey Irvine still has an impact on his former ranch. In 1894, he formed the Irvine Company and remained its sole shareholder until his death 53 years later. In 1897 he donated 160 acres of his land to form Orange County Regional Park, now Irvine Regional Park, which has preserved the beauty of the Santiago Canyon for more than a century. Most notably, he contributed to the success of the future city of Irvine. James Harvey Irvine may never have envisioned the place that would eventually bear his family’s name. But his determination to keep the ranch intact created a giant “blank slate” that made the master planned community possible.