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THE REAL DIRT ON: Harriet Williams Russell Strong

By Susan Krzywicki.

Connections always make knowledge more fun. When I saw that Harriet Strong had been educated at Miss Mary Atkins' Young Ladies' Seminary in Benicia, I had to know more. The Seminary was the precursor to Mills College, which I attended in the 70s, and where Howard McMinn, of national fame for native plant conservation and breeding, taught. Born in Buffalo, New York, and widowed in California at the age of 39, Strong took over management of the estate and raised her four daughters, while also taking on public roles in water conservation, farming, civic duties, and support of the musical arts.

An Early Whittier Farmer

Strong farmed at her Ranchito del Fuerte, a pun based on her last name, in the San Gabriel Valley, where she grew over 150 acres of walnuts. At that time, the clonal rootstock was usually Juglans hindsii, the California native walnut tree. Her walnuts won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris exposition. Strong also grew pampas grass as a profitable crop—they were in demand in Victorian-style parlors. But when the fad died (too bad all the pampas didn’t), she moved on to growing pomegranates.

Involvement in Our Water Future

Harriet's livelihood depended on water. She encouraged the government to plan flood control measures and to create hydroelectric systems. Her efforts led her to engineer a system to store water in steep valleys. The idea involved a series of dams: the bottom one would fill and the backward pressure helped to shore up the dam above it. She received several patents between 1887 and 1894. We have her to thank for being part of the efforts to use the Colorado River to provide Southern California with a reliable water source. Additionally, authorities credit her help on two key water projects: the Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal.

Her Own Water Company

In 1897, Harriet drilled a number of artesian wells and a pumping plant, and incorporated the property under the name of the Paso de Bartolo Water Company, managed entirely by women. This was unusual enough that her banker, impressed by the solidity of the bond offering, said, “…but, you know, in my judgment it would be quite impossible to place these bonds advantageously so long as they bear the signatures of three women.” Strong held strong and the bonds, with the female signatories, was a success.

Accomplished in the Civic Arena

Harriet was also active in civic affairs and women’s issues. She was a founding member of Ebell Los Angeles—one of the women’s clubs scattered throughout the country dedicated to educational and charitable efforts. She became the first female member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, was a member of the board of directors of the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and was the first woman delegate to the US Chamber of Commerce annual convention for both the Whittier and the Los Angeles chambers of commerce. In her spare time, she wrote songs and musical sketches, which led to her role as vice president of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra Association. In 1926, at the age of 82, she died in a traffic accident.

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She has been the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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