Source: Sandler, Sally, “Sowing Seeds of Wonder: The Stories of Ruth and Charles Larabee and the Origins of San Diego Botanic Garden,” pub. CreateSpace.com, 2016, pp48-51.
Source: Anton van Amersfoort, passport photo, c1910, www.ancestry.com.
Prior to Ruth and Charles Larabee, approximately one half the property that is now known as San Diego Botanic Garden was owned by Anton van Amersfoort, an avocado grower who immigrated to the United States from Holland.* He had come into possession of the ranch and the house—previously owned by Donald and Gertrude Ingersoll—through a foreclosure sale in 1923, and he later sold it to Ruth Larabee in 1943.
During his years in Encinitas, van Amersfoort became a major landowner with a claim to at least 16 different properties in the general area, one of which was as large as 80 acres. He became a well-recognized avocado rancher, listed in a 1928 Avocado Growers’ report that mentions he planted 11 acres of avocados in Encinitas in 1919. (He also cultivated avocados here on the Garden property.) The grower’s report complimented him by saying:
About one-half of the orchard is planted to the Fuerte variety, with perhaps ten per cent each of Queen, Dickinson, and Anaheim and miscellaneous for the others. That Mr. van Amersfoort could bring this orchard through four years of dry farming and now have it in such excellent condition is a tribute to his understanding of tree growing. He is a strong advocate of the excellence of the Fuerte variety.”
The primary access to his home, running north from San Marcos Drive was appropriately named Amersfoort Drive. San Marcos Drive is now Encinitas Boulevard, and Amersfoort Drive was later changed to Quail Gardens Drive.
In addition, van Amersfoort was a prime mover in the local water district when irrigation finally did come on the scene in 1923. He was a director of the Encinitas Water District, which later became the San Dieguito Irrigation District, and held this position for a number of years, even surviving a recall petition. It’s likely he graduated from dry farming and had water lines installed at his ranch with hose bibs to irrigate the avocado grove and plantings around the house and barn.
The industrious Dutchman was clearly interested in land development and sales and most likely had the monetary means to enhance the value of his property through landscape improvements. He had a hand in convincing the Larabees in 1943 that the ranch would be a good real estate investment and had landscaped it pleasingly enough to attract their attention. Since Ruth and Charles were newcomers to the challenges of California horticulture, van Amersfoort probably also showed them how to water and maintain the plants.
During his stewardship he demonstrated the expertise necessary to successfully plant and establish a number of species in addition to avocados. Though there are no official records of these plantings, snapshots taken by some of Ruth Larabee’s Camp Fire Girls, combined with aerial photos from 1939 and 1949 indicate the presence of non-native trees that were too large to have been planted in the first six years of the Larabees’ occupancy and thus were probably van Amersfoort’s contribution. These include the following: California pepper tree, Schinus molle, red ironbark, Eucalyptus sideroxylon, red flowering gum, Corymbia ficifolia, river red gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, sugar gum, Eucalyptus cladocalyx, Torrey Pine, Pinus torreyana, and weeping bottle brush, Calistemon viminalis.
As a nod to his European roots, van Amersfoort created an allée of Monterey cypress trees, Cupressus macrocarpa, on either side of the curving dirt lane leading downhill from the house to what is now Quail Gardens Drive. The term “allée” refers to a traditional European landscape element in which a lane or alley is lined with matching trees on both sides. Van Amersfoort’s wasn’t a traditional allée, since it was curving instead of straight, and unfortunately many of the cypresses later succumbed to canker disease. Today only the hollowed trunk of one of the Monterey cypress trees remains for visitors to see.
Anton van Amersfoort was also distinguished by having the longest tenure on the ranch, living here for 20 years, whereas it was a Larabee property for 14. He remained a bachelor during those 20 years and married his wife Tunnie late in life sometime after he left. They lived up the street not far from the Larabees, and thus continued to be neighbors, along with the Paul Ecke and Donald Ingersoll families. Van Amersfoort passed away in 1973 and the grave he shared with his wife can be seen at a cemetery just north of the ranch in Oceanside, California.
Takeo Sugimoto, a young boy who lived nearby across Saxony Drive where the Magdalena Ecke YMCA is today, described van Amersfoort as “jolly.” But this particular jolly Dutchman had considerable drive, talent and ambition, and ultimately carved out his own significant place in the history of what was to become San Diego Botanic Garden.
*Ruth Larabee purchased the other half of their ranch from German immigrant Herman Seidler.
Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb