A House With a History: The Susanna Bixby Bryant Museum

Fullerton residents interested in learning about North Orange County history should visit the Susanna Bixby Bryant Museum and Botanic Garden, one of the last remaining examples of early California Ranch houses.

Built in 1911, the Susana Bixby Bryant Museum used to be the main ranch house of the 5,000 acre Rancho Santa Ana. In 1875, John Bixby, one of the founders of Long Beach, purchased acres of land in what is now eastern Yorba Linda from the widow of Bernardo Yorba, after whom Yorba Linda is named. Bixby raised cattle and sheep on the rolling hills of North Orange County and named his property, Rancho Santa Ana, after the river that flowed adjacent to his land. However, when Bixby died in 1891, his daughter inherited the ranch.

John’s daughter, Susanna Bixby Bryant, was a young married woman living in Los Angeles when she took control of the property. Around 1911, she became interested in having a place to stay when she visited the ranch, so she built the 2,500 square foot house that still stands today. While managing the ranch, Susanna developed an interest in native Southern California plants and began collecting and planting shrubs, bushes and trees, which she used to create a special two-hundred acre garden as a memorial to her father in 1927. She planted the first commercial pomegranate grove in the state and eventually developed the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, one of the first in California.

After Susanna Bixby Bryant died in 1946, the ranch was sold; her garden was moved to Claremont College, where it’s sustained to this day, and the house was left unoccupied. Her home was neglected and vagrants moved in. Vandals damaged and stripped the ranch over the years it was left unattended.

In 1976, the Bryant Ranch property was purchased by a land developer. Eventually, as the property was being turned into a residential neighborhood of 48 homes, the City of Yorba Linda decided that Mrs. Bryant’s home would be restored, inside and out, as a local history museum with a small replica of her botanic garden. In fact, one hundred plants descended from the original botanic garden were returned to Yorba Linda from Claremont College and some surround the ranch house.

Restoration of the eight-room main house was started in 1996 and finished in 1997. It has since been placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. In 2001, the museum received the annual Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. Consisting of 2,500 square feet of vintage room furnishings from the late 1800s to 1930, Mrs. Bryant’s home is now a museum devoted to the history of the Yorba Linda community. The Yorba Linda Heritage Museum and Historical Society volunteers operate the museum for the city, leading docent-guided tours each Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm except on holiday weekends.   

On a warm weekend, I drove over to the historic Yorba Linda ranch house, located in the middle of a regular neighborhood. Parking in front of a green fence, I walked up a paved pathway, surrounded by antique farming equipment and shrouded underneath the shade of old oak trees. Before stepping inside the museum, I stopped to admire a sun dial made out of rocks. A sign that read, “If you like history, you are going to love what you are about to see” greeted me as I entered.

Inside, after signing the guest book and paying the admission fee of $2, I followed docents, Marlene and Jo Ann, into the living room, where a stone fireplace stood. The smooth rocks in the fireplace came from the nearby Santa Ana River. A piano placed in the corner of the room was in the original ranch house. “From 1930 on, that piano was here,” said Jo Ann. “The furniture is of the era.” Another interesting piece of furniture was a circular antique table in an adjacent corner of the room made out of dark wood with spinning drawers. I learned that Susanna built a mansion with a fire-proof library up on the hill above the railroad tracks, which was depicted in a colorful painting hanging on the living room wall. The room was a nice setting for a collection of old furniture and antiques.

“The Yorbas owned over 6,000 acres from here to Puente. They sold 600 to Susanna Bixby Bryant,” said Jo Ann in the Yorba Family Room. The room now houses artifacts from the Gabrielino Indians and items that belonged to the Yorba family, who received the only Spanish land grant issued in what is now Orange County. Jo Ann pointed to an interesting hair wreath, made out of actual human hair. “The women then saved hair out of their hair brush and they made this wreath.”

Down a long hallway that ran the length of the house, old newspaper clippings, photos, maps and other historical documents hung on the walls. Jo Ann pointed out a framed glass display of what the house looked like when Yorba Linda got ahold of it. She then took me to her favorite room, the ranch room, which displays many different items pertaining to cattle and sheep ranching, the citrus and bee industries and the local water wars that were fought in old Yorba Linda. There’s even a saddle from Ron Gaddon, a saddle maker in Fullerton who called Jo Ann and donated it to the museum. A slingshot hanging on a wall in the ranch room also had an interesting story. “All the boys ran down to the river barefoot and they were looking for bullfrogs in the water,” said Jo Ann. “Bullfrogs would hear them and slowly sink down. Then they would pop up and the boys would be ready with that slingshot.”

In a corner of the ranch room sat a citrus ladder next to a table with glass insulators on it. Moving along, Jo Ann walked around the rest of the room and explained that “they’d have almonds, walnuts, fish, and bees. The ranch was really productive. They’d have smudge pots. If it got down below 32, then they would light these out there amongst the trees to keep the fruit from freezing.”

Moving out into the hallway, Jo Ann switched with Marlene, who took me to the other rooms of the house. In the bathroom, we encountered old pharmacy equipment, a photo of 1916 downtown Yorba Linda and a claw-footed bathtub from the Fullerton Hotel. Signs that read, “Measles Keep Out” and “Chicken Pox Keep Out” hung on one wall by the toilet. “Back in the old days, if a child was ill, they could not allow the neighbors in,” said Marlene.

Orange crate labels decorated the walls of another room dedicated to Yorba Linda history. There were pictures of modern establishments with text behind them explaining what these locations used to be. In the middle of the room stood an enormous dollhouse from the very first docent who was responsible for setting up the museum. Marlene said, “This belonged to her and after she passed, her husband brought it over here and said we should have it. It’s a really precious thing.” The yellow and brown dollhouse sat in a glass case, with miniature pieces of furniture, animals, and even a little toy train inside it. Before exiting the room, Marlene pointed to a small black sign on the wall, reading “Smokers and chewers will please spit on each other, and not on the stove or floor.” On the floor next to the old stove were spittoons for people to spit in.

Next, we visited another room full of objects from the city’s past. There were old school desks from the 1920s Yorba Linda Elementary School. Throughout the room, there were photos and artifacts of schools, churches and organizations that were or are in Yorba Linda. “When the kids come on tours, they like to find their school up on the wall,” said Marlene. There was a white sink in the far corner of the room. She said, “Every bedroom had a sink and so when somebody came in to wash up for dinner, they went just to the bedrooms, so that was handy. A couple of rooms we did take the sinks out because we needed more space.” The Yorba Linda women’s club, girl scouts and boy scouts and library all had their own section.

A giant Yorba Linda city limits sign hung on the wall of the hallway directly across from the museum’s library, which had many main documents about the city’s history and also housed a small souvenir shop. “This sign was found at some entrance to the city,” said Marlene, pointing to the bullet holes in it. “The population at that time was 7561.” In the library, I discovered that the author Jessamyn West was from Yorba Linda.

Following Marlene back down the hallway, we found ourselves in the mud room. “They’d come in here to wash up,” she said pointing to the washing machine, where clothes were washed, put through a ringer and then put into rinse water. They would then go through another ringer and into a basket. Afterwards, they’d be hung on a line, which might start at the house and connect to a telephone pole or tree in the distance.

There were scrub boards, which the clothes would be rubbed on. “In those old days, it was a lot of work for these moms to do all that,” Marlene said. “They made their soap, too.” In the mud room, there were three irons sitting on a counter. “They ironed everything in those days because everything was made out of cotton. What they would do is take one iron and have it on the stove to heat it up. As they’re ironing, the other one is on the stove. So when one got cool, they would just switch irons again.”

A doorway led into the kitchen, which looked as it would have appeared in the late 1920s and 1930s. There was an old telephone on the wall. People who picked up the receiver would’ve been on a party line, which meant five or six people were on the same line. There were different signals, like one long and one short, and if anything was going on at the house, everybody was picking up the receiver on the line. With toasters, a parmesan cheese grader, a ricer, an old waffle iron, a metal ice cube maker and other tools, the kitchen was full of items from the past.

Historical society members have done a superb job at filling Susanna Bryant’s home with local relics from the 1920s and ‘30s, including a counter from Doc Cannon’s Main Street drugstore and tools that were used to harvest oranges around the town. They’ve also collected some dresses that belonged to relatives of Bernardo Yorba, including a black wedding gown that was fashionable before the turn of the century. The Susanna Bixby Bryant Museum is the perfect place for anyone interested in learning about Yorba Linda and North Orange County history.

Located at 5700 Susanna Bryant Drive, the museum is open on Sundays from 1pm until 4pm except holiday weekends. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children younger than 12. Group tours are available during the week by appointment.

To see a historical tour of the Susanna Bixby Bryant Ranch Museum and Botanic Garden, check out my video by visiting the Observer website and clicking the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which should take you directly to my page.


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