Old El Toro's Oil Equivalent: Fuel For the Day's Labor

In the days before horseless carriages, barley was not only a major fuel food, but also one of El Toro's most important cash crops.

“Don’t bring any books to the table!” was a typical mealtime mantra during my childhood.

But at breakfast I could get away with a cereal box next to my place setting. Then, after reading the various promotional bits and kiddie features—one of my favorites being a series about our astronauts and their next space mission—I’d turn to the narrow side of the box, where the ingredients were listed. 

Way down at the bottom were a bunch of names I couldn’t begin to pronounce—additives, my mom said, to color the cereal and keep it fresh. Up at the top, however—along with that universal crowd-pleaser, sugar—were the far more readable oats, wheat, and barley.

Thanks to the smiling, rosy-cheeked Quaker on the round box, I knew what oats were. And I also knew about waving wheat, by way of the Oklahoma! song my mom liked to play on her record player. 

But barley? What was barley?


Years later, after coming upon umpteen references to “land being put to barley” in ’s History of El Toro, ’s books, and a number of other local history sources, I’m beginning to understand just how important this crop was to El Toro’s economy.

, of course, and ultimately a "perfect" crop—that of —dominated the gently rising knolls leading from El Camino Real up to the canyons.

But when it came to the flatter expanses of land, barley was the favored crop.

Today high-fibered barley isn't just a cereal or a breadstuff component; it's also a primary ingredient for folks looking to create nutritious meals. Visit a restaurant known for its healthy cuisine and you're more than likely to encounter barley in stews, soups, and other hearty dishes.

Long before the advent of "health food," however, the primary requirement of food was a stick-to-your-ribs quality. The kind of food that could keep you fueled up for hours engaged in the hard labor that farming and ranching required. So while barley was a part of the diet, so were bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, fried chicken, well-marbled steaks, meat pies, fruit pies, biscuits drenched in butter and jam, and plenty of gravy-based dishes.

As for transportation, it was typically measured in real horsepower. Unless you were on foot, getting about locally involved the use of a buggy, buckboard, or similar conveyance—or, saddling up your favorite horse. And what sort of fuel did the family equine require? Along with alfalfa, barley was a primary grain of choice!

But barley consumption didn’t stop with the horses. Hardworking mule teams—another future El Toro & Before topic—along with cattle and other farm animals . . . all thrived on barley.

Then there was the beverage aspect: Barley was (and is) an outstanding source of fermentation for beer and a number of distilled drinks.

Transportation, of course, being a necessity, along with something to eat and drink, in 1890s and early 1900s El Toro, the production of barley was roughly equivalent to the maintenance of today’s oil supply.

And as it turned out, the Aliso Valley—now known as the Saddleback Valley—provided excellent barley growing conditions. The great expanses of land plus warm but generally temperate climate were perfect for this self-polinating member of the grass family. And while wheat struggles in soil having high salinity content, the same cannot be said for barley. A generally adaptable crop, it thrived in south Orange County—an area which, millions of years ago, had been covered by what is now known as the Pacific Ocean.


All the same, raising barley was an operation not to be taken lightly. To begin with, it demanded a lot of hard, physical labor and year-round supervision. Here, in part, is what Clara Mason Fox wrote about it in the late 1930s:

Dry farming is a form of gambling, somewhat like mining, but entailing a heavier investment.  In the early days of barley-raising, with a lease of a thousand acres, or thereabouts, a farmer needed at least twenty head of stock—three six-horse teams, a driving team, and a spare or two.   There must be three plows, three harrows, three seeders—all of these to put the grain in the ground. Then, to harvest it, a header and at least four wagons. Quite an investment, those days! . . .

Plowing was started about the first of November and was usually finished by the first of February.  Cutting of the grain for hay started about the first of May.  To run a hay-baler, six head of horses or mules were required, teams working in relays, on the round and round.  These were usually driven by a boy, and five men did the baling—two pitchers, a feeder, a roustabout, and the man who tied the wires . . .

When the grain ripened, the heading and stacking began.  The header was pulled by six horses, and was served usually by three wagons, each drawn by four horses, which transported the grain to stacks spaced apart so that three wagons could unload and get back to the machine in turn.  A net-boy at the stack with a team unloaded the wagons.

Some farmers owned threshing machines and did their own work, perhaps working also on other nearby leases.  Other machines were operated by men not [otherwise] farming . . . This work started usually in the early part of June and lasted until the middle of August or later.

We’ll be revisiting El Toro’s barley fields, the crews and mule teams that labored from dawn until dusk, and the support they received from their employers and local families.

Until then—and unless you require a gluten-free diet—eat your barley, it’s good for you!

BOOMFREAKAinLF September 09, 2012 at 12:39 PM
Thank you Mrs. Whitcomb for a wonderful perspective into the barley days of Orange County. Your column is always a fantastic way to travel back into time! Looking forward to the sequel of this piece!


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