A visit to historic Boys Republic, home of the Della Robbia holiday wreath (since 1923)

boys-republic-street-signEarlier this year, we had the opportunity to tour the historic Boys Republic school, situated on the Rancho Santa Ana Del Chino, near the modern cities of Chino and Chino Hills. (Here is an early ranch map, here a modern aerial view.)

It was on this site in September 1846, during the Mexican-American War, that Isaac Williams’ moated adobe ranch house was besieged and 24 Americans taken prisoner and marched to Boyle Heights. A canon stands as a war memorial just east of the school grounds.

Boys Republic is an extraordinary place, a largely undeveloped time capsule of the Californio era, as well as a functioning ranch, farm, educational facility (academics and construction trades) and seasonal cottage industry—the famous Della Robia Holiday Wreaths have been made here since 1923.

The lower campus features a master plan and buildings by noted Pasadena architect Myron Hunt, who married founding board member Virginia Pease and maintained a long interest in the school.

Since 1907, this progressive institution has offered troubled and neglected youth the opportunity to build self esteem, develop life skills and participate in a civic system based on self-governance. We were eager to see Hunt’s campus and the historic ranch buildings, and learn about how the school functions. Our visit coincided with preparations for the annual Friends of Steve McQueen Car & Motorcycle Show, a fundraiser honoring Boys Republic’s most famous alumnus, so we got to see some cool vintage vehicles, too.

old-truck

So as not to compromise the privacy of the students, our photos focus on parts of the campus that were unpopulated during our golf cart tour.

The northwestern portion of the site is dedicated to animal husbandry, with friendly inhabitants in the handsome old barns and corrals.grain-silo

goat

cow-in-v-barn

penned-cattle-with-br-brand

handsome-cows

Unfortunately, Isaac Williams’ adobe ranch house does not survive. Nor does the house that Myron Hunt built for his wife in 1915. But as we drove out towards the site, something glittered inside an open barn door…

old-barn-door-open

Behind some dusty golf clubs was a magnificent wrought iron gate, no doubt part of Hunt’s project.

gate-in-old-barn

Perhaps it stood somewhere near the old stone gateposts which formerly opened onto the southern border of the ranch.

old-gate-posts-and-tree-line

richard-with-old-gate-post

Close by is a horizontal plinth which formerly displayed the war memorial canyon before it was moved just off campus for easier public access.

old-cannon-plinth

Randy, who has managed the Wood Shop for decades, gave us a tour of his neat domain…. wood-shop-proprietor-randy

wood-shop-interior

complete with vintage eye protection propaganda…

wood-shop-vintage-eye-protection-poster

and a quote from a Steve McQueen biography about how he was changed by his time at Boys Republic.

wood-shop-steve-mcqueen-quote

We wrapped up our visit with a walk through the Della Robbia wreath factory, a series of functional buildings wrapped around the historic gym.

wreath-hq-exterior

Although the holidays were still six months away, the factory floor was humming with activity. We watched with fascination as the craftswomen swiftly loaded plastic rings with a mix of dried cones, pods and nuts, making a pretty festive scene inspired by the 15th century terracotta sculptures of Andrea della Robbia.

wreath-shop-workers

On the wall, twin Santas display both sizes of the finished product.

wreath-shop-santas

Just off the factory, we passed through a vintage fire door…

wreath-shop-vintage-fire-door

…into a long warehouse with lofts packed with sacks and boxes of wreath fixings. (If we returned at this time of year, the buildings would be bustling with dozens of young men helping to make, pack and ship wreaths out to customers all over the country.)

wreath-shop-stacked-bags

An ingenious triangular metal stand makes it easy to fill the recycled potato sacks with pine cones.

wreath-shop-bag-filling-frame

Nearby, in the old gym, beautiful rafters support a complex system of hooks and conveyor belts, which carry completed wreaths to the shipping center for final packaging. It’s clear that, after 93 years in the business, Boys Republic has wreath production down!

wreath-shop-rafters-and-assembly-line

If you’d like to support the good work of Boys Republic, you can purchase a freshly-crafted Della Robia Holiday Wreath, and learn more about the wreath making process here.

Our thanks to Boys Republic Development Director and historian  Jerry Marcotte for the tour and the hospitality.