Practically everyone living in Southern California has gone grocery shopping at Ralphs. It seems like these stores have been around forever.
On the other hand, many of these same shoppers probably don’t have a clue of the man behind “Ralphs.”
Born Sept. 23, 1850, in Joplin, Missouri, George Albert Ralphs didn’t get much of a chance to get used to life in the Midwest. Setting out from Missouri with a prairie schooner and five yoke of oxen during fall 1852, Richard Ralphs, his pregnant wife, Mary, and their two children — 2-year-old George and his 4-year-old sister, Martha, joined a caravan in Kansas and headed for California. While making their way though Utah on Oct. 24, Mary gave birth to George’s brother, John.
In 1853, after making the arduous trek across the desolate Mojave Desert and then meandering through the rugged Cajon Pass, the Ralphs clan, which endured the death of George’s sister due to illness as they were traveling, gazed upon the beautiful fertile San Bernardino Valley. They quickly fell in love with the area and decided to make their new home there.
Richard Ralphs’ house near the corner of Mill Street and Eureka Avenue in San Bernardino is seen, circa 1857. (Courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Soon after arriving in town, Richard Ralphs, the patriarch of the household, started buying up what would eventually amount to 191 acres of land. Part of that included a 5-acre lot on what is now the northeast corner of Mill Street and Eureka Avenue from Amasa Lyman, Charles Rich, and Ebenezer Hanks in January 1857. A short time later, he built a house on that lot for his family that would, in time, include five more children.
Richard Ralphs’ claim to fame with the locals was the brickyard he co-owned with Henry Goodcell. They are credited with producing San Bernardino’s first brick-constructed building in 1867. A chip off the old block, young George followed his father’s footsteps and became quite a dandy brick man himself.
After finishing up with school, George Ralphs was ready to move on to new horizons. During the early 1870s, he took his masonry trade with him to Los Angeles. A rather small town of around 8,000 at the time, L.A. was nonetheless blossoming into a center of commerce.
For young George, this was the place to be. He quickly advanced from apprentice bricklayer to “Champion Bricklayer” of all Southern California.
But at age 22 in 1872, Ralphs lost his left arm in a hunting accident. The near fatal misfortune meant the end of one career and the beginning of something better. He gave up the trade and began work as a clerk in a small grocery store at 5th and Hill streets.
After obtaining a job as an apprentice clerk in a local grocery store at 6th and Spring streets, George saved up enough money to partner up with a Mr. Francis in 1873. By then, Walter, who had been farming in San Bernardino, gave up the plow and joined his brother in Los Angeles. In 1877, the brothers bought out Francis for $2,000 and a family business was off and running as “Ralphs Brothers.” In 1909, the enterprise was incorporated as the Ralphs Grocery Company.
Almost from the start, George found himself conducting a high volume, low-prices-to-customer supermarket. His secret? Providing lodging for the farmers and stabling for their horses. This attracted so many enthusiastic sellers that he was able to buy whole crops at one time.
Instead of making deliveries to the distant suburbs as he often did, the brothers wisely expanded with the city. In 1901, the store moved to 514 S. Spring Street. Then in 1911, they opened their first branch market on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue.
By then, Walter had retired and George brought his two nephews into a partnership.
Life was evolving quite nicely for George. He married Miss Wallula Von Keith in Los Angeles on July 23, 1896, and before long was the proud father of two children, a son and daughter, George Albert, Jr., and Annabel.
The near tragic hunting accident in 1872 certainly led to an exciting lucrative career for George Ralphs. But he was not so fortunate during the summer of 1914.
In June of that year, George and his wife, “Lulu,” took their family for a few days of vacation in the San Bernardino Mountains. While going for a hike in Waterman Canyon, they decided to rest by the nearby babbling creek.
SS Palo Alto: History of the Santa Cruz County ‘Cement Ship’
The John Steinbeck you don’t know — and the book you’ve never heard of
The real Marion Davies: Film star emerges from William Randolph Hearst’s shadow in new book
Julia Morgan’s California: A guide to visiting the architect’s signature Bay Area buildings
Opinion: What I learned about myself at the Richard Nixon Library
According to the San Bernardino Sun, George seated himself on a boulder “imbedded in the earth at the top of a twenty foot ravine” and asked his wife to sit down and rest. While attempting to assist his wife to a place beside him, George dislodged a huge stone, which had been the support of the boulder, and it rolled down the mountainside, carrying him with it. One leg was caught under the boulder and was crushed.
His son, Albert, hurried to the nearby Arrowhead Springs Hotel for help and George was rushed to the Ramona Hospital (located at 4th Street and Arrowhead Avenue) in San Bernardino. After an extensive operation was performed, it looked like the veteran grocer was about to survive yet another crippling injury.
Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t meant to be. Sixty-four year old George Ralphs’ life came to an abrupt end June 21, 1914.
The empire that he started is still going strong today. Ralphs Grocery Company was one of the first chain stores in the United States and has helped establish the concept of today’s “supermarket.” Currently, it operates more than 400 stores throughout California under the store names of Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Cala Foods and Bell Markets.
Contact Nick Cataldo at [email protected] and read more of his local history articles at Facebook.com/BackRoadsPress.