Virtually everyone who lives in Southern California has shopped at Ralphs at some point. It seems like these stores have been around forever.
On the other hand, many of these buyers probably have no idea about the man behind “Ralphs.”
Born on September 23, 1850 in Joplin, Missouri, George Albert Ralphs had little opportunity to adjust to life in the Midwest. Richard Ralphs, his pregnant wife Mary, and their two children—two-year-old George and his four-year-old sister Martha—set out from Missouri on a caravan in Kansas in the fall of 1852 with a prairie schooner and five teams of oxen, bound for California. While traveling through Utah on October 24, Mary George’s brother gave birth to John.
In 1853, the Ralphs clan, en route to the death of George’s sister by disease, looked to the beautiful, fertile San Bernardino Valley after the arduous trek through the desolate Mojave Desert and then through the rugged Cajon Pass meandered. They quickly fell in love with the area and decided to build their new home there.
Shortly after arriving in town, Richard Ralphs, the household’s patriarch, began buying up what would eventually amount to 191 acres of land. Part of this included a 5 acre lot at what is now the northeast corner of Mill Street and Eureka Avenue by Amasa Lyman, Charles Rich and Ebenezer Hanks in January 1857. A short time later he built a home on this lot for himself and a family who were with by that time would include five more children.
Richard Ralph’s claim to fame among the locals was the brick factory he co-owned with Henry Goodcell. They are credited with building San Bernardino’s first brick building in 1867. Young George, a little away from the old block, followed in his father’s footsteps and became quite a dandy brick man himself.
After graduating from school, George Ralphs was ready to explore new horizons. In the early 1870s he took his masonry trade to Los Angeles. Back then, LA was a rather small city with around 8,000 inhabitants, but it still developed into a commercial center.
For young George, this was the place to be. He quickly rose from apprentice bricklayer to champion bricklayer of all Southern California.
But at the age of 22 in 1872, Ralphs lost his left arm in a hunting accident. The near fatal accident meant the end of a career and the beginning of something better. He gave up trading and began working as a clerk at a small grocery store at 5th and Hill Streets.
After getting a job as an apprentice at a local grocery store at 6th Street and Spring Street, George saved enough money to work with a Mr. Francis in 1873. At this point, Walter, who had been farming in San Bernardino, gave up the plow and joined his brother in Los Angeles. In 1877 the Francis brothers bought out for $2,000 and a family business was formed under the name Ralphs Brothers. In 1909 the company was incorporated as Ralphs Grocery Company.
Almost from the start George managed a supermarket with high volume and low prices for the customer. His secret? Providing housing for the farmers and stables for their horses. This attracted so many enthusiastic sellers that he was able to buy entire crops at once.
Instead of shipping to the far suburbs as they often do, the brothers wisely expanded with the city. In 1901 the store moved to 514 S. Spring Street. In 1911 they opened their first store on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue.
By this time Walter was retired and George brought his two nephews into partnership.
Life was going pretty well for George. He married Miss Wallula Von Keith in Los Angeles on July 23, 1896 and was soon the proud father of two children, a son and daughter, George Albert, Jr., and Annabel.
The almost tragic hunting accident in 1872 certainly led to an exciting and lucrative career for George Ralphs. But in the summer of 1914 he was not so lucky.
In June of this year, George and his wife “Lulu” took their family for a few days vacation in the San Bernardino Mountains. While hiking in Waterman Canyon, they decided to rest at the nearby babbling creek.
According to the San Bernardino Sun, George sat on a boulder “embedded in the earth at the top of a twenty-foot ravine” and asked his wife to sit and rest. While trying to help his wife to sit next to him, George dislodged a huge rock that had been the boulder’s support and he rolled down the mountainside, carrying it with him. A leg was trapped under the boulder and crushed.
His son Albert rushed to the nearby Arrowhead Springs Hotel for help, and George was taken to Ramona Hospital (at 4th Street and Arrowhead Avenue) in San Bernardino. After undergoing extensive surgery, it looked like the veteran grocer would survive another debilitating injury.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be this time. The life of 64-year-old George Ralphs came to an abrupt end on June 21, 1914.
The empire he founded still stands today. Ralphs Grocery Company was one of the first chain stores in the United States and helped establish the concept of today’s “supermarket”. The Company currently operates more than 400 stores throughout California under the Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Cala Foods and Bell Markets trading names.
Contact Nick Cataldo at [email protected] and read more articles about his local history at Facebook.com/BackRoadsPress.