The tall, wild grasses growing up the valleys of the Rancho Acalenes had spelled fertile farmland to the sharp eyes of Elam Brown as he searched for a new homestead. His first recorded agricultural success was in 1850 when a former cattle corral strewn with barley produced a bountiful crop of about 105 bushels per acre. Like most of arable Contra Costa County, the Lafayette area was to become a prime grain growing center and its inhabitants primarily farmers.
As late as 1884 a newspaper ad boasted: “Fine general farm of 103 acres, prettily located near Lafayette.” Another observer wrote: “Today the whole face of the arable part is one waving field of grain…” Vineyards, pear orchards and vegetable gardens were everywhere, and cattle, horses and sheep were important to the pioneer economy. Brown even experimented with growing Chinese sugar cane, largely for late summer and autumn forage for his cattle. He wrote enthusiastically: “No other known plant, at present cultivated or grown within the limits of California, can equal it.”
By 1859 a County Agricultural Society had been convened in Lafayette with the initial county fair taking place October 11 of that year. Always a leader, Brown was a member of the organizing committee.
Early Lafayette cattle brands
In 1915 Louis L. Stein, Sr. bought a ranch just east of the present Acalanes High School. The land and ranch buildings are shown following a rare snow storm in 1922.
Drought in the summer and flood in the winter often plagued farmers in Lafayette. About 1910 Lafayette Creek raged out of control and spilled over its banks just below Mt. Diablo Boulevard near Oakland Avenue. Today much of the creek is contained by underground pipes.
Mt. Diablo Boulevard was shared by autos and cattle alike as late as 1938. The cattle were driven by local farmers down the main road, through the old tunnel to Berkeley and on to the slaughter house in Emeryville.