Harriet Strong, the Pampas Woman

Harriet Strong’s Whittier estate, Huntington Library

When you drive around Southern California, you often see big stands of pampas grass, the tall billowing plant in the background of the photo above. It grows like a weed. Native to South America, the plant was brought here in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

One important promoter was Harriet Russell Strong (1844-1926) of Whittier, California.  Widowed in her late thirties and with four daughters to raise, Strong needed a quick growing cash crop to pay off the debt her husband left on their estate.  Her immediate answer was pampas grass.  She discovered a method to preserve the plumes to sell to the millinery business as a substitute for feathers.  A genius in marketing, she extolled the plant’s uses as decoration and raw material for fabric and rope. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she and her daughters designed a Pampas Plumes Palace, using it as a building material.  Although she eventually made her fortune with sturdier crops like walnuts, pampas grass gave Strong her start and earned her the name of “the Pampas Woman.”

The Huntington Library

Something of a Renaissance woman, Strong went on to win fame in many areas.  She devised a patented irrigation system for her walnut groves, one of many innovations.  Her irrigation plans led to the expansion of Southern California agriculture. To expand it even more, she devised a way for Colorado River water to be brought to California, an idea not implemented until after her death.  She was a skilled composer and participated in many cultural organizations.  In her later years she also became a forceful advocate for women’s education and suffrage.

But her first claim to fame was as “the Pampas Lady.” I wonder what she would make of the fact that the cornerstone of her success has now been classified as an invasive non-native species as well as a fire danger in California.

This entry was posted in 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, General, Pre 1900. Bookmark the permalink.

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