Games People Play at a Los Angeles Rodeo, 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This weekend, the Homestead will have a display booth at the Industry Hills Charity Pro Rodeo, a sanctioned event held since 1986 that raises funds for The Gabriel Foundation, which assists children in need through after-school recreational, tutoring, leadership and summer camp grant programs.

At the museum’s booth, there will be historic artifacts displayed relating to rodeos in greater Los Angeles during the 1910s and 1920s, including photographs and programs.  These objects are a link between the present event, the rodeos of a century or so ago, and, even prior, the ranching society that dominated the region.

Way before the eastern San Gabriel Valley became a densely populated suburban area, it had a long history as a region of ranches filled with horses, cattle and other livestock.  That history began with the establishment of the Mission San Gabriel in 1771 and continued with a number of ranchos operated under the supervision of the mission, including Rancho La Puente, on which the Homestead is situated.

After the missions were “secularized” in the 1830s, with the land converted to private ownership through government grants and the old mission churches transferred into parish churches, those ranchos became the property of both native-born and naturalized Mexican citizens.

Among those were John Rowland and William Workman, who became citizens of Mexico while living in Taos, New Mexico and who came to this area in late 1841.  The following spring, Rowland secured a grant to Rancho La Puente, comprising 18,000 acres and which was enlarged in summer 1845 to nearly 49,000 acres, the maximum under Mexican law.  In those years, the regional economy was dominated by cattle raising, with the hides and tallow (fat) traded for goods.

This press photo from the Homestead collection, taken by noted rodeo photographer Ralph R. Doubleday, shows Canadian cowboy “Chug” Wilson being thrown by Broken Box at a rodeo held at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1926.  The photo was published in advance of a professional rodeo which took place over three days in May 1927 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Shortly after the American invasion and conquest, the Gold Rush changed the dynamics of ranching, as cattle became valuable as a food supply for the hundreds of thousands of new migrants who poured into California in the late 1840s and early 1850s.  Rowland and Workman, along with other local rancheros, drove herds to the gold fields and realized fortunes.

The good times lasted for less than a decade, however, when the Gold Rush ended and cattle ranches were overstocked.  A national depression in 1857 was followed by the devastation of floods and then drought in the first half of the following decade.  Rowland and Workman, who also intensively farmed on La Puente, survived the lean years, and expanded their agricultural work.  Workman still had several thousand cattle into the 1870s, which was unusual for the period.  By the end of the 19th century, the orange became the new symbol of the regional economy, rather than cattle.

Still, in the first few decades of the 20th century, the cattle culture survived in the area, though on a far smaller scale.  Ranching was still carried on in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, in pockets of Rancho La Puente and, further east, in what is now Diamond Bar and Walnut, where portions of public land and the Rancho Nogales were used for raising purebred stock, hogs, and horses.  Walter P. Temple, owned of the 92-acre Homestead, from 1917 to 1932, had horses and other animals on his ranch and liked to throw parties and events celebrating, somewhat romantically, the ranching lifestyle practiced by his ancestors.

Rodeos were held throughout greater Los Angeles during the 1910s and 1920s and the accompanying press photo, taken by renowned rodeo photographer, Ralph R. Doubleday (read more about him here), shows Canadian cowboy “Chug” Wilson being upended by a horse named Broken Box in a rodeo at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1926.

The image was released to the press in advance of what was billed as the First Annual Los Angeles Rodeo, held over three days in May 1927.  Taking place at the relatively new Los Angeles Coliseum, which opened in 1923, the rodeo attracted some 200,000 spectators, according to some accounts.  Even as ranches were being sold and subdivided into new suburban towns and housing tracts and livestock being seen further out on the periphery of greater Los Angeles, these events showed that the culture of cattle and cowboys still had an allure.

Nearly a century on, there is much debate between animal rights groups and defenders of rodeos and other forms of entertainment using animals about their treatment.  While traditionally the cattle culture has had strong allure, changes in thinking about the use of livestock in rodeos have become part of the historical context as well as a topic of considerable contemporary controversy.

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