by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead collection has many portrait photographs in its collection, dating from 1850s daguerreotypes through 1920s images in paper folios. Some are of Workman and Temple family members as part of documenting the history of our site. Others are collected because they show changes in clothing and hairstyles. In some cases, getting representative samplings of greater Los Angeles photographers is part of the reason for acquiring portraits.
Occasionally, a portrait has a story to tell that goes beyond the immediate image. This is the case with this post’s highlighted photograph, a cabinet card from George Westervelt showing a middle-aged man with graying hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, and wearing a light-colored high-buttoned jacket with very short lapels with no necktie.
More importantly, however, there is an inscription on the reverse reading, “From A.C. Ledbetter / March 1892.” In doing a little poking around, it was found that the gent in the photo had the fantastic name of Alpheus Ledbetter. Born in March 1844 near Greensboro, North Carolina, Ledbetter moved with his family to Rochester, Missouri near St. Joseph.
Although a good many of his neighbors were from North Carolina and other Southern states and with Missouri a border state during the brewing conflicts over sectionalism and slavery that led to the Civil War, Ledbetter enlisted with the Union Army in September 1862 at St. Joseph at the tender age of 18. He joined Company E of the 35th Regiment of the Missouri Infantry and served through the remainder of the war. He mustered out as a private at Little Rock, Arkansas at the end of June 1865.
His whereabouts immediately after the war are not known, but Ledbetter wound up as a farm hand near Bozeman, Montana by the 1880s. By the time the Boom of the 1880s erupted in Los Angeles, Ledbetter was in the growing city working as a carpenter, which remained his profession.
Ledbetter, who never married, bounced around the city, residing in East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights), west of downtown, Highland Park, and then Burbank. About the time he arrived in Los Angeles, the federal government opened the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors in what was called Sawtelle, east of Santa Monica.
In March 1899, Ledbetter, then 55 years old, entered the home and was there on and off for just under three years. He was not long away, however, and returned to the facility in April 1903 and stayed for over twenty years. Ledbetter died at the home in February 1925, just a little shy of his 81st birthday.
His National Soldiers Home record showed that Ledbetter, who was quite tall at just under 6’4″ in height, contracted variscose veins in 1866, which might have become serious enough to make standing or walking painful and difficult, particularly with someone as tall as Ledbetter was. Likely this was the cause for his remaining at the facility for so many years after 1903.
As for the home, it was established by Congress in 1887 on land donated by former Nevada senator John P. Jones and Robert M. Baker, founders of Santa Monica. The facility opened the following year while construction continued on the site. A national cemetery was created in 1889, as well. Early structures, including architecturally interesting buildings like a Shingle-style chapel and streetcar depot, remain.
Significant growth for the home occurred between the 1920s and 1940s, with a new hospital and barracks among the additions, most in the popular Spanish Colonial Revival style. Today, the facility houses the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System-West Los Angeles Healthcare Center, formerly the Wadsworth Hospital. Much of the site is a National Park Service historic site, where remaining buildings from the earlier years of the facility are visible for viewing. For more on the site by the NPS, click here.
The Santa Monica Museum of History has an exhibit on view until 18 January called “The Old Soldiers’ Home: A Veterans’ Community by the Sea.” For more on the exhibit, click here.