From Point A to Point B on a Six-in-Hand Carriage Ride to Mission San Gabriel, 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Sundays have long been a day for a relaxing drive to the beach or the mountains and holiday weekends like this one are an even more popular time, especially now that the Memorial Day weekend is the usual herald for the summer season.

Today’s entry focuses on a great snapshot from the Homestead’s collection showing an impressive “six-in-hand” (meaning six horses were harnessed together to pull the vehicle on one set of reins) drawn carriage alighted adjacent to the Mission San Gabriel in 1900.  While we can’t say that the day of the week for the pleasure ride was a Sunday, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if it was.

The mission was a highly popular tourist attraction of the era with locals and out-of-towners drawn to the site as one of the few regional “relics” of the Spanish and Mexican past.  The allure, however, was very romantic (one term used for this is “Spanish Fantasy Heritage”), as many visitors were either drawn to popular notions of the onset of “civilization” through missionary activity with native indigenous Indians or to the themes and stories of the massively popular Helen Hunt Jackson novel Ramona, published in 1885 (ironically, Jackson hoped her work would bring badly needed attention to the plight of the Indians, but readers latched on to the romance of Ramona and her lover Alessandro instead).

Stagecoach In Front Of Mission San Gabriel 2004.6.3.2
This 1900 snapshot from the Homestead collection looks to have come from a scrapbook or photo album and shows a large “six-in-hand” drawn carriage parked in front of the Mission San Gabriel, with well-dressed riders on or near the vehicle.  The wide dirt road in front is Mission Drive and the view is looking east.  Walter P. Temple later owned the long block across from the mission and behind where the photographer stood.

In fact, in addition to the 1812 stone mission church, one of the big attractions in San Gabriel was just a little to the west of the mission (behind the photographer) where an adobe building was heralded as one of the many birthplaces of Ramona.

The romanticizing of pre-American California was greatly accelerated in the little mission town when, in 1912, writer John Steven McGroarty’s The Mission Play debuted and went on a successful run through the 1920s, promoting a story of missionary activity that glorified those efforts while providing no point of view from the native peoples and their experiences.

Walter P. Temple, once he came into oil money in the late 1910s, became an enthusiastic supporter of the play, often compared to the German passion play, the Oberammergau.  When the popularity of the play led to the building of a new Mission Playhouse (later the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium and now renamed the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse–the venue’s history page is here), Temple was, with transportation magnate and art collector Henry Huntington, the largest donor to the new building and his business manager, Milton Kauffman, sat on the organization’s board of directors.

Temple also purchased the long block directly across from the mission and behind where the photographer stood.  In the early 1920s, he built three business buildings, all of which stand today, and then donated the furthest eastern lot to the city for its city hall, which also remains in use.

By the end of the decade, financial troubles led to the loss of his commercial interests in the town, but his eldest child, Thomas W. Temple II, moved to San Gabriel in 1930 and became the historian of both the city and the mission, while also making a living conducting genealogical research for persons descended from the Spanish-speaking families of the Mexican and Spanish eras.  When Thomas Temple died in 1972, he became the first layperson to be buried in the mission courtyard next to the church along with the clergy.

As for the photo, there are undoubtedly at least some folks who are out visiting the mission today to tour the old stone church, the courtyard and its displays, and the historic cemetery.

Meantime, another opportunity for a Sunday drive is to the Homestead, which is hosting the first of this summer season’s Sunday Picnic events.  We’re open until 4 p.m. and you get more information from this flyer.

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