On This Day: Wilson, Morrow and Chamberlain Wine Merchants Billhead, 14 May 1869

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For much of the 19th century, the center of California’s viticulture and wine-making was in greater Los Angeles, much of it in the San Gabriel Valley.  Eventually overtaken by the superior grape-growing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties, viticulture of this area continued to be heavily practiced until the early 1890s when disease ravaged local vineyards.  Some production remained in the Inland Empire around what is now the Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga areas well into the 20th century and small-scale work continues to this day.

John Rowland and William Workman, who were distillers in New Mexico, found some success growing grapes and making wine on Rancho La Puente and the former had a large vineyard in Los Angeles, as well.  Workman’s three substantial brick wineries, built in the mid-1860s, continued to be utilized after his death in 1876 by his grandson Francis W. Temple, who was still producing substantial quantities of wine when he passed away in 1888.  After that, viticulture at the Homestead ended.

The wineries remained, however, and were used for fruit and vegetable packing, the slaughtering and packing of meat, and other purposes, especially during the 1910s.  When Walter P. Temple owned the Homestead from 1917 ro 1932, he converted the winery buildings into an auditorium (with a stage, piano, film projector, pool and ping-pong tables, and other amenities), a cafeteria with a full commercial kitchen and seating capacity of 150 persons; and a nine-car garage.

The 1870 census listing for Benjamin D. Wilson at his Lake Vineyard estate.  The 58-year old “farmer” had self-declared real estate assets of $150,000 and personal property of $20,000, a substantial sum (almost certainly very understated) for the time.

One of Rowland and Workman’s long-time friends was Benjamin Davis Wilson, born in Tennessee in 1811 and who was a fur trapper and merchant in New Mexico, during some of the years the others were residing in Taos.  When the decision was made by Rowland and Workman to leave for California, Wilson came along, stating that his object was to take a ship to China.  After arriving in Los Angeles late in 1841 and then journeying with Rowland north Monterey, as the former sought a land grant to La Puente, Wilson literally “missed the boat” and returned south.

He purchased the Rancho Jurupa, northwest of modern Riverside, and established his home there with María Ramona Yorba, daughter of the prominent Californio ranchero Bernardo Yorba, with whom he had a daughter and son.  After some years in the remote Jurupa area, including a role in the Battle of Chino during the Mexican-American War, and following the death of his wife in 1849, Wilson moved to Los Angeles.  He was elected to the new Common [City] Council, was the town’s first city clerk, and served as its second mayor.  Wilson also served three terms on the county Board of Supervisors and was a state senator for three terms.  A federal Indian agent, Wilson’s 1852 report on the local indigenous people is a remarkable document about the natives, even as his relationship with the Indians is one that remains disputed.

Wilson, along with his friend Phineas Banning, had a prominent role in building the first local railroad, the Los Angeles and San  Pedro and helped establish the short-lived Wilson College in Wilmington, the town established by Banning.  He also had a significant part to play in getting the first federal appropriations to improve what is now the Port of Los Angeles.

Wilson Morrow Chamberlain receipt 14May69
This billhead from the Homestead’s collection is from the short-lived firm of Wilson, Morrow and Chamberlin, a partnership of B.D. Wilson & Co. (including Wilson’s enterprising son-in-law, James de Barth Shorb) and New York commission merchants and wholesale wine dealers, Thomas H. Morrow and A.L. Chamberlin.  The sale of 14 May 1869 was for two cases of “L.V.” [Lake Vineyard] port for $18 to A. C. Morrow, a relative of Thomas.  The 50 cents figure was probably an excise tax for alcohol.
After several years in Los Angeles and just after his marriage to widow Margaret Hereford, he decided to invest in land in San Gabriel Valley, specifically near Mission San Gabriel.  His acquisition of the Huerta de Cuati ranch from Victoria Reid, a native Indian and widow of Wilson’s friend Hugo Reid, may have been a legitimate sale, though descendants of the Indians believe he took advantage of Victoria and appropriated her land.  This property became known as Lake Vineyard and included well-watered grapevines, from which were produced some of the region’s best wines and brandies.

Wilson’s daughter from his first marriage, María de Jesús, or Sue, married James deBarth Shorb, a native of Maryland who came to California to oversee an early oil drilling project, in 1867.  Quickly, Wilson brought his son-in-law into his viticulture and wine-making enterprise through Wilson and Company.  Shorb convinced his father-in-law to dramatically expand the production of grapes and wine and to think beyond selling product in San Francisco and approach partners in New York.

These included Thomas H. Morrow and A.L. Chamberlin. commission merchants in Manhattan.  A deal appears to have been struck late in 1868 to have the New Yorkers sell wine from Wilson’s vineyards through their dealing house in what is now the Tribeca neighborhood.  Advertising was placed throughout the country, including the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, Harper’s Weekly, the Round Table journalOverland Monthly, and California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences.

Overland Monthly, October 1869.

At the time, greater Los Angeles was embarked on its first significant period of growth, which would last through the mid-1870s, and Wilson was at the pinnacle of his wealth and influence, including his years in the state senate.  He would continue to expand his real estate work, acquiring the Rancho San Pasqual, embracing most of what, in 1873, became the Indiana Colony, soon renamed Pasadena.  He also headed the Lake Vineyard Land and Water Association, which included F.P.F. Temple as treasurer.  Wilson and Shorb then founded Alhambra, named because Wilson’s daughter was a fan of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra.

The venture with Morrow and Chamberlin was very short-lived, perhaps lasting only a matter of months before the deal was shuttered.  Not much is known about why, but Shorb had a series of partners during the 1870s after this one. He may have been talking about Morrow and Chamberlin when he wrote in 1869:

They have a double fight before them; first to introduce a new article which all importers are fighting against, and secondly to remove all the bad effects and strong prejudice against all California wines, created by the horrible stuff offered here as California wines on this market.

Thomas Pinney, whose landmark book A History of Wine in America includes the above quote, noted that production from the Wilson vineyards was significant, including 150,000 gallons of wine and 116,000 gallons of brandy.  These levels were far beyond what William Workman produced at La Puente and outside markets were needed to keep inventories moving.

Shorb’s frequent rotation of business partners, however, proved to be futile and frustrating, as he vented in one letter, “my strong predilection even in business is to deal with gentlemen, and God knows out wine business has been handled almost exclusively by another class.”  Then, in 1875-76 came the economic collapse in California, following a national depression that broke out in 1873, that included the ruin of the bank owned by Wilson’s long-time friends, William Workman and F.P.F. Temple.

Wilson, who’d retired from active involvement in his viticultural enterprises and handed the reins to Shorb, died in 1878, just after providing a fascinating interview of his recollections of pre-American California for Hubert Howe Bancroft of the University of California.  Shorb pushed on, forming the San Gabriel Wine Company, which had its massive facilities in west Alhambra and was funded heavily by British investors as well as Los Angeles banker (and former partner of Workman and Temple) Isaias W. Hellman and two former U.S. senators from California.

The Round Table, 10 April 1869.

During the famed Boom of the Eighties, mainly 1886-88, San Gabriel Wine Company did quite well, but that boom went bust and the Anaheim disease wreaked havor, too. Conditions worsened considerably for the firm and for Shorb during the first half of the 1890s.  By the time Shorb died in 1896, the business was shuttered and his personal finances in ruins.

A visitor in 1893 to the Shorb residence on Lake Vineyard land was so impressed by the place that he bought it a decade later.  Removing Shorb’s impressive Queen Anne-style mansion with a new home filled eventually with valuable art, the new owner developed his gentleman’s ranch into a showpiece with extensive gardens and a renowned library.  Henry E. Huntington’s estate became a centerpiece of a town named for Shorb’s estate, in turn named for the plantation in Maryland in which he grew up: San Marino.

The billhead from the Homestead’s collection is a receipt from this day in 1869 for two cases of “L.V. Port,” presumably Lake Vineyard port, sold for $18 to an A.C. Morrow, undoubtedly a relative of Thomas H. Morrow.  The circled sum of 50 cents probably refers to an excise tax paid on alcohol.  The trademark for Lake Vineyard includes a five-pointed star, a wreath of grape leaves, a bunch of the fruit and the Latin motto “In Vino Veritas,” a proverb noted by Pliny the Elder in 1st-century A.D. Rome, meaning “In wine there is truth.” This refers to the tendency of people “in their cups” to speak freely of things they would not when sober.

The document is part of a story of a company that lasted a very short time, but is connected to one of greater Los Angeles’ most significant individuals and one of its most important early industries.

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