by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th century, the railroad town of Puente, founded adjacent to the Southern Pacific line in 1885, just before the great Boom of the Eighties hit greater Los Angeles, became a popular place for French immigrants, especially those from the Haute (Upper) Alpes engaging in sheep raising.
Among the early French migrants to Puente was Auguste Amar, who was born in 1847 in the old Dauphine province of the Haute Alpes and remained there until he was about 20 when he migrated to America. He lived in San Francisco for a decade before heading south and “engaged in raising sheep and growing wool [do you grow wool?!] in the San José Valley,” according to an 1889 biographical sketch.
The San José Valley was an old name for portions of Rancho La Puente (the neighboring ranch on the east was Rancho San Jose, now the Pomona area) and Amar leased for a few years from 1877. In 1881, he acquired over 1,800 acres “of hill and valley land just east of Puente” for his sheep ranch and for farming.
The 1889 sketch added that Amar:
established one of the finest farms in the section, planting orchards and vineyards, and erecting a fine country home, commodious barns, out-buildings, etc. He planted eighteen acres in vines of the most popular wine-grape varieties, from which he manufactured a fine quality of wines; also a family orchard containing a large variety of cirtus and deciduous fruits.
Another 300 acres were devoted to hay and grains, while Amar also became a partner of William R. Rowland, former county sheriff and son of La Puente original grantee John Rowland, in the development of the Puente oil field, opened in 1885. Amar also was identified as a promoter of the town of Puente when it was established the same year as the opening of the oil field.
In 1880, Amar married Alphonsine Gaucher of Los Angeles and the daughter of French immigrants. The couple had five children, three surviving into adulthood. Yet, just as Amar was enjoying the success of his labors at Puente and, as the region was in the midst of the boom, he died suddenly at age 40 in March 1888. Today, Amar Avenue, a major west to east thoroughfare in the eastern San Gabriel Valley commemorates his name.
His widow, however, continued to operate the ranch and a little over a year later married Louis Didier, another Haute Alps native who had two brothers in Puente (a niece married Walter P. Temple, Jr., who lived at the Homestead in the 1920s).
Didier established a very successful dairy on part of the Amar Ranch and built an impressive Spanish Colonial Revival home on the north side of Valley Boulevard just east of today’s Azusa Avenue where the AltaDena Dairy operates today (the house was removed maybe fifteen or twenty years ago.)
One of the children of Auguste Amar and Alphonsine Gaucher was Fidele Amar (1888-1936). Raised on the Amar Ranch, Fidele married Marie Lidia Didier, whose father Casimir was the brother of Louis (this shows how tightly knit the French community in rural Puente was!) and whose mother was Marie Rosalie Allec, another Haute Alpes native hailing from Poligny. Casimir and Marie Didier (who died in 1927 and 1919, respectively) are buried under a large tombstone in the El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead.
So, today’s highlighted artifact is a letter in the Homestead’s collection, written on 4 September 1904 from Fidele Amar to Jean Allec, who was a relative of Fidel’s future wife, but, at the time of the letter’s writing, a close friend from Puente. Fidele, who was 16 years old, was on a visit to France, probably his first trip there, and penned his missive from the Hotel Buckingham in Paris.
The hotel, now an apartment building, was situated a short distance north of the River Seine and near the Tuileries, Champs-Elysees, the Arc du Triomphe, and the Louvre among other famed attractions in the “City of Lights.”
Fidele’s letter, however, showed that his life in the small rural hamlet of Puente was about as far removed from the sophisticated metropolitan world of Paris as possible. He began his letter by noting:
Now we are in Paris visiting all the new things. But Paris is so big that we get lost . . . Paris is nice but I don’t like it because you can’t cross the streets, they [there] are so many wagons, and if you don’t look out they will run over you. Some places you have to wait ten minutes before crossing the street.
Still, the teenager reported that a friend came by the hotel each day to pick up Fidel and whoever else was traveling with them to see the sights. He noted that the Seine was a mile from the hostelry and the day before the saw one of the famed gardens, the Jardins des Plantes, to the southeast and across the river.
Fidele was particularly fascinated by the zoo, or the Rotunda of the Menagerie, there, talking at length about two bears. One would turn at the request of visitors for pieces of bread, while the other, he said, with a compatriot “ate a little girl . . . in two seconds” after she fell over the fence (though that might have been something of an urban legend?) He also recorded that an elephant killed a man who teased the pachyderm, stating that the animal grabbed the gent with his trunk “and killed him there in a second.” Fidels stated the same thing happened a year prior, as well.
Looking ahead, Fidele wrote that, on the 9th, he and his party were going on a boat ride on the Seine, though the craft was smaller than he had hoped. He noted they were fortunate in scouting available seating in the morning, because, by afternoon, there was no room left for passage until October.
As he wrapped up his correspondence, written at eleven at night, Fidele asked Jean to tell “Coco” that “he is bugs for not having written.” After asking Allec to pass along greetings to members of Jean’s family and “all our parents in Puente,” he implored Jean “don’t kill all the rabbits,” this being a popular pastime in those days.
It is worth concluding this post, meanwhile, by observing that, after Fidele lamented the size, crowds and difficulty of movement in Paris, he reminded Jean that “there is no place like Puente.”