by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For decades from the late 19th century through the World War II years, greater Los Angeles was, as the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce liked to put it, an “agricultural empire.” The region was among the most fertile and productive in the nation and the world when it came to a wide array of products grown on its farms, orchards, and groves.
Garnering the most attention was citrus, principally oranges, with walnuts being another major product that was given significant coverage—primarily because these were high-value and generally very profitable products. Both, through the Sunkist and Blue Diamond cooperatives, were heavily advertised and their reach in national markets was significant.
Less “sexy” than these headline-grabbers were the everyday, run-of-the-mill, but still vital agricultural products like other fruits and vegetables, whether these be strawberries, melons, lettuce, onions and many others. Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a quartet of snapshot photographs from December 1922 showing workers at the Rosenmayer-Weinrich Pickle Company in the industrial section of downtown Los Angeles.
Jacob J. Rosenmayer was a Russian Jew, probably from the Pale of Settlement in the west part of the empire (Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other areas) who migrated to the United States at age 18 in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander III ascended to the throne and issued “Temporary Laws” the were further restrictive to the movement of Jews and also established an atmosphere of increasing pogroms against them.
Rosenmayer wound up in Chicago where he opened a pickle factory under his own name in 1896. Within a decade, however, he, his wife Rosa Wedeles (the two married in 1885) and their several children relocated to Los Angeles. Rosenmayer immediately established the Pacific Pickle Packing Company in the city, turning out dill and sweet varieties, and also was active in real estate.
His son Louis opened a branch of the business in San Bernardino in 1913 and the following year the Rosenmayers joined forces with J.D. Hirsch as the Rosenmayer-Hirsch Pickle Company. After five years the firm was reconstituted as Rosenmayer Pickle Company and, in 1921, the elder Rosenmayer died at age 58.
The business passed to his sons, Louis, who was the principal figure thereafter, and Harry, who later left to work as a jeweler. Quickly, the two partnered with August Weinrich, a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Burlington, Iowa, where his father Hermann, a native of Kassel, Germany, opened a pickle and vinegar works, the first in Iowa, back in the 1870s. August worked for his father until the elder Weinrich retired and came to the City of Angels joined by August and other family.
Though the photos show the business at its modest quarters on 6th Street just west of the Los Angeles River in the industrial section of town, the partnership was over soon afterward. By spring 1923, Weinrich formed his own pickle company, which was quite successful, enabling him to move to a home in the leafy upper-class San Gabriel Valley suburb of San Marino (among his neighbors were steel company president Richard Lacy and stained glass studio owner Walter H. Judson). Not long after retirement, Weinrich died and was buried at San Gabriel Cemetery.
As for Louis Rosenmayer, his business also prospered. During the 1920s, the firm contracted with cucumber growers in Compton, El Monte, Garden Grove, and Chino and placed newspaper advertisements offering free seed to farmers who could plant the vegetable on plots from 1 to 100 acres. In 1924, the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy article about growing cucumbers in the region and quoted Rosenmayer about the prolific production of El Monte farmer J.H. Sotow.
Sotow, who raised the vegetable on thirty acres, benefited from excellent soil and ample water, generating yields of 347 tons in three grades, with tonnage per acre ranging from 7.5 to 14. With the article observing that average production in the region was four to six tons per acre, Rosenmayer claimed that “these figures can probably not be equalled elsewhere in the United States.” The “subirrigated areas between Montebello and El Monte” provided the best yields, but in limited space.
It was added that another El Monte grower, E.D. McSweeney, used cucumbers as a rotational crop outside the growing and harvest seasons for his walnuts. At the Homestead during that era, Walter P. Temple had a local family, the Higueras, planting cash crops in the same manner in his walnut orchard.
Moreover, the planting season was short, with crops introduced around the first of May and produce picked by mid-July. Notably, the article pointed out that hiring Mexicans as day laborers at 35 cents per hour was considered most economical—this question of obtaining labor at the cheapest price always being paramount in farming.
Louis Rosenmayer, however, died young, passing away in May 1938 at just 45 years of age and was interred at the Home of Peace Jewish cemetery in East Los Angeles. The business did continue until at least the World War II years, however.
Among the highlighted photos from the establishment on 6th Street is one that shows a late 19th century house, built when the area was a residential section, with rough wood lean-to structures added to the left for the pickle factory. Two vehicles are parked outside, including one, at the left, that appears to be a truck used for the business.
Another shows the Rosenmayer-Weinrich Company sign atop a long wooden structure with a tin ceiling, while in the foreground are crates of cucumbers, at the far right of which is one of the employees (perhaps a Rosenmayer or Weinrich). At the left is a simple wood building with many barrels stacked in or near it.
Finally, there are two photos of employees of the firm, all standing in the bed of the stake bed truck that is probably the one on the left of the first mentioned image. The gent in the photo mentioned in the previous photograph is there, sporting a vest and bow tie along with a snap-brim cap, indicating he may be one of the owners.
There are eight other persons, four men and four women, with two of the men wearing coveralls and two wearing overalls, one at the front center holding what appears to be a cauliflower (perhaps he is a principal in the business?). The four women wear dresses, rather than uniforms or work clothes that suggest labor in the production, though this is just a surmise.
What is also notable is that, while this is a small group of employees, one of the men is black and three of the women are Latinas, showing a level of diversity that is likely befitting the type of business and work that the Rosenmayer-Weinrich Company did. The two photos of the nonet are basically the same with just slightly different expressions and stances, as well as the orientation of the image.
As noted at the outset of this post, the primacy of citrus and secondary status of walnuts in greater Los Angeles’ agriculture is well documented and generally well known. There are many, many photographs of orchards, groves, packing houses, field workers and packing house employees and so on. When it comes to less recognized areas of agriculture, including vegetables and certain fruit crops, documentation can be harder to come by.
That makes this quartet of images of the Rosenmayer-Weinrich Company especially noteworthy and the ethnic diversity of its small staff is also something that stands out. Nearly a century later, the near total urbanization and suburbanization of our region has all but obliterated commercial agriculture, so photos like these are documents of a bygone time when greater Los Angeles was that “agricultural empire” so heavily promoted by chambers of commerce and others in our region.