Working the Land: A Farmhand’s Letter from El Monte, 18 May 1884

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Usually, when the agricultural history of greater Los Angeles (and, really, anywhere else) is written, it is either in general terms or, if individuals enter into it, from the perspective of farmers and producers.  It is pretty rare to find first-hand accounts of farm work from the vantage point of the laborer, much less letters of any kind from the San Gabriel Valley before the Boom of the 1880s, which came in the last half of that decade.

That’s what makes today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection so unusual.  It is a letter, written on this day in 1884, written by a farmhand from El Monte to a friend in West Unity, a village at the “Top of Ohio” near the Michigan and Indiana borders and about 50 miles west of Toledo.

Prickett 1880 census
John B. Prickett, who appears to have been the writer of the letter below, lived in West Unity, Ohio as a younger man and then resided in Forest Grove, Oregon, west of Portland, with his wife Mariah, in the 1880 census.  Their stay in the San Gabriel Valley looks to have been short and the couple returned to Forest Grove, where John died in 1926.

Unfortunately, the bottom portion of the last page was neatly excised and half of the writer’s signature is missing, though the surname looks to be “Prickett.”  There was a John B. Prickett, a native of Ohio and a blacksmith, who lived in West Unity with his wife Mariah in 1870.

A decade later, the couple, who were childless, were in Forest Grove, Oregon, about 25 miles west of Portland, where Prickett was still working as a blacksmith.  Later, the pair were still in the area and, after Mariah died, John married a woman less than half his age, with that union producing a daughter.  John Prickett died in Forest Grove in 1926 and was buried there.

Cliffton 1880 census
The recipient of the letter, John S. Cliffton, lived in the Brady Township, where West Unity is located, his entire life, including as shown here in the 1880 census.

It does look as if he was the letter writer because there is mention of a “Mary” in the letter, so perhaps John and Mariah Prickett came down from Oregon for a brief stay in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1880s.

The recipient is shown as “Mr. J.S. Cliffton” and this was John S. Cliffton, who was the same age as Prickett and resided in the West Unity area.  Also a native of the Buckeye State but, like his friend with family origins in New Jersey, Cliffton, unlike his Prickett, stayed put and never left the West Unity area, remaining there until his death in 1934.

The opening of the letter, written from “behind a pile of hay” at “El Monta” on this day in 1884.

The missive is indicated as being written from “El Monta Cal. L.A. Co.” and was written while Prickett was “sitting on the ground behind a pile of hay” while he used “a feed box for a stand which keeps a rocking so excuse all shortcomings.”  It appears Prickett had only arrived recently in El Monte, as he added:

I am in the country now, am working at bailing hay, three of us run the press, having everything furnished & our board, we use 4 hours changing evry 10 bales, we use wire bales weighing ab. 200 to 250 [pounds?], we have been baling old hay 2 weeks but begin on new hay this next week (this is saturday afternoon), we have our own blankets & sleep in the hay as all hands do in this country, we expect to average 6 ton per day or more at 30 cts per ton apiece.

After providing the details of the hay bailing work, though not specifying for whom he and his compatriots were engaged, Prickett turned to describing cultivation in the El Monte area:

This country about Monta looks more home like as there are no citrus fruit raise it being too low & frosty in winter.  It is mostly cultivated in barly, partly for hay & partly for grain.  Barley is the principal  hay in the country, there being some rye & wheat & some alfalfa but I have not seen any yet.

Prickett informed Cliffton that “the last job we baled was by an orange grove so we helped ourselves & brought some with us.  I eat 9 before we get to San Gabriel (2 mi) & my partner eat 12.”  He added that on arrival at El Monte he could see orange groves, as well as “the Siera Madre Villa, the world renowned health resort.”

A brief description of farming activity in the El Monte area.

Sierra Madre Villa, which has been featured on this blog, was opened by artist William Cogswell and his son-in-law William Rhoades in 1873 at the foothills of what were then known as the Sierra Madre, now the San Gabriel Mountains where Pasadena meets Sierra Madre.

page three
The end of the letter, including reference to land bought in Pasadena and which was planted to fruits and grapes.  Note that the signature was cut off when the bottom of the page was neatly trimmed for an unknown reason (this is why the bottom of the image is white).  The last name “Prickett” can largely be made out, however.

He also noted that “in another direction [I] can see snow on the mountain, the mts seems but 2 miles away.”  To Prickett the trees and houses “are so plain,” but “yet you can see every canon & gulch as plain as you can see your woods.”  He added that

I & mary went up to Pasadena Sunday & saw our new possession, it looks well, there will [be] quite a lot of peaches & apricots & some grapes on the 40 vines I set out, it reminds me of the favor you done me in getting the money.

After noting that he was to work on another job involving some 500 tons of hay, Prickett closed his letter and also asked Cliffton to “please let the folks at home know that I am getting along well.”

The envelope as addressed to Cliffton and with a postmark from El Monte the day after the letter was penned.

While this letter is not particularly lengthy (compared to the indefatigable correspondent, James Perry Worden, from yesterday’s post), it is a rare example of one from the San Gabriel Valley before 1890 and unusual in that it is written by a farm laborer with some information about what was raised in El Monte over 130 years ago.

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