by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Viniculture, the raising of grapes for winemaking, was introduced in California in the last third of the 18th century by the Franciscans who administered the missions, and was a major industry in greater Los Angeles during the first few decades of the American period. William Workman grew grapes and made wine on the Rancho La Puente, starting off in a modest fashion but gradually expanding his efforts over the years. By the 1870s, he had about a hundred acres and roughly 100,000 vines with three large brick warehouses just south of his house where he manufactured and stored thousands of gallons of wine and brandy annually.
While Workman’s wine-making enterprise was one of the largest in the region, it was only a part of what he did agriculturally on his half of La Puente. He also raised thousands of acres of grains, principally wheat, and, until the early 1870s, still stocked thousands of cattle and horses. When it came to viticulture, there were grape-growers and wine-makers working on a much larger scale, including Jean-Louis Vignes, the brothers Louis and Pierre Sainsevain, Benjamin D. Wilson and, particularly, Mathew Keller.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is a monthly statement dated 17 December 1878 from Keller’s wine-making business branch at Philadelphia. By then, Keller had about a quarter century of experience raising grapes and making wine and brandy on a level that set him apart from his Los Angeles contemporaries.
Born in 1811 at Cobh, County Cork on the southern shore of Ireland, Keller did not arrive in Los Angeles until he was nearly forty and almost nothing is known of his life prior to his coming to the City of Angels. An obituary obliquely talked of his wide travels as a young man, but the first concrete information was that he was a merchant accompanying the American army in Mexico during the Mexican-American War.
By the end of the 1840s, he was in New Orleans, and a spring 1849 shipping manifest lists him as a merchant traveling from Veracruz, Mexico to the Crescent City. While living in New Orleans, his best friend was fellow Irish native Andrew Boyle, also a merchant in the Big Easy who did frequent business in Mexico.
How exactly Keller wound up in Los Angeles is not known–perhaps it was part of a Gold Rush-inspired move to California—but he set up shop at Main and Commercial streets in the town and operated his store through much of the 1850s. During these early years, he acquired vineyards along the Los Angeles River because he recognized the importance and the future potential of viniculture in the local economy.
When Boyle was presumed dead in the sinking of a steamship in the Gulf of Mexico and his wife died of brain fever due to the shock, it was apparently Keller who suggested that his friend come to California. Boyle went first to San Francisco and then sent for his only child, Maria [pronounced Ma-rye-ah] to join him there.
At Keller’s urging, the Boyles then came south to Los Angeles and Andrew purchased vineyards and other land across the river from Keller in what was then called Paredon Blanco. After Boyle’s death in 1871, Maria and her husband, William Henry Workman, subdivided much of the land they inherited from him for the community of Boyle Heights.
As for Keller, his energy, deep knowledge, and abilities as a promoter and salesman for his wine and brandy built him a substantial fortune fairly quickly. The 1860 and 1870 censuses are the only ones that asked for self-declared values of real and personal property. In that first census, Keller stated his estate’s value at $120,000 and, a decade later, it was $170,000, which put him in the upper echelons of the well-to-do in Los Angeles. He married Mary Kennelly, formerly of New York, in San Francisco in 1853 and, after her death, wedded Eliza Agnes Christie, the sister of Boyle’s wife, Elizabeth. Keller had, with his two wives, eleven children, of whom only five survived to adulthood.
In the late 1860s, Los Angeles underwent its first major period of growth and development and, as business increased, Keller continue to prosper. One eagerly anticipated boon to local trade was the connection of a Southern Pacific railroad line from the Bay Area.
In June 1875, the Los Angeles Herald ran a short article on “The Wine Trade,” pointing out the costly charges to ship wine to San Francisco and noted that winemakers were waiting for the completion of the line “by which the great wear and tear on casks, and the immense expense of lighterage [transport by ship], will be avoided.” With items taken by train to San Francisco, shipping wine and brandy east would be done “as cheaply and as quickly as from” the City by the Bay.
The article added “Mr. Matthew [sic] Keller, of this city, is obliged to keep a depot in San Francisco, with clerks, rents and other expenses, amounting to ten thousand dollars annually,” but, if he had direct rail transport, “his depot might be in Los Angeles.”
Two months later, the state’s economy collapsed due to a burst bubble in stock trading in San Francisco involving Virginia City, Nevada silver mines and the news was telegraphed to Los Angeles, causing a panic. In the aftermath, the Temple and Workman bank failed and the economic malaise went on for nearly a decade.
Just a few days after the bank was shuttered, the Los Angeles Express reprinted an article from a San Francisco business journal, noting that Keller’s firm “who have been long and favorably known as pioneers in the California wine growing [is wine grown?] business, are about to inaugurate a new enterprise.” This was none other than moving, the article said, “their principal headquarters” to Philadelphia to an 8,000-square foot space. What was significant about this endeavor was that:
Anyone who is at all acquainted with the California wine trade knows that the greatest obstacle to its sale abroad has been the want of representative houses interested in the business and established in the great commercial centres of Europe and America.
Keller’s initiative would facilitate the acceptance, it was argued, of local wine and blunt the promotion of “spurious” frauds selling purported product from the Golden State. The account ended observing “this is the first time, perhaps, that the purity of California wines is guaranteed in the East by the presence of the vineyardist and wine maker himself.”
Keller moved to New York for about a year to personally oversee this remarkable and unprecedented effort to market, promote and sell Los Angeles wine and brandy in the Eastern market. He selected Philadelphia as the locale for his “eastern house”, with the business located off a corner of the square where the city hall remains today.
According to a statement made in an 1889 Los Angeles County history, Keller “felt age creeping on, and that his large interests here needed his personal attention” so “he sold out his Eastern business and returned from New York . . . to Los Angeles in 1879 in order that he might give his undivided attention to his business here.” This included the expansion of his Rising Sun and Los Angeles vineyards and production facilities, the latter located on 20 acres east of Alameda Street and next to the Los Angeles River, undertaken.
Two years after his return home, Keller died at age 69. He’d been ill for some time, though he’d long been considered to have been in excellent health, and in recent days before his passing he told friends he was not long for the world. As he was eating his breakfast on 11 April 1881, and the wife of the winery superintendent who was waiting on Keller left the dining room to get tea or coffee and more food, but, when she returned, she found him lying back in his chair. Heart disease was the attributed cause of death. Upon his death, three of Keller’s children went to live with William H. Workman, son-in-law of Keller’s best friend, Andrew Boyle.
Notably, the obituary in the Express explained that, in 1876, Keller was in difficulties because of excess inventory, low sales, and mounting interest on debt. His move to New York was to create a better market for his wine and the paper explained that “his efforts were remarkably successful, as he sold every spare gallon of his wines.” The bounty allowed him “to discharge his obligations and place himself in easy financial circumstances.”
Keller left the 20-acre Los Angeles Vineyard where his home was located and the 150-acre Rising Sun Vineyard to the south. It was reported that the former contained his manufacturing plant, including cellars of 3,600 and 15,000 square feet, respectively, with machinery capable of crushing fifty tons of grapes per day, while output was 200 gallons of brandy and 1,000 gallons of wine each day. It was added that, even with all of his old stock dispensed with, his 1879 vintage totaled 100,000 gallons. His major expansion was to plant 500 acres of vines on his ranch north of Santa Monica known as Topanga Malibu Sequit or, more familiar to us today, simply Malibu.
Interestingly, it was also reported that Keller was the first to raise cotton locally, an endeavor engaged in in response to the Civil War and the lack of the crop available to the Union. Others in the region who tried cotton were F.P.F. Temple and William Workman and, though there was some success, the difficulties of transport were major issues and then the war ended not long afterward.
In a separate editorial and encomium, the Express went into great detail about Keller’s remarkable life. He was known to be an eccentric, as well as a solid businessman, and much was made of his store of knowledge, his mastery of several languages, and his raconteurship. He was credited with helping to bring California wines into prominence and lauded for his deep understanding of the vocation, including the possession of French treatises on the subject and was considered “an ultimate authority.”
It was stated that Keller’s importation of European vines in 1865 was a benchmark in local viniculture and that his Rising Sun vineyard had some two hundred of these varieties in it.
The paper reiterated Keller’s remarkable project, in the face of financial strain, to get his products on the market in the East, which included breaking prejudices of wine dealers concerning California wines, and stated that “once fairly introduced, they became popular,” allowing him to return home after about a year in New York.
In a separate short article, the Express reported that Keller’s will, which left his estate to his children, made local banker Isaias W. Hellman executor and did so without insisting on surety through bonds, an almost universal practice of protection for the estate in case of incompetence or wrongdoing.
The reason stated for this was that Keller was grateful to Hellman (who, for a time, owned the Rancho Cucamonga, a major grape-growing and wine-making property) “for standing by him in the most serious financial crisis of his life” and for helping “to refute ill-natured slanders which had been privately circulated to prejudice him [Hellman] against him.”
The monthly statement, for the order of a gallon of sherry at $1.75 to a Dr. Day of Philadelphia, could well have been for the celebration of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. What is really stunning about the document, though, is the fantastic vignette showing cherubs with a profusion of grapevines and one sitting on a cask, on which is Keller’s maker’s mark, and raising a goblet in the air. Product types are listed on a streamer and the text for Keller is in a series of striking and dramatic fonts.
The artifact is a rare early Los Angeles document for its wine industry and associated with one of its paramount producers, Mathew Keller, who is almost completely forgotten today. There is, however, a Mateo Street in the old industrial section of Los Angeles, between 4th and 15th streets, that is partially on his former estate and which commemorates who the Spanish-speakers of the city affectionately called “Don Mateo.”