by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During greater Los Angeles’ first sustained period of growth during the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s, places for outdoor recreation and leisure also developed in a number of areas. Excursions to the San Gabriel Mountains and to several coastal areas were quite popular. Central Park, renamed Pershing Square after World War I, joined the Plaza as a city-owned park. Washington Gardens was a privately owned pleasure place in the southern reaches of town.
Another new site for picnics, dancing and other entertainment was Sycamore Grove, a picturesque locale along the Arroyo Seco in the what became the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. While it the shaded spot was used informally before, an established pleasure ground was opened there in spring 1874 by John Rumpp, a German-speaking emigrant from France (likely the Alsace-Lorraine area which was contested by that county and Germany over the years) who was a baker in Los Angeles for some fifteen years prior.
Rumpp was able to make enough money from his business to acquire a notable portfolio of real estate, including some structures on Los Angeles Street which he rented out. In early 1874, however, he was indicted by the county grand jury and charged in county court with allowing houses of ill fame to be operated in his rentals. A first trial led to eight jurors finding him guilty and four acquitting him, so a second trial was launched the following year, though it appears he escaped conviction and punishment.
Then, there was the 25 or so acres that he acquired along the Arroyo Seco and which he turned into the Sycamore Grove resort. An early mention in local newspapers came on 6 April 1874, when the Los Angeles Express published a short notice that Rumpp “is making extensive improvements on the picnic grounds.” Among these was “a large octagonal dancing hall, which will be a source of great attraction for the young folks.” Other unnamed additions were in the works for “the comfort and enjoyment of those who visit this picturesque and very accessible pleasure report.” It was observed that “yesterday there was a world of visitors there.”
Sycamore Grove was first advertised by Rumpp in May 1874. He noted the “splendid DANCE HALL, 50 x 50 [which] has been built in the Grove, and every Sunday a fine Band of Music is in attendance.” He also stated that there were always refreshments available including “the best Wines, Liquors, etc., dispensed.” The hall was available for christenings, weddings and other events and the whole property could be rented, as well.
The site became popular for large group picnics, including those hosted by the Turn-Verein Germania (known commonly as the Turners), a benevolent society with members of the burgeoning German population of the area, the Irish Literary Society, and the French Benevolent Society. In early May, the Turners had their picnic and the Los Angeles Herald covered the event.
By 11 a.m., the Turners arrived after assembling at their meeting hall in Los Angeles and marched to the music of a band to the Plaza, where carriages awaited to take them to the Arroyo. When a Herald reporter arrived some five hours later, he found the festivities in full swing:
Some were shooting with a cross-bow at a ferocious-looking eagle (or something) painted red and bearing in its claws a captive lemon, the whole raised high in the air above the heads of the ambitious William Tells. Others were bowling at ten pins; some boys blindfolded and with blunted sword in hand were taking turns at trying to touch an overturned jar holding beneath it a hen—the prize for the successful performance of the feat. Modest young men from the rural districts, with their sweet-hearts were sailing around on the backs of a circling caravan of hobby-horses—a sort of revolving swing—in the very ecstacy [sic] of delight. In the pavilion, a merry group of dancers led down the mazy circle, with short intermissions, during the whole afternoon. The beer stands were surrounded, besieged and captured, and the way beer went down was a caution to unbelievers . . . the whole was a scene of roistering mirth, good will and happy freedom from everything but the enjoyment of the hour. We saw no signs of a boisterous or disorderly character during the whole proceeding.
After an afternoon of gaiety, the Turners returned to Los Angeles and kept the party going at their hall to a late hour.
At the end of June, the French Benevolent Society, another large community organization, had a Sunday picnic at Sycamore Grove. The Express did not give this event the coverage its contemporary afforded to the Turners, but did mention that “the visitors enjoyed themselves with the several amusements provided” and, in particular, “shooting at the target formed one of the most popular.” Of course, “there was good music and dancing, and no lack of variety in the edibles and refreshments.”
In October, the Irish Literary and Social Club had their picnic at the resort, but little was reported about it, although the organization’s second gathering at Sycamore Grove in late April 1875 was given a thorough review in the Express, which proclaimed “we doubt if in the history of Los Angeles there has been a more enjoyable fete” and noted “it was a superb affair from first to last, and a royal good humor reigned all through the day.” The paper added that “it was essentially a cosmopolitan gathering” and the number of Irish was hardly larger than that of the Germans.
The late morning start took place and the Express said that “this lovely spot is the prettiest and leafiest in the whole stretch of the Arroyo Seco.” As guests entered, they were met with “a capacious booth from which lager beer was dispensed in large quantities,” while other booths appeared to have offered liquor and “were patronized liberally, but soberly.” The paper claimed that “during the whole day not a single drunken man could be seen.”
Then there was “Mr. Rump’s [sic] restaurant” which “was supplied with lots of good things, and which was liberally patronized.” The reporter, a first-time visitor, was “surprised to find an elegant pavilion for the dancers, with a platform for Piepenberg’s band,” which “surpassed themselves during the day.”
The waltz appeared to the dance du jour and among the judges was former California governor John G. Downey, president of Farmers and Merchants Bank and a native of Eire. County treasurer Thomas E. Rowan, of Irish descent, and his wife danced so gracefully that they “brought down the spectators in thunders of applause.” The highlight of the day was the Irish jig contest and prizes were given to the best male and female dancers.
Athletes showed off their prowess in “a number of foot races and jumping matches” and there were “many fine displays of muscle and agility” during the afternoon and Daniel Desmond, an Irish-born hatter, “managed the contests with great skill.” Somewhat in this arena was the greased pig contest and it is hard to imagine something like this even being considered today. In any case, the shaved and lubricated animal was released from a box and chased by a crowd “until it reached the brush at the end of the grove.” A half-dozen persons “overpowered the poor brute” but one man was awarded a prize because he “alone caught and held him by the tail.”
A Mrs. Drury was deemed “the handsomest lady on the grounds” but a committee of women refused to partake in judging which of the males was “the homeliest man.” A group of gents took on the task and surprised everyone by selecting “the very best looking man . . . as the successful exemplar of human hideousness.” The winner, a Dr. Richardson, perhaps Michael Richardson, the Irish-born president of St. Vincent’s College (though there was Dr. Newton P. Richardson, a native of Alabama, in town, as well), was awarded one of Desmond’s chapeaus.
A few weeks later, the Turners had their second big to-do at the grove and this was shortly followed by one held in late May under the auspices of the French Benevolent Society. It appears to have been much the same in content as that of their German and Irish brethren, with the music, dancing and athletic contests, as well as “a complete restaurant on the grounds” and “all the appliances of jollification,” the latter being barely disguised code for alcoholic beverages of all kinds, including, naturally, wine.
Rumpp’s success may well have led to the opening of a rival establishment. Will Tell, of Swedish and French parentage, had a seaside resort that consisted of large canvas tents in what was known as Shoo-Fly Landing and then became Santa Monica and also had a place at the Ballona wetlands.
In late June 1875, he and his wife Henrietta, opened the “Old Santa Monica Sycamore Grove” in time for the summer season with a grand ball at a new dance hall. It is significant that the Tells had to add to their advertisement that “care will be taken by the Managers to permit none but reputable people to attend this Ball.”
Two months later, an economic panic erupted in San Francisco due to the bursting of a silver mine stock bubble emanating from Virginia City, Nevada. The telegraph brought the news to Los Angeles and jittery depositors besieged the two commercial banks in town, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman. The former was especially well managed by managing cashier Isaias W. Hellman, while the latter was quite the opposite. The failure of Temple and Workman in early 1876 was the first major business collapse in Los Angeles and a decade of economic doldrums ensued.
Rumpp leased the management of Sycamore Grove to Frederick Aockerblum, a fellow German, who tried some new events like a “Moonlight Excursion” to the site with a grand ball and supper. Just a few months later, Rumpp died at about age 51, leaving his downtown property and the Sycamore Grove to his widow, Wilhelmina. She retained ownership of the grove and, apparently, operated the resort directly until her death over twenty years later in 1898.
By the 1910s, the property was conveyed to the City of Los Angeles, which had annexed the Highland Park area as it rapidly expanded its boundaries during that era. Sycamore Grove became a city park in 1915 and tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum collection is a snapshot from about that time of the park with the newly opened Southwest Museum up in the hills across Figueroa Street in the distance.
Nearly 150 years after Sycamore Grove was opened by John Rumpp as a formal pleasure resort, it is hard to envision such an enterprise when visiting the park today, though there is band shell where music and dancing take place; athletic fields and tennis courts for the sports-minded and plenty of room and tables for picnics. So, in many ways, the site has continuity in its use and its centrality as a recreational centerpiece for the communities of the Arroyo Seco.