by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In October 2017, a post on this blog covered the life of Victor Ponet, a cabinet-maker, undertaker, Belgian consul, and real estate investor, who conducted undertaking services for William Workman in 1876 and Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, four years later. This last was done in partnership with Benjamin F. Orr, a native of Pennsylvania and also a cabinet maker, who joined Ponet in 1877.
Today’s artifact from the museum’s holdings is a bill-head from the firm of Ponet & Orr, dated 8 March 1886, for services provided to N.S. Montague. Included was a casket, box and hearse totaling $80; embalming fluid at $2; crape and gloves at $2; a shroud at $8; a quartet of “hacks” or carriages at $20; and what appears to read as “grave,” and perhaps meaning graveside services at $6. The grand total for services provided was $118.00.
Newell S. Montague contracted Ponet and Orr to perform these services for his father, Rodney, who died two days prior at age 86 at the family’s home on Main and Adams streets in south Los Angeles. Rodney Montague was born in 1800, less than a year after William Workman, in Wilmington, Vermont, a town in the Green Mountains in the southwest corner of the state. After receiving a basic education in central Massachusetts, including Amherst, Montague turned to farming.
While still in his teens, he and a brother, Daniel, migrated to Virginia, where they were employed in a salt works for a short time and then headed west to Kentucky, joining their father, Seth, and three siblings. While Daniel went south to Texas, Seth and Rodney continued, in 1822, across Indiana, in a very typical immigration pattern, to Grand Prairie, Illinois, southeast of St. Louis, where they were early white settlers. In 1835, Rodney and a brother settled in the northwest part of the state in what is now the town of Lena. He remained there for fifteen years, marrying Eunice Denison in 1843. The couple had two sons, including Newell, before her death in late 1849.
The following year, Montague went with another brother, Erastus, to join Daniel in Gainesville, Texas, on the border with Oklahoma northwest of Dallas. After a couple of years, Montague went to Brooklyn, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and married his late wife’s sister, Louise. The family then returned to Texas, where they stayed for a few years.
Perhaps because another Montague’s brothers went across the plains to Gold Rush California, he and his family joined an emigrant party of some seventy people and took the southern route from the Lone Star State to Southern California. An account in a published Montague family history stated that it was “a journey full of peril, through Indian nations and deserts, with much loss of stock.” One encounter with natives occurred while still in Texas and a hundred mile trek through the desert involved what was termed “the marvelous story of the hardships and privations and [the] fearful struggle of the party.” Montague was said to have been “speechless and with swollen tongue, for lack of water.”
After reaching El Paso, the caravan followed the Gila River into southern Arizona and a son, Horace, was born and died during this portion of the trip. The party made it to Fort Yuma on the Colorado and then endured another 150 miles “with little food or water” before arriving in Los Angeles, described as “a land of corn and wine, of milk and honey,” in mid-October 1856.
Montague acquired a 35-acre tract at the southern reaches of the old four square league pueblo limits just as these lots were made available for sale by the city. At the time the two and a half miles was out in the sticks and Montague famed, primarily raising fruit and the aforementioned account stated that “he gathers some kind of good, ripe fruit every day in the year.”
He also had an extensive nursery and submitted entries for silk culture at a San Francisco agricultural exhibition in the late 1860s and won a silver medal at a fair in Los Angeles in the early Seventies. For a time in the mid-1870s, Montague was a stockholder in the Los Angeles City and County Printing and Publishing Company, the owner of the Los Angeles Herald newspaper, and which included F.P.F. Temple as a director and his son Thomas, and Temple and Workman bank managing cashier Henry S. Ledyard as stockholders.
In 1871, his second wife died and Montague lived with his son Newell and his family on the farm, situated near today’s Main Street and Adams Boulevard. One of the near neighbors were Charles and Lucy Longstreet, whose estate, acquired and developed from 1873 onward, became a showcase for its expansive and expensive gardens (which have been highlighted previously in this blog.)
Montague’s nursery enterprise led him to a friendship with Thomas A. Garey, a prominent horticulturist who, with one of Montague’s neighbors, Milton Thomas, was a founder, in 1875, of Pomona (funded with loans from the Temple and Workman bank.) When Garey and his wife, Louise, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in October 1875, Montague, described as “an old friend of the family,” was called upon to conduct a “very original marriage service.”
In it, Montague congratulated the Gareys on their marital longevity, adding, it was “a very difficult thing for some people to do” and told the couple that their friends expected another quarter century of wedded bliss, “if you have no objection.” In what we would call today a renewal of vows, Montague then intoned that “we cheerfully declare you husband and wife for all your future lives, on the following conditions . . .,” namely that Tom Garey “will as readily as in your past married life, rise early, build the fire, put the kettle on well filled with water, and milk the cows.” As for Louisa, she was “to get early breakfasts, skim the milk, and attend to such other household duties as may in your case be necessary.”
Montague then requested that Louisa “promise to use your restraining influence to prevent your husband from kindling the fire with a kerosene can, of filling your lamps while burning” and when she replied that she would, he answered, “it is well; for such acts are likely to be followed by explosions detrimental to domestic happiness.” He then asked the couple if the would “obey each other in the future as little as it has been necessary in the past,” to which they readily assented.
Montague concluded by expressing satisfaction with the answers of the Gareys, wished them the happiest of times and offered the hope “that your good example may eventually be followed by all the single people . . . and may all of us married people be as successful as you have been in illustrating the beauty, happiness and usefulness of married life.” Garey followed by talking about the adventures he and his wife endured, including “hair-breadth escapes while passing through the Indian country of New Mexico and Arizona in the years 1850 , ’51 and ’52 that would form the basis of a romance unexcelled by the plots of our best writers.” Dancing began at 9 p.m. and went into the wee hours.
Late in life, Montague became totally blind and was “confined to his room from weakness, and much of the time to his bed,” a lamentable consequence of living beyond most contemporaries’ life spans. In a short biography of Montague from a scope and content listing in the USC archives for papers belonging to him and his granddaughter’s husband, Henry Z. Osborne, the publisher of the Los Angeles Express and a member of Congress for several years, it was noted that he was a spiritualist and then he and his second wife, Louisa, “believed they could contact the spirits of people who had passed away.” Among the Montague items, such as letters of his, in the USC collection are issues of the Spiritual Telegraph & Fireside Preacher, the first spiritualist journal and published in New York between 1852 and 1860 after it was launched following a New York Conference for the Investigation of Spiritual Phenomena.
In a century marked by major religious “awakenings,” movements, and new sects, spiritualism was a massively popular phenomenon, so it is hardly a surprise that Montague was among the many fervent believers in establishing contact with those in the afterlife. After all, the loss of his first wife and young son were certainly motivations in the adherence to the concept and most Americans had the experience of losing multiple family members at young ages.
As for Ponet’s undertaking partner, Benjamin F. Orr was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1837 and his father was a cabinet maker, a profession passed on to Orr (and which was also Ponet’s vocation.) Orr first came to California in 1859 and briefly visited Los Angeles before living for a time in the northern part of the state, but he returned to his hometown (site of an 1889 dam break that killed over 2,000 people) excepting service in the Union Army during the Civil War, until the early 1870s.
Orr and his wife ventured back out to the Golden State in 1874 and were in Los Angeles by the next spring, as the City of Angels was in the full throes of its first significant and sustained development boom, which burst forth late in the prior decade. Orr settled first in the relatively new town of Orange, remaining there for a couple of years before relocating to Los Angeles.
In 1877, he joined Ponet in the business the Belgian established seven years prior and which also included the manufacturing of picture frames. An article in the Los Angeles Express observed that Orr had two decades of experience in the same business, so it appears that his father was also a casket maker.
The Montague invoice includes the information that Ponet and Orr were the “sole agents” for “Barstow’s Patent Metallic Burial Cases and Caskets,” while they also were “importers of all varieties of burial cases.” Moreover, the document stated that the pair specialized in “embalming bodies for shipment.” The two, though, did have a partner by March 1886, as W.H. Sutch joined the enterprise the previous fall.
Ponet, meantime, was developing his interests in real estate, serving as Belgian consul and engaged in other endeavors, including frequent travel to Europe, so he exited the firm less than two months after the Montague invoice was written up. Orr and Sutch carried on and, a couple of years later, the enterprise was considered by the Los Angeles Herald to be “the leading establishment of the kind in the city.” The facility, on Spring Street south of Temple was 2,500 square feet and “an elegant line of metal, cloth-covered wooden caskets and other undertaking goods” were noted. There were also three vehicles, two wagons, and eight horses as part of the firm’s “outfit.” It was noted that Orr and Sutch were “thoroughly versed in all the requirements of this delicate business.”
By 1893, Sutch bowed out of the business and was replaced by A.D. Cheshire, a relatively new arrival to Los Angeles but touted “as a cultivated gentleman and a thorough undertaker.” He arrived in the City of Angels with excellent references from undertakers in the east and was manager “of one of the oldest and best established houses in San Francisco” for three years.
In August 1900, Cheshire was gone and Orr incorporated the Orr & Hines Company he and F.A. Hines taking all but four shares of 25,000 issued, with three others taking on the few for reasons unknown. After several years, that company disbanded and Orr formed his last partnership, Orr & Edwards. The firm had only been in existence for about a year when Orr suffered a leg injury while disembarking from a streetcar and the wound became infected. After nine weeks, he died of blood poisoning in September 1907 at age 71.
This bill-head is both a rare, early example of a document from a Los Angeles undertaking firm and a reflection of some interesting personages from the City of Angels in the nineteenth century.