Reading Between the Lines with Two Letters from Los Angeles, 1884

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are few sources of historical information that have so much potential to humanize history as correspondence, especially letters, and we denizens of the early 21st century find ourselves increasingly removed from these arcane instruments of communication as we rely more on electronic forms than printed ones.

Today’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s holdings are pair of letters written from Los Angeles on 14 January and 25 April 1884 and are reflective of immigration, expectation of living in a new place, loneliness, economic concerns, social class and other elements.  They are an interesting window into life 135 years ago for a woman who was trying to adjust to new surroundings, missing her old and familiar ones, and worried for her economic future.

OF Susan Rice marriage record 2Mar70
The marriage record of Oscar F. Rice (1825-1911) and Susan Q. Curtis (1845-1911) in Barton, Vermont, 2 March 1870.

The letters were sent to Phebe Bartlett of Barton Landing, Vermont, a hamlet in the north-central part of the state, but, the sender signed herself as “Mrs. O.F. Rice.”  The April letter had the address of 932 South Main Street written with the city and date, so that, along with the name O.F. Rice, was a way to do some searching to see who the sender was.

What was quickly found was that the 1884 Los Angeles Directory showed that Oscar F. Rice lived at that address and his occupation was given as a wheelwright and mechanic.  Born in 1825 in New Hampshire, Rice was the son of a farmer and was a peddler as a young man until he became a carriage maker with his own business.

O.F. Rice 1884 LA Directory
Oscar Rice’s listing at the 932 S. Main Street address in the 1884 edition of the Los Angeles City Directory.

He was married and widowed before he wed Susan S. Curtis, who was twenty years his junior and the daughter of a farmer in the same area of Vermont, in early 1870.  Three years later, the couple had their only child, Luther Allen, whose names were from his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively.

Why the Rices came out to Los Angeles is not specifically known, but the first letter, from 14 January, gives a hint, though it began with a tinge of melancholy for Susan, understandable because she was uprooted from where she’d lived her entire life and migrated across the continent to Los Angeles, almost certainly a much larger city than she’d likely ever seen.

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The 14 January 1884 letter from Susan Rice to her friend Phebe Barlett back home in Vermont.

She wrote Phebe, “I would give a good deal to see to day.  I never felt so alone in the world as I do in this city.  I never knew how to appreciate my friends and acquaintances, till I cam away and left them.”  She went on to confess to her friend, “my surroundings are not the best that could be desired, but then I have plenty of room and plenty of water and all the bread and potatoes that I can eat; and lots of fruit too.”

Susan relied on at least one familiar aspect of her life, as many do, her faith, writing “I have been to the Methodist Church three Sabbaths now,” this probably being the Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church on the corner of that thoroughfare (Fort was later changed to Broadway) and Third Street.  Comforting as it was, there was another issue, “I heard very good sermons, but the Church was so full, I felt that I was choking.”  She continued that she was timid about approaching the minister with a letter to introduce herself as a new congregant as the unnamed pastor invited those present to do and she added, “but after all I think I shall if I stay here.”

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Susan then told Phebe that “Mr. Rice is delighted with the climate and you could not hire him to leave if he could get into business so as he might support his family.”  As with so many settlers in greater Los Angeles, the temperate climate was a powerful attraction, especially compared to the frigid New England winters.  Still, she reported, “he has not got much of any thing to do yet.”  Part of the problem, she went on was that “there is an immense lot of people rushing in here and business in this place is overstocked with hobos.”

After a decade of a generally stagnant economy, there was still a healthy flow of newcomers, like the Rices and others Susan dolefully mentioned, but at the end of the following year, the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles opened the floodgates to migration and business expansion far beyond anything the Rices could likely have anticipated.

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Reference to a dinner at the handsome estate of Ozro W. Childs, a native of the same area of Vermont and who lived a block south of the Rice family.

Even the warm January weather concerned Susan as she said it was “just like summer here [and] the last of June at home” and that “it has been most too warm to be comfortable nearly every day that I have been here.”  On the other hand, she reported to Phebe that “the calla lily, geraniums, roses and lots of other flowers are all in blossom now.  The whole city seems like a garden.”  Wrapping this part of her missive up, she concluded, “every thing is different here than in the East.”

Susan moved to another interesting topic, writing

Mr. Childs invited us to dinner one day, don’t ask me what day, we went.  There was a bottle of wine on the table.  I was urged to partake for my stomach[‘s] sake.  Tell Mr. Dodd that I did not take any this time but my stomach has trouble ever since.  They had more style there than I ever saw before.  Mr. Childs’ wife and family are Catholic, but he told me he gave forty thousand dollars to the Methodist University of this place and I believe that he is not partial to the Methodists.

The reference here was to Ozro W. Childs, mentioned several times in this blog, and who was a nursery owner and real estate developer of wealth.  Childs also happened to be from the same area of Vermont as Oscar and Susan Rice, so it may be that the couple came to Los Angeles with an introduction, although her comment that Oscar could not easily find work might mean that they did not know of Childs until after they arrived.

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Mention of the $40,000 gift Childs gave to the University of Southern California, which opened four years previously.

The Childs estate was at Main and Tenth just one block south of where the Rice residence was located (his southerly neighbor was Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman) and the high style Susan wrote about was to be expected from one of the wealthiest of the denizens of the City of Angels. This was reflected also in the reference to Childs’ munificent gift to the University of Southern California, founded just four years prior.

As she ended her letter, Susan mentioned that she had not yet found a chapter of the “C.L.S.C.”, or the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, founded by a Methodist bishop in 1878 and which consisted of courses of study that Susan had begun back in Vermont, though she lamented that “I can not do much with the course for I have not got all the books.”  She closed by asking for letters and asked Phebe, “will you contribute to my necessity?”

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The second letter, from 25 April, still showed that Susan was not used to being in Los Angeles and she opened by talking about how long some missives arrived from home, taking on occasion more than two weeks.  She was grateful, she wrote Phebe, for her last “long, newsy letter” as it “kept me from being lonesome for a number of days.”

She added that she, Oscar and their son were in the same house, but

Mr. Rice is not doing much.  There is not work in this place for all the people that are rushing in here.  Should you be surprised to see us back there?

Susan also expressed her dismay at being away from her mother before telling Phebe that “I am sorry to say that I do not go to class meetings; or to prayer or social meetings much for I live a mile from our church and besides it being a long ways to walk, I am [a] little afraid to be out alone in the evening.”  Adding to the inconvenience was the fact that “the church is not on the line of street-cars that pass our door.”  She reported that, on Easter Sunday, “we had six hundred calla lillies, besides other flowers to decorate our church” and praised the sermons.

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Whether it was because of Mrs. Childs, Susan wrote,

I went, a few Sunday evenings ago, to the ‘Cathedral’ to hear a lecture against Martin Luther and one Sunday morning I went to ‘High Mass’ at the same place, the Catholic church.  The ceremonies seemed very strange to me.

The cathedral was St. Vibiana, situated at Main and Second, and designed by the city’s first professional architect Ezra F. Kysor, credited with the redesign of the Workman House 150 years ago this year.

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For someone so acclimated to the changes of seasons in the East, the local climate was disconcerting, as she told Phebe, “we don’t know any thing about spring here.  I have to stop and reckon up the month since I came from the [Barton] ‘Landing’ in order to find out what time of year it is.”  She continued that “there have been fruit trees in blossom ever since I cam here, but the deciduous trees are in blossom now.

In her January missive, Susan told her friend that she could not locate CLSC, but was pleased to report that six weeks ago she had found one and joined.  Moreover, “the preceptress of the Normal School is president of the CLSC.  Quite a number of the teachers of the public schools in this place belong to this class.  This class numbers between thirty and forty.   I really think that it pays me to go.”

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The Rice family’s listing, at the bottom of this detail, from the 1900 census in the Ontario township, likely in north Chino.

The Los Angeles Normal School, also covered in some posts here, most recently several days ago in a feature of Reginaldo del Valle, an Assembly member and state senator who played a crucial role in its establishment two years prior to Susan’s letter, was located at Grand Avenue and Fifth Street where the Central Public Library is now and was the forerunner to U.C.L.A.  It is not surprising the female teachers would comprise a significant number of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, given its emphasis on education.

Susan the ended her letter by imploring Phebe to reply quickly, though, despite her misgivings about the move and her talk of possible returning to Vermont, she and her family stayed in greater Los Angeles.  Perhaps city life was too much for them, however, because the Rice family moved to Riverside and then lived in Ontario, Chino and, for many years, Pomona, where it appears they owned a citrus ranch.  Their son, Luther, attended USC and its school of theology and was ordained a Methodist minister, with one his posts being in Alhambra, where that Methodist church later occupied the former estate of the Temple family once they moved to the Homestead.

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Susan Rice’s obituary in the Pomona Progress, 2 March 1911.  Her husband died less than two weeks later.

In 1906, as Oscar was in his eighties, he and Susan moved to a house in downtown Pomona near the main intersection of Garey Avenue and Mission Boulevard.  In early March 1911, at age 65, Susan passed away and Oscar followed her less than two weeks later, at age 85.  The two are interred at Pomona Cemetery.

These letters are rare first-person sources of life in Los Angeles just before the famed Boom of the Eighties burst forth and represent the difficulties of new settlers far from their place of origin, the solace of correspondence with friends from home, the consolation of religion and learning, and many other topics.  Susan Rice felt foreboding about the move, but stayed for over thirty-five years making greater Los Angeles her home and final resting place.

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