Read All About It in the Los Angeles Star, 7 May 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As often mentioned in this blog, greater Los Angeles experienced its first sustained and significant period of growth during several years in the late 1860s and first half of the following decade.  The population more than doubled in the city and suburban communities like Artesia, Pasadena, Pomona and San Fernando sprung up; more diversity in agriculture, including an expansion in raising citrus, especially oranges, allowed for a stronger economic foundation; and improved schools, gas service, the first streetcar system and other elements added to the mix.

One of the ways to see first-hand how this small boom was manifested in the region is through the city’s three daily newspapers (there were only weeklies until the boom came along), including the Express, the Herald, and the oldest of the papers, the Star, launched in spring 1851 and published continuously until 1864, when the Confederate leanings of its publisher, Henry Hamilton, led to his arrest and the paper’s suspension.  He returned four years later, just in time for the boom’s start, though he soon sold the paper, but it continued under several owners for just over a decade, finally succumbing in 1879 during an economic malaise once the boom went bust a few years prior.


Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection, however, is the 7 May 1874 issue of the Star, when the growth period was still very much in full swing.  The paper’s publisher was the highly energetic Benjamin C. Truman, a veteran journalist and inveterate booster of the region, whose book, Semi-Tropical California, published the same year, was full of praise for greater Los Angeles and its seemingly limitless potential.

A key article in the issue concerns the well-known orange orchard of William Wolfskill (1798-1866), a contemporary of Jonathan Temple and William Workman and who lived in central Missouri and then New Mexico during the periods when Workman resided in both places.  Wolfskill was among the first to ply the Old Spanish Trail (which was neither old nor Spanish, having opened in 1829 during the Mexican era) when he arrived in Los Angeles about 1830.


A little over a decade later, he planted California’s first commercial orange grove (the fruit was long raised at some of the missions and in private gardens) south of the pueblo on the west side of Alameda Street between 2nd and 7th streets and it proved to be very successful and lucrative, particularly interesting when you drive through the gritty industrial area there today.

Wolfskill also had vineyards and acquired extensive property in outlying areas, including much of present Orange County.  During the horrendous drought of 1862-64, his foreman, Joseph Pleasants, was sent in search of water and grass for Wolfskill’s starving cattle and managed to locate an area on the north side of the San Bernardino Mountains near today’s high desert community of Apple Valley.  Wolfskill invited his friends, John Rowland and William Workman, to send their herds to join them, which helped them weather the worst consequences of the dry spell.


After Wolfskill died in 1866, the same year Jonathan Temple died, his children inherited his many landholdings, including the orange orchard.  The description in the Star concerns the grove at nearly thirty-five years after its establishment and it is interesting and instructive to read the extensive description.  This is including the fact that the article intended to cover the vineyard, “but that is a thing of the past, some fifty or sixty thousand of the grand old trunks which adorned the estate having been dug [out] this spring and converted into firewood.”

The reason was also notable in that it was “a result directly traceable to that policy of the government which fosters the importation of foreign liquors, and imposes burdensome restrictions on home manufacturers.”  The plan by Wolfskill’s sons John and Lewis, was to have the old vineyard “planted in orange, lime and lemon trees, work in that direction having already been commenced, and now being vigorously prosecuted.”  These trees, moreover, were grown on the property and it was stated that, when the work was completed between 7,000 and 8,000 trees would be in place.

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In addition, however, the unnamed reporter, probably Truman, noted that, “to our view, one of the most charming and noticeable features of the place is the walnut grove covering about two acres.”  The trees, planted three decades prior and spaced some forty feet apart, as usually done, had a complex interlacing of branches that “when in full summer foliage a more than twilight gloom pervades the grove.”  Lewis reported that the crop yielded a net of about $500, a decent return for a small plot.

Meanwhile, for the predominant citrus, there were 2,000 bearing orange trees as well as 500 lemon and 400 lime trees, with grafting done for more plantings.  Moreover, “last season was devoted to a careful and extensive pruning of all the bearing orange trees,” with the result being a poor yield for those done first, but those done at the end bloomed to such an extent that “numbers of them have now large crops of young oranges which will probably ripen two or three months in advance of the regular crop.”  Blossoms on those trees were profuse enough so that they showed “promise of a generous additional yield in the regular season.”


In all, the property contained about 130 acres deemed to be “more valuable, or yielding  a more liberal income” than any property of its size “in the heart of a flourishing city.”  As for the Wolfskills, they were praised for their extensive experience and knowledge “in all the pertains to the culture of semi-tropical fruits” while “the excellent condition of the soil shows at a glance that they do not intend to let the fair fame of the Wolfskill orchard suffer for want of due attention and careful cultivation.”  The piece concluded that, “the Wolfskill place needs no encomium at a reporter’s hands.  Its beauty and productiveness are common themes throughout the country.”  During the much bigger boom of the 1880s, however, the Wolfskill orchard was subdivided.

Below the article was one for a benefit concert held “at the theatre,” meaning the Merced, situated adjacent to the Pico House hotel mentioned in the post on Tuesday, and which raised funds for the building of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, completed two years later at Main and Second streets.  The venue was sold out and many were standing in the auditorium, so it was expected that a goodly sum would be raised for the building project.


Whether it was Truman or someone else who penned the article, it was averred that “the writer of this notice is no music critic” though “he loves music, and whenever he can do so without being rude, retires when he feels imposed upon by pretenders to the heavenly art.”  Still, he proffered praise to two sung pieces by Miss Nichols (likely a daughter of former mayor, John G. Nichols) and Miss Porter, the latter from San Francisco and maybe a daughter of one of the cousins who recently acquired much of the northern San Fernando Valley at the time.

Also given attention were two duets, as well as a guitar solo by Miguel S. Arévalo, who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico in 1843 and where he began his career as a guitarist, composer and teacher.  In 1870, he emigrated to San Francisco and, the following year, ventured south, with musicologist John Koegel, who spoke at the Homestead in early March on Mexican music in later years, averring that Arévalo “became the preeminent guitarist in Los Angeles and Southern California.”


Arévalo taught piano and voice, in addition to the guitar and “played in many recitals, society musicals, club events and other contexts throughout Southern California.”  Moreover, Koegel continued, two students became widely known, guitarist Luis Toribio Romero and pianist María Pruneda.  He added that Arévalo performed “Latin-tinged” works as well as “standard European and American salon styles of the day,” though the Star did not specify the repertoire.  Arévalo continued to live and work in Los Angeles through the end of the century and died in Los Angeles in 1900.

After reporting on other solo, duet and quartet performances, the article concluded by observing that “Los Angeles may well be proud of the local talent which can afford so much pure and rational enjoyment” and hoped that “nobody will growl at this notice.”  Affecting modesty, the author protested that such a review “is out of our line” but that “we intend to read a book on criticism” so that “maybe we can do better next time.”


There is also an interesting short article about the death of Panto, or José Panto, the capitan of the Indian pueblo of San Pascual near San Diego.  The article pointed out that he played a pivotal role with the Californios in the Mexican-American War battle with the badly positioned forces of American General Stephen Watts Kearny.

After that engagement, a resounding victory for the locals defending their homeland against the American invasion, Panto loaned horses and oxen to Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who led the resulting march to Los Angeles, ending in a battle on the 9th, followed by William Workman and others bringing out the flag of truce afterward, which ended the war in California.


The chieftain died after being thrown from his horse and, while his leadership kept the native pueblo at San Pascual together, it was feared that his demise meant that “it is believed that they will not linger long upon their old planting grounds” without him.

Among some local brevities was the notable statement, with an accompanying advertisement, that the private water company in Los Angeles was restricting use of supplies for “garden irrigation”  to between the hours of 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.  The reason was that, until a new 14-inch water main could be installed from a reservoir “down the entire length of Los Angeles Street,” the conservation of water was an imperative as “the rapid growth of the city has necessitated this additional means of increasing the water supply of the city.”  It was forty years later that the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineering marvel of its time, provided the amply supply allowing for the massive growth of the city.


In the regular listing of real estate transactions as provided to the papers by Judson and Gillette, title records searchers, there were two related to the Workman and Temple families.  The first was the sale of twenty acres for $475 of the Temple and Gibson Tract on the Rancho San Pedro to a man and his wife.  F.P.F. Temple and El Monte’s Fielding W. Gibson purchased land in 1865 at the northern edge of the ranch, roughly halfway between the harbor at San Pedro and Los Angeles.  They dubbed their new townsite there Centerville, for obvious reasons, but this was soon changed to Gibsonville.  In 1870, however, much of the tract was acquired by George Compton and the community took his name.

The second transaction was the selling by William Workman of an easement 100 feet wide and comprising a total of five acres to the Southern Pacific Railroad as the company completed its branch line from Los Angeles through his portion of Rancho La Puente (John Rowland did the same before his death the prior October) for the consideration of $500.  It was in spring 1874 that the railroad completed its line to the Puente station, situated near where the town of that name was established about a dozen years later.  The line still runs parallel to Valley Boulevard, which existed then, through the area and just north of the Homestead.


As always it is interesting to peruse the many advertisements that subsidized most of the cost of the newspaper, so a sampling of those is provided here.  Browsing newspapers like the Star remains one of our best ways to see what was happening on an everyday level in Los Angeles and this 1874 issue covers life during the region’s first boom, so there is added interest there, as well.


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