“An Immense Business in General Merchandise”: A Letter from the Los Angeles Store of Caswell & Ellis, 9 May 1873

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1828, the little pueblo of Los Angeles, a frontier outpost in what has been called the “Siberia of Mexico,” welcomed its first store after nearly a half-century of existence, when Jonathan Temple, a native of Reading, Massachusetts and for several years a merchant in Hawaii before a short sojourn in San Diego, opened his business where Calle Principal (Main Street) and Calle Primavera (Spring Street) merged south of the Plaza.

Temple, who operated his business for nearly thirty years, was soon followed by another Massachusetts native, Abel Stearns, and it was no accident that the two Yanquis not only became the hamlet’s primary commercial figures, but acquired outlying ranches and assumed a significant social and political standing in the region.

Caswell & Ellis ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Thu__Oct_2__1873_
Los Angeles Herald, 2 October 1873.

During the Gold Rush period and afterward, the mercantile community in Los Angeles expanded as the town experienced modest growth and among the most successful of this next generation of merchants was Harris Newmark, who, along with members of the Hellman family and others, was among the vanguard of European Jews, whose experience and acumen in business brought success in the town.

In his memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, Newmark wrote that his plentiful business was met with stiff competition by new arrivals in town in 1866.  This was just after the conclusion of the Civil War and before the area experienced its first sustained and significant growth boom, lasting through the mid-Seventies, and the new store was that of Samuel Bradford Caswell and John Franklin Ellis.

Ellis 1870 census
The 1870 federal census enumeration for John F. Ellis, his wife Mary and their Irish-born household worker at Los Angeles.

Ellis was the junior partner in the firm in age and standing, having been born in 1843, though nothing is known about exactly when and why the young New Yorker came to Los Angeles and joined the elder man in the business.  As to Caswell, he was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, in the southeastern part of the state near New Bedford and Fall River and his ancestors were said to have been settlers in that area from about the 1630s, the same decade the Temple family arrived in the colony.

Caswell lived in Fall River and then Wareham, a coastal town in the upper reaches of Buzzard Bay, where he married Mary Gibbs in 1849.  Caswell owned stores during this period, including at Fall River until 1855, when he ventured to California via the Panama isthmus route to try his hand at gold mining.  Unlike many who’d never done this kind of work, Caswell remained in the mining regions for nearly a decade, including a period living in Bridgeport, east of the Sierras, and he was involved in the new process of hydraulic mining, though the blasting of mountain sides with massive volumes of water at high pressure caused extensive environmental degradation.  He also had a store and express business in the gold country.

Caswell 1870 census
The listing from the same census of Samuel B. Caswell and his wife Mary Gibbs.  Their two children and others were enumerated on the following page.

In 1865, he sold out his interests and returned to visit the East, presumably his home state, and then returned to California, settling in Los Angeles, and opening his store with Ellis.  While the latter apparently maintained a low profile, Caswell became extensively involved in politics and society in addition to establishing a prosperous business as the little city grew.

For example, he served a single term on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1869-70 and a few years later was a member of the Los Angeles Common [City] Council.  With his wife being a talented musician, the Caswells were among Angelenos with an avid interest in literary and musical.  Caswell & Ellis, for instance, were among prominent residents of the city, such as F.P.F. Temple and his son Thomas, in hosting testimonial performances to actors and singers performing in town.

Herald, 29 October 1873.

Caswell, along with Thomas Temple, was one of the founding trustees of the Los Angeles Public Library, which was launched in 1872 (an earlier version, started in 1859 with Jonathan Temple as president of the trustees, lacked support and soon closed) in a room on the upper floor of the Downey Block, across the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple streets from the Temple Block.  A plaque honoring Caswell, Temple and the others founders was placed in the current central library, completed in 1926, and situated across Grand Avenue from Caswell’s long-time residence.

The Caswell & Ellis store opened in 1866 in the Arcadia Block, an early two-story brick structure at the corner of Arcadia and Los Angeles streets and built by Abel Stearns and named for his wife Arcadia Bandini. One of their early employees was Juan José Carillo, a nephew of Arcadia and who went on to be the Los Angeles city marshal and father of the well-known actor, Leo Carillo (namesake of a Malibu-era state beach).  Stearns and Caswell, both Commonwealth State natives, were close enough that, when the former died in 1871, Caswell was one of the witnesses of Stearns’ will, this being the subject of a post on this blog, while the demolition of the Arcadia Block in May 1927 was also featured here.

Los Angeles Express, 22 October 1874.

The store was in operation in that structure on the evening of 24 October 1871, when gunfire erupted during a dispute among Chinese residents of the Calle de los Negros, also known as Ni**er Alley, which was directly north and east of the Arcadia Block.  Within a short time, some 500 Anglos and Latinos descended upon the area and gave free rein to their mutual hatred of the Chinese, attacking them in several nearby buildings and killing nineteen males, including a teen.

Soon after, Caswell & Ellis relocated, though it is not known whether it was because of the horrific massacre, a change in ownership after Stearns’ death, or a desire for larger and better quarters.  In any case, the pair moved their store to the first floor and basement of the Good Templars Hall, a structure built by local masons, and it occupied two addresses at 80 and 82 Main Street.

Express, 5 November 1874.  These “soirees” were commonly offered to actors, musicians and singers and others by grateful local citizens.  The singer, Dominga [not “Domingo”] Olivas was from the Santa Barbara area, and among her admirers were Caswell & Ellis, the saddler brothers William Henry and Elijah Workman, and F.P.F. Temple.
By 1873, Los Angeles’ population had roughly doubled and Caswell & Ellis were prospering, even opening a branch store in the relatively new San Joaquin Valley town of Bakersfield for a period.  Another artifact from the Homestead’s holdings highlighted on this blog is a Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad receipt from 2 April 1873 and which involved the shipment of 11 1/2 bales, or about 340 pounds, of wool by Caswell & Ellis to San Francisco.

Caswell and Ellis, the following year, became the exclusive agents of the Los Angeles Woolen Mill, which was founded in 1868 by F.P.F. Temple and others to process wool from many of the multitudes of sheep being raised in the region, including at Temple’s sheep ranch on William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente where the community of Avocado Heights is just west of the Homestead.

This note from the Homestead’s collection and dated 9 May 1873 concerns sheep shearing of a herd kept in Rincon, a community south of modern Chino and Chino Hills and where the Prado Dam is today along the Santa Ana River.  As seen above, Caswell & Ellis were agents for the Los Angeles Woolen Mills, founded by F.P.F. Temple, who remained a trustee until his financial failure in 1875.

In the meantime, they were also involved directly in the sheep-raising business as today’s featured object from the collection shows.  It is a note on Caswell & Ellis letterhead to Frank Fowler and Hiram Gates, sheep raisers at Rincon, a small community at the corner (rincon in Spanish means “corner”) of the intersection of the Santa Ana River and Chino Creek.  The site now is Prado Dam near the cities of Corona, Chino, and Yorba Linda.

Fowler and Gates had a section, or 160 acres, at the northwest corner of Rancho El Rincón dedicated to sheep raising and had been there since at least 1870, when the two were enumerated in the federal census in the Chino township which included Rincon, along with James M. Hathaway, who appears to be mentioned in the note.  This property looks to be along modern Highway 71 which runs from the 57/10 interchange in Pomona south to the 91 Freeway.

Fowler Gates Hathaway 1870 census Chino Rincon
The 1870 census listing for three of the sheep ranchers at Rincon, then part of San Bernardino County, now a section of Riverside County, including James M. Hathaway, Frank Fowler and Hiram Gates, mentioned in the Caswell & Ellis note.

That route, however, was almost certainly an indigenous trail for native peoples and then became, by the early 1850s, the “Colorado Road” from the river of that name and Los Angeles.  Gold Rush migrants using the Gila Trail through Arizona, the Butterfield stage and the Pony Express also made use of this historic route and the Butterfield Ranch community at the southern edge of the city of Chino Hills, where a bit of “Pomona-Rincon Road” is still found are commemorations of this old road.

The note doesn’t say much, other than that, in somewhat confused language, that sheep shearing had commenced for the animals held by Fowler, Gates, Hathaway (written as “Hathwaite”) and a fourth partner named Peters.  Presumably, the raw wool was to be taken to Los Angeles, perhaps processed at the Woolen Mill mentioned above, and then shipped via the railroad (which became part of the Southern Pacific’s empire after an October 1872 election turned over the Los Angeles and San Pedro, built by local capitalists three years before, to the SP as part of a deal for that company to build its line south from the Bay Area to Fort Yuma at the Arizona and California border) to the harbor at San Pedro for transport to, likely, San Francisco.

Express, 3 April 1875.

Caswell and Ellis were also known for their outfitting with supplies for mining expeditions to such areas as Panamint and Cerro Gordo, where F.P.F. Temple had extensive investments, in the rugged desert mountain regions of Inyo County in the eastern part of the state.

Five months after this note was written, the Los Angeles Herald provided an extensive description of the store, noting that it opened in July 1866 and that it was one of the largest in the city “consisting of a first floor and a basement, each of which measures 100×40 feet.”  The article added that the proprietors “carry on an immense business in general merchandise” which a significant variety in inventory.  It went to note that:

It might be said of this house that they can clothe and dress a man from head to foot, supply him with everything he ever dreamt of that is good to eat and drink, pamper him with luxuries outside of those found in ordinary markets, and then sell him trunks and valises to carry his purchases away in.

One side of the upper level was devoted to dry goods, men’s furnishings and footwear, while the other provided groceries and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.  The basement stocked salted fish, rope and cords, household utensils and brooms.  Beyond this, however, imported delicacies included “French mushrooms, Honolulu tamarinds, Fry’s chocolate” and such items as candies, meat, pickles, sauces, preserved fruit, and foie gras.

Sophisticated as these were, the article noted that Caswell & Ellis “is a general store for country people,” had extensive trading in Arizona and the Cerro Gordo mining region, “and supply many of the farmers entirely.”  Finally, it concluded, “they buy considerable wool and also grain, and make all goods for sheep-raisers a specialty.”

Express, 1 May 1875.

It may be that the large scale of the business, including a growing and diverse inventory and the expansion of the commission aspect involving wool and grain, put Caswell & Ellis into a risky and speculative position that it was not equipped to sustain.  By spring 1875, it was reported in the Los Angeles Express:

We understand that the firm of Caswell & Ellis, so well known and popular in Los Angeles as grocery men, are laboring under financial embarrassments that have resulted in the attaching of their store.  We are in hopes, as Mr. Caswell has gone to San Francisco, that the suspension will prove to be only temporary.  The firm have been fair and liberal traders, and a great deal of regret is expressed at their difficulties.

The business, in fact, did not survive and it was also reported that there was a fire in the Good Templars Hall caused extensive water and smoke damage, which, though, was covered by insurance.  Assignee J.C. Merrill oversaw the sale of the significant inventory of goods and counters and shelving followed suit.

Express, 19 August 1876.

In summer 1876, Ellis purchased an interest of one of the Dunsmoor brothers who ran the Dollar Store, but was only involved in that business for about six months when he died suddenly, though an article in the Express did not give a cause of death.  Only about 33 years of age, Ellis was described as “a man of great probity and character, and universally esteemed for his kindness and amiability.”

As for Caswell, he left the mercantile world behind and served, from 1875 to 1878, as the clerk of the Common, or City, Council.  He then joined the private Los Angeles City Water Company, which provided all of the precious fluid for its residents and businesses, as a bill collector and then auditor and remained in its employ the rest of its career.

Los Angeles Times, 3 August 1890.

In an 1889 county history, Caswell was lionized as “a thorough business man, of broad views and wide experience, of great executive ability and sterling activity.”  The following year, however, he was arrested on charges of violating the city’s ordinance, including charging rates higher than those established by the city council.  After a court hearing and the setting of a trial date, he was released on his own recognizance, but there was nothing found further about the matter.  He did retain his job, however, so it appears the charges were dismissed.

In early February 1898, Caswell, who had just celebrated his 70th birthday (the cliched lifespan of “three score and ten”), complained of chest pains, but his doctor diagnosed the problem as indigestion.  He briefly went to work, left to go home for lunch and then decided to rest instead of return to the water company’s office.  As he appeared to be improved, his wife left for a drive with a friend, but, when she returned, Caswell, who was last seen walking in his garden and greenhouse, was found barely alive in the latter and died shortly after a doctor, who happened to be passing by, ran in to help.  It was assumed he experienced a heart attack and “laid himself down calmly to die.”

Times, 4 February 1898.

Through documents like today’s highlighted artifact, we are able to learn about life in 1870s Los Angeles, as the city and region experienced its first major period of growth and development, and Caswell and Ellis were among the driving forces and casualties of the risks that go with boom-time business activity, including the mercantile and sheep-raising spheres.  The firm’s failure came just months before the collapse of the state’s economy and the subsequent suspension and closure of the Temple and Workman bank, whose proprietors also speculated and failed as the boom went bust.

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