by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A couple of weeks ago, the Museum was contacted by Déjà Barnes, who recently moved into a home in Woodland Hills and found a box containing an 1892 studio portrait by George Steckel of a young girl. Intrigued and not finding anything else in the box that seemed connected to the photo, Déjà reached out to to the Homestead and I got in touch.
Fortunately, and this did not happen nearly as often as it should, someone took the time to write a pen inscription on the upper part of the reverse of the photo mount and, as importantly, in readable cursive: “To dear Grandma / from her youngest grandchild / Monnie Botsford / Los Angeles / Oct. 28, 1892.”
It was also good that the surname wasn’t “Smith” or “Jones” because, though the first name was hard to make out from the scan Déjà sent me, the surname wasn’t and “Botsford” is not all that common. In short order, a brief search in Ancestry.com found our little cherub: Monimia Botsford, who was born in December 1890 and who, at 22 months when the photo was taken or, at least, inscribed, and with the nickname of “Monnie” was the obvious fit.
A little more digging located the names of her parents, Monimia Laux and William F. Botsford, and it turned out that Botsford was a pretty prominent guy during his close to a quarter century in Los Angeles and subsequent searching disclosed that Monimia Laux Botsford, commonly called Mona, achieved some local renown as a composer. So, while there is no question that little Monimia, who also went by Mona for much of her life, was darn cute little tyke, the photo provides a window into more interesting material about late 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles.
Monimia Laux was born in Chicago in 1867 to Emilie Schwarm and Carl Laux, Jr., who both hailed from Bavaria in what later became a united Germany and emigrated as youngsters to America. Carl Laux, Sr. was a music teacher near Munich and married Caroline Laux, Monimia’s sister, but, in the turmoil that erupted during the revolutionary year of 1848, the Laux family had to flee and wound up in America where they settled in Connecticut. Carl, Sr. taught music at a girls’ school, headed west to Illinois and served in the Union Army, with which he saw battlefield and escaped without injury. He returned to music instruction at several schools and this remained his life’s work.
Carl, Jr. married Emilie in Waukegan, north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, in 1865. Monimia was the eldest of six children born to the couple and her father was a druggist in the Windy City before the family migrated in 1886, as so many did, to Los Angeles as it was in the midst of the famous Boom of the Eighties and where Carl Laux opened a successful drug store. In 1892, the firm of C. Laux was incorporated and stockholders included William F. Botsford and his wife and Laux’s daughter Monimia and his wife Emilie. Nine years later, Laux, his daughter, and William Botsford’s sister, formed the Union Investment Company, which dealt in real estate.
He was later a founder of Sun Drug Company, which was incorporated in October 1901 “to control prices and reduce expenses.” There were eleven stockholders with Laux contributing the most at $25,000, but the firm had to stress that it was not a trust “but was organized to be of benefit to the dealers as well as to the public.” Laux died in 1914 of cancer at age 71.
William Finn Botsford was born in 1851 at Port Huron, Michigan, northeast of Detroit, to Ann Huxtable, a native of England, and John S. Botsford, who hailed from New York and settled in Port Huron in the mid-1830s. John was a cooper (a tinworker) before he became an steamboat owner, a government inspector with those craft, and then invested in real estate and did quite well for himself.
William went to work at fifteen in a wholesale grocery business and, two years later, joined his brother John E. in the forwarding of goods to markets. Next, he went into a partnership with men’s furnishings, but, after a year, he worked as a bank clerk. In the early 1870s, he rejoined his brother and formed a business in which they were elevator and grain merchants.
The enterprise prospered and included a shipping component with John retiring in 1886 and William rebranding as the Botsford Elevator Company and being its main owner, president and general manager. Meantime, he got involved as general manager of a line of steamers and other ships plying the Great Lakes as far as Duluth, Minnesota and was president of an electric streetcar company in the Port Huron area, where he owned substantial real estate. He was married and then widowed after a dozen years with no children, when he began to slowly sell his business interests interests in Michigan and went to Los Angeles as the Boom of the Eighties was starting to wind down.
Botsford starting by purchasing an orange grove in an area east of the boomtown of Fullerton and now within the city of Placentia. He amassed considerable real estate in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California, including the Napa Valley, where he financed and ran the Vallejo and Napa Railway. He was an organizer and long-time president of American National Bank until his resignation in 1910.
In the mid-1890s, Botsford, with his considerable wealth, purchased the massive and opulent mansion built by George R. Shatto, a mining magnate and briefly the owner of Santa Catalina Island who was killed in a streetcar accident in 1893. The two-story house with a full attic and a tower above that sat on a rise in the landscape and had a commanding view with the family residing in the house until William died in May 1912 at age 60 of a range of health issues, including gastric problems and heart disease.
As for Monimia Laux Botsford, her career as a composer of local acclaim was profiled four years later in the Los Angeles Times, which noted that her grandfather was a music teacher and that he provided her early instruction, while her father, Carl, Jr. was also said to have a great deal of musical ability, repressed, however, for his career in the drug business.
Writer Jeanne Redman then added:
A delicate child who was perpetually being taken out of school and forbidden study of any kind, Mrs. Botsford has had a musical life which presents a wonder story of achievement against a series of continuous and startling obstacles. Her frailty, combined with her father’s opposition [to her pursuit of music as a vocation], resulted in her learning to play the piano.
Though she had no formal instruction, she then learned the organ and, upon coming to Los Angeles with her family, became organist and choir director at the First Presbyterian Church at Broadway and Second. Among the members was Mamie Perry, daughter of local lumber magnate William H. Perry and who became an international operatic singer.
After her marriage to Botsford, Monimia studied harmony and she began to have her songs published while taking up the piano again and working as an accompanist. Redman went on that
one wonders what she would have done had she had a lifetime of instruction . . . surely absorption is a very excellent master . . . the playing of the masters has been a very great factor in her compositions, and the ability to think and feel in terms of music, and with a sympathetic heart and an intellect in tune with the times—these are the components which go to make a sincere and artistic composer of the woman who speaks of herself with such graceful humility . . .
The article also related a story in which Monimia met Ernestine Schumann-Heink, one of the most famous operatic singers in the world and with whom she was preparing to speak in German, when a friend presenting her “did so with the kindly announcement that I also had seven children, and was a musician!” Monimia hesitated, feeling she couldn’t present her little German speech, and she said “and then Mme. Schumann-Heink and I both suddenly gave way to peals of laughter. I felt that my dear children had never before loomed quite so large or so numerous.”
Monimia continued to write and perform after her husband’s death (she sold the Shatto mansion and it became part of Good Samaritan Hospital, which still operates on the site today) and survived him by over thirty-five years, dying at age 80 as Las Encinas Sanitarium, mentioned in a recent post here and which is also still in operation in Pasadena.
As for little angelic Monimia, or Mona, she was married three times and lived in Arizona and Monterey, residing at the latter when she died in 1959 at the age of 68. The innocuous photo, found in a box with no context, did, however, to prove to have some interesting local history attached it, albeit indirectly, and this sort of happenstance takes place often, which is one of the most interesting aspects of the work we do at the Homestead.