Behind the Scenes Postscript: The Owners of the Workman House, 1899-1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternon’s Behind the Scenes presentation on the evolution of the 180-year old Workman House covered a lot of ground concerning the building’s evolution from the I-shaped, three-room adobe house built by William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste in the 1840s, when this area was part of Mexico, all the way to renovations undertaken by the Homestead between 2007 and 2015.

The house is a great laboratory of sorts for learning just how much greater Los Angeles transformed during our interpretive period from 1830 to 1930 and most of the focus is on the period from the early 1840s to the mid-1870s when the Workmans occupied the house. Yet, there are many other interesting aspects of the structure’s history, including its remodeling and uses when their grandsons, Francis W. (1876-1888), John H. (1888-1899) and Walter P. (1917-1932) owned and occupied the dwelling and the 75-acre Homestead (Walter added to it, so it was actually 92 acres during most of his years as proprietor.)

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An album page from the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens collection showing a trio views of the Workman House from early in the 20th century. The caption saying that the house was built in 1843 and of red bricks is incorrect, as the oldest portion, made of adobe, was constructed the prior year.

Between John and Walter, though, there was a nearly two-decade period when there were three separate periods of ownership by persons not in the Workman and Temple families. Tonight’s postscript looks at those owners and periods, which were only very briefly mention in this afternoon’s talk, but included some very interesting historical aspects for the Workman House and the ranch.

John’s tenure was marked by some very challenging times as there was a national depression in 1893 and the local economy was also hit by several years of drought. He borrowed money from a Los Angeles bank by the middle of that decade and was unable to pay the loan back, so he was foreclosed upon in 1899. The purchaser of the ranch was Frederick Joseph Smith, a prosperous orange grower and real estate dealer from Pomona.

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Fred J. Smith, a prominent orange grower and realtor in Pomona, advertised, with his partner R.S. Bassett (no known relation to later Homestead owner Eugene Bassett), that “We Sell the Earth” as part of the real estate business, Los Angeles Express, 10 June 1895.

Born in 1860 at Bradford, England, near Leeds and about 85 miles south of William Workman’s hometown of Clifton, Smith immigrated to America when he was 20 and settled in Pomona when it was a relatively young community, having been established in 1875 with funds borrowed from the Temple and Workman bank. Smith, who married Louise Cary in 1884 and with whom had a son and a daughter, became a citrus farmer with a very productive property in the northeast part of town.

Smith formed a real estate partnership with R.S. Bassett and ads for the firm liked to boast that “We Sell the World” and it appears the two kept their business operating for perhaps a couple of decades from the mid-1890s to at least the mid-1910s. It is not known why Smith, who died in 1945, acquired the Homestead toward the end of 1899, perhaps for speculation and there is no information known to date about whether he did anything with the property personally or rented it out.

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A listing in the 5 September 1899 edition of the Los Angeles Times of Smith’s acquisition of the 75-acre Workman Homestead for $12,109.50. The selling parties included John H. Temple, his wife, her sister, his attorney, his brother, Walter, and E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who sold the ranch to the Temples in 1880. This appears to have been a legal issue to satisfy all possible claimants’ interests to the Homestead.

In any case, his ownership was only for not quite three-and-one-half years, as the ranch was sold in March 1903 to Lafayette F. Lewis, a native of New York state who settled in Anaheim in 1872 and was the owner of the Fashion Stables. He and his sons were prominent in the Orange County city, where a street is named for them, for decades, though it is not known why Lewis invested in the Homestead, for which he paid just north of $12,000, nor if he lived on the ranch.

What we do know is that he decided that, in order to maximize space for grazing cattle, the El Campo Santo Cemetery, established by the Workmans in the 1850s and including the St. Nicholas’s Chapel, built around 1860, was to be razed. Purportedly, the chapel burned the year Lewis bought the ranch and this seems to have encouraged him to begin the desecration of the burying ground. The ruins of the chapel were carted away (it was said bricks were sold for reuse for buildings in El Monte) and three of the brick enclosure walls were also dismantled. Who knows how many graves were disturbed and headstones removed by Lewis before he was slapped with a lawsuit to halt the degradation.

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The record of the land swap of Lafayette F. Lewis, who owned the Homestead from 1903 to 1907, and Thurston H. Pratt (and his father-in-law Eugene Bassett of Pasadena) involving the ranch and land in the Mosher Tract in the Crown City, Times, 21 December 1907. This was months after Lewis lost a lawsuit filed by Walter P. Temple over the former’s desecration and destruction of El Campo Santo Cemetery on the Homestead.

The suit was filed in 1906 by Walter P. Temple, then living at his family’s homestead in the Whittier Narrows, and he enlisted the support of those, like the Rowland family, whose relatives were interred at El Campo Santo. The following year, Temple was successful in securing a judgment against Lewis in Los Angeles County Superior Court, with the latter ordered to pay Temple $5,000 and to rebuild the walls. Collecting, however, on the court’s ruling, however, looks to have proved elusive. Later in 1907, Lewis, after four years of ownership, dispensed with the property.

The new purchasers were Eugene Bassett, a Pasadena real estate man (and no apparent relation to either the real estate parner of Smith or the Oscar T. Bassett who, followed by his son, owned the nearby ranch of Joseph Workman and whose name is commemorated in the unincorporated community of Bassett), and his son-in-law, Thurston H. Pratt. The transfer of the Homestead was for $10, but it appears there was a land swap, as Bassett and Pratt deeded two lots to Lewis in the Mosher Tract in Pasadena. Pratt, his wife Anna and their children moved into the Workman House and seem to have farmed at least part of the ranch. A set of photographs in the Homestead’s collection which were featured in this blog previously were taken during that period.

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This, presumably, involved a joke played by the Pratts on their guests! Times, 1 November 1909.

The Pratts’ occupancy of the house and ranch lasted several years and the museum was fortunate to receive a donation in 2017 of a group of over twenty photographs taken about 1912 when they were residing there. One photo shows Bassett and others in it are presumably his daughter Anna and her husband Pratt, while others include a partial view of the Workman House, the brick wineries, and other portions of the Homestead.

There were occasional mentions in the Los Angeles Times and the local Covina Argus about the family hosting parties and barbeques at the Workman House. One of the more interesting notices, though, was from the 1 November 1909 edition of the Times, which reported:

A Halloween party was given by Mr. and Mrs. T.H. Pratt, at their home at La Puente Rancho homestead last night, in which about seventy-five invited guests participated. The house was decorated with paper black cats, witches and ghosts. At midnight, when a collation [an informal meal] was being served, sounds came from upstairs, which sounded like clanking chains, groans and rattling of old bones. The gas, also, began to burn very low all over the house. Things became normal after much comment. Dancing, guessing contests and other games caused the evening to pass pleasantly.

After several years, a new occupant took over. The Puente Rancho Packing Company was a joint-stock corporation formed in early 1913 and which had big plans for the Homestead for pork products, including “country sausage.” The La Puente Valley and surrounding areas, along with the rest of greater Los Angeles, was undergoing a period of growth, following the death of “Lucky” Baldwin and the sale by his estate of thousands of acres from the Workman portion of Rancho La Puente.

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Los Angeles Express, 11 March 1913.

For example, La Fortuna Farms was a subdivision created by the Aronson-Gale company (hence our local Gale Avenue) from land acquired from the Baldwin estate and extended from the Homestead west toward Workman Mill Road, including most of today’s Avocado Heights neighborhood and sections of the City of Industry. To the immediate south was the development by Edwin G. Hart and compatriots of North Whittier Heights, which ran from the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad line (soon sold to the Union Pacific) south into the Puente Hills. Both projects were launched in 1913 along with the Puente Rancho Packing Company.

The firm acquired, apparently with a reversion clause to Pratt and Bassett, the Homestead and aggressively marketed its stock to investors with its plans to have a pork processing plant, with subsidiary canning of fruits and vegetables, in the large brick wineries built by the Workmans in the 1860s, as well as other structures. In colorful advertisements, the company noted that it had 75 acres under its management and 11,000 square feet in existing buildings for the plant.

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Times, 16 March 1913.

The venture was advertised consistently and there were several articles, as well, as the project was launched and the site prepared for the beginning of operations. Ads promoted the availability of stock, the location of the ranch between the rail lines of the Southern Pacific, just to the north, and the “Salt Lake” on the southern side. An article in the Los Angeles Express from May included a photo of three buildings on the Homestead to be used by the concern and it was added that the raising of tomatoes and peaches in the area led the firm to add a canning component. Another piece in the paper that month reported that about 100 hogs were to be slaughtered daily and that “plans are being made to have barbeques and dinners . . . to give the public an opportunity to become acquainted with the work at the plant.”

The Times of 1 June noted that equipment “is now being installed in the four remodeled ranch buildings that are to house the plant” and added “the buildings utilized were formerly a part of the equipment of the Puente ranch, and are of brick and heavy timber construction.” The Workman winery structures, however, were renovated with cement floors by the company, which expected to have thirty employees at the outset, and the buildings “have been otherwise altered to meet the requirements of the packing plant,” including a tomato cannery. As to the Workman House, it was stated that “the former ranch headquarters, a sixteen-room house, is being remodeled for office purposes.”

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Express, 10 May 1913.

In November, the Times reported that:

One of the old pioneer wineries of Southern California has been turned into a piggery . . . and is situated on the Temple ranch and back of the old homestead, where the Temples, the original pioneers of the country, first settled.

The building where the packing will be done has been remodeled from the brick winery that was one of the big businesses of the olden days. Near the butchering plant is another building where the company, known as the Puente Rancho Packing Company, is busy putting up tomatoes as fast as the fruit can be obtained from surrounding ranches.

It was added that 1500 cabbage plants were recently put in on the ranch for the production of “German sauerkraut,” a reference that would soon be forbidden when America entered World War I and anti-German sentiment was everywhere! By the following spring, it was reported that the entirety of the ranch would be planted to tomatoes and that it was expected to pack and ship 30,000 cases. The Times of 12 April 1914, noted that “besides the tomatoes, various kinds of fresh fruits, vegetables, sauces, olives and relishes are canned.”

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Times, 20 November 1913.

There was at least one major store in Los Angeles that began selling Puente Rancho Packing Company products within a year of operations starting at the Homestead. The Broadway, the largest department store in the Angel City, began advertising pork and beans, soups, pickled cauliflower, and tomato sauce, while free demonstrations were offered of company products in the store’s basement. In a review of the year 1914, the Times reported that the firm “shipped 30,000 cases of tomatoes,” as planned, “besides large quantities of fruits and other vegetables.”

The company appears to have been operating as late as June 1917, though when Walter P. Temple, flush with his first major royalties from an oil well successfully brought into production on his Standard Oil Company-leased ranch near Montebello, bought the property for $40,000 in November 1917, the purchase was from Pratt and Bassett. Moreover, the deal was subject to an existing lease through 1918 with a Japanese farmer named Yatsuda, who, perhaps, was contracted to raise the tomatoes. It may be that Temple’s acquisition meant the end of the Puente Rancho Packing Company, unless it folded just before the deal was struck.

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Puente Rancho Packing Company products listed at the bottom right of this detail from an ad by The Broadway department store, Express, 12 June 1914.

With the Behind the Scenes presentation about the Workman House now behind us, we’re looking at a second virtual edition later in the year covering the development and history of La Casa Nueva, so look for that in the near future.

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