Working the Land While Reading Between the Lines: A Letter from Japheth F. Prickett from El Monte, 18 May 1884

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Letters from our area dating back some 140 years are pretty rare enough as it is, but to have one from a farm laborer takes the scarceness to another level. Fortunately, the Homestead happens to have one written from El Monte on this date in 1884 and it gives some interesting detail about the work being done as well as some other tidbits about the San Gabriel Valley.

It was relatively easy to locate the recipient as the letter is addressed to “J.S. Cliffton” and the envelope has the location as “West Unity, Wm. Co., Ohio.” A little poking around found that John S. Cliffton (1848-1934) was a native of the area (with parents born in New Jersey) and a lifetime resident of that northwestern corner of the Buckeye State and was a longtime farmer.

The household of Japheth and Phoebe Prickett in Williams County, Ohio in the 1880 federal census, including their two youngest children, Mary, 24, and Japheth Charles Fremont, 22.

What proved a bit tougher was figuring out the name of the writer and sender because the bottom of the missive’s last page, where he signed his name was neatly trimmed. There was another of the last name that it looked like it could have been “Prichitt” or “Pritchett” but searched of West Unity and Williams County, Ohio did not turn up any likely candidates.

Taking another tack, it was found, however, that there was a Prickett family of long-standing in that locale and, because the letter, mentions the name Mary, it was soon found that there was a Mary E. Prickett (1855-1952) and her brother Japheth C. F. (1857-1946), these being the youngest of the brood raised by Phoebe Sharp and Japheth L. Prickett, the latter of whom was, like Cliffton’s parents, from New Jersey, while the former was an Ohio native.

It was easier tracking down the recipient, John S. Cliffton, than the writer and sender.

The elder Prickett was involved in lumbering, was a lawyer and also farmed and the couple remained in Ohio even as some of their offspring headed west. The younger Japheth sported the middle names of “Charles” and “Fremont” after the first Republican presidential candidate, who lost the campaign of 1856, and had a colorful career as an explorer in the Western United States and signer of the Treaty of Cahuenga here in Los Angeles during the Mexican-American War.

This includes both Mary and Japheth who wound up in the San Gabriel Valley in 1884, perhaps, as was the case for so many people migrating this way in those days, for health reasons. Whatever it was, Japheth wrote his missive to Cliffton, telling him that “I am sitting on the ground behind a pile of hay & have a feed box for a stand which keeps a rocking, so excuse all shortcomings.”

It appears the siblings started off in Pasadena, for reasons we’ll get to shortly, but Prickett told his friend, “I am in the country now, am working at bailing hay” and added that there were three hands in his crew operating a press and “having everything furnished & our board.” He added that it involved four horses with changes of animals every ten bales, which were bound with wire.

With the correspondent’s name partially cropped by the neatly trimmed bottom of the page, it took a little more searching to find out that he was Japheth Charles Fremont Prickett.  Fortunately, mention of “Mary” led to discovering this was his sister and that made the rest easy.

To date, he continued, “we have been baling old hay 2 weeks but begin on new hay this next week [he wrote on a Saturday].” As for accommodations, it was quite simple: “we have our own blankets & sleep in the hay as all hands do in this country.” The goal was to process some six tons of hay every day at thirty cents per ton for each of the three workers.

Turning to a broader description of the San Gabriel Valley, Prickett informed Cliffotn that “this country about Monta [sic] looks more home like as there are no citrus fruit raise[d], it being too low & frosty in winter.” This was true because that low position next to the San Gabriel River meant that El Monte was far better suited for field crops, whereas foothill communities along the San Gabriel (then often known as the Sierra Madre) range were becoming increasingly devoted to raising oranges and, in some cases, lemons.

At El Monte, he went on, “it is mostly cultivated in barl[e]y, partly for hay & partly for grain, barley is the principal hay in this country, there being some rye and wheet [sic] & some alfalfa but I have not seen any yet.” It also bears mentioning that, just to the east across the river on the massive Rancho La Puente, William Workman long had immense fields of wheat, barley and other field crops on the plains where Bassett, West Covina and Baldwin Park are now situated.

There was plenty of interesting detail, even if Prickett thought he was in “El Monta”!

While most of Workman’s holdings were lost to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after the disaster involving the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and the resulting 1879 foreclosure of Baldwin’s loan to that doomed institution, the use of these vast sections of La Puente were still being used for field crops when Prickett went to work in El Monte.

This was after, he told his friend, “the last job we baled was by an orange grove” and so, because of the access to the golden fruit, “we helped outselves & brought some with us.” Prickett ate nine of the fruits “before we got to San Gabriel,” which he noted was two miles away, while “my partner eat 12.” In fact, he continued, “as I sit here I can see orange groves,” as well as “the Siera Madra [Sierra Madre] Villa, the world renowned health resort,” this latter situated at the base of the mountains where Pasadena meets Sierra Madre (Walter P. Temple’s lawyer and business partner, George H. Woodruff, later lived in the Sierra Madre Villa tract).

Details on what was being grown in El Monte and in the San Gabriel Valley generally is hard to find in this period, especially from a farm laborer working his way from job to job.

Looking north, Prickett stated, “in another direction [I] can see snow on the mountain” and, even though they seemed to be a couple of miles away, “the trees & houses are so plain” and were actually more like ten miles distant. Moreover, “you can see every canon & gulch as plain as you can see your woods” back home in Ohio.

After asking Cliffton to “let the folks at home know I am getting along well,” Prickett told him that he and his sister “went up to Pasadena Sunday & saw our new possession, it looks well.” This property, he went on, would have “quite a lot of peaches & apricots & some grapes on the (40) vines I set out” and he noted that the land “reminds me of the favor you done me in getting the money.

Within just a few years of writing his letter, Japheth returned home to Ohio and, in the 1900 census, was enumerated next to his friend Cliffton.

He ended his missive by noting that he had been working three miles from where his sister lived, but was now ten or twelve away “& will be there some time as [we] have 500 tons [of hay to bale] in one job.” After he wrote a parenthetical statement about how “the clouds come half way down the Mts now,” he signed off with the hope that he would hear from his friend soon.

It is not known where the land was in the Crown City, though a January 1885 delinquent tax list did show a “George Prickett” who owned $3.47 on 15 acres, but whether this was our correspondent is uncertain, though “George” might have been a nickname for the rather unyieldy Japheth. It also appears there was no connection to Pasadena Playhouse co-founder Charles F. Prickett II, whose wife was the well-known character actor Maudie Prickett (from the Jack Benny Show, Hazel and many other television shows and uncredited film appearances).

While her brother returned home, Mary remained in this area, living at Alhambra and, after her marriage, in Chino. She later rejoined Japheth in Outook, Washington, a town near Yakima in the south-central part of that state.

Japheth also did not remain long in this area as he was back in his Ohio hometown where he married Anne Momeyer in 1887, had six surviving children with her and took up the family ocupation of farming. In the 1900 census, he and his family were neighbors of the Clifftons, but, shortly afterward Prickett and his family relocated to Outlook, a small town in south central Washington southeast of Yakima, where he died in 1946. His sister, Mary, however, remained in the San Gabriel Valley for several years and was a resident of Alhambra when, in 1890, she married Frank McWilliams and moved to Chino, where they owned a farm. After 1900, though, she and her family moved to Outlook, whether to join Japheth or in advance of him is unknown and she died a half-dozen years after he did.

An older brother, James, also ventured west by the early Nineties and resided for some years in Pomona. A Civil War veteran who spent much of the war in a Confederate prisoner of war camp, James spent much time residing at the National Soldiers home at Sawtelle (Westwood), though he occasionally returned to Pomona, where Japheth visited him in 1911 before heading to their old haunts in Ohio. James was transferred in 1919 to the National Soldiers’ home in Jefferson, just outside Dayton, Ohio. When he died in 1924, he was buried at Outlook, where his siblings later were interred with him in a family plot.

Japheth and his family as listed in the 1910 federal census at Outlook, where he lived until his death more than thirty-five years later.

This remarkable little letter is a true rarity by a farm laborer in greater Los Angeles just before the great Boom of the Eighties ensued and provides some interesting detail and description of El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley generally.

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