Reading Between the Lines: A Letter from Giovanni Piuma to Walter P. Temple on a Winery License Election Measure in Los Angeles County, 2 November 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

California’s wine industry began in greater Los Angeles with the first vines brought to the area by Franciscan missionaries during the earliest days of the Spanish era. Over the course of decades, vineyards were planted by many local residents and they were joined by migrants from France, Germany and Italy, as well as by other Europeans and Americans.

After the Workman family settled on Rancho La Puente in 1842, it appears they quickly became cultivators of the vine, as well, and the agricultural returns of the 1850 census, taken early the following year because of California’s September admission to the Union, showed that there was wine on hand. For that to be case, the vines had to be at least five years old, though it is not known whether there were any commercial sales of the product at that early date.

By the mid-Sixties, as the cattle industry, long the backbone of the regional economy, was battered by floods and drought in the first half of the decade, a push to develop agriculture resulted, including viniculture. William Workman built three brick winery buildings during this time and expanded his vineyards so that there were about 100,000 vines on roughly 100 acres, all of this situated adjacent to San José Creek, which had water year-round and had enough flow for irrigation.

Central Avenue News, 4 November 1910.

After Workman’s death in 1876, his grandson and winemaker, Francis W. Temple, took possession of the Hometead and purchased 75 acres, including the Workman House, El Campo Santo Cemetery and outbuildings, such as the wineries, in 1880 from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who acquired the Workman holdings at La Puente by foreclosing on a loan he made to the failed Temple and Workman bank.

Despite the terrible tragedy that struck the Workman and Temple families with the institution’s demise and the near obliteration of their substantial financial position, Francis appears to have done rather well with his wine-making enterprise at the Homestead. He, however, suffered from tuberculosis and, as it worsened, he spent more time away, especially in the hotter and drier environment of the Arizona Territory.

One of his most trusted employees was a teenage Laura González, who grew up in the Misión Vieja, or Old Mission community, several miles to the west in the Whittier Narrows south of El Monte where the Temples lived from the early 1850s onward. When Francis was absent, Laura was given the responsbility of overseeing much of the ranch’s operation, while simultaneously having a clandestine romance with Francis’ much younger (21 years) brother, Walter.

Long Beach Press, 9 November 1910.

In August 1888, Francis died, leaving the Homestead to his brothers William and John, though the former lived out of state and sold his interest to the latter. John was a walnut farmer in the Old Mission area before relocating to the Homestead, but whether he had much opportunity to work the vineyards is unclear. A terrible malady called Pierce’s disease, caused by an bacterium, struck the region’s grapevines and ravaged virtually all of them excepting those in the Rancho Cucamonga area and in scattered locations elsewhere.

In the meantime, the Temple Homestead at Misión Vieja, comprising 50 acres sold by Baldwin to Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, became, after her death in 1892, the property of her youngest children, Walter and Charles. The following year, they entered into an arrangement to lease the basement of the family’s adobe house to Giovanni Piuma, a topic covered in a previous post on this blog.

As noted in that post, Piuma (1864-1938) hailed from a coastal town near Genoa, in northern Italy, (a nearby native of that city was Alessadro Repetto, who owned a large ranch in modern Monterey Park) and was in Los Angeles by the mid-1880s. By the end of the decade, he was in Mision Vieja and operated a grocery, but his lease of the Temple adobe seems to have taken place in the early stages of his foray into winemaking. It looks as if he operated what he called the Old Mission Winery in that location for close to two decades before he moved to East Los Angeles, soon renamed Lincoln Heights.

Highland Park Herald, 12 November 1910.

By the early 20th century, though, there was a growing and powerful temperance movement in the United States seeking to, if possible, prohibit all manufacturing, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. There was, in fact, a tremendous level of consumption of alcohol among American men for most of the 19th century and problems arising from alcoholism, most notably including the deterioration of families, led reformers, headed largely by women and the clergy, to push for prohibition.

While it was possible for large-scale jurisdictions, namely states, to “go dry,” there was an increasing promotion of what was called the “local option,” in which cities, townships and election precincts could vote to ban alcohol in their jurisdictions. In the Los Angeles area, this became the focal point of reformers, including the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and others.

Los Angeles Times, 13 November 1910.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is a letter from Piuma to Walter P. Temple, postmarked 2 November 1910, and dealing with the upcoming general election measure to allow or deny licenses to winery owners in election precincts in Los Angeles County. The missive, began by stating that Piuma could not visit Temple personally, but informed him that

As I am living in this precinct [El Monte] for the period of 25 years,— 20 years engaged in the grape grower & wine industry, and never have violated the law, having spent every cent I made in that line, carrying a big stock of Wines & Brandies, supervised by the U.S. Government, and now I ask the consent of you and neighbors for a continuance of said industry.

He went to remind his lessor that “the wine grapes is one of the biggest industry [sic] of California” and added that “thousands of acres of wild brushes [a sweeping statement, to be sure! He, of course, meant “bushes”] have been converted in sweet fruit, and millions of dollars through this industry are spent right here at home.”

Pomona Times, 15 November 1910.

Piuma, of course, was concerned that “many families are making their living” in viticulture “and by putting the Wineries out of business they wil be entire ruined without a single reason therefor.” Appealing to Temple “as an up right industrious man,” the winemaker asked him to “take this matter in co[n]sideration, and give your entirely [sic] support to this Great industry” by voting to allow licenses begin granted to winery owners like Piuma. He even reproduced the working and had boxes for “yes” and “no” with a “x” in the former. The missive ended with the winemaker writing “thanking for your kind attention” and “your very oblige” before adding his stamped signature.

Temple, meanwhile, added a trio of inscriptions. The first two were in pencil including “Date Nov 8th 1910,” that being when the election was held and the other stating “Take notice.” At the bottom left, however, in ink, he inscribed “Bum Dago English” using the pejorative for an Italian and mocking Piuma’s facility in the language. Clearly, Temple never thought the letter would be seen by anyone other than himself and, perhaps, circumspect descendants! On the envelope, he added another pencil inscription: “G. Piuma’s letter / Keep on File — for Winery.”

Los Angeles Times, 10 November 1910.

We don’t know how Temple voted, but it can be assumed he cast his ballot with an “X” for yes because, after all, he was still getting some income from the lease, though it is also known that Piuma moved his operation to Los Angeles that year. There were three other “local option” measures on the ballot that year, including one about licenses for liquor dealers, another for alcohol sales at hotels and restaurants, and the last concerning licensing for billiard halls.

The 4 November issue of the Central Avenue News, a paper in South and South-Central Los Angeles, observed that “for three or four elections the people of the rural precincts of this county have been voting on the local option every two years.” It added that “the wordking on the ballot was such that the authorities interpreted it to refer to saloons and wholesale houses only.” The paper continued that there were some seventy precincts outside the incorporated cities and towns, but that, in 1908, only a baker’s dozen (13) went “wet”, while twenty-eight more had some form of licensing for alcohol sales. There were over forty wineries, twenty saloons, fourteen restaurants, and three each of hotels and wholesale houses under license.

The News went on that a vote against the winery license would not prevent an establishment from selling their product entirely, only within the precinct, and it noted “this being the case the claim of some winery men that the new ordinance will confiscate property is without any foundation, unless they belong to the groggery class.” It also asserted that “the larger wineries of the county, which have not been catering to the local trade, will be affected very little by a majority vote against wineries.” If the vote went “wet,” the ordinance dictated that “sales can be made at the winery in lots of not less than two gallons, not to be drunk on the premises where sold.” Previously, the minimum was a fifth of a gallon. Finally, the paper reported that the 1908 election tallied 5,483 “dry” votes as opposed to just 2,863 “wet” ones.

Los Angeles Express, 10 November 1910.

On the day of the election, the Los Angeles Times and other papers noted a report from the county statistician on farm and other related products generated within that jurisdiction, including the fact that “there are eighty-six wineries and three breweries . . . [producing] dry wines, 1,200,000 gallons, [valued at] $300,000; sweet wines, 1,486,000 gallons, $445,000; beer, 216,444 gallons [no dollar amount listed], and brandy, 140,000 gallons, $280,000.”

Tallies for the voting from several outlying newspapers show the advancing of the “dry” forces. The Long Beach Press of the 9th reported that the Alamitos precinct outside the city counted 85 votes against and just 23 for winery licensing, though the other three were defeated by similarly wide margins. The Los Angeles Express on the 10th, there was a mixed result in Lamanda Park, which was later annexed to Pasadena, so that licensing was approved for wineries (171 to 104) and billiard parlors, but not for saloons, restaurants or hotels. Eagle Rock, which subsequently became part of Los Angeles, went strongly “dry” and the winery license tally was 32 for and 83 against.

Los Angeles Herald, 11 November 1910.

The Highland Park Herald, in its edition of the 12th, added that the Annandale precinct, also absorbed by Pasadena later, also went “dry” and noted “this will affect the Annandale Golf Club where liquors are served to its members.” It reported, however, that “the directors of the club are now agitating annexation to Los Angeles, to escape this threatened invasion of their thirst parlor.”

Out in the San Gabriel Valley, the Times of the 13th reported from a source in Azusa that the precinct there went decisively “dry” including a 48 to 21 vote against winery licenses, though the other trio of measures were by even larger margins. Both the Covina Argus and the Pomona Times reported on the results from the unincorporated adjacent precinct of Puente, with the latter stating, “among the numerous towns of Los Angeles County which went “dry” last Tuesday was our little neighbor, Puente. Of the 176 votes cast, 97 were against saloon licenses and 79 for. The winery license was lost by one vote and the hotel license by eight. Seventy-eight votes favored pool room licenses and 56 were against it.”

Los Angeles Express, 23 November 1910.

It is notable, however, that the margins were slimmer than in other areas and whether this had something to do with more Italians and Basques living in the La Puente Valley than in some locales, isn’t known. As for the Argus, it weighed in with an editorial, proclaiming:

Good for Puente! It went dry at election, after many years of sodden wetness. It took some organization and determination, but the town is now on the dry list, and there is a chance for busines and civic success.

The paper went on to claim that El Monte, when it was “wet,” had no ambition, was ignored by tourists and visitors, but “the town finally laid the blame on the dram shop, and voted them out.” Having done that “at the end of four years of strict prohibition the town is larged [sic] and more prosperous in every way” with more acomplished in that short time than under a half-century “of saloon denomination.” It repeated “good for Puente. It has shaken off its load of saloons, and there is a chance now to become a clean, bright town.”

On the 23rd, the Express provided a summary of the countywide results, reporting that just six of the 74 precincts that had their residents vote on the four measures (there were a total of 172 precincts, so 98 did not place these on the ballot in their jurisdictions) agreed to allow saloon licensing and just eight were to permit licenses for hotel and restaurants to serve alcohol. For the billiard room and winery tallies, there were 17 precincts each that were in favor of licenses for them.

The six that approved saloon licenses were Newhall, Naples (now part of Long Beach next to Seal Beach), Malibu, Lancaster, [Marina] Del Rey and Catalina [Island] and the fact that four of these were coastal or an island catering heavily to tourists, while the other two were in the northern reaches of the county is certainly telling. All of these, except Newhall (which did go all “wet” in 1908), also voted to license wineries. The other dozen were spread out in the region, from East Whittier to Artesia to San Gabriel to La Cañada to Wilmington. A few tallies were close, but most were solidly in favor.

With respect to the precinct that covered Misión Vieja, it is presumed that that community was within the El Monte jurisdiction and the overall vote there was against issuing winery licenses. As noted above, Piuma, who became Italian consul the next year, had already established his Los Angeles facility, while keeping his Old Mission Winery at the Temple adobe, and he had a home in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

It is not known if Piuma made his shift to Los Angeles because it was an obvious choice to expand his business, which did include groceries, in the burgeoning metropolis, while Misión Vieja remained a small community. It is also not yet known when he moved from his Temple adobe location, but one wonders if the vote to bar alicense in the El Monte precinct was an obvious reason why he did so. Whatever was the cause, it was around this time that the last known connection of the Workman and Temple families to winemaking came to an end and this letter is an interesting artifact for that reason and for its connection to the 1910 licensing measures in the general election and the movement towards full national Prohibition by the end of the decade.

Leave a Reply