Through the Viewfinder: The Wolfskill Adobe and Orchard, Los Angeles, 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of early American settlers of Mexican-era Los Angeles and among the first to migrate on the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico, William Wolfskill (1798-1866) was a contemporary and friend of William Workman. Born in Boonesborough, Kentucky, a town established by the noted frontiersman Daniel Boone, Wolfskill’s family followed two of Boone’s sons to the western edge of America, settling in central Missouri in what became Howard County.

Wolfskill returned to Kentucky for a couple years of schooling before going back to Missouri. By 1819, David Workman was a new arrival in Franklin and William joined him there three years later, though that same year, 1822, Wolfskill took the recently opened Santa Fe Trail from Franklin to New Mexico, the northern territory of the newly independent Mexican nation.

The Wolfskill family enumerated in the state census of 1852 at their orchard property.

After a period of fur trapping there, he went back to Missouri and dealt in cattle, though how much interaction he had with the Workman brothers is not known. In 1828, he took a cargo of goods to New Mexico, sold them and then decided to make his migration to Los Angeles, arriving there in February 1831. An early project was the construction of a ship used in the sea otter trade and which sailed as far as Hawaii.

Early on in his tenure in the Angel City, in 1838, Wolfskill acquired a large property between Alameda Street and San Pedro Street from about 2nd to 7th streets. There, he built an adobe house, planted a large vineyard and, in 1841, devoted a few acres to cultivating oranges, which made Wolfskill the first commercial grower of citrus in California. A first marriage, producing a few children, ended when his wife left him for another man, after which he married Magdalena Lugo, from the prominent Californio family, and several more children came from that relationship.

The listing for William Wolfskill in the agricultural schedule of the 1860 federal census does not appear to mention oranges, though the value of orchard products shows 392,000 pounds of grapes and a cash value of $10,000.

By the late 1850s, he’d considerably expanded his raising of the fruit, though the agricultural portion of the 1860 census emphasized his grapes, this being a key crop in what was then, though not for long, the major winemaking region in the Golden State. Wolfskill, who became a major owner of ranches in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County (his opportune stumbling on water in, of all places, the lower Mojave Desert near modern Apple Valley during the terrible drought of 1862-1864 led him to invite the Rowlands, Temples and Workmans to send their cattle to join his there, significantly lessening their losses of stock.)

The 68-year old Wolfskill died in October 1866, leaving his Los Angeles home and vineyard and groves to his children. One account said of him that “he was a man of many friends, for he was of a genial, kindly temperament, a fine conversationalist and thoroughly alive on all questions of contemporary interest.” Wolfskill was laid to rest in the old Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills north of town just as the dark days of flooding and drought receded and the first sustained growth period for the region was on the horizon.

Los Angeles Express, 2 May 1876.

As for the orchard, with some 2,000 orange trees planted in 1856 “this being the largest orchard at the time in Southern California,” it “proved to be one of the most prolific orange bearers in the state, as many as twenty-five thousand boxes of oranges and lemons being shipped in a single year.” The valuable tract was left to his children, including Luis (Lewis), who married Luisa Dalton, daughter of William Workman’s northern neighbor and fellow Englishman, Henry Dalton.

Lewis was also left the Rancho Santa Anita by his father and sold it in 1872 to Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark for what was considered the princely sum of $85,000, though Newmark realized $225,000 when it was purchased three years later by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin. Lewis co-owned the Rancho San Francisquito with his father-in-law Dalton and sold interests in the western two-thirds to Workman and F.P.F. Temple, though this was sold to Baldwin when the Temple and Workman bank needed cash after it suspended operations in a panic in 1875 (almost a half-century later, Walter P. Temple established his Town of Temple, renamed Temple City, on a portion of the ranch.)

The 1880 census listing for Joseph W. Wolfskill at the adobe house on Alameda and Fourth streets. His brother Luis (Lewis) was living on the west end of the property along San Pedro Street.

Lewis raised oranges on his father’s Los Angeles orchard property for a period, with it said by the Los Angeles Herald in 1874 that 30 acres of the Wolfskill orchard “nets its owner from $45,000 to $50,000 per annum,” though the same paper later that year quote him as suggesting the earnings were between $7,000 and $10,000 annually (perhaps the larger sum was the aggregate for the family’s entire holding?) but he then left the city, so his sister Francisca Shepherd and brother Joseph, owned the tract during the 1880s. In June 1882, a Texas newspaper proprietor visited the Angel City and wrote to his paper from San Francisco of his visit, observing

We next stopped at the celebrated Wolfskill orchard, containing 100 acres and under a fine state of cultivation. This orchard is between 30 and 40 years old and in fine bearing condition. It was a great treat to us, who had never before seen oranges growing, to drive among thousands of trees laden with luscious fruit and pluck it at our will. Then we visited the packing department and conversed with Mr. Wolfskill, the proprietor, who is a Californian and was born upon the farm he now owns.

Wolfskill told the newspaperman that, once the current season was concluded, he was likely to ship his fruit to Texas with hopes of finding a better market in the Lone Star State than he’d been able to elsewhere to date.

Los Angeles Times, 19 June 1883.

A year later, the editor of the San Francisco publication, The New Age, paid a visit and wrote, “we visited the well-known orange grove and fruitery of Wolfskill fame [the name was known in Solano County, east of San Francisco, because William helped establish a brother, John there at a ranch long known in that region], which, for many years, has been the pride and wonder of Los Angeles.”

This account added that thousands of visitors were welcomed there annually as tourism began to be a major presence in southern California and it continued that “formerly it was celebrated for grapes and wines, but more recently for its productiveness in oranges, lemons and limes.” The piece concluded with the observation that “a drive through the avenues laden with trees baring fruit is a rare treat indeed.”

Los Angeles Herald, 31 July 1887.

In May 1885, the Wolfskill place received a distinguished visitor in General Philip H. Sheridan, one of the heroes of the Union Army’s final campaigns in the Civil War, including the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that culminated in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia that finally ended the horrific conflict. Sheridan and his wife Irene were sojourning in the Angel City and took a drive that included a trip to neighbor O.H. Bliss’ orchard before a stop with the Wolfskills’ place, “which they thoroughly inspected.”

Heading west and being near Central, or Sixth Street, Park, now Pershing Square, the horses was scared by a passing vehicle and bolted with the driver unable to control the animals for five blocks at which point the carriage crashed next to the Ozro W. Childs estate and sent the Sheridans sprawling among wreckage. The couple was taken to their rooms at the St Elmo Hotel (near where Main Street crosses over U.S. 101 today) for treatment.

Los Angeles Express, 27 December 1887.

In April 1886, a review by the Los Angeles Times of the region’s thriving orange industry mentioned that there were 8,000 trees on the Wolfskill orchard, but the nascent boom would soon determine a very different future of development. Joseph Wolfskill proved to be both an excellent orchardist and a very capable businessman so that, when the boom burst forth and it was apparent that an expanding Los Angeles was going to include the tract held by the Wolfskills for about a half-century, he and other family members knew it was time to sell while the market was hot.

In summer 1887, the Wolfskill Orchard Tract was subdivided and sold by the Los Angeles Land Bureau, handled by a realty and auctioneering firm called Easton, Eldridge and Company (later the company worked on the subdivision of much of the massive Rancho Santa Ana del Chino to the east.) In early ads, it was emphasized that

This Celebrated Orchard, known throughout the world, and in the actual occupancy and Possession of one family for over Fifty Years, has been subdivided with great care into business and residenence [sic] lots to meet the urgent demands of business, traffic and habitation. . .

A Strip of Land, 300×1900 feet in size, fronting on Alameda Street, between Fourth and Sixth Streets, containing Thirteen Acres, was donated by the owners to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which has signed a contract agreeing to build upon said land its General Passenger Depot, Similar in design, but more elaborate and expensive than the Arcade Depot at Sacramento.

Advertisements heavily promoted the depot to prospective buyers of lots on the tract. By September 1887, it was proclaimed that “The Plans Have Arrived!” and “The Ties Are On The Ground,” while another ad boasted that the station would be “the most beautiful depot west of the Rocky Mountains.”

At the end of November, the Herald in discussing the orange industry, asked “who has oranges in this city?” This was because of the rampant development of the Angel City during the boom so that “there are little or no orchards remaining, and go where one will the grove are either gone, root and branch, or the trees are dead from neglect.” Preeminent, reported the paper, was that “The Wolfskill orchard is cut up into lots and the orange trees are converted into firewood.”

Early in the new year, the Los Angeles Express recorded that “ground about the site of the Southern Pacific’s magnificent new passenger depot on the Wolfskill Orchard tract was found strewn with material” including five cars of corrugated glass, eight cars of iron, five flat cars of lumber, seven cars of stone masonry, and girders, beams, trusses and pillars delivered and awaiting construction. The paper expressed confidence that “ere another autumn comes around the city may boast possession of one of the finest depot buildings west of Chicago.”

At the end of January 1888, the Herald published a letter by “A New Yorker,” who informed the paper that, in 1874, he first visited Los Angeles “then an original Mexican town of adobe with a goodly sprinkling of Americans and their improvements; but [it was] a quiet and listless country town.” Returning during the boom, though, the writer gushed:

What is my surprise in visiting here now! I find one of the most thriving cities in America—beautiful buildings, elegant homes, the pink of fashion, and streets filled with people from the four quarters of the globe.

I strolled to the Santa Fe depot, along the river, and returned through the Wolfskill orchard tract, a place that then filled me with wonder and delight. Trees by the thousand, filled with golden oranges, interspersed with [the] most beautiful orange blossoms—enough bridal wreaths for New York City marriages for a year. Then it was beautiful. Now what a change! The trees cut down to make streets . . . surveyors working everywhere, and, not least, an immense structure under way for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company’s depot . . .making it the liveliest portion of Los Angeles City. All of the pueblo’s beauty is passing away with this tide of improvement. Only a few spots are left to remind one of the former Los Angeles, and in a few years we will not know the place that we visited with so much pleasure fourteen years ago.

The Arcade Depot was finished in September 1888 and, two months later, the Express referred to the late orchard as the “pride of Los Angeles” being that it was “carefully cultivated and yielded a royal revenue” with William Wolfskill at one time having 2,000 orange trees and 60,000 grapevines, along with other fruit.

What gave way to that project and other development on the tract, in addition to the very productive orange trees, was the adobe house built by William Wolfskill and lived in by his family until just prior to the subdivision of the property. One of the three featured 1880s photos from the museum’s collection for this post, a cabinet card view, shows the well-maintained single-story dwelling with its substantial covered porch, an interesting arbor at the left, and portions of the garden, including roses, what look like sage, a trailing vine growing at the outside of the center of the porch, calla lillies and other plants. The view is rather remarkable when one compares the country-like atmosphere to the heavily industrialized environment that is there now (or what would be there in a matter of just a few years from the time the photo was taken.)

The other pair of images, both stereoscopic views, show just how remarkably fertile the orchard, now covered with asphalt and cement, was, as the orange trees, well over four decades old, towering at perhaps up to 20 or so feet, estimated, of course, by comparing them to the two men shown in between the rows of the giant citrus. All one needs to do to compare and contrast the landscape then and now is go down to Alameda Street at the intersection of Fourth Street and see just how dramatically different the locale is now!

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