“The Old Customs and Happy, Care-Free Days Have Passed Away”: Mattie Laura Jodon’s “The Old Puente Rancho” in The Land of Sunshine, May 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, there was plenty of romantic writing about California from Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel Ramona to other books, magazine articles and other productions that tended to follow an increasingly well-worn interpretive path about the decay and decline of the Spanish and Mexican eras and the passing away of a simpler, more innocent and happier time once the American period took hold.

There was a ready audience for much of this, especially as the American economy grew rapidly, a burgeoning middle class arose, and many of these folks took advantage of transportation improvements to take trips to the Golden State and see the ruins of missions and myriad adobes all purporting to be Ramona’s birthplace and much else.

Naturally, much of what passed off as authentic history was cloaked in these depictions and almost always fostered by Anglos, many of whom were recent arrivals in California, while those increasingly few Spanish-speaking Californios left from the pre-American days generally did not have their recollections told, except some interviewed for Hubert Howe Bancroft or the occasional reminiscences of people like Antonio Franco Coronel.

Mattie Laura Jodon, line 23, enumerated at Pasadena in the 1900 federal census.

In some cases, as with Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California, the older Californios were viewed as relics, not unlike the remaining buildings from before 1850, and it was said that tourists sometimes had the former chief executive pointed out as they passed the modest Los Angeles house where he lived with a daughter after losing his Ranchito near Whittier to foreclosure on what was a travesty of justice.

Coronel and Pico both died in 1894 and it was a few years afterward that Martha “Mattie” Laura Jodon (1862-1950) came to Los Angeles with her widowed mother. Born in Boscobel, Wisconsin west of Madison near the Wisconsin River and the border with Iowa to Sophia Glover and George W. Jodon, a carpenter and then later a real estate agent, Jodon was the eldest of four children. After finishing her education at Minneapolis, Minnesota, she became a teacher, including after her father died in 1888.

Victoria Rowland Hudson and her family and servants, including a Chinese cook, line 79-85, at the Rowland House in the 1900 census.

It was about 1897 when Jodon, a brother and their mother settled in Pasadena. In very short order, she penned an article called “The Old Puente Rancho” for The Land of Sunshine, one of the first literary magazines in Los Angeles and published by Charles F. Lummis, one of the more fascinating figures in the region during the late 19th and early 20th century. Jodon was a talented illustrator who drew, based almost certainly on a much earlier photo, the Temple family adobe house at Rancho La Merced. So, it may have been her interest in sketching historic buildings that took her to Puente and to a visit at the Rowland House.

She began her essay with an impression of the environment (though a bit of better editing was also needed):

Two great fan palms like sentinels [line?] either side [of] the driveway; a long avenue bordered by giant eucalyptus trees; on either side, glossy, dark-green orange orchards, loaded with brilliant yellow fruit; and above the avenue, beyond green hills and fertile valleys, the blue Sierra Madre [San Gabriel Mountains] crowned by the snow peak of San Antonio [Mount Baldy.]

Such is the picture that greets one at first view of the historic old La Puente Rancho.

Jodon continued that the history of the ranch could not be distinguished from that of the county, though she erred in saying that “in 1841 John Rowland, living near Santa Fé, in what was then Old Mexico [as was California], obtained from the Mexican government a grant of 48,000 acres in this valley . . .” The grant was actually made in April 1842 after Rowland arrived in this region, but Jodon then wrote, “a company of 300 people was organized by Mr. Rowland, came overland in wagons.” This, too, was not the case. There were no wagons, with some riding mules and others walking, and the group was far smaller, perhaps about 65, though there was a regular trading caravan not far ahead.

Also questionable was the next statement that:

To have a white man for a neighbor, Mr. Rowland offered to give William Workman, his former partner in Mexico, one half of the land if he would settle near him. The offer was accepted, and soon the two adobe homes were built, about a quarter of a mile apart, near the San José creek, in the center of the valley.

For one thing, Rowland was married to a Latina and, for nearly twenty years, lived among Mexicans and Indians in Taos, and, while Workman did settle on the ranch, there is no knowledge about any offer of half the land if Workman chose to live at La Puente. Workman chose a spot for a house and, while Rowland returned to New Mexico to retrieve his family, built his adobe residence that summer. When Rowland came back to this area at the end of 1842, he had to wait for warmer weather to build his adobe house and, while it was close to Workman’s house, as Jodon indicated, it was hardly in the center of the San Gabriel Valley, if that’s what she meant.

Jodon continued by stating that the two men built mills on the creek, but Rowland’s was first, being completed about 1847, while Workman’s facility was not constructed for about twenty years afterward. The story that millstones were brought with them from New México may be true, though, if so, the weight must have been significant for the animals carrying them. In 1924, one of the Rowlands ploughing farmland near the creek unearthed two millstones, presumably from the first mill, which Walter P. Tempe bought and later installed as part of the fountain in the courtyard of his Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, La Casa Nueva.

Jodon then wrote of the corn raised for grinding at the mills, of vineyards producing grapes made on-site into wine and brandy, of wool spin into cloth and “even cotton enough was raised for domestic use,” though this, too is questionable (Workman did experiment with cotton during the Civil War years in case a market, replacing what was lost in the South during that terrible conflict, was possible).

It was the case, as she noted, that “the main occupation . . . was stock raising” as “thousands of head of cattle, horses and sheep [these latter really came later] grazed on the sloping hills or in the green valleys.” When it came to labor, the author observed,

Indian labor was cheap . . . three hundred Indians were employed on each place as vaqueros and laborers.

The Indians lived by themselves on the border of the creek, in a rancheria of tules and corn stalks. When one of them was taken sick it was the custom to take him to a very small mud hut, shaped like an oven, with an aperture just large enough to admit a man. The sick person would crawl into this oven, which had been heated, and envelope himself tightly, including his head, in a large blanket, until he perspired freely. Then he would leave the hut and plunge into the cold waters of the creek, from which he immediately emerged, dressed himself, and was apparently as well as ever. There was a large open space near the rancheria where they used to play “peon” and other Indian games.

So little is known about the indigenous people of the La Puente area and this account by Jodon is remarkable, though we don’t know what the source of her information was.

A circa 1870s photo of the Rowland House reproduced for the Jodon article.

She then turned to the Rowland House, writing that “in 1855, Mr. Rowland built a fine two-story red brick mansion with an attic for servants’ rooms, which at that time was the finest house in Southern California.” She added that the brick (from early Los Angeles manufacturer Joseph Mullally) was made on site and noted “the architecture was much like that of old-time Southern mansions,” this perhaps a reflection of the fact that Rowland’s second wife Charlotte (his first wife, Encarnación Martinez, died in 1851) was from the Deep South, though he was from Maryland where Neoclassical houses on plantations were also quite common.

Jodon recorded that there were “wide piazzas across the front, large white pillars reaching to the roof, and a hall running through the house from the front to back” while “the back porch filled all the space between two wings of the house, making a sort of court across which the servants passed with smoking dishes from the cook room (detached from the house) to the rear dining room where the [working] men ate, or to the large front dining room devoted to the family and their guests.” The detached kitchen, still extant, was actually made from adobe bricks salvaged from the first house across the creek on its north side.

Jodon’s drawing of the house from 1898.

Completing her description of what is almost certainly the oldest surviving brick building in our region, Jodon added that “the rooms were large and cheerful, nearly every one being furnished with a fire-place. The house faced [still does!] the east, and from the upper porches one could look out over cornfields, vineyards and orchards, valleys and hills where the cattle grazed, to the noble mountains.” A to visitors, she suggested that “most of the people of note in the early history of Southern California” were entertained there and could stay as long as they wished, while having fresh horses exchanged for tired steeds.

With the onset of the Gold Rush and the lucrative trade in fresh beef, the writer noted that a yearly cattle drive to the teeming fields meant that “Mr. Rowland returned with large sums of money” and, because he would not take the funds to Los Angeles “for deposit [with a merchant? as there were no banks until 1868]” the rancher “usually buried it in some safe place.” She told a story of Rowland returned with thousands of dollars and secreted the money in his vineyard, only to have two young sons unearth the cash and hide it elsewhere, demanding $20 each for its return when the chagrined patriarch discovered what transpired.

With respect to ranching, Jodon also related that “the great event of the year was the rounding-up of the cattle for the branding,” during which “all was life and activity, and a general gathering of friends and neighbors.” While the daylight hours were filled with important work, “at night the guitar was produced, and laughter, song and dance held sway. Bringing her account to a close, the author stated,

But times change and we with them. The old customs and happy, care-free days have passed away. Mr. Rowland and Mr. Workman have slept for many years n the quiet little graveyard beside the quaint private chapel [St. Nicholas’, named for Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, and completed about 1860] built by Mr. Workman on the ranch. Even the chapel is falling into ruin.

Notably, Jodon recorded that “several years ago an earthquake cracked the brick walls of told house so badly that it was deemed unsafe to live in [any] longer.” She added that a new house was constructed and was occupied by the family of Victoria Rowland, daughter of John and Charlotte, her husband Josiah W. Hudson and their trio of teenaged children, so that “the home around which clung so many memories was deserted.”

Consequently, she concluded, “there is stands . . . an adobe for bats and birds” while “the bees have taken residence there and turned the white pillars of the porch into a receptacle for their sweets [this has happened in recent years, too!].” Finally, “the roses have climbed to the very roof, holding the old house in a loving embrace, hiding its defects in mindful foliage and blossoms.”

It is known that the Hudsons remodeled and renovated the house, however, at about that time, so that, by the time the 1900 census was enumerated, the family were residing in it. In any case, Jodon’s article, whatever the level of veracity, is a very interesting and informative one and, apparently, the earliest published piece on the Rowland House, which approaches its 170th anniversary, but has long been closed to the public, with the exception of a very rare tour. Jodon, who remained a teacher for some years, became a society page editor for newspapers in Pasadena and Pomona, published occasional articles in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, married in her early fifties and then a second time after soon becoming widows and lived in Pomona until her death.

Let’s hope this remarkable residence, owned by the Historical Society of the La Puente Valley, will someday soon host history lovers and others with the hospitality Jodon attributed to its original owners and that we’ll see “its doors swung open alike to friend or stranger journeying through the country.”

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