by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In a presentation this evening to the Chino Hills Historical Society, the topic was Margaret Brewer Fowler (1863-1931), a remarkable figure in regional philanthropy whose life also entailed some amazing changes in fortune as well as heart-rending tragedy. Her story is one that involves an impressive portfolio of projects and leadership, most of which involved young people, during the first few decades of the 20th century and her legacy continues principally through two major enterprises: Boys Republic in Chino Hills and Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare in Pomona.
Fowler was born in Oakland, California to Margaret Abernathy and John H. Brewer with her father a prominent judge in that Bay Area city. From a young age, she showed a notable independence and drive which was manifested, for example, in her decision to go to Hawai’i where she remained for most of about a dozen years as a teacher and principal at the Kawaihao Seminary, Punahou School and Honolulu, now McKinley, High School. She was also involved in women’s organizations and other community enterprises during her years there.
Fowler, in her mid-thirties, was engaged to Dr. Jared K. Smith, a doctor on the island of Kaua’i whose parents were among the cadre of American missionaries to Hawai’i with Smith born there and following his father into medicine. Smith, who was the Republic of Hawaii (his brother William, an attorney general for the short-lived independent nation, was a key figure in the revolution that overthrew the monarchy, though he later wrote the will for the deposed Queen Lili’uokalani) Board of Health agent for Kaua’i, purportedly recommended that Kapea Ka’ahea, a young Hawaiian man be sent to the leper colony at Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i.
On 24 September 1897, the 20-year old man approached Smith’s house as the doctor was writing a letter to Margaret Brewer, who was then visiting her family in Oakland, and, when the door was opened, shot the physician point blank in the chest killing him instantly. Studies of the incident question much about what happened with a confession, trial, conviction and execution of Ka’ahea calling the situation a tragedy for the two families involved. A devastated Brewer could not return to Hawai’i and, instead, went to New York University to pursue studies at its school of pedagogy, completing a master’s degree, a very rare achievement for a woman, in 1899.
She also found employment as a tutor and governess in Detroit for the young daughter of Eldridge M. Fowler, a wealthy lumber and mining magnate with extensive interests in Michigan, Minnesota, Canada and the Pacific Coast and whose brother-in-law was Cyrus McCormick, owner of the very successful farm machinery and implements company, of which Fowler was a director. The widower, who was 30 years older than Brewer, observed her with his daughter, Kate, and was smitten with her intelligence and close relationship with the girl.
When Fowler and his daughter moved to “Millionaire’s Row” on South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena at the start of the 20th century for the benefit of his health, a very common reason for migrants to the balmy environs of greater Los Angeles, Brewer came with them. On 26 September 1903, Fowler and Brewer were married at a New York City hotel and the Los Angeles Times of three days later reported that “their marriage has come as considerable of a surprise to their friends.” The bride was described as “a woman of youth [she was, however, 40] and beauty and acted for a number of years as his housekeeper.”
Just over a year later, after spending several months with his new wife and daughter, Fowler’s health worsened considerably and it was a “race with death” as he was rushed back by train across the United States after an attack of paralysis. “Barely kept alive long enough to reach his home” in the Crown City, Fowler died in late September 1904 at the age of 71. Some reports accounted him on the richest persons on the planet, worth some $35 million, while articles about the will only stated that he was worth “many millions” and property in California amounted to some $5 million.
The widow received a half million in cash and “valuable real estate,” while the bulk of the property was to go to Kate, who was then 16 years old. It may be somewhat of a surprise that the close bond between the two continued on as they were collaborators on a great many philanthropic endeavors over the next quarter-century or so. Among these was a handsome bequest for a large addition to the Pasadena city hospital, an institution Eldridge Fowler supported before his passing.
The two women also founded the Young Woman’s Club in that city as a means to assist females in developing themselves through education and they were also heavily involved in the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA), with Margaret Fowler having a prominent national, as well as local, role in the organization. She also was a major supporter of the California Institute of Technology, Occidental College and Pomona College, and, when it was established in the mid-1920s, Scripps College, the women’s educational institution at the Claremont Colleges, where she endowed a garden and a small chapel.
When it was decided to establish a regional branch of the George Junior Republic for troubled boys, Fowler joined Judge Curtis Wilbur, who was Secretary of the Navy in the 1920s, in incorporating and funding the institution, which began in 1907 a railroad-built boomtime hotel at San Fernando. Quickly, it was realized that much more space was needed, so Fowler arranged for the purchase of a large tract on the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, west of the town of that name, and George Junior Republic moved there.
Fowler and her step-daughter provided tens of thousands of additional dollars for dormitories and an administration building and were simply essential to the support of the institution, particularly in its earliest days. So devoted was Fowler to the cause of what became California Junior Republic and then Boys Republic that she decided, by the mid-1910s, to build a second home on the campus. Designed, as many early structures there were, by renowned architect Myron Hunt, Casa Colina (House on the Hill) appears to have cost some $50,000, a princely sum for far-flung Chino and was completed just before America’s entry in World War One.
During that horrendous conflict, Fowler demonstrated her commitment to the YWCA by spending the better part of two years, from 1918 to 1920, working with the French branch and helping American soldiers. When she returned, Casa Colina became a frequent host site for functions by many groups with which Fowler was aligned and involved, including state conference of social work leaders, international YWCA figures, and local representations from the American Association of University Women.
Through the Roaring Twenties, Fowler (Kate married, had children and lived in New York, though she remained involved generally in causes espoused by her stepmother along with her own interests) continued her deep involvement with Boys Republic, along with the YWCA and many others. In 1927, Pomona College, because of her involvement at Scripps, bestowed an honorary master’s degree on her and President James A. Blaisdell paid tribute calling Fowler a
Lady of overflowing good-will; unsparing of personal comfort and ease; devoted to all need; like all greatest benefactors you have prized intelligence as the guide of generosity . . . [are a] friend of all effort to establish character and knowledge.
It appears she spent increasingly more time at Casa Colina in her later years, if her enumeration there for the 1930 census is a guide. When she died there on 13 July 1931, after a half-year of illness, the Pomona Progress-Bulletin called her the “godmother” of Boys Republic and added that “thru her many benefactions and lovable disposition Mrs. Fowler developed a wide circle of friends in many parts of the country.” As for her country house, it was called “one of the show places of the Chino valley.”
The Pasadena Post observed that “during a lifetime devoted to charity and education, Mrs. Fowler gained national fame” and, in addition to the aforementioned roles, it noted that “for supporting a secretary in a foreign field,” though who was not stated, she “was made a member of the World Service Council of America.”
It took some time for a decision to be made concerning Casa Colina and an early proposal was to have it be something of a branch of the Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles and an early 1934 article in the Chino Champion mentioned discussions towards that end, as Kate Merle-Smith contemplated donating the house for the purpose. While this idea was dropped, a new one came up two years later in the form of the Frances Eleanor Smith Memorial Home for Crippled Children, to be named for a Claremont woman who was named a national mother of the year in 1936.
The idea then was to purchase Casa Colina, restore the grounds “to their former state of beauty and usefulness” and have the home be “a modern, scientifically conducted convalescent home for crippled children.” By the end of the year, however, it was decided to call the enterprise, on 7 1/2 acres donated by the Boys Republic directors, the Casa Colina Convalescent Home for Crippled Children and eleven trustees were elected when incorporation was finalized, among them Smith, Dr. L. Lincoln Wirt (a major figure early in its development,) nurse Mildred Riese, board president Edwin Rhodes, a prominent figure in Chino, and Whittier resident Kenyon Scudder, who several years later became an innovative warden at the new prison at Chino. Also of note was that the New Deal program, the National Youth Authority, was to help with the renovation of the buildings and grounds, said to have been neglected since Fowler’s death five years prior.
While it was alternately reported that work had begun and then was said to have not, there were fits and starts in 1937. An opening date was slated for May, but, while some rehabilitation work was conducted, further fund raising was required, with $30,000 acquired to push the project through the completion. More than a year went by, but, finally, in late October 1938, the facility admitted, at least, its first patient, 13-year-old Stanley Root of Fresno and room for 50 children (two to a room) was provided, with some of these including those who had no ability to pay.
Treatment was referred to as physiotherapeutical, including the extensive use of baths and physical exercises. A San Diego woman, Rhoda Roberts, handled the therapy with Smith was the “house mother” and the goal was to make the environment more like home and less like an institution. The living quarters, the landscaping and the modern program of rehabilitation were all featured in press coverage.
After nearly twenty years as the convalescent facility and forty years after its construction, it was determined that the Casa Colina building was deteriorating and beyond reasonable repair, so the trustees found a location in Pomona that was formerly the ranch of Frederick J. Smith, who happened to be the owner of the Homestead from 1899 to 1903. As polio was eradicated, a change in emphasis to those recovering from injuries, accidents and other diseases was undertaken and the first patients moved from Chino in 1960 and the facility has remained there for over six decades.
Margaret Brewer Fowler was one of the most prominent women philanthropists in greater Los Angeles for about a quarter century from roughly 1905 to 1930, a period of enormous growth in the region, but also an era of great challenge for troubled youth, children with disabilities and other needs that she and her stepdaughter sought to address. The Casa Colina house, gardens and outbuildings are long gone, but Boys Republic, after 115 years, is still going strong, as is the hospital in Pomona—these remain her chief legacy alone with her educational support.