“Nature Has Done Everything For It, And Man Very Little”: A Description of Greater Los Angeles in the New-York Semi-Weekly Times, 8 November 1867, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This second and final part of a post covering the lengthy and very interesting correspondence sent from Los Angeles by minister and child welfare advocate Charles Loring Brace and published by the 8 November 1867 issue of the New-York Semi-Weekly Times turns towards his visits with three prominent agriculturists in greater Los Angeles—Benjamin D. Wilson, Mathew Keller and either Pierre or Jean Louis Sainsevain—with the lion’s share devoted to the former.

As noted in the first part, Brace made the nine-mile trip out to Wilson’s Lake Vineyard estate in what is now San Marino and observed that “his vineyard contains 300,000 vines,” about triple the number found at William Workman’s vineyard at Rancho La Puente, where the Homestead is today, and added that they were “mostly of the Mission grape, wide-planted and low-pruned.” Moreover, it was stated that, because of the climate, “especially near the city,” these vineyards had to be irrigated. In Workman’s case, water was drawn from the adjacent San José Creek, now a flood control channel directly south of the Museum.

A circa 1870 stereoscopic photograph from the Museum’s collection labeled “town and orange grove, Los Angelos [sic], Cal.” and showing the north end of Calle de los Negros, today Los Angeles Street, with orange groves east of Alameda Street about where Union Station now is situated.

Brace continued that Wilson generated some 20,000 gallons of wine from a 20-acre portion, while the entirety of the vineyard produced 100,000. A white wine of some five years vintage was considered to be “a very fair table wine” and the going rate was about 35 to 40 cents a gallon. Beyond this, the correspondent wrote, “we saw here a beautiful grove of orange trees” which, with its soft, dark green leaves on lighter green branches, constituted “the richest foliage to be seen in nature.”

These were set twenty feet apart and bore fruit after some eight to ten years are planting, with a full-grown specimen reaching up to 40 feet in height. It was added that twenty of these produced $1,200 a year, a handsome sum, and that there were some 2,000 trees and almost as many lemons in the grove. Brace recorded that “there is a great demand on this coast for lemons, even in the mining region, and when the demand is satisfied they can convert the juice to citric acid.”

A later photo of Charles Loring Brace, taken not long before his death in 1890, from a biography

While lemons never got anywhere near the attention of its much more glamorous citrus cousin, Brace spent some time discussing the cultivation of the fruit at Lake Vineyard, stating that the fruit was valued at thee cents each and a tree yielded up to $60 annually—which correlated to the figure given above for those twenty orange trees. Lemons were easily to grow from cuttings and bore in six to eight years and, while it was noted that there were varieties from Sicily and China, “the last, however, is considered almost worthless” because the fruit was bright orange and had a rough skin and was so sour and almost flavorless.

The distance of both lemon and orange trees was such that it served “to give the matured tree full scope” and no manure was required. Ripening of the fruit began in December and continued for half a year through May, but Brace observed that “their enemies are the gophers, who gnaw the trunk near the ground,” as well as an insect that left “a glutinous matter” on the leaves. Still, he accounted that rising the citrus fruits was relatively simple.

Another early view of Los Angeles showing the older section of town with mostly single-story adobe houses, one two-story structure, likely the Sisters of Charity building, and the rural sections nearby.

A notable comment from the author was that “the original Los Angeles oranges are said to have come from the Sandwich Island [Hawaii] orange, but as usually happens here the California seed and fruit prove better than the original.” While not specified in the article, the first commercial orange grove in California was planted in 1841 by William Wolfskill in what is now a gritty industrial area along the Los Angeles River between Alameda and San Pedro streets, west to east, and from 2nd to 7th streets, north to south.

Brace added that “it is estimates [sic] that there are 5,000 fruit-bearing orange trees in the valley” but there were 135,000 that were in the maturation stage and 200,000 more new plants, a testament to just how dramatically land use was changing from the stock raising on large ranchos to intensive agriculture on smaller farms and estates. With regard to lemons, there were 500 that bore fruit, 2,500 that were maturing and 35,000 planted just the past spring, while it was reported that the Wolfskill orange grove was expected to yield 600,000 oranges in the current season.

There was a prospective problems, however, as the writer commented that

the tendency in California is always to overdo any particular branch, and Los Angeles, alone, will overglut the market with these fruits.

Other trees viewed on Wilson’s place were limes, “which the children had sold $16 worth” even though the trees were found to be loaded with fruit. These were developed from seed and became fruit-bearing in half a decade, with Brace noting that there were 400 mature trees in the valley, 7,000 in the maturing stage, and 5,000 recently planted. Figs, of which there were two crops in June and August, were planted from cuttings and bore in just two years. Of these, there were 3,500, with double that number maturing and another 10,000 set out in spring.

Lake Vineyard and other nearby properties also had English walnuts, almonds and olives. The first was deemed “a beautiful shade tree” that matured in seven years and from which “there is always a good demand.” Almonds brought nuts within six years at 35 cents a pound “and can be exported to any part of the world,” though the tree was susceptible to a root fungus that spread through the tree. As for olives, the tree “ripens beautifully,” with the fruit pressed for oil “so that olive oil will become another of the many exports of this rich and fertile valley,” though, later, the center of the industry was in Sylmar in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

While Brace added that there were many fruits that did well “in this delicious climate,” including apples, cherries, peaches, pears “and even the palm,” this latter introduced by the Spanish in the 18th century and which became ubiquitous in the region, he opined that the environment “is unfortunately unsuited alone to wheat,” with “the sea fogs and hot sun causing rust.” Yet, Workman had 5,000 acres of the crop at La Puente and, in 1868, built his mill a few miles west of his house, while Isaac Van Nuys and his son-in-law Isaac Lankershim would soon buy a large part of the San Fernando Valley and successfully raise wheat there.

Corn was also noted as a widespread crop, as was “among the strange variety of vegetable products which await the energy of Americans in this favored region,” the castor bean. These, Brace recorded, were planted in groups of two or tree on hillsides and then thinned to one and “require no more work tan corn, and will yield often thirty of forty bushels to the acre.” At a yield of 1,500 pounds per acre, generating some 75 gallons of oil at $2.50 per gallon, a return of $187 an acre was deemed a decent amount.

One of the most invasive and damaging introduced plants from the Spanish era was mustard, but Brace, after reporting that “all the fields and hills around Los Angeles are covered with” the plant, noted that “this produces an excellent mustard, better, many assert, than the European.” This, he concluded meant that “this will eventually be cut by reapers and harvested with great profit,” but it does not appear that any attempt to commercially develop the black mustard that is pervasive in the region took place.

Another dramatic change with the use of ranch land came with Brace’s comment that “immense sheep ranches, too, occupy the apparently barren plain and hills without [outside] the city,” though he added that “the terrible drought of 1863 [and 1864] cut off great numbers of cattle here, which used to sprinkle the heights.” Workman slaughtered some 2,000 cattle during the drought, as recalled by his grandson John H. Temple, and the dire days, Brace continued, “had the effect of breaking up some of the large ranches, as the owners were reduced to poverty, and were forced to sell their land.” He cited an example of “a Yankee Don” who had 50,000 head on a 250,000-acre ranch, “which was thus broken up and sold.”

In the mid-Sixties, just before this article was published, James Irvine acquired land in southeast Los Angeles County (more than two decades later part of the new Orange County) and stocked it with sheep, while Flint, Bixby and Company purchased Jonathan Temple’s Rancho Los Cerritos, in present Long Beach and surrounding areas, paying well under a dollar per acre and grazed the animals there. At Rancho La Puente, Workman turned over some land west of the Homestead to his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple for a sheep raising operation with Norwegian Andrew Kittilson (who was later an early rancher in Menifee in Riverside County.)

Brace then mentioned that he visited the vineyards of Keller and Sainsevain, who each were slated to produce some 100,000 gallons of wine that season. The former was deemed “an exceedingly intelligent vine-grower” who experimented with a method “of heating the strong wines, after the vinous fermentation, in order to preserve them.” Keller produced a Madeira that was heated, the writer thought, at some 113 degrees, though Brace expressed “fear [concerning] the effect of this process on the flavor.”

Also mentioned was an Angelica brandy was a combination of one gallon of brandy with three gallons of grape juice, with the former preventing fermentation, while another method involving boiling the juice to limit that process, putting the material in barrels and racking it once or twice for clarity. The visitor added, “it is really thus a liquor and not a wine.” With port, the grapes, skins and stalks were pressed and after the product was “half-fermented,” it was then placed into casks. At times, brandy was introduced, again to keep fermentation from taking place, though mostly there was so much alcohol content that the use of brandy was limited. After adding that elderberry juice was not added, as in Portugal, the writer expressed the view that “all this class of wines in California are poor and very alcoholic.”

Brace did offer that Keller’s No. 4 white wine “is one of the best white wines here,” though he was less complimentary of the “Cocomango” wine “made on a Spanish vineyard,” at Rancho Cucamonga, soon owned by Isaias W. Hellman, who opened, in 1868, Los Angeles’ second bank with Temple and Workman, “commands a high price, but it is not a remarkable wine.” Keller did decently with sherry, though not comparable to that of New York, while Brace added that “no red wine in California has been produced equal to that made . . . by the Germans in Wisconsin.” He then continued,

The Los Angeles wines are not equal on the whole to the Sonoma, and all the arrangements of their vineyards are inferior. Their cellars are much poorer. A German settlement a little South, on a much inferior soil, has already surpassed them in a white wine—the Arraheim, which is a light, pure table wine.

Of course, Brace meant, by this last sentence, the community of Anaheim, established a decade earlier by a colonist society of Germans who came down from San Francisco to plant their vineyards west of the Santa Ana River. While the Mission grape was grown extensively, Sainsevain “is already introducing foreign varieties with great success,” so that most winemakers were soured on the Mission. The French-born vintner operating just outside downtown on the west side of the Los Angeles river was praised for the Black Hamburg, Malaga and Muscat grapes he raised.

Noting the shift of emphasis on wine-making to the north, Brace stated that “the first wines from California are to be made yet from grapes grown on the volcanic soil of the Foot Hills” of that area, which could rival such favored European vineyards along the Rhine in Germany or the Theiss (Tisza) of Hungary and neighboring countries. In fact, German-born Emil Dresel’s Muscatel, made in Sonoma but not yet placed on the market, was the best of the white wines sampled by the writer, with a hock from the Germans at Anaheim his second choice, followed by Keller’s No. 4 and Wilson’s product.

Aside from Keller’s Madeira, which “seems the best of the strong wines,” Brace cautioned that “the red wines, in general, are not worth drinking; and all the strong wines, such as sherry, port, angelica, &c., are to be guarded against, as either branded, adulterated, or otherwise perverted.” He concluded that vineyards in the San Jose area were not yet producing any decent wine and those of Napa and “Petahoma” [Petaluma] were not adjudged worthy, though he reported that there was a red wine in Sonoma “which may yet be equal to Burgundy.”

Brace’s expansive article is notable for its views of a less-than-impressive Angel City, as well as its in-depth analysis of the citrus and grape-raising activities of such prominent agriculturists as Keller, Sainsevain and Wilson at a time when greater Los Angeles was on the cusp of its first boom.

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