“Angels in Overalls”: Working the Land in Sunset Magazine, March 1912, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While greater Los Angeles continued its aggressive expansion in successive booms in the first few decades of 20th century and much of it was focused on oil, the movies, real estate and heavy industry, agriculture still remained a major force in the regional economy. Boosterism was key to advertising and promoting growth with its encouragement of the migration of entrepreneurs, corporations and workers to the area, including through such media as newspapers and magazines.

Today Sunset is a publication that focuses on homes and gardens, food and travel in what it calls “the Western lifestyle,” though it has evolved significantly, as one might expect, over its history, dating to 1898. The Southern Pacific Railroad established the magazine, named for the transportation giant’s “Sunset Limited” train which plied the route from San Francisco to New Orleans (including by way of Los Angeles and surrounding areas), to entice tourists.

The earliest found reference to Woehlke in Los Angeles for a piece written in the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, 3 January 1909

Before the railroad sold the magazine in 1914, a Portland, Oregon magazine called the Pacific Monthly was acquired and the combined publication, starting at the beginning of 1912, was officially known as Sunset, the Pacific Monthly. The editor was Charles K. Field and the business manager was William Woodhead—these two acquired the magazine from the Southern Pacific—while the associate editor was Lillian Ferguson, who was a reporter for the William Randolph Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner before she joined Sunset.

A prolific writer for the magazine for many years was Walter V. Woehlke (1881-1954), who was born in Hanover, Germany and came to the United States as a teenager. He found work with the German-language newspaper, the New York Staats Zeitung, but was also fluent in spoken and written in English. In 1905, he came west to do research for articles for that paper and, as so many Germans were, became fascinated with this part of America.

An early reference to Woehlke’s work for Sunset, Times, 24 December 1910.

Over the next several years, Woehlke wrote for several publications, including The World To-Day, Saturday Evening Post, The New Age and The Outlook and local newspapers, including the San Bernardino Index and the Los Angeles Times, and much of his material concerned agriculture. His first published piece for Sunset came with the Christmas 1909 edition and, while he was enumerated in the 1910 census as a resident of Santa Monica, residing there with his wife and young daughter, he very soon went north to become secretary for owners of the magazine and later became its managing editor.

His feature contribution for the March 1912 issue of Sunset, a copy of which in the Homestead’s collection, is “Angels in Overalls,” which might just have the longest subtitle in the magazine’s long history: “Being a True and Veracious Account of Workaday Life in the Angelic Region, Together with an Exposition of the Manners and Methods by Which the Inhabitants of the Angel City Boosted the Demand for Jumpers and Jeans, and an Attempt to Show that Bellboys, Millionaires, Hotel Clerks and Tourists have No Exclusive Entry into the Aforesaid Realm.”

Woehlke began his essay by relating an anecdote about a young man from Connecticut who, enticed by movie depictions, corresponded with an agent of a railroad company to inquire about a job as a cowboy, only to be told that such jobs were relics of a long-ago past, but suggested he consider migrating to pick olives and oranges. He then quoted a visitor from New York who exclaimed that, with Los Angeles, “climate, climate, all is climate—and real estate,” while wondering “why do you built such large department store and so many of them?” and concluded that they couldn’t possibly make a profit.

Before we progress too much further into Woehlke’s piece, it should be noted that, after the 1907 national depression, another boom was underway in greater Los Angeles and, in the central and eastern San Gabriel Valley, the 1909 death of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who amassed tens of thousands of acres largely from his foreclosure of an 1875 loan to the bank of Temple and Workman and his reaping the benefit a few years later, opened up large tracts for farmers and developers, including the agricultural community of North Whittier Heights, now Hacienda Heights, of which more in Monday’s post.

The next anecdote in the article concerned a recent New York transplant, wiped out by the depression of several years back, but who had a 20-acre citrus grove southwest of the Angel City, on which he resided in “a spacious two-story mansion [which] rises out of the evergreen, odious foliage.” It was noted that the spouse, formerly “a butterfly of fashion,” of this gent actually managed the grove and “she built the house out of the ranch profits.”

Woehlke wrote that he came across the “reformed Wall Street broker” on Broadway, where much of the retail business in Los Angeles was transacted, and found the man carrying a half-dozen opera records, at $3 a pop and who complained that “a carload of fancy fruit [was] left in there!” and that “it’s horrible the way money flies” so that he was worried about paying for his grove’s fertilizer. Here was a microcosm of the intersection of the high value cash crops of the citrus industry and the growing consumer culture of a massive expanding middle class at the time.

Next, the author turned to a retired minister, who found that, after 25 years of service in Congregational churches, had but $2,500 to his name, as well as lung trouble. So, with his wife and four children, the former pastor purchased an 11-acre lemon orchard, with a $5,000 mortgage. It was asserted that, after rehabilitating the grove, the gent had, within four years, saved enough money to take a European vacation and, two years after that, purchased a 30-horsepower touring sedan—this on just 11 acres.

Acknowledging that these were exceptional examples, Woehlke averred that they were not rare and that there were many others, even allowing for the inevitable number of those who failed, who constituted “the backbone of the back country whose prosperity and growth accounts, in part, for the number and size of the Los Angeles department stores.” While it took some capital to pay for the water—and the Los Angeles Aqueduct was about a year-and-a-half from coming on line which the Colorado River project more than two decades off—as well as the pesticides and other operating costs, good profits could generally be had by many citrus growers.

Small in area combined with the vast prairies of the Midwest, greater Los Angeles’ agricultural sections had “a deeper, more fertile soil, with a growing season twice and thrice as long as that of the Middle West, with intensive methods of cultivation. The author observed that, while oranges and, to a lesser extent, lemons and grapefruit, constituted the largest segment of local agriculture, “the citrus tree is but one of fifty-seven varieties [of crops] that flourish upon the 24-karat land.”

Highlighted for its rarity was the lima bean, which Woehlke wrote was only produced in coastal areas near Los Angeles and in Madagascar, the large island off the coast of East Africa. It had the advantage of not requiring much water and relied on fog for its sustenance and, after planting in the spring, harvesting was ready to transpire before autumn. The writer recorded that many areas where the bean was raised were formerly devoted to barley, with prices of the land rising from up to $80 to some $500 an acre. At 1600 pounds of yield per acre and at four cents a pound, while factoring in $30 an acre for operating costs, it was stated that net income was $40 per acre.

A featured area in the article, though Ventura County’s coastal plains (probably in and around Oxnard) was also mentioned, was the 110,000 ranch owned by the Irvine family and identified as being the “San Joaquin Rancho.” It was recorded that much of the land, farmed by tenants who yielded a portion of the crops to the owner, was devoted to barley and corn until “ten years ago the owner refused to lease any part of his level land unless the renter agreed to plant at least one-eighth of the area in lima beans,” this increased the next year to 25%.

While some tenants quit and left, Woehlke wrote that “today the leases of the San Joaquin Rancho say nothing about lima beans, but nevertheless the tenants plant nearly their entire acreage” on it and $1 million worth was cultivated on 18,000 acres. He then observed,

If you will take a close look and a deep one, down to the bottom of the soil industries that have made the Los Angeles territory the most prosperous, the most densely populated rural region in the country, you will find that intelligent co-operation, team work of the growers, is largely responsible for the big profits born of the soil and climate.

Cited next, albeit briefly, was the walnut industry, which was intensive in the eastern San Gabriel Valley—in late 1917, Walter P. Temple purchased the homestead of his grandparents William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, and soon planted much of the 92 acres he held there to the nut. Prices had doubled in about a decade, it was observed, while “the demand for walnut nursery stock is strong at a dollar a tree.”

A downtown Los Angeles scene from the article.

Featured following this was celery, raised “at the rim of the sea to the south of Los Angeles,” and, while Kalamazoo, in southwest Michigan, was accounted the capital of the crop in America, a grower from that area, attracted by publicity for the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, “packed up his household goods, gave away his snow shovels and started west.” Finding the desired peat soil “down where the Santa Ana river meanders lazily into the blue Pacific” and noting that there 12,000 acres that was tough to reclaim, with some small tracts devoted to corn and pumpkins, the transplant began work.

While Woehlke referred to a “Henry Smelzer, the erstwhile Kalamazooian,” the so-called “Celery King” of Orange County was actually Daniel E. Smeltzer, whose namesake forwarding and commission company worked out of Kansas City. His endeavor in what is now Huntington Beach and Westminster began about 1889 as he bought peat lands for some $10 an acre, cultivated his crop and left lands, after his death in December 1901 at age 48 from a stroke believed to have been brought on by overwork, worth some $200 an acre.

Photos from the newly established town of Van Nuys.

Another example as given of an unnamed farmer with two sons, who acquired 40 acres at $35 per and worked in the coastal wetlands, but gave up because of the difficulty of clearing land, but the author asserted the celery farmland there was worth more than $500 an acre. In fact, he wrote that “the entire tract of twelve thousand acres has been reclaimed, drained, ditched and is under cultivation.” Though a cooperative, growers got to the point where “the celery was worth $400 an acre gross to the grower.”

Also mentioned was “a mansion built out of potatoes, celery and sugar-beets” that stood “at the edge of the celery country, upon the brow of a hill overlooking the deep-blue sea.” Woehlke added that “twelve years ago the owner, W.T. Newlins, left the old Missouri farm and landed in Los Angeles with seventy-five dollars in his pocket” but “he has been digging money out of the peat ever since.” This was actually William T. Newland, Sr., whose house still exists as a historic landmark in Huntington Beach.

Harvesting lima beans in Orange County.

The account went on that Newland put in fourteen-hour days on his leased land until what was considered poor farming territory “turned out to be first-class sugar-beet and lima-bean soil” including 400 acres of sugar-beets, which was first grown in large amounts in Chino and then spread to the coastal areas of Orange and Los Angeles counties, as well as in Oxnard in Ventura County. It was averred that Newland was worth $250,000, a substantial estate for the time. As with citrus and celery, cooperative efforts among growers allowed for more profitability and Woehlke added that “a tract of twelve square miles [has] been planted out this spring in the San Fernando Valley, upon land hitherto devoted exclusively to grain.”

Also of note is the writer’s statement that “drought and the aftermath of the 1893 panic were gleefully shaking hands in the back country, before water development and water conservation had reached its present perfection.” Citrus was still, in his account, struggling with “the mumps and the measles,” and not finding the market it soon would (much of this due to the invention of the refrigerated boxcar by the likes of Edwin T. Earl), while other crops were not doing well. It bears remembering that John H. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1888-1899, was among those farmers battered by the economic and climactic conditions of the era, and lost the ranch to foreclosure (his younger brother Walter, as noted above, would purchase it in late 1917.)

We’ll return tomorrow with part two to conclude this post, so be sure to return and read more about Woehlke’s remarkable review of local agriculture and other aspects of the regional economy.

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