Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Mayor James R. Toberman to Elmore W. Squires, Los Angeles, 10 March 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There aren’t many lines to read between in this letter, but there is a lot to cover with three of the persons mentioned in it and their connections to greater Los Angeles and the Workman and Temple family. Dated 10 March 1874 and penned on the letterhead of George W. Morgan’s real estate and brokerage office, the missive is from J.R. Toberman to E.W. Squires with the message plain enough: A Mr. Belcher was “visiting your neighborhood,” Squires was informed, “for the purpose of looking at my land” and the recipient was requested “you will have the kindness to show him the lines [boundaries] so far as you know.”

Of course, nothing is said about the neighborhood or the land discussed, but a little searching quickly answered that question. While the identity of the Belcher who was checking out the property is not yet known and Morgan and Squires are obscure names in our regional history, James R. Toberman was one of the most prominent figures in that period and was, in fact, the mayor of Los Angeles at the time.

A young James R. Toberman from an image in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Born in 1836 in the western fringe of Virginia, near the border of what later became West Virginia, Toberman (whose family name was originally “Towberman”) spent much of his younger years in Missouri, residing about 65 miles from the David Workman family and northeast of Kansas City. Not much is known of his early years, but in 1859 he migrated to northern California and he worked as a bookkeeper in Sacramento when he was enumerated in the following year’s federal census.

Prominent merchant Harris Newmark recalled in his 1916 autobiography that Toberman came to Los Angeles in 1864 after escaping from Indians in Texas, but how we wound up in the Lone Star State from Sacramento and what he was doing there when he purportedly got into trouble with the indigenous people, is unexplained, unless it had something to do with the Civil War. Being in a Confederate state during the terrible conflict and hailing from Virginia would lead to the obvious conclusion that he may have went to fight for the South, but the problem with that is, when Toberman came to the Angel City, it was to work for the federal government as an assistant assessor for excise tax collection.

Los Angeles News, 4 May 1864.

The 4 May 1864 issue of the Los Angeles News included the brief note that “Mr. James R. Toberman has been appointed, by Mr. Savage, U.S. Deputy Assessor, for the Second District” and the 27-year old remained in that position until early 1869 when he was cut loose with the change in administrations upon the election of Ulysses S. Grant as president. The News of 5 February announced Toberman’s dismissal by stating “there are few if any in this community who will not receive the news of Mr. Toberman’s removal with feelings of regret,” adding “although a strong Union man during the war and since, Mr. Toberman has refused to lend himself to the schemes of radicalism that worked such great injury to the country in the last few years, and hence his removal.”

Simultaneously with his tenure as a federal revenue agent, Toberman served as the local Wells, Fargo and Company representative as well as an agent for the Phoenix and Home Insurance Company. In early September 1868, he resigned from Wells, Fargo to take a position as cashier in the second bank to form in Los Angeles, that of the brilliant young merchant Isaias W. Hellman, like Newmark a pillar of the Jewish community in the Angel City, and his partners, William Workman and F.P.F. Temple. Toberman early in his residency developed close ties with Jews in town and was the arrangements committee for the third annual ball held by the Congregation B’nai B’rith at Stearns Hall in February 1866.

Wilmington Journal, 3 February 1866.

Also in 1866, Toberman joined the newly-formed California National Guard and received a commission as a major, by which rank he was known for the rest of his life, while he was also initially a quartermaster (supply chief) under Brigadier General Phineas Banning, also a prominent Union loyalist in Los Angeles who secured a good deal of patronage through such endeavors as the establishment of Camp Drum near his home in Wilmington.

In addition to his association with the Hellman, Temple and Company bank and his work as an insurance agent, Toberman was secretary of the Los Angeles Gas Company when that formed in 1867 to supply gas for local lighting. The following year, he became secretary of the Los Angeles Homestead and Building Association, of which F.P.F. Temple was president, though it is not known what real estate and construction work this enterprise may have taken on as the city and region was in the early stages of its first economic boom, which lasted through 1875.

News, 8 May 1868.

Temple and Toberman were also associated with a “Los Angeles Sanitary and Industrial College Association,” formed in 1873, and the local branch of the Home Mutual Insurance Company, opened in 1874 with Temple as a trustee and Toberman as a manager. The two remained close associates even after the Hellman, Temple and Company bank was dissolved by Hellman, who then formed Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank of Los Angeles with ex-governor John G. Downey (a partner in the first bank, Hayward and Company, formed in Los Angeles, also in 1868) and brought Toberman over as a cashier. For example, they were appointed by County Judge William G. Dryden as appraisers for the court house, built by Temple’s brother, Jonathan, as a Market House in 1859, as it was being turned over to the county.

For community and social events, Temple and Toberman were frequently working together on committees, such as for the inaugural ball of the Merced Theatre on New Year’s Eve 1870 or for the Fourth of July celebration three years later. On the political front, while Toberman was a loyal Republican during the war years and until he was dismissed as a revenue agent, he switched allegiances to the Democratic Party. Even then, while he supported journalist Horace Greeley in his campaign against Grant in 1872, Toberman was the local president of a “Liberal Conservative Club, which suggests he hewed a moderate line.

Los Angeles Star, 26 February 1870.

In a special election in 1870, Toberman was elected to the Los Angeles Common (City) Council, though these seats were ostensibly non-partisan. Not long after taking the lead position with the Liberal Conservative Club, he ran for mayor and won election in December 1872, unseating incumbent Cristóbal Aguilar, one of the few Latinos in a position of political power during the period and who served three separate one-year terms between 1866 and 1872.

Toberman won reelection at the end of 1873, which is why he was still chief executive of the Angel City when he wrote his letter to Squires. In January 1874, former mayor Aguilar was appointed by the Common Council to serve as zanjero with the important responsibility (in fact, the position was sometimes as highly paid as any in local public service) of oversight of the dirt ditches that delivered water from the Los Angeles River to the growing city.

Star, 3 December 1872.

Toberman, however, objected to the elevation of Aguilar and the Los Angeles Herald of the 10th stated it was

on the ground that he is ignorant of the language in which official business is transacted, and which is spoken by the great majority of the people who use the water from the ditches. Whether the objection is well-grounded in law or not, it is a strong one. No officer should either be elected or appointed, who is entirely ignorant of the language in which the business of his office is conducted, and one who will not make the attempt to acquaint himself to some extent with it, is not likely to be active in the performance of his duties.

Of course, it was a significant leap in logic to suggest that Aguilar’s lack of facility with English, which Toberman highlighted during the 1872 campaign, meant that he could not do the job. While the paper took pains to add that “we wish no one to infer from this that the HERALD countenances the narrow prejudices that would exclude anyone from office on account of nationality,” the suggestion that the former mayor, who seemed perfectly capable of being chief executive for most of six years, was disqualified by not being fluent in the language that only recently became the majority tongue in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Herald, 10 January 1874.

It seems apparent that there was some blowback to Toberman’s opposition because the Los Angeles Express, in its edition of the 14th, claimed that “the great bulk of our citizens heartily sustain” the mayor’s reasons, which it was added “are pronounced sound by every unprejudiced man in the community.” With the council contemplating repealing the city ordinance that gave the mayor the power to approve nominations so that Aguilar could be made zanjero, the paper protested that such an action would “fly in the face of the right and public opinion.” Aguilar, indeed, took the position and served until the end of 1878 and it should be noted that, as mayor, he vetoed an ordinance granting water rights to a private company—the Los Angeles Water Company, however, did maintain control over water for 30 years until the city reasserted authority in 1898.

In June 1873, the question of language arose when Toberman argued that the city’s ordinances, which for years were printed in English and Spanish in the newspapers, should only be reproduced in the former in the Los Angeles Star. The Spanish-language paper, La Crónica, which was recently established (following more than a dozen years after the first such sheet in the city, El Clamor Público) and would, in the late 1880s and early 1890s be edited by F.P.F. Temple’s son, Thomas, objected. It counted the mayor’s assertion that the majority of Latinos in Los Angeles could understand English and this issue again reflects the growing majority of Anglos asserting control over such issues as this when, as they were the minority, dual language public notices were standard and a well-known figure like Aguilar could serve in political offices whether fluent in English or not.

La Crónica [Los Angeles], 28 June 1873.

Another area of activity for Toberman during his first decade in Los Angeles was real estate and, with the regional boom under way, his investments expended outside of the Angel City, where he had a ranch in the southwest section near Ninth and Grasshopper (Figueroa) streets. At the end of August 1872, he acquired hundreds of acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana in what later became Orange County from Elmore W. Squires (1826-1906).

Squires, a native of Kentucky, happened to reside in the same county, Carroll, in Missouri where Toberman lived when he was younger and there likely was contact between the two there, though the former ended up in greater Los Angeles about a decade sooner. He started near El Monte, acquiring a portion of the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, which was adjacent to Workman’s Rancho La Puente and F.P.F. Temple’s Rancho La Merced. By early 1857, Squires built a grist mill using water from the San Gabriel River, then today’s Río Hondo until floods in 1867-1868 led to the creation of the current course, but, within a few years Squires moved, and then lost the land in a sheriff’s sale, and the mill was taken over by Richard Chapman, who soon died, and F.P.F. Temple became its owner.

Los Angeles Star, 27 December 1856.

In 1859, Squires was an early settler of an area several miles south of Los Angeles formerly part of the Avila family’s Rancho Tajauta (also known as Los Cuervos) and identified typically as Green Meadows—there is a city recreation center of that name between San Pedro Street and Avalon Boulevard, south of Manchester Avenue. While he farmed and rented out land for pasture, Squires also got into economic trouble, as so many locals did, as the decline of the Gold Rush and a national depression was followed by floods and drought. In 1862, he was declared insolvent, but he managed to rebound.

By the end of the 1860s, Squires purchased a large section of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, a massive domain of well over 60,000 acres stretching from where the Santa Ana River emerges from Santa Ana Canyon and turns southward to the Pacific and ending at the ocean. Granted in 1810 to José Antonio Yorba and Juan Pablo Peralta, the Santiago de Santa Ana was easily the largest of a half-dozen ranchos once owned or part-owned by the Yorba family, two of whose members are buried at El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead.

Star, 9 August 1862.

Squires settled on the ranch and engaged in a series of transactions with Toberman, as well as with the prominent Los Angeles lawyer, Alfred B. Chapman, who with partner Andrew Glassell, acquired large portions of Santiago de Santa Ana. After an early period under the name of Richland, a new town developed by the pair became known, for obvious reasons given the growth of the citrus industry, as Orange. Sales of land in the Richland/Orange tract began in 1873, just prior to Toberman’s missive to Squires and, with the real estate boom rising, it was hardly surprising that the Los Angeles mayor was looking to sell some of his holdings while the getting was good.

This leads us to George W. Morgan, who was born in New York in 1831, but who spent much of his early life in Wisconsin where, at one point, he went to a theological seminary to train as a minister. The lure of real estate, however, proved more alluring and, by the time he registered for the draft during the Civil War while residing in Ohio he was listed as a “speculator.” After the war, Morgan migrated west and lived in Santa Barbara before he and his family headed to Los Angeles, where they settled in 1872. That year, he was a “special agent” (mirroring Toberman’s work in this field) for the Life Association of America insurance company, the local branch of which was in the Temple and Workman bank with Temple as vice-president and bank cashier Henry S. Ledyard as district agent.

Star, 19 May 1872.

Morgan formed his real estate business with an office in F.P.F. Temple’s Temple Block (as the letterhead shows) early the following year and, among his major projects was serving as agent for the Santa Gertrudes Land Company, which developed the Los Nietos tract about the time that Richland/Orange was getting off the ground. Morgan was the agent in Los Angeles, while the on-site representative was Dr. James E. Fulton, a Confederate Army surgeon who came after the war, bought land on the Rancho Santa Gertrudes and, while drilling for water, hit a sulfur spring. He built Fulton Wells, with a hotel and hot mineral baths facility, at what later became Santa Fe Springs.

It is not known whether Morgan had a direct relationship with Toberman concerning the Santiago de Santa Ana properties and, while the “Mr. Belcher” mentioned in the brief correspondence may have demurred from buying any of the Los Angeles mayor’s land, there were a few transactions found in newspaper real estate reports in early 1874 that help supplement the meager information in the letter.

Express, 17 January 1874.

On 17 January, it was recorded that Squires sold 1,258 acres of the Santiago de Santa Ana, along with 60 acres in Anaheim, an interest in some property in Los Angeles, and 240 acres at Green Meadows for over $16,000. The next day, the Herald cited a report from Anaheim that “‘Jim’ Barham has purchased the Squires Ranch from Mayor Toberman of Los Angeles.” A little over a month later, however, it was listed that James F. Barham sold Toberman 560 acres of the Santiago de Santa Ana for $15,000.

Barham (1827-1906) was from Kentucky and came to Gold Rush California with his parents and siblings, settling in Sutter County. His wife, Jane Watson, was from a family that similarly came across the plains from Missouri in 1849 and the couple and their family lived in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County before coming south and joining her parents who acquired land on the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. Barham’s dealings, however, got him into financial trouble, especially as the boom went bust in 1875-1876, during which time the Temple and Workman bank collapsed, and he could not repay a loan from Theodore Wollweber, a prominent Los Angeles druggist who foreclosed on the loan in 1876. Barham and his family moved to San Diego County and were early settlers of what is now the city of San Marcos.

Express, 5 March 1874.

While the economic downturn was underway in 1876, Toberman acquired some of the Barham land through the latter’s father-in-law, Henry Watson, with this being north of today’s Katella Avenue and up to the northern limits of the Santiago de Santa Ana. At that end, Toberman bestowed the name of Olive, now part of the City of Orange, though it long was its own small unincorporated community.

When the great Boom of the Eighties came, thanks in large part to a direct transcontinental railroad connection to the east via the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, Toberman partnered with a development company to establish the townsite of St. James, though it, like so many boom towns, failed to take root and it quickly withered away. He continued to work with business enterprises, being president of the Los Angeles Portland Cement Company, and real estate, including in the newly developing town of Hollywood, where he built a house in 1907 that still stands and developed and where his Hollywood Investment Company established the Valley View Tract. His nephew, Charles, was associated with Toberman and, after the elder man’s death, became a very prominent figure in what was soon annexed to the City of Los Angeles.

In early 1911, Toberman died (the lesser-known Morgan and Squires, died in 1903 and 1906, respectively), leaving an estate of around $200,000, part of which was left to fund the Methodist Church-affiliated Homer Toberman Home, established for his son who died in 1901 at age 29 and built on Sunset Boulevard about where U.S. 101 and the 110 Freeway meet now and which was to provide shelter for singly young women needing housing and assistance. The facility is now the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro and which provides many services to trouble youth and their families, including gang intervention and prevention, youth development and more. Toberman Street, which runs between Venice Boulevard and Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles, is another visual reminder of the former mayor.

As is often the case with historic artifacts, this modest, unassuming letter from the Museum’s holdings has a lot more to it when it comes to greater Los Angeles history—it just takes some “Reading Between the Lines” to bring it out!

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