Sharing History at the Ovitt Family Community Library, Ontario, With A Taste of Regional Wine History Through Sampling Historic Artifacts from the Homestead’s Collection

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For close to a half-century from not long after their arrival in this region in 1841 to about 1890, the Workman and Temple family were active viticulturists, raising up to 100,000 grape vines and manufacturing as much as 12,000 gallons of wine annually at the Homestead, which was equipped with three brick winery buildings for production.

Their involvement in the nascent wine industry, now a major part of California’s agricultural economy, was part of a presentation this evening at the Ovitt Family Community Library in Ontario that more broadly covered greater Los Angeles viticulture, as represented through artifacts from the Homestead’s collection from the period of 1864 to 1929.

An ad from William Workman for the sale of grapes from his vineyard, Southern Californian, 7 September 1854.

The introduction of viticulture to California began with the establishment of the missions, with our local San Gabriel, the so-called “Queen of the Missions,” often identified as a central location for this development. What tends to get lost, however, in the discussion of this beginning of the wine industry in our state is that indigenous people, often forced into the mission system as “neophytes,” were the laborers who spent grueling hours working with vineyards and producing the wine, while their story is generally left untold.

Gradually, as more Spanish-speaking Californios settled in Los Angeles and its surrounding ranchos, particularly as the missions were secularized (basically, shut down, with the churches reestablished as parishes and the lands made available for private grants and settlement), individuals took up viticulture. This was especially true along the Los Angeles River in the pueblo, where vineyards were established, such as by the López and Rubio families at Paredon Blanco, which later became Boyle Heights. Later came French vintners like Jean-Louis Vignes (whose very surname would seem to have predestined him to be viticulturist) and the Sainsevain brothers.

A detail of an 1870 map of part of the Rancho La Puente showing the Workman vineyards along San José Creek and an irrigation ditch running along the vineyard and the three winery buildings directly south of the H-shaped Workman House.

Out at the Rancho Cucamonga, grapes were planted by 1840 and this was true in other outlying areas of the region, including by the Rowland and Workman families shortly after they settled on a newly approved grant for Rancho La Puente in spring 1842. The agricultural sheets of the 1850 federal census, actually taken in the opening weeks of the following year because of California’s admission as the 31st state in the American Union in September 1850, recorded that the Workmans had 150 gallons of wine on hand.

For the family to be able to have wine produced at La Puente required that the grapes be of a mature age, generally a half-dozen years or thereabouts, so it is clear the vineyards, modest in size no doubt, were planted by the Workmans very soon after they settled at La Puente. One wonders if the prior experience that John Rowland and William Workman had as distillers of whiskey (known subtly as “Taos Lightning”) in New Mexico was useful as they transitioned to wine-makers in California.

Recognition of locals, like Rowland and Workman, for the products of their vineyards and other agricultural achievements at a state fair, Los Angeles Star, 1 November 1856.

By the middle Fifties, the Workmans were raising enough grapes, planted to the south of the family residence next to San José Creek, which had year-round flow and was tapped with irrigation ditches to supply water to the vines, that he advertised in the Southern Californian newspaper in summer 1854 for the sale of grapes “at the heap” for three cents per pound. Reportedly, the German migrants Charles Kohler and John Frohling, then based in Los Angeles but later becoming major industry figures in San Francisco, came out to press grapes for Workman’s limited production at La Puente. In at least one instance, at a state agricultural fair in 1856, Rowland and Workman were bestowed premiums for products of their vineyards.

In 1860, a report on Golden State wine-making noted that the Workmans were producing several thousand gallons of wine annually, a huge increase over the previous decade and this mirrored the enormous expansion of the industry regionally. Visitors from the state agricultural society as well as John Quincy Adams Warren, who ran a wine and stock magazine in San Francisco, visited the ranch and commented on the quality of vineyards, though sometimes were critical of too many weeds among the vines. The Workmans’ daughter, Antonia Margarita and her husband, F.P.F. Temple, also practiced viticulture on their portion of Rancho La Merced in the Whittier Narrows.

The prominent German vintners advertising their “medicinal wine,” Star, 10 May 1862.

Up until the 1860s, the Workmans focused mainly on cattle ranching at La Puente, initially for the hide-and-tallow trade as the skins were sent out for rendering into leather goods and the fat exported for the making of soap and candles, while, during the Gold Rush, the animals were driven to the “southern mines” in such locales as Tuolumne County, where they were valuable for fresh beef.

Yet, there was agriculture practiced, albeit on a small scale, since their settlement on the rancho, including a crop of corn and beans during the first year of residence in 1842, while grapes followed soon after, as was noted above. The significant decline in demand for local cattle, however, due to such factors as the end of the Gold Rush, the importation of better breeds of that animal and the extreme climactic conditions of the first half of the 1860s, including severe floods in the winter of 1861-1862 (an estimated 50 inches fell that year) and then devastating drought the next two years (with only about 4 inches each) brought about the near-demise of the cattle industry.

A detail of an 1880 map of the Workman (La Puente) Homestead, recently purchased by Francis W. Temple from “Lucky” Baldwin, and clearly showing, south of the Workman (Dwelling) House, the wine cellars, irrigation ditch and, demarcated by dollar ($) signs, the vineyards along San Jose Creek.

While the Workmans continued raising cattle, there was a new emphasis on farming, including wheat and other field crops and a major expansion in the vineyard, which grew to include about 100,000 vines on about 100 acres. Moreover, the family invested a large sum on the construction of three brick wineries, directly south of their house and adjacent to the vineyard, which was irrigated from a ditch diverting water from San José Creek, now a flood control channel and which had the precious fluid year round, and the equipment for producing wine.

In the early 1870s, Francis W. Temple, the second child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple and who studied agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became the winemaker for his grandparents. While greater Los Angeles still produced a substantial amount of wine, however, it was quickly surpassed in quantity but, especially, quality by such emerging areas of production as Napa and Sonoma counties, where the soil and climate were far better and the wine eminently superior.

A trade card for Leonard J. Rose and Charles Stern for the Sunny Slope Vineyards of the San Gabriel Valley.

In fact, the “Mission” grape was also hardy and grew well in our region, but simply was not a variety that produced wine anywhere near comparable to imported types that flourished in the north. What tended to be most successful locally were sweet wines and brandy, which is distilled and has a much higher alcohol content—so much so that the aguardiente produced in this region proved to be rather powerful stuff, if not quite as much as the Taos lightning Workman made in New Mexico.

Yet, there were some major winemakers in our area who invested significant capital in getting local product to eastern markets, including such large-scale producers as Mathew Keller, a colorful character whose “Rising Sun” and “Los Angeles” vineyards were next to the Los Angeles River; Benjamin D. Wilson (who came to the Angel City with Rowland and Workman in 1841) and his Lake Vineyard in modern Alhambra and San Marino; and Leonard J. Rose of the well-known Sunny Slope ranch, which was also in the San Gabriel Valley east of Wilson and west of Workman.

A price list and catalog for win and liquor dealer Henry J. Woollacott of Los Angeles.

Success varied in these endeavors, with Keller having some serious financial difficulties following his efforts, while Wilson seemed to have done somewhat better. Rose later sold his vineyard for a handsome sum, but, later economic problems ensued and he committed suicide in 1899. Workman was said to have had some of his wine sold in the East, such as in Boston, perhaps with connections through his son-in-law, who was from Massachusetts, but he operated on a much smaller scale. Again, generally left out of the narrative was the labor done by indigenous people and Latinos in this period.

Like Rose, though, Workman committed suicide when the bank he co-owned with F.P.F. Temple failed early in 1876 and, having mortgaged most of his half-share of La Puente, along with other properties, to San Francisco capitalist Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, he ended his life at his home on 17 May. Baldwin, who’d recently acquired the nearby Rancho Santa Anita and became a winemaker from vineyards on that and other tracts, did, in 1880, sell 75 acres including the Workman House, El Campo Santo Cemetery, the vineyard, wineries and more, to Francis W. Temple, who’d remained on the property making wine during the 3 1/2 years before Baldwin foreclosed on his loan.

A label from a company run by Edward L. Watkins, nephew of former local Democratic Party mastermind, Joseph Lancaster Brent and a manager at Lake Vineyard for Benjamin D. Wilson and Wilson’s son-in-law James DeBarth Shorb, including where the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens is now.

The Workman, or La Puente, Homestead, as it was known, did well under Temple’s careful management, including the winemaking operation, though his tuberculosis worsened as he worked diligently on his enterprise. Seeking relief from his malady in drier climates, such as in Arizona, Temple relied heavily on a teenage employee, Laura González, who grew up in the Misión Vieja or Old Mission area in Whittier Narrows where the Temples long resided, to manage the Homestead including the cultivation of its vineyard and the manufacture of wine. As has been discussed on this blog, Laura also had something of a clandestine romance with Francis’ much-younger (21 years) brother, Walter and the couple did not marry until more than 15 years later.

Temple died in August 1888 and the ranch passed to his brothers, William and John, but the former was living out of state and sold his half to the latter. It is not known how John, who’d raised walnuts (these were grown at the Homestead, as well) on a ranch he owned in Misión Vieja, where the Whittier Narrows Nature Center is today, fared with viticulture, but devastation took place throughout greater Los Angeles not long after he took possession of the Homestead. American grapevines introduced in France brought phylloxera, an insect infestation, by 1860 and ravaged the vineyards of that important wine-producing nation—ironically, other American stock was introduced to help the French industry rebound.

A label for Giovanni Piuma after he moved his business from the Temple Homestead at Old Mission to Los Angeles.

In the mid-1880s, a bacterium transmitted by an insect and attacking the vessels in stock carrying water through the vine appeared in Anaheim, which was founded in 1857 by German colonists, who established many successful vineyards in succeeding years. The results of the spread of what was denoted as Pierce’s Disease, named for the federal plant pathologist who identified the cause, frequently known in those days as Anaheim Disease, was devastating. Anaheim’s industry was basically destroyed as were vineyards in almost all of the region.

There were other factors in the decline of winemaking locally, including the rapid urban development of Los Angeles, the incredible expansion of citrus growing and the ravages of disease. One area that managed to thrive, however, was at Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario, where grapes, as noted above, were planted in the Mexican era and where former Workman and Temple bank partner, the brilliant Jewish merchant Isaias W. Hellman, was long owner of vineyards.

Identified as “A Vineyard in Southern California,” but likely in the Ontario/Rancho Cucamonga area.

In the latter 19th century, Secondo Guasti and his Italian Vineyard Company became a fixture in the Inland Empire, though there were many Italian winemakers in the region during the period, as well. One was Giovanni Piuma, who established his Old Mission Winery in 1889 by leasing out the basement of a Temple family home in Misión Vieja. After roughly twenty years there and following a fire that razed the structure, he moved to Los Angeles and became one of a number of successful Italian vintners in the region.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, another threat to the industry gradually grew in strength and this was the prohibition or significant restriction of the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The so-called “local option” meant efforts directed at the city and town level, while states were also moving to ban almost all activity, and the result, in 1920, was the federal enactment of a constitutional amendment that was the “social experiment” of Prohibition.

Workers picking grapes at the Guasti vineyards in Ontario.

Many viticulturists and winemakers simply shut down their business, others, like Piuma, retooled their enterprises as he went into the olive oil and groceries side, while Guasti and a few persistent entrepreneurs moved more into sacramental wine manufacturing for Roman Catholic Churches, focused on cooking or medicinal products, or embraced grape juice and non-alcoholic items. There was certainly no shortage of illicit winemaking with just one example near the Homestead being Antonio Merlo (of whom more in a post coming soon), who had a federal license to manufacture limited quantities of wine at his Avocado Heights vineyard, but who was busted at least a few times for illegal product.

While Walter P. Temple converted the Workman wineries at the Homestead into an auditorium, dining hall and garage, he did apply for a permit in 1924 to manufacture a limited quantity of alcoholic beverages, though whether he did so and what, how and where (why is pretty easy to assume!) is not known. We do know, based on an oral history with the son of a ranch foreman, that illegal alcohol was smuggled in from Los Angeles in a false automobile seat and a photo, shown at the talk, of guests at a spring 1928 church society event seems to show everyone imbibing beer (though, who knows, it could have been root beer?)

The federal report by the plant pathologist who determined the cause of the disease that ravaged regional vineyards and became known as Pierce’s Disease.

In any case, observing the law in the breach was so rampant throughout the country that Prohibition was repealed in early 1933 after a baker’s dozen of years of fruitless (!) efforts to clamp down on the proclivities of many Americans to enjoy their beer, booze and wine. Tonight’s presentation was a mere summary of aspects of the wine history of our region during our interpretive period of 1830-1930, including the sharing of some of the artifacts in the Homestead’s collection that help to illustrate the diversity and range of it.

Future posts will look to share more of these objects, so be sure to keep an eye out for those! Meanwhile, there’ll be a return engagement at the Ovitt library in June as Jackie Broxton and I give a Juneteenth presentation on the amazing African-American women entrepreneurs and community leaders, Biddy Mason and Vada Somerville Watson, so consider joining us there at 215 East C Street, near the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Holt Boulevard, on Thursday, 15 June at 6:30 p.m.

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