Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Thomas Mercer of Pomona, 26 June 1877

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It can be somewhat challenging to find documents like the one featured in this post, so when they are located, they can be important to better understand life in greater Los Angeles during the period in which they were written. While this letter, dated 26 June 1877 from Pomona and written by Thomas Mercer to Avery Walsworth, his niece’s nephew, is somewhat short, it is still worth highlighting for what it does contain, as well as the background of the writer.

Thomas Mercer was born on 30 November 1824 in the Middleton township in Columbiana County, Ohio on the border with Pennsylvania and he married Catherine Stevens, who was from the adjacent Beaver County in that latter state, not far northwest of Pittsburgh. The couple migrated, as many folks from Ohio did, to Iowa and ended up first is Muscatine, on the west bank of Mississippi River across from Illinois. Thomas worked as a surveyor and civil engineer there and helped lay out a small town north of there.

Muscatine [Iowa] Journal, 28 January 1853.

By 1856, the couple moved to Marshall County, northeast of Des Moines, where the first white invaders settled less than a decade prior, and lived in the hamlet of Marietta before moving to Marshalltown, the county seat. In 1860, Thomas was listed as a real estate agent, but he went on to become a lawyer, an Internal Revenue Service assessor, president of the county horticultural society, secretary of the Citizens’ Association of Marshalltown, and the city engineer.

Politically active in the recently launched Republican Party, Mercer was the 39th District member of the Iowa House of Representatives in 1862-1863 during the height of the Civil War. He followed this with several terms as a member of the Marshalltown city council between 1863 and 1870, including three terms as treasurer, while also serving as a county supervisor in 1866-1867. Also a member and treasurer of the town’s school board, he was a lecturer at the Le Grand Institute and was described as “a botanist of great scientific attainments and had unrivalled taste in flowers.”

Journal, 31 August 1861.

In July 1871, he joined Thomas E. McCracken in establishing the Marshall Republican newspaper, which was a competitor with another journal allied to the party in town. Mercer was responsible for editorial comment as well as serving as the business manager of the sheet. After about two years, however, he decided to bow out in November 1873 and, while one nearby paper called him “one of the ablest editors in the state,” the Des Moines Register, observed that Mercer was “wise enough to desert a sinking ship” as trying to compete with the other journal in town proved fruitless in an already tough, cut-throat business.

By June 1874, Mercer and his family, including a daughter and son, were in Los Angeles and one wonders if the move to the balmy clime of our region was for health reasons. In any case, the Mercers wound up on the Rancho San José, adjacent to the Rancho La Puente of William Workman and the descendants of the late John Rowland, and purchased land for a farm in what very soon became the new town of Pomona.

Toledo [Iowa] Chronicle, 27 November 1873. The name of the town shows how many Ohioans moved to Iowa in that era.

The missive began with Mercer asking Walsworth, who was a boot and shoe merchant in Marshalltown, Iowa and who was married to Anna, the daughter of Mercer’s brother, John, if he had received a letter sent a couple of months previously, and which asked for “Books & Specimens” as there had been no reply received.

Mercer and his wife Catherine (nee, Stevens) “are concerned to know about them: for if sent they may have gone astray or be laying at some station where they may be damaged, if not seen to[o] soon.” He then turned to other topics of interest to us after reporting the standard “we are all in good health,” though it was added, “[we] have plenty of hard work to do to live & fix our new home.”

Los Angeles Star, 3 June 1874, with the first local mention located of Mercer.

Yet, there were challenging times as Mercer continued,

this is a hard year for California on account of deficiency of Rain last winter, but we will get through somehow. We have work enough on our place, but any kind of remunerative employment is difficult to get & the pay but light. We look for it to be better next year.

This refers to two major issues of context. The first was that there was a dry season in the winter of 1876-1877 and, while official records were not inaugurated until later in the latter year, an 8 January article in the Los Angeles Express provided statistics from a San Francisco man, Thomas Tennant, kept since 1849.

The scarcity of rain in the winter of 1876-1877 is reflected in this article pertaining to the efforts of the Badillo brothers, Julián and Antonio, to establish a coffee plantation on the Rancho La Puente where Covina was later established.

Though the figures were from that city, so that the amounts would be substantially lower for greater Los Angeles, they are helpful in seeing what years were particularly wet ones and which were enveloped in drought. In 1849-1850 and 1852-1853, totals were 33 and 35 inches, respectively, while 1850-1851 was only about 7.5. The “Noah’s Flood” season of 1861-1862 was just below a staggering 50 inches, almost half in January 1862 alone, while the next two years were 13 and 10 inches.

The two years from 1866 to 1868 were about 35 and 39 inches, while, in 1870-1871, only 14 inches fell. There was another wet year in 1871-1872 of nearly 35 inches and alternating dry and wet years since. Los Angeles jeweler Charles Ducommun did provide local rainfall totals since 1872-1873 and his amounts were 12.50, 23.72, 21.20, and 29.22 for those preceding four years. It was expressed in the article, though, that “old settlers” were confident in a good rain year.

Express, 8 January 1877.

This did not come to pass and 1876-1877 was almost as dry as the dire drought years of 1862-1864, with some reports suggesting that barely over 5 inches of rain fell during the season, and it is notable that there was a Global Famine of 1876 to 1878, as well. So, Mercer’s reference in his letter to Walsworth about the “deficiency of Rain” was actually a major one, as the total was abysmal—something we’ve seen a few times in recent years as global climate change continues to show increasing dry conditions in this part of the world.

The other important general condition of the period was the continuing economic malaise the followed the national depression of 1873, which was known as the Great Depression as it continued for about a half-dozen years—it was rechristened the Long Depression when the much-worse financial freefall burst forth more than a half-century later. In Los Angeles, the crash was marked by the Angel City’s first large-scale business failure, that of the Temple and Workman bank, which closed in January 1876.

The 1880 census listing for the Mercers at the San José Township, including Pomona and environs.

One tangent of the institution’s collapse and the general economic downturn was that the town of Pomona, laid out in 1875 and with its initial land auction taking place in late February 1876, suffered from sustained stagnation in the resulting several years. It was not until a reorganization took place in 1882 that Pomona was able to find its footing with the great boom that followed in 1886-1888 providing the means for its development into a viable community.

For the Mercers, who arrived in the area in 1874, this meant that their first several years residing in Pomona were ones in which the region’s straitened economic circumstances made their situation particularly challenging beyond the immediate issues pertaining to the dry season of the winter of 1876-1877. Still, Mercer explained to Walsworth, who later moved to Tempe, Arizona and is buried with his wife and family at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, that there was plenty happening on his farm:

Our trees (planted in February) are doing well, likewise vegetables. We have had new potatoes since the middle of May, now have green corn & the first planting of peas & beans are ripe and done. Tomatoes & cucumbers are now ripening. peaches in some localities are now ripe. Barley harvest has long been over with us & corn is all sizes from just up to roasting ear[s].

The letter ended with Mercer stating that he and his wife “occasionally see the Marshall papers & keep somewhat posted up in the things of the present in your town.” He added that he did so “by extending the past memories down to the present” and went on to observe that “though far away & in a strange land, we are often with you spiritually.” Mercer closed by reiterating that he wanted to know if his missive was received and to hear about those books he’d requested.

He had some involvement in the fledgling Pomona community during his roughly seven or eight years of residency there. In 1878, he was secretary of a home industries league, with town founders Alvin R. Meserve and Joseph E. McComas, as president and vice-president, respectively. Mercer’s 1879 voter registration listing stated that his profession was as an editor, suggesting he worked on a Pomona newspaper, though the following year’s census stated that he was a farmer.

Early in 1879, he wrote a lengthy report on Pomona for the Los Angeles Herald, beginning with the statement that, “though we cannot boast of anything startling, yet our pleasant valley is not without its items of general interest” and that the nascent burg had “passed the period of pioneer life.” Mercer went on to note that, “with the magnificent Sierra Madre [San Gabriel] mountains” to the north, “the foot-hills on the south [the Chino Hills] running away to the Temescal mountains in the southeast,” and the San Bernardino range to the east, “our valley is a gem in a setting of everlasting hills.”

For the orchardist in a place that became synonymous with the orange in subsequent years (Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards), Mercer added that “in correspondence with natural surroundings our people evince a spirit of enterprise and intelligence that would be commendable in older places.” He wrote of the fine schoolhouse, the upper story of which was a lodge meeting room and a well-attended church, so that “if any one supposes we live out on the ragged edge of civilization let him come out and see us and he will change his opinion.”

Taking the bulk of the article, however, was a detailed summation of the performance in the Odd Fellows Hall (of which Mercer was an officer) of a play called Saved, which reflected the concerns of the rapidly-rising temperance (anti-alcohol) movement. Its main character was, naturally, a drunk, who found salvation with the order of Good Templars after the horrors of delirium tremens and Mercer opined that

if from the base of Old Baldy should arise the future Forrests, Booths and Mrs. Siddonses [all famous actors and acting families, including that of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth] of Southern California[,] posterity may be in no doubt when and where they commenced their career and can accord to Pomona her just fame and not subject her, as in the case of Homer, to dispute her honors with a hundred other cities.

The audience, he noted, were from Azusa, Cucamonga, Rincon [near modern Corona] and Spadra [now southwestern Pomona] and even “several distinguished persons from Los Angeles,” such as postmaster Henry K.W. Bent and Luther Holt, a founder of Pomona. Poetry readings and music also comprised the program, which was for a fundraiser for an organ for the school. It should be noted that a key role was played by Mercer, who also was the stage manager or director, so small wonder that he submitted the piece for the paper!

Los Angeles Herald, 17 January 1879.

In 1880, Mercer was elected one of the two justices of the peace for the San José Township, which embraced the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, including Pomona and environs, but his tenure was short-lived, as he died on 31 March 1881 at Pasadena, which suggests he might have been at a sanatorium. He was buried in what is now called Pomona Valley Memorial Park and was joined there in 1898 by his wife Catherine (nothing could be located of their two children beyond the 1880 census listing.)

Short as it may be, this letter is, to quote its writer, “not without its items of general interest,” especially concerning a new, if struggling town, at a time of economic and climactic challenges in greater Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply