Tidbits of Mission San Gabriel History, 1876-1885, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In advance of this Sunday’s presentation Mission City Affinity: The Workman and Temple Family and San Gabriel, 1842-1972, which is at the Homestead at 2 p.m. and which covers aspects of the family’s involvement at the mission community from the grant of Rancho La Puente to the death of mission and city historian Thomas W. Temple II, we offer for this post another treasure trove of tidbits about San Gabriel during the decade from 1876-1885.

One of the more obvious gaps in newspaper reports for the area broadly, beyond San Gabriel, was the general lack of content concerning people of color and, often, any references tended to be negative or pejorative. For Asians, the only located mention was from the Los Angeles Star of 12 March 1876 in a brief item that Angel City police detective Emil Harris was sent a warrant from San Diego for two Chinese men wanted for grand larceny. The paper reported that “after considerable trouble and search, the Chinamen were found concealed in a China house at the Mission San Gabriel,” though what precisely was meant by “China house,” other than that it was a dwelling and, possibly, a business inhabited by Chinese persons, is not known.

Los Angeles Star, 12 March 1876.

For Latinos, the references were also very sparse. The Los Angeles Herald of 15 June 1881 followed up on a report from ten days prior in which an unnamed peddler, presumably Anglo, was attacked and robbed near San Gabriel, during which $50 was take and the man shot through the hand and in the stomach. The pair of constables for the San Gabriel Township, which extended beyond the town, “yesterday went out to the mission and, on clues obtained by them, arrested Juan Antonio Perez, Manuel Duarte and Jose Melendrez.” Though there was confidence expressed in their guilt, nothing was found beyond a later report that a judge was to examine the trio.

With respect to crime, the Los Angeles Times of 17 August 1882 commented on “Hoodlumism at San Gabriel, with the report noting that

Complaints are made that a band of hoodlums congregate together in the vicinity of Mission San Gabriel every night about dark, making the night hideous and endangering the lives of passers-by with their fights and indiscriminate shooting, occasionally combining together in heartless and unwarranted attacks on Chinese and even white laborers who may be passing to and from the village.

The use of the phrase “even white laborers” might suggest the miscreants were Anglos, but it is not clear and, while it was stated “law-abiding citizens” of the area wanted to know what was to be done about the matter, there were no further reports located. The only other found reference to a person of color concerned Eulalia Pérez de Guillen, the well-known llavera, of keeper of the keys, who was in charge of making sure that women neophytes at the Mission, before it was secularized in the 1830s, were literally under lock-and-key and protected from male interlopers.

Los Angeles Herald, 15 June 1881.

Doña Eulalia lived to an advanced age with some claims that she was around 140 years old when she died in early June 1878, though this was clearly impossible, but, even if she was over 100 as she told an interviewer that she was 104 in 1875, that is still a very remarkable life span for the era. In any case, as a prior post here noted, there was an attempt to send her to Philadelphia as an exhibit at the American Bicentennial celebration, but that was stopped by court action filed by one daughter, Rosario White (whose husband Michael White was on the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841), against another Mariana Higuera.

Most of the news references to the mission and surrounding area concerned the wealthier Anglos, generally orange growers, grape growers and wine-makers, and farmers like Benjamin D. Wilson (another alumnus of the 1841 expedition), his son-in-law James de Barth Shorb, Leonard J. Rose, General George Stoneman and others. Some of these died during the period, including Wilson in March 1878 and Edward J.C. Kewen, owner of El Molino Viejo, or the old mission mill, who tried to sell his property through banker John E. Hollenbeck not long before his death in November 1879.

Los Angeles Times, 17 August 1882.

As for Stoneman, who was noted for his service in the Union Army during the Civil War, a San Francisco Post reporter visited his Los Robles estate and excerpts were published in the Express of 4 August 1877. The journalist and his party disembarked from a steamer at the port in Wilmington and were headed east along the Southern Pacific Railroad line gradually being built to the Colorado River when they stopped to visit “the gallant cavalry officer who harassed so frequently the forces of General [Robert E.] Lee in the latter years of the war.”

Observing that he would not be recognized a dozen years later as “the quiet, gentlemanly” farmer, the unnamed reporter noted that his “feeble and rambling pen” could not explain the lure and attraction of “this earthly paradise” that was greater Los Angeles better than Stoneman’s simple sentence: “My children have four different kinds of fruit every day in the year, and there are only four days in the 365 that they cannot go out and pluck them.” After leaving the estate of Stoneman, who went on to be California’s governor from 1883 to 1887, the writer recorded

we drove rapidly through the San Gabriel fruit belt, a stretch of county producing a wealth of semi-tropical fruit not equaled in the United States, to the station. In the neighborhood of the station is the Mission of San Gabriel—perhaps the oldest mission in the State of California [it was actually the fifth] . . . Driving toward the station we still see the remains of what the simple fathers of St. Francis accomplished in planting the mission vine and the orange tree.

Remarkably, the author added that, when it came to the indigenous people of California and reflecting on the “unfortunate ‘Digger’ on the Colorado desert,” he and his companions “blush to see human nature so degraded.” The journalist then mused, “may we not sigh for times that are past, and think, after all, that this thing we call civilization is possessed of a devil known as ‘the survival of the fittest,’ which crushes and tramples on that immortal spark that was not born to die.” Clearly, the scribe was not a subscriber to the views of Charles Darwin, misrepresenting that famous phrase as is so often done, and held religion to be necessary for a correct civilizing influence.

Express, 4 April 1877.

Earlier in the year, the Express of 27 February published a colorful account of a visit to the San Gabriel area by a correspondent known only as “Amos.” Extolling the incomparable climate and the surprisingly fertile soil, the writer exclaimed, “Ah yes! look across that well-preserved picket fence and see those orange trees. How deeply green the foliage! How yellow with fruit! How white with bloom, the perfume from which fills the air with fragrant odors!” While the vineyards were “trim and clean,” it was opined that local brandies were too pungent and “with a more thorough knowledge of the business this difficulty can in a measure be obviated, and doubtless will be.”

It was offered, though, that “the wines are better” and during a visit to Rose’s Sunny Slope, “Amos” sampled “some very fine breakfast wine” that only needed some further maturing for a richness and removal of the earthiness. As to the port, it was unduly heavy and “are too sweet ever to please the taste of an epicure,” but, again, proper aging would make “their medicinal properties unusually good.” More time and application of best practices would yield higher grades of product—though devastating diseases of the vine were on the horizon.

Express, 27 February 1877.

As to citriculture, “Amos” observed that the San Gabriel Valley was dominant in regional orange raising, although “many persons are fearful lest the supply shall be greater than the demand.” While local prices were not encouraging to growers, there was more profit in shipping fruit to San Francisco—the revolution realized with the refrigerated boxcar in the 1890s transformed the industry. The writer then waxed poetic again about what became the symbol for greater Los Angeles in ensuing decades:

This is the season of the year when the orange trees are clad in their royal robes—the golden fruit clinging to the dark green foliage—the snow-white bloom peeping through its leafy bowers filling the air with its fragrance. Here one stands entranced, looking at nature in its most lovely form. The gold, the green and the white, all blending and commingling together as if to intoxicate the senses with their perfumes and transport the soul with their beauties.

As well-maintained as the vineyards and orchards were, however, “Amos” was less than impressed with “the more immediate home surroundings,” writing that he “looked in vain for a beautiful garden, a beautiful grass-plat [lawn], a beautiful home.” While dwellings were comfortable, “luxury seemed a stranger to the good people of San Gabriel,” and he seemed to hold the women accountable for this lack of beautification. This was in contrast to Sunnyside, the estate of Eugene M. Sanford, one of the hordes of Southerners who left the ruined Confederacy for this region, settling in 1867 in the Los Nietos township along the San Gabriel River in modern Downey and Santa Fe Springs, and which had landscaping “resurrected from chaos by womanly activity.”

Express, 17 April 1879.

Another prominent figure of the San Gabriel area during this period was Volney E. Howard, a prominent lawyer who came to the region from San Francisco, after he fled during the vigilance committee turmoil there in 1856. Howard, who became a judge under the superior court system introduced by reforms in the new state constitution in 1879, became interested in San Gabriel while representing William Workman and others interested in the land claim for former mission property granted to Workman and Hugo Reid in 1846 by Governor Pío Pico.

Whatever the means by which Howard acquired his holdings, the Express of 17 April 1879 noted that a northern California paper averred that he “is among the great landowners of Los Angeles county, and that is homestead farm covers 1,300 acres of the best land in the county.” The Express, though, commented that “this will be news to the friends and neighbors of the gentleman at his home at the Mission of San Gabriel” because it was nowhere near the size and it attempted a bit of humor by mockingly comparing Howard’s “estate” with that of such large-scale land owners as Lloyd and Tevis of San Francisco and cattle barons Miller & Lux.

Express, 23 December 1876.

There are some other interesting and brief San Gabriel references in the last half of the Seventies, when the region, state and nation were mired in a deep economic depression, which, locally, included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank. The 23 December 1876 edition of the Express reported on receiving from the “plantation” of Luther H. Titus, a settler at San Gabriel four years prior, of “three beautiful specimens of citrous [sic] fruit, consisting of two immense lemons and one orange” from his Dew Drop Ranch and considered “really beautiful samples of our semi-tropical productions.”

Other agricultural items included another example of the pastime of sending in abnormally large products of the soil as testaments to the incredible fertility of farms locally when the Express of 11 February 1879 noted that Henry Hamilton, the former publisher of the Star and lately a fruit grower next to the Mission San Gabriel, sent a cluster of fifteen oranges on a branch not much thicker than a finger and which weighted 12 pounds. Two months later, the paper noted that orange growers at San Gabriel and in Los Angeles chose to consign their fruit to just two commission houses in San Francisco instead of a larger number which was past practice.

Express, 11 February 1879.

The Herald of 27 July 1878 reported that “a telegraph station will shortly be established at the Mission of San Gabriel,” which would greatly benefit locals force to make the nearly 10-mile trip to Los Angeles to send dispatches. This presaging of progress, following the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad line to the town in 1874, would later be followed by calls for a suburban streetcar system to come out to San Gabriel.

That, however, takes us to the first half of the 1880s and part two of this post, which we’ll publish tomorrow. The stereoscopic photograph of the Mission used here was taken by Henry T. Payne and may be from 1872 before the Southern Pacific rail line was built about where the fence in the foreground was.

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