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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s Mission City Affinity presentation covered aspects of the Workman and Temple family’s involvement with the Mission San Gabriel and the town of that name from 1842 to 1972, from the grant of Rancho La Puente, a former mission property, to the use of the mission by family members for sacraments from baptism to funerals, through Walter P. Temple’s extensive development of commercial buildings across the street from the old stone church, to his son Thomas’s forty years of service as the city and mission historian.

This third and final part of a post looking at elements of the history of the mission and town during the decade from 1876 to 1885 focuses mainly of visits and descriptions of San Gabriel with a couple of extra items. The 29 March 1882 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which was all of four months old, included mention of the area as part of a visit to the broader area embraced by the San Gabriel Township.

An 1890s cabinet card photograph, from the Museum’s holdings, of the Mission San Gabriel stone church and part of the arbor spanning from the belfry to the adobe rectory, a small sliver of which is at the far left. note the white cross and date of “1778” on the church wall, as well as the pepper trees. The trees and arbor are mentioned below.

Not long after an unnamed reporter headed out of the Angel City, there was a visit to the new James de Barth Shorb winery, denoted the San Gabriel and situated on the west end of the city of Alhambra, and “the mansion and beautiful grounds of that well-known and enterprising gentleman,” this latter being the site of today’s Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. As a side-note, it was observed that a new street in Alhambra was dedicated to the recently assassinated President James Garfield.

The account continued that, with the long economic depression that took place over much of the 1870s easing up,

The Alhambra and San Gabriel districts are in common with this city and surroundings generally, rapidly filling up with new-comers. New houses, barns, orchards, vineyards and grain fields can be seen on every hand. The beautiful blossoms of the peach trees were especially noticeable everywhere on the route, forming a magnificent contrast with the snow-capped peak of “Old Baldy.”

It was added that “a visit to Mission San Gabriel is always of peculiar interest,” but the reporter pressed on to the Sunny Slope Ranch of Leonard J. Rose, whose operation with Charles Stern, was described in the second part of this post, and then to “Lucky” Baldwin’s showpiece on the Rancho Santa Anita in what soon became Arcadia, where there was a “wealth of fruits, vines and cereals.” The account ended with the observation that “a noteworthy feature of the San Gabriel Valley is the largely increased acreage of grain fields and vineyards, the grain showing unmistakable signs of developing into a bounteous harvest.”

Los Angeles Times, 29 March 1882.

A couple of weeks later, in its issue of 16 April, the Times quoted from a visit by a staff member of the San Jose Mercury, who traveled to San Gabriel from Los Angeles and commented that on the way “one finds many small, comfortably improved farms” and that “the people are principally English, thrift and industry are everywhere evinced, and the region seems to be pervaded with a spirit of happiness and content.” At the hamlet of San Gabriel, the reported recorded

The quiet old Mission, with its ancient church and moss-grown walls, takes one back to an age gone-by. There are about a hundred inhabitants, and only white family in the place. The one white man is a blacksmith, and all other business is “run” by the Mexicans. There are several gin-shops and stores where whisky and “jerky” are sold.

The writer observed a funeral that was considered old-fashioned because the coffin was transported on a bier, evidently carried by the pallbearers, and which “added to the ancient appearance of the little old Spanish town. As to the grain fields, the produce of these was considered only sufficient for local purposes.

Times, 16 April 1882.

Two months later, the Times of 20 June reported that the situation in the San Gabriel area was “progressing” including more lumber being transported to the Shorb winery on what “hitherto [was] a barren plain.” Meanwhile, it continued, “the old resident notices with pleasure that the improvements on the plateau this side [west] of the old Mission at San Gabriel are yearly gaining upon the wilderness, and ere long it will be a continuous garden to the San Gabriel river.” Those who knew the area a decade before were “liable to get lost among the cottages, vineyards, orchards and avenues even now” and it was averred that the time would come when “from the mountains to the sea there will not be an acre of unimproved land.

Another notable occurrence of that period was the arrival of artist Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894), a native of New York who studied in Paris and Florence before settling in Chicago, where, however, his art works were lost in the great fire of 1871. Four years later, Ford relocated to Santa Barbara and became entranced by the missions, riding throughout the Golden State to sketch what was left of the institutions.

Times, 20 June 1882.

The 2 August 1882 edition of the Times observed that Ford created “a fine view of the Mission of San Gabriel as you pass out towards the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel Mountains.” This rendering, the paper observed, included its opinion that “the old house near the church, with its trellis of green vines, the tall trees that shade the mission’s side, the far stretch of plain, and the glimpse of distant mountain heights, form as lovely a California idyl[l] as can be written in words or colors.” It appears that the house was the adobe church rectory with the adjoining trellis on the Mission Road side, while the trees were peppers planted along the south elevation of the stone church, as the accompanying cabinet card photo here shows.

In its 16 November 1882 edition, the paper quoted from the Chicago Times and its discussion of Ford’s travels and renderings of the missions, with the Windy City publication noting

Among the more noticeable canvases which form this connected series is the mission of San Gabriel near Los Angeles. The building is still well preserved, and the curious extension of the main wall serves as a bell tower, the bells being set in a series of small arches in the upper part. Around the building are beautiful gardens, the spreading palms and olive trees planted by the monks [missionaries] long years ago, and grounds bright with semi-tropical plants.

The 24 May 1883 issue of the Los Angeles Herald included an interesting account of a visit through parts of greater Los Angeles, with the unnamed writer observing that, after leaving the Los Nietos Township in what is now Downey, Santa Fe Springs and surrounding areas, “we come to the picturesque locality known as La Misión Vieja.” We’ll return for a future post to the description of the area surrounding the original location of the Mission San Gabriel, but it was claimed that ruins of the mission were to be found, though this was not the case as the buildings in the 1770s were made of tule and rough wood and not extant—adobe remnants of a house were misidentified as the old mission site.

Times, 2 August 1882.

Heading up what is now San Gabriel Boulevard, the traveler passed west of the ranchos Potrero de Felipe Lugo and Potrero Grande, formerly owned by William Workman, F.P.F. Temple and Juan Matias Sánchez, but lost after the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank to “Lucky” Baldwin and his agent, Richard Garvey. Continuing towards San Gabriel, it was noticed that there were many fields of grain, some better maintained than others, “while some planted where Dame Nature has left a few dry streaks, looks badly.”

Why this account was written so that it was deemed that “it is unnecessary to mention the drive through San Gabriel” was not explained other than it averred that this and the trip “past the grand Shorb winery [and] home” was notable because “nine-tenths of the residents are utterly disgruntled because of the failure to make the necessary arrangements for the construction of the narrow-gauge [railroad],” which was deemed essential for the area, including Pasadena. The prior part of this post mentioned that there was talk of a streetcar line extending from East Los Angeles [Lincoln Heights,] but such a system had to wait another decade or so until Henry E. Huntington’s Pacific Electric line was built to the area.

Times, 16 November 1882.

Jeanne C. Carr, who moved to the west end of Pasadena in 1869 with her retired professor husband Ezra and settled at Carmelita [get it?] Gardens where the Norton Simon Museum is now, became widely known for her writings on the Mission San Gabriel and surrounding area. The Times of 6 June 1883 printed an extract of an essay penned by Carr for a forthcoming publication on Pasadena, San Gabriel, Sierra Madre and La Cañada to be titled “A Southern Californian Paradise. Carr stated that “the San Gabriel Valley has been for a hundred years the most interesting horticultural region in the United States and she praised the Franciscan missionaries for their astuteness in choosing sites for cultivation and the scenery of these locales.

Especially impressive, she continued, was the area now embraced by her town of Pasadena as she rhapsodized over the wildflowers, wild grape vines and the cacti, while she noted the beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains, as well. Bears, deer, quail, geese and a panoply of birds were also mentioned as were the livestock of horses and cattle raised under the auspices of the priests at the Mission. Carr carried on with the remark that “the year 1883 finds the San Gabriel valley one vast orchard and vineyard” while she singled out a palm tree, 75 feet tall, standing above the oranges and olives, these latter producing over a half-century without interruption from frost.

Los Angeles Herald, 24 May 1883.

Carr stated that, fifty years prior, there were two orange groves in the Los Angeles area producing up to 6,000 fruit each season, but that there was commercial value, while, at the time of her essay, she remarked that there were 70,000 bearing trees in the county, with produce sent throughout the country and to England with profits ranging from $250 to $1,000 an acre, this last from the famous Wolfskill orchard, the first commercial enterprise in California in the Angel City, but which would, within a half-dozen years, be sold, razed and turned into a tract, becoming what is now a gritty industrial area. The writer noted that the better quality oranges did well commercially, though there were “inferior seedlings” flooding the market.

As for vineyards, it was observed that grape-growing “has been one of the most uniformly profitable” of agricultural endeavors and the use of rail transport also made raisin raising possible, as noted in the last part of this post with the efforts if Ira W. Felt. Carr noted that the Mission grape, sturdy and hardy, was so tough that she transplanted a vine that she claimed was bearing for ninety years to her Carmelita and that its “young wood [was] as bright and vigorous as a vine of yesterday.”

Times, 6 June 1883.

Carr also wrote briefly of the olive, introduced as was the orange and grape, by the missionaries and recorded that the infestation of scale nearly ruined the first two, though work by the state was such that “a vigorous war of extermination has been successfully maintained” and the olive stood a good chance to flourish again after neglect following the secularization of the missions in the 1830s. Soon, the fruit became the focal point of a massive effort at Sylmar, in the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley, as a recent post here discussed.

The author then provided the amount of acreage devoted in Pasadena to the cultivation of varieties of grapes, citrus, deciduous fruits and nuts, while Carr added that “the beauty of the gardens in the San Gabriel valley . . . is becoming celebrated.” After providing some examples, she commented that “it was in a climate like this that the Greek cities clustered richly together, and Art was born.” Just as the Greeks “gave law and order to a barbarous world,” she went on,

we are justified in believing that the San Gabriel valley will be peopled with a community wise enough to lead generous and contented lives, and good enough to labor with one accord for the social, material and spiritual welfare of the race.

Whether she meant to the human race or not is interesting to ponder. The 6 May 1884 edition of the Herald brought another female perspective to San Gabriel, this one from Fannie Isabel Sherrick, who achieved some renown as a poet and was also a newspaper correspondent, whose account appeared in the Missouri Republican. In her visit at the mission, she recorded that “the old church is still standing in a good state of preservation,” though she thought it was nearly 120 years old—the San Gabriel edifice was probably completed earlier in the 19th century.

Another 1890s cabinet card image from the Homestead’s collection showing the interior of the stone church after the 1885 renovations mentioned below.

Sherrick added that the roof was recently covered with wood shingles, while “the doors of the church are worm-eaten and the walls stained with rains of many years.” Moreover, she stated, the altar’s stone steps were boarded over and the area carpeted because of decay. A stone paving replaced the pounded dirt floor of old, she continued, while “on the dark walls are many paintings, some of them said to be quite valuable” and “are said to have been brought from Spain by the friars.”

The writer echoed what was said above about the gardens, orchards and vineyards including the “Mother Vineyard,” once said to contain 100,000 vines and which supplied cuttings for others in the region. Portions of a vast cactus hedge that was up to 15 feet high and enclosing a tract three miles square were still extant. Sherrick noted that

Opposite the old church, just across the street, is a part of the old garden or orchard. This is in charge of an old Mexican, who takes pleasure (for a consideration) in showing visitors through the grounds. One of the wonders of the place is a date palm seventy feet high and one hundred and twenty years old. It is almost as much a curiosity as the old man himself, who looks as though he could beat the palm’s record by a score of years.

Aside from the problem of chronology with the tree, given that the mission did not move to its current location until around 1775, it is notable that, in the early 1920s, Walter P. Temple purchased a tract across from the mission on which he built the city library and post office, a two-story office building and a one-story arcade of stores, as well as donated a site for the city hall. Moreover, he took the effort and expense of relocating a palm tree from the property to the Homestead, where it was replanted at the southeast corner of La Casa Nueva and remained there until it died several years ago—it’s tempting to think the tree is the same one described by Sherrick.

Herald, 6 May 1884.

Just a few days prior to her visit, the mission guard house collapsed, while “a small portion of the grist mills is also standing near the railroad track” and one of them, she noted, became the El Molino residence, formerly owned by Edward J.C. Kewen and then Edward and Emily Mayberry. Typical of the attitude of many Anglos, visitors and locals, is Sherrick’s view of the denizens of San Gabriel, as she wrote that the Latinos “who live in these adobe dwellings around the church are in general indolent and ignorant” and that “their houses are far from cleanly and are guiltless of any attempt at ornamentation.”

Moreover, she averred that the Spanish-speaking population had no interest in learning English and “are utterly indifferent to all around them and only seem waiting for the inevitable wave of American progress that will sweep them into oblivion.” Already, she claimed, Latinos were “being crowded out of their resting place and one by one the adobes are falling into ruins or giving way to the thrifty homes of the Americans.” Trying somehow to balance empathy with her harsh judgments, Sherrick added,

There is certainly a pathetic element in this gradual decay, which appeals largely to our sympathies, yet it would be a false sentimentality to sigh over the sorrows of a people whose time had gone by and who are too ignorant to know how completely their interests are being annihilated.

A further emphasis of degradation was the writer’s comment that the adobe rectory and the El Campo Santo burial ground next to the north elevation of the church for the clergy were in decay, with graves covered by weeds and where “the air is damp and chill, like the suffocating atmosphere of the old church,” so Sherrick remarked that “it is a relief to turn aside into the bright, warm sunshine.”

Herald, 6 May 1884.

Feeding her romantic imagination, the author discussed the belfry, of which four of the original six bells remained (one of the missing ones ended up at Baldwin’s Santa Anita headquarters and he feigned ignorance as to how it got there, though it was eventually returned.) She had a vision of the mission period including “the dusky neophytes marching in grand procession” to the church when summoned by the tolling of the bells” while imagining “how like a fable it seems the faith of these tanned savages who knelt at the foot of the cross and grew gentle under the clam eyes of the Madonna.” In the end, she concluded, the remains of the Mission were a lasting monument to the patience, zeal and industry of the friars,” rather than the deleterious effects the missionary project had on the indigenous people.

The Herald of 5 December 1885, appearing just before the completion that month of a direct transcontinental railroad line by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe that helped usher in the Boom of the Eighties that transformed the region and brought more tourism to San Gabriel, remarked on renovations taking place at the mission church. It was reported that “the roof has been raised and a fine groined arch ceiling spread over the whole edifice,” while the windows, reported by Sherrick as being quite small, were enlarged “and a full set of handsome stained glass cathedral windows put in.”

Herald, 5 December 1885.

A new floor was provided as were comfortable seats in the aisles, while the removal of steps leading to the sanctuary revealed “a set of sold stone steps” and these were “covered by narrow cushions, or a strip of carpet, which would allow the fine steps to be seen.” This was at the suggestion of architect Burgess G. Reeve, who designed the Phillips Block on Spring Street and the St. Vincent’s College campus on Washington and Grand in Los Angeles, among others. To date, the expense of the work on what was claimed to be a 120-year old building (it was more like 80), was $2,000, but another $1,000 was needed, so the project was in suspension pending the securing of those additional funds.

These tidbits of San Gabriel history have been offered as a complement to the Mission City Affinity talk, a recorded version of which should be available on the Homestead’s YouTube channel within a few days. Next in the series of presentations, with the date yet to be determined, is one about the Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, community, so look for future posts in conjunction with that event, sometime in the first part of 2024.

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