Grape Expectations Recap: Liquor and Wine Dealer Henry J. Woollacott of Los Angeles, 1858-1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s presentation to the University Club of Claremont was a reprise of the “Grape Expectations” talk given earlier this year at the Ovitt Community Library in Ontario, in which artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, ranging from 1864 to 1929, were the basis of a general talk on the grape-growing and wine-making industries in greater Los Angeles during that time period and before.

The discussion began with the inauguration of viticulture and wine manufacturing by the Franciscan missionaries when the chain of 21 California missions were established starting in 1769, including at San Gabriel, the so-called “Queen of the Missions.” The secular industry began in Los Angeles with cuttings from the vines at the mission and it was pointed out that, from early on, there was a significant ethnic diversity among viticulturists in the region.

The Woollacott family listed at Salt Lake City in the 1860 census, a half-dozen years after their migration from England.

There were Californio growers, whether it be Tomás Rubio along the east bank of the Los Angeles River in what was known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) and later renamed Boyle Heights, or Tiburcio Tapía and his Rancho Cucamonga, far to the east, as just two examples. During the later Mexican period, American John Rowland and England native William Workman settled on the Rancho La Puente and quickly adopted viticulture.

We know that, when the 1850 census (actually enumerated early the following year after California’s admission to the Union in September 1850) was taken, Workman already had pressed wine on hand, which would have required at least a few years for grapes to mature. In Los Angeles, the Irish-born Mathew Keller and Andrew Boyle, who took over the Paredon Blanco area from Rubio and the López family, were also making and selling wine from the 1850s onward.

An early reference to Woollacott in Los Angeles from the Los Angeles Herald, 26 May 1878.

Early French-born winemakers included the Sainsevain brothers and Jean Louis Vignes, while there were also the German-born Charles Kohler and John Frohling, who later became major figures in the wine industry at San Francisco. It would be a little while later that Italian viticulturists and wine-makers, such as Antonio Pelanconi and Secondo Guasti, plied their trade in the Angel City and a small thoroughfare at the north end of the Plaza was known as Wine Street before it was renamed after the late Judge Agustín Olvera (and, decades later, became the tourist enclave that Olvera Street remains nearly a century on.)

The San Gabriel Valley was the hub of the region’s wine-making industry by the 1860s, with Benjamin D. Wilson at his Lake Vineyard (a property owned by the indigenous woman, Victoria Bartolomea, wife of the Scottish-born Hugo Reid) and Leonard J. Rose, a native of Bavaria in the southern part of what became Germany, among the most prominent of viticulturists in a region full of them, thanks to the incredibly fertile soil and abundant water found there.

An early ad for Woollacott’s wine and liquor dealing house, Los Angeles Express, 13 December 1880.

In 1857, a San Francisco immigrant association acquired substantial lands to the west of the Santa Ana River in what later became Orange County and these mostly German settlers established Anaheim. Vineyards were crucial to the project there and, despite the terrible floods of the winter of 1861-1862 and the devastating drought that followed in 1863 and 1864, grape growing and wine-making persisted in that community.

Even as superior growing conditions and manufacturing techniques in Sonoma and Napa counties north of San Francisco developed, thanks to such figures as Agoston and Harpad Haraszthy, among many others, and quickly overtook Los Angeles County as the viticulture capital of California, there was still a strong industry in this region. Generally, however, the quality of wine coming from greater Los Angeles paled in comparison to what was being developed in the north, especially with red wine from the so-called Mission grape considered vastly inferior. In fact, it was fermented wine in the form of brandy that was dominant here, as were sweet wines like the Angelica, that tended to be of better quality locally.

Herald, 17 February 1883.

While Wilson, Keller, and Rose invested heavily in marketing local wine, brandy, port and others in eastern markets, there were also many regional distributors of note, such as Eugene Germain and Henry J. Woollacott and this post provides some history of the latter, who was a prominent wine and liquor dealer for about a quarter-century from 1880 to 1905.

A November 1892 price list and catalog issued by Woollacott is the featured object from the Museum’s collection and is notable for both its content and its great imagery, including the ornately decorated front cover around the proprietor’s name and the publication title, which notably includes a bee hive. Otherwise, there are two panels showing three of his wine bottles (Riesling, Sauterne and Zinfandel), a vineyard and grape picking, as well as a bustling and massive wine cellar with casks labeled Angelica, Muscat, Port, Riesling and Zinfandel.

The text begins with the statement to the reader of:

I wish to call your attention to the fact that I have concluded to sell my products to the CONSUMER DIRECT in order to give you an ABSOLUTELY PURE article of WINES AND BRANDIES, and to guard against adulteration. In order that my vintages may be properly placed before you, I have perfected arrangements which have enabled me to forward an assortment to any railroad station in the United States at a small cost, taking into consideration the quality of goods.

Woollacott also offered a special trial offer of two cases, or 24 bottles, shipped free, of assorted products, including a half-dozen each of “old grape brandy,” angelical, muscatel, port and sherry for $11.00. Moreover, he had another assortment based on his dozen years of being in business and comprised of another two cases for $17.00 (again with free shipping) of the above varieties, along with tokay, madeira, sauterne, a zinfandel claret, burgundy, riesling, hock, orange wine and medoc. For $18.00, there was a 50-bottle case of two-dozen bottles each of hock and zinfandel and a pair of brandy. Otherwise, there were listings of a variety of wines and brandy by the gallon and case, as well as “Imperial Cabinet” champagne.

Notably, the dealer referred to adulteration, which was a common practice by wholesale and retail dealers in changing California wines and which often contributed to the poor reputation these had among connoisseurs elsewhere in the country and overseas. When the pamphlet was issued, moreover, the regional wine industry suffered heavily from such diseases as phylloxera (caused by aphids) and Pierce’s (originally called the Anaheim disease, because it was first noticed there in 1884 and which was caused by a bacterium.)

Pierce’s disease, in particular, ravaged the region’s vineyards, leaving virtually no area untouched, though the inland area at Cucamonga and Ontario fared far better. At the 75-acre Homestead, remnant of William Workman’s 24,000+-acre domain at Rancho La Puente, his grandson, Francis W. Temple, who was winemaker in Workman’s later years and then assumed control of the vineyard and winery after Workman’s 1876 suicide, was quite successful with this enterprise. What is not yet known is what happened to the Homestead’s vineyards during the onslaught of Pierce’s disease.

In any case, Woollacott’s use of the bee hive was because of his origins. His parents Elizabeth (Eliza) Stapleton, who hailed from Devon in the southwest portion of England and Henry Woollacott, also from England though the couple resided in Wales, as well, were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (commonly known as Mormons, though the church prefers the LDS designation). The couple and three daughters and an infant son sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans in February 1854 and then made their way to Salt Lake City, where Henry, a mason and stonecutter by trade, labored on the famous Temple Block in the Church capital city. Notably, just a short time later that year, the family of David Workman, William’s brother, stopped at Salt Lake City on their overland migration to California and were asked to settle in Utah, though they continued onward.

Henry was born at Salt Lake City and reared in the faith, attending the University of Deseret (a common name for Utah among the Church faithful and now the University of Utah) as a young man, essentially completing high school at the institution. In late 1876, at 18 years of age, Woollacott left home and migrated to Los Angeles, finding work at the wine and liquor store of the Scotland native, Alexander McKenzie. After a few years there, Woollacott, whose early years were marked by his service as an officer in the Los Angeles Guards, a state-chartered militia and by his status as a crack shot with the rifle, struck out on his own in the liquor and wine trade.

Herald, 20 March 1884.

He opened his business by September 1880 in the Mohr Block on Spring Street, located between where the street terminated at a triple intersection with Main and Temple on the north and First Street to the south and not far from the Angel City’s Temple Block. By the mid Eighties, he relocated nearby to a building he built on the east side of Spring north of First and which was briefly mentioned in a prior post here, and he also shipped oranges and other products out, including to Utah and sometimes with special packing arrangements and customized rail cars to prevent spoilage. By 1892, he’d added a warehouse and wine cellar in the H.J. Woollacott block on South Spring between 2nd and 3rd streets, as his business grew during the recent Boom of the Eighties (which occurred largely during 1887 and 1888 when William H. Workman was mayor of the Angel City.)

Woollacott’s adoption of the bee hive was presumably both a representation of his busy and thriving business and of his Utah origins. Yet, his work in the alcohol trade is interesting given his origins in a devout LDS family, but an interesting artifact explains the apparent dichotomy. George Q. Cannon, a native of Liverpool and who was 13 when his family converted to the LDS Church and migrated to America and who became a prominent Church figure and Utah delegate and then voting member in the House of Representatives, recorded in his journal entry of 2 September 1896 that, when arriving in Los Angeles with LDS President Wilford Woodruff (best known for officially ending plural marriages in the Church a half-dozen years prior—this was a precondition for Utah statehood which was achieved on 4 January 1896),

I called upon Henry J. Woollacott, who is President of the State Loan & Trust Bank, and a wholesale dealer in liquor, wines, &c, here, he having sent word, I heard, through President [Myron?] Tanner, proferring courtesies, which, however, I had not received. His mother is here and a widow, and has faith in the [LDS] Gospel. They formerly resided close to my family in the 14th ward [in Salt Lake City]. I hear that Henry has lost his faith, but is friendly. He is very wealthy.

Cannon added that when he, Woodruff and others returned from a pleasure excursion to Pasadena, “we went to the residence of Sister [Eliza] Woollacott and met with a number of the saints.” Woodruff and Cannon spoke with these Church faithful for a couple of hours “and gave them considerable instruction” with the entry noting “we had the use of Mr. Woollacott’s surrey [buggy] to carry us to and from the meeting.”

Herald, 23 July 1886.

So, it appears that, when Woollacott left home for Los Angeles two decades prior, he’d disassociated from the Church, though the reasons are not yet known. In 1883, however, his parents and other family members migrated to the Angel City and, within five years, his father died. His mother, however, was among the very few publicly practicing members of the LDS Church during those years (there was another family of former Church members near the Temples in the El Monte area, the Durfees, while Los Angeles Pigeon Farm owner James Y. Johnson was another early LDS transplant).

A 1989 master’s thesis by Chad Orton called “Saints in the Secular City: A History of the Los Angeles Stake,” noted that Eliza’s residence at 220 North Grand, where the county Hall of Administration now stands was “the cradle and refuge for Church members and missionaries during the infancy of the Church in Los Angeles.” Sunday school and sacramental services were held there, though by mid-1895, a space was rented just around the corner at 516 W. Temple (the county admin building’s address is 500). Yet, within a short time, Eliza induced her son to allow the Church to use the third floor of his Spring Street building at no coast. In October, the Los Angeles branch of the Southern California Conference of the California Mission was organized and there were 70 members by the end of the year and 120 within a year of formation.

Herald, 23 January 1889.

So, even though Woollacott was not a member of the Church, his mother’s ardent advocacy for the LDS in Los Angeles led him to support her in her efforts. In fact, a British correspondent to the Latter Day Saints’ Millenial Star publication in 1900 recorded that “Mr. Henry Woollacott and his wife [the former Mary Yates, a native of Los Angeles], from Los Angeles, California, U.S., called . . . prior to sailing home and purchased for their mother, Sister Eliza Woollacott, and India paper, morocco bound, highest price ‘Book of Mormon’ and ‘Book of Covenants’ in combination.”

Judging this to be a situation in which “no more satisfactory present from a son to his mother could be taken from Old England,” the account added that “there is a very fine branch of the Church in Los Angeles.” This was due to “the indefatigable labors of this brave, little woman, and to the liberality of Mr. Henry Woollacott, our visitor, who has for years provided a meeting-house without fee or reward, and has always befriended the Elders, though neither he nor his wife make any claim to membership in the Church.” The account concluded that, thanks to “the prayers of a faithful mother,” it could be assumed that Woollacott could be “sure of his reward.” The unnamed writer wished “the pleasant couple a safe journey from this land of clouds and rain to their sunny home in the unmistakable land of fruit and flowers.”

Los Angeles Record, 27 November 1900.

Strangely, in 1901, the Woollacotts were forced, to his chagrin, to publicly announce a separation, though they were sure to insist that there would be no divorce. In addition to alimony and other financial considerations, Mary retained custody of the two surviving minor children, while the eldest son, Albert, stayed with his father and the two opened an investment banking business together. When the 1910 federal census, however, was conducted, the couple were enumerated in the same household, showing a reconciliation.

Woollacott’s success in his wine and liquor dealing house was carried on in other business enterprises, including the aforementioned State Loan and Trust Bank, which he co-founded in 1889 and of which he was a long-term president of what was rebranded as the State Bank and Trust Company. He was also a director of the Title Guarantee and Trust Company, vice-president of his longtime friend Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin’s Santa Anita racetrack, and was involved in mining and other companies.

The Tidings, the Roman Catholic newspaper for the Los Angeles diocese, 22 December 1905.

From the early 1880s onward, moreover, he proved to be a shrewd and far-sighted real estate investor, acquiring property through downtown and south Los Angeles, as well as in Boyle Heights, Santa Monica and other regional locations. An early newspaper reference noted his acquisition of a number of properties through tax sales, which can be a remarkably inexpensive way to add to a portfolio. His Woollacott Block, where the warehouse and wine cellars were located and where the early LDS meeting house was situated is no longer extant, but a three-story business building on Main between 5th and 6th still stands and is now the Leonide Hotel. He also built a structure that housed the People’s (later, the Gaiety) Theatre, though this was razed long ago.

A resident of houses at Spring and 6th streets (a handsome Queen Anne), then at Hope and 10th, as the business sections of Los Angeles rapidly expanded, Woollacott’s last dwelling, a substantial Craftsman-style structure built in 1905 on Alvarado Street between 11th and 12th streets south of Westlake (MacArthur) Park is still with us and is now occupied by the Los Angeles Community Legal Center, which works with immigrant populations in that area.

Herald, 8 November 1910.

Woollacott died in November 1910, a few months after his mother’s passing, and was widely noted as one of the largest taxpayers in the Angel City due to his business and real estate holdings. His wine and liquor business closed in 1906 as he and his son devoted more time to their enterprise and the Lagomarsino Company took over operations. He left an estate of about a half million dollars, close to three-quarters of it in real estate holdings, to his wife and three children. Woollacott’s role in the wine industry was an important one for about a quarter-century and this pamphlet is an excellent artifact tied to his business.

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