LOS ANGELES WHEN IT WAS “THE CITY OF VINES,” By Mrs. A. S. C. Forbes

“Of the many different eras of this spectacular City of the Angels, there is none more interesting and spectacular than the period when grape culture was the leading industry and the City of Los Angeles was know as ‘The City of Vines.’

This period extended from about the year 1835 to 1875. The vineyards and orchards extended from the heart of the City to the southern boundary, and far beyond. When the vines and trees were in full bloom or were laden with ripening fruit the little western town was a scene of great beauty. The route from the harbor at San Pedro approached Los Angeles through these vineyards and orchards on a narrow lane known for many years as ‘Vineyard Lane.’ It was about ten feet wide, and along a portion of the way, was bordered with waving willow trees. Here and there were low adobe houses with red tile roofs that added greater charm to the vista.

Secretary William H. Seward said in his memorable speech, made in 1869 during a visit to Los Angeles, that he had visited a great many countries to view the remarkable beauties of the different lands, and among them he had gone to Burgundy to see the most celebrated vineyards in the world but the vineyards of Los Angeles far surpassed them all.

Most writers in the past have been content with painting the Pueblo de Los Angeles as a wee, sunburnt village without shade trees and vines. That is generally true of all business centers, but it seems strange never to have given thought to these acres upon acres of vines and vineyards, orchards and shade trees that surrounded the Pueblo, nor to have remembered the beautiful description of this valley of the Angels given by Fray Juan Crespi, the chronicler of the Spaniards when they made their first overland journey of exploration through this wilderness of the west. He said of this Valley that is was an extensive plain where a good village of Indians lived in a delightful place among trees along the river. After crossing the river, which he named Porciuncula, the expedition entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and saw an infinity of rose bushes in full bloom. He describes the soil as black and loamy and capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted and records that they went west continually over good lands covered with grass. It gives a happy and very pleasing impression of the Valley that was to become ‘The City of Vines.’

It is difficult to learn with any degree of accuracy when the first real vineyard was planted in Los Angeles. We do know that in 1829 or 1830, Jean Luis Vignes, a native of Bordeaux, France, came to Los Angeles to make his home, and that he secured 104 acres of land facing the present Aliso Street and extending to the river, and that he planted a vineyard. He named his place ‘El Aliso,’ from the stately old alder tree that graced the lot and shaded his wine cellars. This tree has been called a sycamore, but as the Spanish word for alder is aliso, and the Spanish word for sycamore is sicomoro, it would seem that the tree was an alder. Also, they are a different kind of tree. The alder is of the genus Alnus and the sycamore is of the genus Platanus, Plane tree. This grand old sentinel ‘El Aliso’ was chopped down to make room for the Philadelphia brewhouse. As it lay denuded of leafage, a pathetic old trunk, huge and gnarled, Mr. Charles Gibbs Adams, then a boy interested in all trees and now a noted landscape architect, counted the rings of the trunk and found the age of the tree to be more than four hundred years. Alders are not credited with great age while sycamores grow old and are sturdy.

Another very early vineyard, and quite important in extent, was one owned by Juan Domingo. It was located at the present site of First and Alameda streets. Domingo, whose true name was Johannes Gronigen, was a native of Holland. He was the ship carpenter on the American brig Danube that was wrecked in the harbor at San Pedro, Christmas day, 1828. The ship was a total loss and only a few of the crew was saved. They were brought to Los Angeles as prisoners but the mayor decided to permit them to remain and become citizens of the Pueblo.

Groningen, who was slightly lame, became known to the Spanish residents of Los Angeles as Juan Cojo (Lame John), a name he retained until after he accepted the Catholic religion, and received baptism, at which time he assumed the name of Juan Domingo (John Sunday). On February 12, 1839, Juan married Senorita Reymunda Feliz. Later he became active in public affairs, and acquired considerable property. It is stated by some writers that he purchased the site of the Indian village of Yanga or Yangna and drove the Indians to a new location. But Fray Juan Crespi writes in his diary that the first Spanish expedition under command of Gov. Gasper de Portola, on their way to Monterey, camped August 2, 1769, at a place where there was a good village of Indians living in a delightful place among trees along the river, and that after crossing the river, which was named Porciuncula, they proceeded on their journey. This account very definitely places the village of Yanga on the east bank of the Los Angeles River. As the earliest ford of the river was at Aliso Street near the Vignes vineyard, on the road to Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, and the old maps and surveys show a group of Indian huts at this point, on the east bank of the river, it is fair to assume that this was the original location of Yanga, the village of the Ya Indians.

Juan Domingo built a comfortable home and cultivated an extensive vineyard.

As grapes were one of the staple articles of food, each home, in early days of California, had arbors, or bunch-vines of grapes. The vineyardists obtained their young vines from the ‘Mother Vineyard’ at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. The thrifty padres set out vineyards and planted orchards of lemons, oranges, prunes, olives, and walnuts. They had sent a caravan, under Cornenio Agina, in 1786, to Sinaloa, Mexico, for necessary shade trees, vegetable seeds, plants, and vines for their gardens. The same year these supplies were augmented by a generous gift made to the Missions by M. John Francis Galaup de la Perouse, who says in his diary, that he enriched the gardens of the Governor of California and the Missions with different grains and seeds brought by his expedition from Paris, France. He mentions especially, the potato, of which he says, ‘Our gardener gave the missionaries some potatoes of Chili in perfect preservation, which in my opinion was not the least valuable of our presents, and which will certainly thrive in the light but fertile soil of the environs of Monterey.’ M. Perouse brought with him eight bushels of grape seeds, and also vines of the Golden Chasselas, the Muscadine, and the hardy Raisin de Corinthe.

It is of interest to note what this great traveler and writer had to say about California in general. He says, ‘The crops of maise, barley, wheat, and peas can only be compared with those in Chili, and that Europe has no conception of so abundant fertility as is found in this wonderful land.’

From time to time different superior varieties of grapes were introduced from foreign countries and California became noted for the excellence of its wines and brandies. We probably received some of these fine varieties of grapes from de la Perouse. However, proper culture of the grape had, and has, much to do with the flavor of the fruit and also the quantity of production. For example, take that great grape-vine of San Gabriel. It was but a wild grape vine brought from the canyon near the home of B. D. Wilson. The full history of this vine is given here in a copy of an affidavit, the original of which is owned by Mrs. Susan Thompson Parrish, who lives near El Monte, Los Angeles County, and who was one of the three persons present at the planting. It is:

‘State of California,
County of Los Angeles,
Personally appeared before me, one David Franklin Hall, who personally deposes and says as follows:
In 1854, Dr. George I. Rice and I bought of Hipolito Cervantes the house and lot now known as the Grapevine property. The house was a small affair, of three rooms, and a bat roof, and there was no grapevine on the lot.
L. J. Rose’s purchase of land, which he improved and called Sunny Slope, included the house of Courtney, I (a son-in-law of Michael White, one of the oldest pioneers), on which he (Courtney) had transplanted a wild grape vine he procured from a canyon near the home of B. D. Wilson (Lake Vineyard).
Its location obstructed the plans of Mr. Rose, and he gladly gave it to me, and assisted me in digging it up. It had been pruned to a height of two and a half (2 1/2) or three (3) feet, and the trunk had thickened to a diameter of three or four inches. We left one short branch on it. I took it in my buggy to my own house, and placed it where it now flourishes, in the spring of 1861.
It grew luxuriantly from the start, and we used its shelter as a summer kitchen until I sold the premises to Mr. Bailey in 1881 or 1882, of which date I am not positive, but I had been there continuously for twenty-seven years.
David Franklin Hall
Subscribed and sworn to before me, this 10th day of January, 1908.
D. R. Weller
Notary Public in and for Los Angeles County, California.’

Today this vine is a landmark because of its great size and prolific production of grapes, and it should he known and heralded as the wild grape vine of California.

There are over two hundred species of the Vitus of which the best known and most widely cultivated is the Vitus Vinifera, the true wild grape vine of many countries. There are but ten species indigenous to the soil of the United States and of these ten there are but four of real commercial value. They are the Vitus Rotunifolia, Vitus Cordifolia, Vitus Labrusca, and Vitus Aestivalis.

It takes from three to four years for most varieties of grapes to come into full commercial hearing, therefore, it was about 1838 or 1840 that the vines of Don Luis Vignes at ‘El Aliso’ came into bearing. His vines were trained over arbors, one being nearly a half mile in length. It extended from within a short distance of his house to the river, and the thousand or more vines that trailed over this arbor formed a shelter of beauty that became the scene of many gay parties and sometimes of stirring political rallies. To protect his fruit Don Luis built a high adobe wall about much of his acreage and planted hedges along the riverside. A narrow lane about ten feet wide led from near the Plaza down by ‘El Aliso,’ and across the river past the Indian Village located on the east bank. This village was a group of rustic huts where the natives lived who trod the grapes that made the wines and brandies for Vignes and others.

In 1839, Pierre Sainsevain, a nephew of Vignes, came to Los Angeles to assist his uncle. Ten years later another nephew, Luis Sainsevain, a brother of Pierre, arrived and within a few years, in fact on April 14th, 1855, the Sainsevains purchased, for the sum of $42,000, the vineyards, cellars, orchards, and other property belonging to their uncle, Luis Vignes, and began to make champagne and other fancy wines for the San Francisco market.

It was in the shelter of this beautiful garden of grapes and surrounding orange groves that Captain Banning made his memorable patriotic speech on July 4th, 1861. He flung defiance at the traitors to the United States Government whom he knew to be within the sound of his voice.

A portion of the Vignes acreage was sold to Dona Teresa Varela, and the part along the river and Aliso road went to Ballesteros.

William Wolfskill, who came to Los Angeles in 1831, secured a tract of land south of the Vignes-Sainsevain place and planted a vineyard. His land extended to and beyond the present site of the Southern Pacific Railroad depot at Fifth Street and Central Avenue. In 1850, Mr. Wolfskill had a garden of 50,000 vines, 32,000 in full bearing, and it is stated that his vineyard would yield 1,000 barrels of wine per annum. His son-in-law, Henry Dwight Barrows, a founder and past president of the Historical Society of Southern California, and instructor of the Wolfskill children, engaged in grape culture. He cultivated part of the Wolfskill vineyard and also a portion of land owned by Prudence Beaudry. Mr. Wolfskill built an attractive home at the present Fourth and Alameda Streets where he established a private school in order that his six children might receive proper education.

In 1849, Dr. Leonce Huber, a native of Switzerland and former surgeon in the army of Napoleon, came to Los Angeles with his, two daughters and son. They came overland across the plains by ox-team, typically and truly 49ers. For a time they lived on the Wolfskill ranch but soon located themselves on a ten acre tract at the present Macy Street district. He called his place ‘Clayton Vineyard’ and was one of the first to engage extensively in wine making. He secured his young vines from Jose Serrano, one of the earliest vineyardists. The grand daughter of Dr. Heber, who had changed his name to Hoover, married Dr. Granville MacGowan. Hoover Street was named in honor of this family of Hubers.

There were two different men by the name of Huber who planted vineyards in this enticing little ‘City of Vines.’ The second came here from Kentucky in 1855, accompanied by his son William. He came for the benefit of his health and soon found that the climate and general conditions justified him in sending for his family which consisted of wife and four other children, two girls and two boys, Edward and Joseph. They found him settled on the Foster vineyard, or rather that portion that ran from about Second Street to Sixth and from Alameda Street to the river. They came in the hey-day of the unique western town that knew not the glory of its own inheritance, nor did it recognize the commercial opportunity of its productive grape industry. It lay wrapt in its mantle of vine clad beauty and was content to spend the day in day-dreaming and the night in dancing. But the coming of these young people threw a certain glamour of newness and thrill about the social circle of the wee City of Vines and things began to change in accordance with certain American ideas of conventionality and amenity. In time Miss Emilie Huber became the wife of O. W. Childs and Miss Caroline married Dr. Frederick Preston Howard. For many years these families were social leaders in Los Angeles.

Each year added more American names to the roster of vineyardists, and many large land holdings of the Mexicans and Spaniards were subdivided and new vineyards planted. East of Main Street to the river was an unbroken acreage of vineyards and orchards extending to the southern boundary of the City and far beyond. It would be impossible to mention all of the eighty-five or ninety vineyardists that constituted the colony engaged in viticulture, but many of the well known names and the general location of their vineyards are here given.

Beginning at the bluff where the river rounds the point near the location of the old water-wheel, the vineyards along the river were owned by Louis Wilhart, Porter, Foster, D. Sepulveda, Mrs. White, Sainsevains, Messer. Huber, Keller, Martinez, and Carrion. Other vineyards to the west were owned by the Avilas, the Apablases, Sanchez, Ballesteros, Ramirez, and Juan Domingo. These vineyards lay north of First Street and faced the road leading to San Pedro, often called Vine or Vineyard Lane. Further south lay the beautiful lands of William Wolfskill, Barrows, Weyse, Coronel, Temple, Sabichi, Moran. Vejar, Lugo, and Foster, and Jose de Rubio. Jose de Rubio had two vineyards, one on each side of the river. He is mentioned in history as having a family of twenty-five children, so he probably needed the two vineyards.

The commercial value of the grape industry is shown in financial records as having been of considerable importance. In 1857, General Banning shipped twenty-one thousand crates of grapes to San Francisco via San Pedro. The average weight of a crate was recorded as forty-five pounds and the market price in San Francisco was twenty cents per pound. The same year, two hundred and fifty thousand gallons of wine was exported, which was about the average per annum at that time. At the height of the industry it has been estimated that there were more than four million, five hundred thousand grape vines in and about the vicinity of the ‘City of Vines.’

We recall that the Missions made vast quantities of wines and brandies and that these commodities were a distinct medium of exchange in the handling of trade in the early days. To assist in the building of the Church of Our Lady of the Angels at the Plaza of Los Angeles many of the Missions contributed brandy and wine as well as cattle. Eleven barrels of brandy and a barrel of white wine was gratefully received and converted into cash to pay for the labor of building the church.

There are many other names familiar to us that were connected with the grape industry, for instance, Newmark, E. J. Baldwin, Hafer, Dalton, Clement, Morris, J. J. Warner and others all owning vineyards at one time or another south of the town and extending both east and west of Main Street. There are many Spanish names also familiar that are found on the records as owning vineyards in this district. A very large property was that of Eulogio de Celis who owned the land from Washington Street, Pico and Main. One of the Machado tracts set out to vines was on west Washington where now the Polytechnic High School stands. Again, on Main Street and San Pedro be- ween Fourth and Fifth Streets, Dr. J. S. Ogier owned a vineyard that he had purchased from Dona Cataline Moreno. Surrounding this tract were those of Don Agustin Machado, Don Julian Valdez, Dolores Urquides and the Morenos.

Stephen C. Foster and Don Antonio Maria Lugo, a father-in-law^ of Foster, had a flourishing vineyard of twelve and a half acres south of the City limits near Compton. Don Lugo had also a spacious town house at the corner of east Second Street and San Pedro, where of course he had vines. Don Lugo is credited with having given easement to the land in front of the church that there might be the customary plaza. The Vicente residence which was built some years after the completion of the Plaza Church is still standing at No. 516-22, North Los Angeles Street. It is more than a century old, is in good condition and is occupied now by Chinese merchants, but alas, no grape vines are there.

The Foster and Lugo vineyard south of town was surrounded by other vineyards owned by Jose de Lopez, Antonio Ygnacio Avila, Victoria Sanchez de Aguilar and the Cota heirs. Mark Brundage had a twenty-nine acre vineyard in this vicinity, bordering on Vineyard Lane.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of the Internet Archive, Historical Society of Southern California, “Annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California,” by Pioneers of Los Angeles County, 1932. (top) Image courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Los Angeles Times, Midwinter Number, January 1, 1900

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