Visiting L.A. History

The Ranch House at Rancho Los Alamitos

Over the last year or so, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old adobes that were associated with the Spanish and Mexican land grants into which the arable land of Los Angeles had been subdivided. These have included:

  • Centinela Adobe in Westchester
  • Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum in Rancho Dominguez
  • Leonis Adobe Museum in Calabasas
  • Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino
  • Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier
  • Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens in Long Beach
  • Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site in Long Beach

Of these, the most spectacular have been the Leonis Adobe and Rancho Los Alamitos, both of which have substantially larger budgets and more well-developed exhibits than the others.

When one has visited a number of these adobes, a pictures emerges of an agrarian life of herding sheep and cattle and of a few widely-separated ranches, mostly far from the Pueblo of Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (a.k.a. downtown Los Angeles), which was founded in 1781. In the years that followed, the map of Southern California was broken into large land grants:

Spanish Land Grants in the San Gabriel Valley

Small wonder that there are so many Spanish place names in L.A.! The land that was not part of a Spanish or Mexican land grant was either a town site, mountains, or desert.

Rancho Los Alamitos, which Martine and I visited today was surrounded by lush gardens of carefully chosen trees, flowers, and succulents.On the grounds is a deep artesian well that helped the land stay productive for agriculture for well over a century and a half.

Part of the Los Alamitos Gardens

It is also by far the most liveable of the adobes we have visited. For one thing, the original 19th century adobe structure was substantially added to. Unlike most adobes which are sparsely furnished with miscellaneous items that were never meant to coexist in the same room, at Los Alamitos we have the original furniture, library, kitchen appliances, including some pieces actually crafted by carpenter John Bixby, one of the original inhabitants.

Rancho Los Alamitos is a place of beauty which we will visit again.

 

 

A Tale of Two Civilizations

Statue of Leda and Zeus Disguised as a Swan

I tend to like to visit the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades at regular intervals. It is a museum primarily of Greek and Roman antiquities in a building that is based on Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri. For some reason, this visit I became interested in comparing Greek and Roman images to the Maya images I saw in Guatemala and Honduras in January. We know how Greek and Roman civilization contributed to later European civilization, especially from the Renaissance onward. But what about Maya civilization?

Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, Maya civilization was never wholly extinguished—although the Spanish under such conquistadores as the Montejos and Alvarado gave it their best shot. It continues to exist, though there are some major differences:

  • Maya civilization consisted, like the ancient Greeks, of city states—except, where the Greek language was widely understood, there are over thirty different major dialects of the Mayan language.
  • The god kings of the Maya polities were typically not worshiped across the entire Maya area.
  • Both civilizations had writing, but among the Maya, it was limited to the priestly scribes and not generally known even among the noble classes.
  • Most of the surviving Maya codices were burned by Catholic priests and monks as being heretical.
  • Today only a handful of Maya works survive dating from the early years of Maya-Spanish interaction, the most prominent of which if The Popol Vuh. In contrast, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of works coming to us from the Greeks and Romans.

Stela A from Copán in Honduras Depicting 18 Rabbit

Look at the figure above from Stela A in the Copán Museum. It depicts god king 18 Rabbit, thirteenth in the succession of Copán rulers, who was beheaded when Copán was defeated in war by the smaller polity of Quiriguá, after which point there wasn’t quite so much point in worshiping him. And this fact was discovered only after a century of research in deciphering Mayan glyphs. Mention 18 Rabbit to a Maya from Yucatán or Palenque, and you will only get a quizzical look. Not in their area, Mon!

Now look at the story of Leda and the Swan, and read W.B. Yeats’s great poem on the subject. In the Western world of today, tens of thousands of people are familiar with the myth, if not more.

 

The Laws Railroad Museum

Gas Station and Jalopy at Laws Railroad Museum

It was January 2010 when Martine and I last drove through the Eastern Sierras. One of our favorite destinations was an outdoor museum of pioneer life in the hamlet of Laws, CA. Four miles northeast of Bishop, Laws was a station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, which ran from Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA, site of the Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”) mines, which produced high grade silver, lead, and zinc. In 1900, the Carson & Colorado was sold to the Southern Pacific where it operated in various forms until around 1960.

Today, the Laws Museum is one of those outdoor museums to which various old local structures were moved, from railroad buildings and residences to various types of businesses. Martine and I plan to pay another visit next week.

One of the Original 19th Century Boxcars of the Old Carson & Colorado Railway

We love the strange desert landscapes of the areas flanked on one side by the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas on the left and the Inyo and White Mountains on the right. We expect that the Sierras will still be covered with snow because of the record precipitation this last winter.

 

Shake Rattle & Roll

Little Lake Just Off Highway 395

After a twenty-year period of calm, we are once again in the throes of a series of earthquakes. Now these quakes are not quite so dangerous in Los Angeles as they are at the epicenter in Ridgecrest, CA, which is 120 miles (193 kms) as the crow flies. With yesterday’s Richter 6.4 temblor, the quake hit us as a rolling motion that lasted about a minute. Today’s Richter 7.1 temblor was a few miles northwest of yesterday’s epicenter, but it came to us as a stronger, more long-lasting rolling motion.

The funny thing is that next Monday, we will be driving by Little Lake (shown above), which is approximately ten miles west of the epicenter. We will continue until we get to Lone Pine, where we will spend the night. At Lone Pine, we will be about 71 air miles north and slightly west of the epicenter.

Today’s quake was the first one that threw a scare into Martine, because of its strength and duration, but even more because she felt two quakes in as many days.

 

Nostalgie de Banlieu

Recent History from L.A. Northern Suburbs

If you’ve ever seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you have some idea of how the City of Los Angeles annexed most of the San Fernando Valley after William Mulholland’s aqueduct brought water several hundred miles from the Owens Valley to L.A. In the period of the movie, the Valley seemed to be mostly orchards. Today, some two million people live there. Its period of greatest growth was in the immediate postwar period when aerospace was king. Today—well, today much of the gloss has vanished. During the summer, the Valley is almost as hot as the floor of the desert: Today the temp reached 91º Fahrenheit (33º Celsius) as we left in mid afternoon.

The reason we were there was to visit the Valley Relics Museum at Balboa and Stagg in Lake Balboa. The museum pays homage to the Valley’s glory days during the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems everyone was buying property there because it was cheaper than the more liveable parts of L.A. adjoining the Ocean.

Ash Trays from Bygone Restaurants and Clubs

The Valley is still an interesting destination. For one thing, there are many excellent restaurants, both ethnic and American. (Today, for instance, we discovered a great place on Ventura Boulevard at Burbank called Hummus Bar & Grill that we will no doubt be visiting again.) There are several interesting historical sights such as the Leonis Adobe and Los Encinos State Historical Park, plus museums like the Nethercutt Collection. So the Valley is still a target-rich destination, though it is no longer the fashionable locale it used to be when I first moved the Southern California in 1966.

The museum had fight posters featuring Mohammed Ali and Cassius Clay, film stuntmen memorabilia, old restaurant menus with pre-inflation prices, neon signs from clubs and restaurants like the Palomino, and even an interesting selection of working pinball machines—particularly one featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, a former TV horror film hostess.

 

An Outpost of Progress

The Leonis Adobe in Calabasas

Over the last several weeks, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old Spanish and Mexican adobes that were built before the American occupation in the late 1840s. Built in 1844 along the El Camino Réal that connected the Spanish missions of Alta California, the adobe became occupied in the 1850s or 1860s by Miguel Leonis, a 6’ 4” Basque from France who has been called the King of Calabasas. He lived with Espiritu Chujilla, who lived with him as wife. It turns out, however, he was never legally married.

That became obvious when Leonis died in an accident which involved him falling off and being run over by his wagon in 1889.  Although he left Espiritu $10,000 in his will—no trivial amount in those times—he left his millions to various of his European relatives. The will referred to her as his “faithful housekeeper,” though she had been introduced to guests as his wifeEspiritu fought the will in the courts for many years and won, but only after a fashion. She was plagued ever after by over a hundred other lawsuits.

Espiritu Chujilla

For some reason, it was common for Yankee and European pioneers to do their level best to cheat the native Spanish and Mexican population of their land and livelihood. It is said that the Leonis Adobe is haunted. The ghost appears to be Miguel’s. If so, he has a lot to answer for….

The Leonis Adobe Museum is perhaps the best organized and funded of the adobes we have visited to date. On the premises is not only the adobe itself, but a number of the original or rebuilt farm structures and outbuildings. The premises includes chickens, turkeys, longhorn cattle, goats, sheep, and horses, which visitors may feed with packets on sale at the museum. One enters by the oldest dwelling in the Hollywood area, the Plummer House, originally built around 1870, and inhabited by the family of Eugene Plummer, close friends of Miguel and Espiritu. The house was moved from Plummer Park is West Hollywood in 1983 after vandals attempted to burn it down.

Longhorn Cattle at the Leonis Adobe

In 1962, the Leonis Adobe was named Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #1 by the newsly formed Cultural Heritage Board. (The Plummer House was State Historical Monument #160.)

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.