The story of the Southern California grape–in a glass, that is!

I haven’t yet closed the door on my interest in the families closely associated with the founding of Los Angeles.

In March I will be part of a docent-led tour of a new exhibit at the Huntington Library highlighting the Wilson, Shorb and Patton families from 1854 to 1904. That era is precisely where I’m most interested, so won’t I have fun!

And as much as I enjoy talking about this interest…

Entrance to Grapevine Park

I’m aware that much of what most directly intrigues me probably doesn’t translate too well without the benefit of knowing certain landmarks combined with the familiarity of place names.

But I’m hoping that following the trail of the California grape may be interesting to you.

Viticulture is booming business!

The California wine industry contributes $61.5 billion in state economic impact and $121.8 billion nationally. If you don’t enjoy a glass of wine, you might at least be impressed with those numbers.

So how did the vineyards get their start?


It all began when Father Junipero Serra brought vines from Mexico to Mission San Diego. As the padres traveled north they established a winery, the largest in the entire system, at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.

Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861
Grapes from the Old Mother grapevine, planted 1861

Even after the mission era came to a close in 1833 the San Gabriel Valley continued to boast first-rate vineyards and winemaking.


And then the story jumps forward a couple of decades and we’re back once again on the trail of General George S. Patton’s family.

James DeBarth Shorb, a shrewd and capable businessman,  partnered with his father-in-law, Benjamin Davis Wilson. You may remember that Wilson was the General’s illustrious grandfather. At one time Shorb and Davis owned approximately 1800 acres of land with over 230,000 grapevines in addition to acres of citrus, olive and walnut trees.

The Old Mother Grapevine, root, 1861
The Old Mother Grapevine root, 1861

Following Wilson’s death, Shorb expanded the original “B.D. Wilson & Co.” to include a new and larger winery, The San Gabriel Wine Company.  The business was  capable of crushing 250 tons of grapes a day, and with the capacity of 1,500,000 gallons of wine the company owned a one-and-a-half mile stretch of Southern Pacific Railway for shipping purposes.

The company called itself the largest winery in the world.

In the mid-19th century there were hundreds of wineries in the region and for a time, Southern California wine production was thought to rival European enterprises.

But then along came a little insect!

An insect-transmitted bacteria caused a blight that created enough havoc to scare investors and before long orange and walnut production took the place of grapes.

Following the blight, Short struggled along until 1892, then closed the San Gabriel Wine Company shortly before he died.

The Sierra Madre Vintage Company in Lamanda Park, a town later annexed to Pasadena, was one of the few wineries to survive throughout the Prohibition Era, hiding behind loopholes allowing wine for religious sacraments.

But by the 1930s, winemaking in the San Gabriel Valley was over!

Fortunately for the state of California, the mission Padres had taken grapes to Northern California and those vines didn’t seem to have the same infestation problem.

Today, of course, Central Coast and Northern California wines are among the world’s best.  But did you know that Southern California also has a significant wine presence?

San Diego County, with its many grape-growing microclimates, provides the perfect conditions for growing unique varietals across the region. There are 50 wineries across the county with additional vineyard development always underway.

Father Junipero Serra, statute in front of San Gabriel Mission
Father Junipero Serra, statue in front of San Gabriel Mission

It seems to me this is a fitting conclusion for my story of the Southern California grape.

I started by telling you that Father Junipero Serra brought the first grapes to the region by way of Mexico, establishing a modest wine production at Mission San Diego. That was 1769.

And today,  wine production in San Diego County is robust and award winning.

I’m always satisfied when a story can be brought full circle!

How are General George S. Patton, the San Gabriel Mission and an old grist mill connected? Come take a field trip with me and I’ll explain.

Mark Twain said, “One of the most admirable things about history is, that almost as a rule we get as much information out of what it does not say as we get out of what it does say.”  

As I continue to study early California history, I uncover more stories connected  to early mission life, and the more I discover, the more I realize I now have additional research questions.

I suppose this is why historians often choose a particular era or even one single historical event and then dedicate their work to becoming experts. I have no design on fashioning myself into an expert, but I’m definitely hooked and have multiple areas of early California history begging for my attention.

This week I was able to stay very local, within five miles of my home, and take my field trip to another historic landmark. El Molino Viejo, or The Old Mill, a former grist mill associated with the operation of the San Gabriel Mission.

The mission was founded on September 8, 1771, dedicated to farming and self-sufficiency. One of the remaining mission structures is less than ten miles from current mission property, the Old Mill, built by the Tongva-Gabrielino Mission Indian laborers around 1816, as designed by Franciscan Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea.

Between 1816-1823 the Old Mission gathered water from an adjacent canyon and the mill was responsible for grinding enough wheat and corn to feed the mission inhabitants.

Be sure to read the story on the plaque and see how General George Patton recovered the millstones.

A surprise to many who live locally, the water that left the grinding area then flowed to what is now the very popular Lacy Park. The padres used the water that accumulated into a bog  for wool-washing, and as a tannery and sawmill.

In 1846, Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor or Alta California sold the property and it is there that new stories open into the settling of the Pasadena area. I am working on those bites of history and will look forward to sharing them with you as I do a bit more local touring.

I hope you’ll enjoy photos of the current mill site . The mill is the oldest commercial building in Southern California and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped and maintained by The San Marino Women’s Garden Club, “The Diggers,” with specific attention devoted to native plants. This late in the season there isn’t much in bright color, but I’ll be going again in the spring to note the changes. It is really quite lovely as it is with natural brush, many fruit trees, wild grasses and succulents.

The birds, bees, butterflies and small animals are very much at home!

Part of my personal study is to better understand complex stories and find a way to share them without overwhelming amounts of information. My exercise in studying the historical record is indeed at least scratching the surface of what is “said and unsaid.”

Indigenous “Californians” date back some 13,000-15,000 years. It’s impossible to study the life and activities of the mission without acknowledging that all mission success was realized at the expense of the native Gabrielino-Tongvan people. Their story is much more complex than I can develop in a single blogpost, but there are 6,000 Indians buried at Mission San Gabriel Arcangel.  There is a lot to learn.

And as I share, I don’t expect others to remember all the details, but I hope it excites you enough to think about what little historical field trips you might make to better know your own local history. Be careful, though. It’s addicting.

A Santa Barbara fortress to keep France and England from knocking on California’s door? Now isn’t that something!

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said, “My cat knows more about history than you do.” I don’t know what compels someone to slap that phrase on the back of their car, but it amused me. I have recently been focused on California history, filling in some gaps in what I have forgotten, or perhaps never knew in the first place, and the more I learn the more I realize I have more questions. I think the cat and I may be neck and neck.

All California 4th grade students get a smattering of history with a significant emphasis on the Mission period. And I live in San Gabriel, The City With a Mission, fourth in line of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. I’ve had an interest  in the missions for most of my life.

But gaps in my knowledge began to pop up this past spring while following an archaeological dig on property adjacent the San Gabriel Mission. Archaeologists and historians unearthed  items representing life among the Gabrieleno Indians and Spanish mission life. Shards of pottery, coins and religious sacramental artifacts will hopefully continue to reveal detail of life in the vicinity of the 1771 structure. If interested, you can read more about that dig here.

There are many lines of inquiry I’d like to follow in an attempt to dismantle myth and learn the historically accurate stories of California’s past. That would  include the history of California’s indigenous peoples.  According to your friend and mine, Wikipedia“California has the largest Native American population and largest number of distinct tribes of any US state.” Research could take some time.

And then there are seemingly endless points of interest along the way towards understanding the historical transitions between the Spanish Mission Period, Mexican California Rancho Days and the years of change when California was admitted as a free state in 1850.

What else interests me?

Well, there was this little event we call the Gold Rush? How about the Transcontinental Railroad? Westward Migration?

My stack of books and resource materials is growing at an alarming rate. There may be more to learn than I have days left, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time.

How to begin? I enjoy learning within context so it’s field trip time!

We went to Santa Barbara for a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert, but we still made time to visit El Presidio de Santa Barbara.

The presidios were Spanish military installations. This may surprise some of you, and perhaps many Californians don’t know, but Spain grabbed the Pacific Ocean as “MINE.”  Thanks to  Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his 1542 land-grab for Spain, California became a Spanish territory.

King Carlos III of Spain

Move forward a couple of hundred years and Spain was thinking that establishing Missions might be a good idea to continue to hold onto land. The English, French, and even Russians were showing some interest in California. Spain made a tactical decision to build the presidios, military fortresses, to oversee the mission districts and keep “others” out.

California was prime land even then!

Four presidios, San Diego, Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, were each placed approximately a mile from the shoreline–safely distanced from the threat of a cannonball lobbed from a hostile foreign warship.

Only two sections of the original Santa Barbara Presidio quadrangle remain, but the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation is responsible for overseeing restoration and repair. The Preservation group is also responsible for archaeological excavations revealing scores of authentic period artifacts. Dozens of items from recent Presidio excavations are on exhibit.

The archaeological staff has also stabilized El Cuartel, the oldest adobe in the California State Parks system. It is an original 1788 Presidio adobe designed for a military family’s housing. The next phase of the project includes seismic retrofitting.

We toured the Casa de la Guerra adjacent the presidio, built by the fifth Presidio comandante in 1819. Richard Henry Dana included a description of a wedding reception held at the Casa in 1836 for Alfred Robinson and Ana Maria Antonia de la Guerra in his book Two Years Before the Mast.

Do you have a historical era or event you’re curious about ? What’s on your field trip list?

We may not be traveling much in the next couple of months but there are some ranchos not far from home I need to explore. And my pile of bibliographic material isn’t getting any smaller.  Having such a strong interest in a topic and creating a nice “home study” is a good way to focus and  breathe lighter! May I suggest you plan a local field trip! Take someone with you and have fun!