by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As my talented colleagues are in the midst of changing out our exhibit commemorating the centennial of Prohibition, this seemed a particularly apt time to put together this post on tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection.
On this day in 1893, a lease was drawn up by Walter P. Temple on behalf of himself and his younger brother, Charles, for the renting of “the basement of the old house on Temple Homestead to G. Piuma for the period of one year from the sum of ($35.00) payable in advance,” this referencing the adobe house built by the Temples’ parents, F.P.F. and Antonia Margarita about 1851 in the Old Mission community at Whittier Narrows.
If this sounded dirt (pardon the pun) cheap, it was also stipulated that “the said G. Piuma shall furnish the house with two gallons of his best white wine every month for the period of one year.” Moreover, Piuma was “to keep the place clean and in good condition.”
The wording of “furnish the house” seems to have meant that the Temple brothers were occupying the adobe house while having Piuma utilize the basement (these were very rare in adobe structures, though the Workman House at the Homestead has one, too) for his wine-making operations.
Although this was a hand-written document and not on a legal form, there was a witness “Steffano Beluffo” and the Temples and Piuma affixed their signatures. At the bottom was a notice of receipt of “Terty five Dollars” for the “above leased rent” and signed by the brothers.
The distilling of spirits and making of wine had a long history in the Workman and Temple families during the 19th century. For example, as soon as William Workman arrived in Taos, New Mexico from Franklin, Missouri in the mid-1820s, he wrote his brother David, who was residing in Franklin, asking for materials to build a still. He warned his brother that such items were contraband, because it was illegal for extranjeros (foreigners) like Workman to manufacture alcoholic beverages.
Whether he received the materials and engaged in the illicit manufacture of alcohol, laws were later changed and Workman and his long-time friend and business partner John Rowland were makers of Taos Lightning, an obviously potent whiskey well-suited to fur trappers hunkered down for the winter after a long season roaming the Rocky Mountains for beaver pelts.
After migrating to California in the early 1840s, Workman planted wine grapes, these having been brought to the region by the missionaries decades before. We don’t know how much manufacturing of wine and brandy was conducted in those years, but, by the mid-Sixties, Workman built three large brick wineries and ramped up the production of these products significantly as agriculture superseded cattle raising.
In Workman’s later years, his grandson, Francis W. Temple became the winemaker at the Homestead and, after his grandfather’s death in the crushing aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876, Francis remained at the ranch and kept producing wine and brandy.
When Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin foreclosed on a loan to the bank over three years later, Francis had enough money to buy the Workman House, wineries and other outbuildings, El Campo Santo Cemetery and 75 acres from Baldwin in 1880 for $5,000. He continued to successfully produce from the vineyard until his untimely death from tuberculosis eight years later. After his passing, it appears that wine production stopped, perhaps because of devastating diseases that wreaked havoc on the region’s vineyards.
Whereas some of the earliest winemakers in greater Los Angeles were French, like Jean Louis Vignes and Pierre Sainsevain or Germans like Charles Kohler and John Frohling, Italians also became significant in the industry in the region. Secondo Guasti, who had a thriving enterprise in the Ontario area, is perhaps best known but there were many others who did well in wine making.
One of these was the lessee of the Temple adobe basement, Giovanni Piuma (1864-1938), a native of Vado Ligure, a coastal town near Genoa in northwestern Italy. Piuma migrated from his native country in 1885 and landed in Los Angeles, where a small and vibrant community of Italians settled just off the Plaza along the aptly named Wine Street (better known to us now as Olvera Street) and areas to the north in what was earlier denoted as “Sonoratown.”
Piuma quickly became a naturalized American citizen, receiving his papers at the Los Angeles Superior Court in June 1890. At that time, he was a grocer at Old Mission, but it did not take long for him to find a location to branch out into wine-making, this, of course, being the basement of the Temple Adobe.
He remained at that location until at least 1910, judging both from a letter he wrote to Walter P. Temple on the letterhead of Piuma’s “Old Mission Winery” and from the fact that he moved around that time to a location in Lincoln Heights, then still called East Los Angeles, north of downtown Los Angeles.
In those first years of the 20th century, moreover, Piuma, who had some scrapes with the law at the end of the prior century, including an alleged bribery attempt on a judge as well as the seizure of unstamped alcohol boxes, became quite a success as a grocer and wine-maker. The Homestead has several “bottle tickets” or labels for such products as whiskeys, cordials, and others produced at the Los Angeles facility, likely just prior to Prohibition.
Additionally, Piuma’s prestige was greatly enhanced when he was appointed Italian consul in Los Angeles, representing native-born Italians in the area. In this role, which he held for about a decade from the early 1910s to early 1920s, Piuma frequently appeared with other consuls at public events.
He was also a founding member of the Liberal Alliance, which was formed in 1905 “to bring all nationalities in Los Angeles under one head and promote allegiance to the American flag.” It sought to promote citizenship through the preamble to the Constitution, specifically the famed words about the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There was also an emphasis on “important questions concerning the ballot.”
Members included Germans, French, Slavs, Scandinavians and Italians like Piuma and the organization’s founding came at a particularly interesting time for American immigration–today’s issues are interesting to consider in light of what the Alliance sought to do well over a century ago.
Piuma was married to Mary Tosa, also from Italy, and they had six children. One of his business partners was brother-in-law, Paolo Briano and there were other Italians in the Whittier Narrows area, including Gaetano Castino, whose daughter Susana was the second wife of Charles P. Temple.
The onset of Prohibition hit the Italian winemakers, as well as other vineyardists and producers, very hard. A few managed to survive by producing sacramental wine for the Roman Catholic Church or diversifying into medicinal wines and grape juice. Piuma retired in 1919 as Prohibition was launched and his son transitioned by reverting back to the wholesale grocery business, specializing in Italian olive oils. In early 1923, Piuma wrote his long-time friend, Walter Temple, a condolence letter on the death of Temple’s wife, Laura Gonzalez.
Piuma died in 1938, just a few months before Temple passed away, and was remembered in obituaries as a grocer, vintner, and the recipient of the title of cavaliere from King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, shortly after Piuma ended his tenure as consul the year that Benito Mussolini rose to power. He is unknown now, but, in the early 20th century, Piuma was among the most prominent of Italians in the Los Angeles area.