Working the Land: A Letter from the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange to DeWitt Clinton Sawyier, 23 March 1898

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The further removed we are in time, the dimmer the recollection, but there was a time when much of greater Los Angeles was an agricultural powerhouse, including the raising of field crops like wheat, irrigated vineyards, and, most especially, wide expanses of citrus groves, predominantly the orange.

The wealth generated from some of the high-value crops, like oranges, provided for flourishing communities along the so-called “citrus belt” including the foothill communities at the base of our local mountains.  Obviously, most of the attention was given to the successful growers, working with cooperative associations like the one working under the Sunkist marketing brand.  Usually hidden away were laborers, including Asians and Latinos, who toiled in the difficult work of maintaining the trees and picking the fruit.

DWC Sawyier FindAGrave Unholy Slacker
De Witt Clinton Sawyier (1825-1899) from a photo on Find-A-Grave.com uploaded by “Unholy Slacker” (well, not too much of a slacker to share the image!)

The prominence of agriculture in our region generally lasted until after the World War II years, as continuing surges of population and development, particularly in the suburbs, led to the rapid decline of agriculture, though pockets remained of small orange groves, strawberry fields and others.

These days, as we see some of the last remaining oil fields ending operations and derricks and outbuildings are being removed for housing, schools, shopping centers, parks and the like, it is a reminder of the rapid transformation of our economic landscape.

DWC Sawyier family Bradford Arthur House Monrovia
A low-resolution image of Sawyier, standing at the top right, with family members and friends at a Monrovia home, ca. 1890s.  From the Monrovia Historical Society.

This is one reason why having historic artifacts in a museum collection, like that at the Homestead, helps us to remember what was important in our region’s history.  Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a letter from the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange to a Monrovia grower, is a reflection of the once-thriving citrus industry in the San Gabriel Valley.

A post on this blog about a year-and-a-half ago gave some history of the exchange, which seems to have opened in 1888 and operated until the late 1940s, as that postwar period led to massive changes in suburban Los Angeles.  It origins date to the famed Boom of the Eighties, which brought large numbers of migrants to the region and development in the city of Los Angeles and its far-flung environs, including the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Valley, such as the newly minted towns of Monrovia and Duarte.

Sawyier 1st mention The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Apr_21__1887_
An early mention of the Sawyiers at Monrovia, Los Angeles Times, 21 April 1887.

One of those recently arrived migrants was DeWitt Clinton Sawyier (yes, there is an “i” in that last name), who was named for a famed mayor of New York City, governor of New York state and United States senator who was also a major force in the building of the Erie Canal.  Sawyier was born in 1825 in Chillicothe, Ohio,  a one-time capital of that state and located east of Cincinnati.

He remained there until he was fourteen when he moved with his family to that city on the Ohio River and where he received his education, including at Cincinnati College, now the University of Cincinnati.  In 1846, he settled on a farm at the wonderfully named Wahoo in Madison County west of Columbus and raised stock there for nearly a quarter century.  In the 1860 census, he declared his personal property value at over $80,000, a substantial sum and indicating a significant level of prosperity.

DWC Sawyier voter reg 1892
Sawyier’s voter registration listing in 1892.

About 1870, Sawyier and his family, including his wife Catherine Smith and their four children relocated to Columbus, where he was an officer with the Columbus Bridge Company.  In 1880, he was in Marion, west of Columbus, and again engaged in farm work.

By early 1887, however, the Sawyier family headed west, probably lured both by the boom that burst forth in greater Los Angeles and for the healthful climate of the San Gabriel Valley foothills, which included some of the first sanitariums for people with tuberculosis and other respiratory issues.  Their daughter Eva died in 1888 at just eighteen and her health may have been a major impetus for their resettlement.

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This 23 March 1898 letter from the museum’s holdings is from Frank M. Douglass, secretary and manager of the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange, to Monrovia citrus grower, DeWitt Clinton Sawyier, and concerns the delivery of oranges to one of the exchange’s two packing houses.

Sawyier, like many of his neighbors, became a citrus rancher and this letter to him from the exchange came about a decade after he became established in Monrovia.  The missive, however, indicates that there was some lack of communication and understanding between the exchange and the grower, as its secretary and manager, Frank M. Douglass, penned the letter explaining that:

Mr. A.S. Church {a Duarte-based trustee of the exchange] has just informed me that you say you have never had any notification from this office to pick up your oranges & if such is the case it is simply an oversight, as we can take care of our fruit any time you choose to bring it to the packing house.

Douglass was a native of Missouri and another boom-time emigrant who came to Los Angeles in 1887 and worked in the loan industry before helping to found the exchange.  He resigned later in 1898 and went into banking, founding the First National Bank and Covina Valley Savings Bank, both in, obviously, the town of Covina, another 1880s product.  Douglass went on to organize the Mercantile Trust and Savings Bank in Los Angeles in 1904 and, two years later, the National Bank of Commerce, which merged with the Home Savings Bank, of which he was a vice-president.

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Douglass went on to inform Sawyier that, “if you dry brush [the fruit], bring to the upper packing house & if it is necessary to wash them, deliver to the Lower packing house.”  This seems to indicate that the two packing houses operated by the exchange were for the kinds of tasks indicated in the missive.

One of them was located along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad line, completed to Los Angeles in 1885 and which was a major factor in ushering in the boom that followed and which is now the Metro Gold Line, where Interstate 210 and Buena Vista Avenue meet and the other was along a line of the Southern Pacific at Highland Avenue.

The letterhead includes the exchange name the words “Oranges and Lemons” underneath that and, to the lower left, the institution’s logo.  At the top are the names of exchange president, W.H. Young and Douglass, and those of the ten directors, six from Duarte, three from Monrovia (including the First National Bank, which served as the treasurer), and one from Arcadia.  There is also reference to “Use Exchange Cypher Code” which concerned the use of communications by telegraph.

Sawyer grave Live Oak MP
The Sawyier family headstone at Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia, uploaded by Douglas Dudewicz to Find-a-Grave.com

If Sawyier did wind up having his oranges sent to the exchange for washing, sorting, grading, packing and distribution, it would have been among the last of his crops.  The 74-year old passed away died in September 1899 and was buried with his wife, daughter Eva and a sister-in-law at Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia.

This letter is a rare surviving document from one of the many fruit exchanges that operated in the thriving citrus industry of greater Los Angeles in the rapidly growing years of the late 19th century and specifically from the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange, which conducted business for some six decades.

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