Tuesday, June 14, 2011

O Lucky Man

Southern California

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Somewhere in the history of just about all these towns in Los Angeles County is a rich man. More often than not it's a railroad baron--a Huntington or a Stanford--but sometimes it's a guy who made his money in another way. One such non-railroad mogul was Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin, the man who once owned about half of the land comprising the present-day adjoining municipalities of Arcadia and Monrovia, just east of Pasadena.

Lucky Baldwin was, like nearly all the California white men of his day, born somewhere else. In the best tradition of the pattern of migration in this country, he originated in a place that was already considered part of the west when he was born--in his case Ohio--in 1828. From there his family inched farther west, into Indiana, and after that he wandered to Wisconsin.

Here I must interject a general observation: it is only by spending time on both coasts of the United States that one can fully appreciate the truly parochial outlook of not only its colonial founders and their heirs but also the denizens of its ultimate western terminus, as well as how truly "geographically challenged" many people are. I was born and grew up in what is called the Midwest, a vast chunk of land stretching from Ohio all the way to the Dakotas, and from the Canadian border down to the Missouri-Arkansas line. In terms of understanding the nation's geography, I think this gave me an advantage that east and west coasters either do not possess or have forgotten. Midwesterners have always understood that there is a great deal to the east of, say, Michigan--not just the Atlantic seaboard but the full width of the Appalachians and some more besides, as well as a practically separate nation to the south, below which finally is Florida, the happy hunting ground of those who spend a lifetime enduring what people like to call the Four Seasons. We Midwesterners also understand that to the west of us lies an almost interminable expanse of rugged and underpopulated plains and Rocky Mountains, at the far end of which is this little strip of desert oasis called southern California.

But dwell in New England, for instance, and you hear the damnedest things. Everything west of the Hudson River is some wintry, woolly place that starts with an "M"--nobody quite knows which states are which, nor does anyone care. All they know is that people ice fish and grow crops out there. Beyond all that stuff is California, which isn't nearly as far away as middle America, really, since it's only a six hour plane ride away. Californians have a similar attitude, in reverse. When you tell them where you're from they just whistle softly and say "Wow, you're a long way from home." You could be saying Kansas, Indiana, or Rhode Island, it doesn't matter. The only concrete eastern reality for most is New York City, which again is best understood in terms of the idea of 500 air miles per hour. Easterners, I think, can be more readily forgiven their ignorance; after all, they got off the boat and just stayed put. For most of my Connecticut friends a trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts or Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire is as epic a journey as any undertaken by Columbus or Amundsen. Many New Englanders did of course travel far to the west, but they did it in increments and didn't return to tell the tale, to explain in detail what's out there. To the easterner the middle of the country is all a vague mishmash of steel mills, Civil War battlefields, Grant Wood cornfields, and cowboys and Indians. But Californians really should know better, because most of them have been east. They were born there. It puts me in mind of something Wordsworth said:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come....

The rest of the vast eastern portions of the country, so formative to their young lives and so essential to their natures, remains in the deep recesses of the minds of Californians as a sort of vague dream, which in the Pacific sunset fades so quickly from memory that they're left with only the most imperfect of impressions of the great playing field that lies between the two cultural goalposts of America. They learn to complain about weather that Minnesotans expect to experience only in heaven, and understand only dimly the idea of places without freeways and electoral votes.

Well, back to old Lucky Baldwin, the Buckeye-Hoosier-Cheesehead. He finally came all the way west as an adventurer in his twenties, locating in San Francisco in 1852 shortly after the beginning of the gold rush. He opened a hotel and livery stable and dabbled in a few other business ventures. But his sobriquet of good fortune wasn't earned in the gold fields; rather, someone paid him a debt with several thousand shares in a silver mine in Nevada, worth pennies a share at the time. Soon thereafter, in 1859, the Comstock Lode was discovered, turning Lucky's investment into a fortune worth a few million dollars, back when that could buy you more than a small house in Beverly Hills. The fortune in fact enabled him to purchase, among other things, over 60,000 acres of land just northeast of the city of Los Angeles.

Today the City of Arcadia is the chief legacy of that purchase, including the Santa Anita Race Track, built on what was once Baldwin property. Baldwin himself built a track there in the early 1900s, but it burned down. The present track was reconstructed in the 1930s. Many places around here bear his name--Baldwin Avenue, Baldwin Park, Baldwin Hills.

Baldwin was also lucky (or unlucky depending on how you view it) in love. He had four wives and in addition was sued four times for breach of promise of marriage. In 1883 he was ignominiously shot in his own hotel (the Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco) by a jilted woman, but survived. Then about ten years later he was shot again, by the avenging brother of another injured party. Again he lived. Lucky finally died of old age in 1909.

In Arcadia there's a place called the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, a really lovely 127-acre expanse developed on what was once the heart of Lucky Baldwin's estate. It is divided into sections featuring plants and trees from all parts of the world. Its rose garden is in demand as a venue for romantic, idyllic weddings. In the midst of it all, next to tiny Baldwin Lake, is Lucky Baldwin's 1885 Queen Anne style cottage, a beautiful example of heavily ornate high Victorian architecture, fully furnished inside with period pieces. The Arboretum has been used as a movie and television setting for decades, and inside the old carriage house adjacent to the cottage there's a detailed display of photos. They've shot everything there from old Tarzan movies to modern jungle flicks like Anaconda. They also shot the opening scene from Fantasy Island there, where Tattoo yells, "De plane, de plane," after which Mr. Roarke walks out of the Queen Anne cottage.

I suppose what makes a guy lucky, in retrospect, is whether people speak his name a hundred years after his death. By that standard Baldwin was fortunate. At one place in the historical displays inside the carriage house it lists his date of birth as April 31, 1828. That would make him pretty damned lucky, too, since he wouldn't have had to share that birthday with anyone.


Billie Bob said...

Was old Lucky B a fairly decent sort of Guy? Or was he one of those ruthless California “Chinatown” type power brokers?

Peter Teeuwissen said...

While having lived a colorful and somewhat scandalous life, Lucky does not seem to have been one of those types John Huston represented in the movie. He lost much of his fortune in later years when the mines played out, and was considered land rich but cash poor.

Anonymous said...

Hi Baby. The flower picutres are really georgeous. Good talking to you about Lucky and the aboretum, but this is really a fine piece of writing. Hope your Father's Day is everything you want. Love, L