Monday, March 16, 2020

Lessons From the 1863 Smallpox Epidemic

One of the most important reasons to study history is to learn from the past. You know what they say - those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

A smallpox epidemic tore through Los Angeles between November 1862 and Spring 1863. What can we learn from it amidst the spread of COVID-19?

Start planning for a disaster BEFORE it happens. In 1863, there was only one hospital in the city - St. Vincent's. And the Daughters of Charity never turned away a patient in need. But the French Benevolent Society, founded in 1860, was three years into saving money to build Los Angeles' second hospital. They weren't quite ready for the 1869 outbreak (the hospital fully opened in 1870), but when the much-worse 1887 outbreak hit Los Angeles, there were two hospitals available to sick Angelenos.

When the 1862 outbreak began, the city still had no Board of Health, and the City Council had to quickly appoint one in January of 1863. Oops.

Be prepared to take emergency measures. City health officials had to vaccinate - and in one-third of cases, re-vaccinate (vaccines didn't work as reliably then) many Angelenos, and took the step of visiting every household in order to ensure it was done.

Check your xenophobia at the door. The first cases, in November 1862, hit the local Native American population, who had no natural immunity to smallpox. The disease would go on to decimate the local Native American population, and disproportionately affect Mexican Angelenos (nearly every household in Sonoratown had to be placed under quarantine). 

And when did that Board of Health appear from nowhere? January 1863, after the illness had spread too far beyond the Native American population to ignore. And only after that did the Board of Health recommend coordinating with local Native American tribes to get their members vaccinated against a deadly illness to which they were especially vulnerable in the first place.

It's 2020, so I'm sure I don't need to comment further on this.

No one likes being quarantined, but it saves lives. Smallpox patients in town were initially taken to a pesthouse (quarantine hospital) in Chavez Ravine, four miles from the city center (the Sisters found the house to be in poor condition, and moved the patients to a house close to the hospital when they could). 

In then-remote El Monte, patients were taken to Mission San Gabriel - to be treated if they were lucky and to be buried if they didn't survive the trip. El Monte officials objected to dangerously ill people being carried through town and put a stop to it. And El Monte was very badly hit, so this was probably the best thing to do under the circumstances. 

Don't assume "it won't happen here/it won't happen to me". Many Native Americans fled the smallpox-infested city for work on ranches out in the country. Alas, the illness followed them there, and the ranches were ultimately hit much harder than anywhere else.

Listen to the experts. Juan Antonio, chieftain of the Cahuilla people, is just one of the patients who tragically did not survive the traditional Cahuilla method of treating illness (sweating followed by a dive into cold water). 

Don't slack off on hygiene, and don't put anyone else at risk, either. Some Angelenos had a nasty habit of bathing in the zanjas - open ditches that supplied water to the city's households. This was bad enough, but when contagious people (including sick Native Americans trying to treat themselves) bathed in the zanjas, it only made the situation worse. Ultimately, thousands of people throughout Southern California fell ill and hundreds died.

Damien Marchesseault was Mayor of Los Angeles at the time, had been a zanjero, and was Water Overseer at one point. The smallpox epidemic is probably the most important reason why he was so hell-bent on bringing safer, cleaner water to Angelenos, even though his failed efforts culminated in his suicide.

Most importantly, take care of each other. The ethnicity of the smallpox patients didn't matter to the Hebrew Benevolent Society. They donated money out of their own treasury - and raised additional funds - to help feed and treat the sick. They did the same thing during later outbreaks, too.

Stay healthy, everyone.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Lost French Los Angeles Tour Going Dark Through April 11

I love giving my Lost French Los Angeles tour, and I am deeply grateful for the support it's received.

However, in light of the COVID-19 virus spreading, I'm suspending tours for the next few weeks.

I will continue to monitor the situation, and May/June tour dates will be decided later. (As of this writing, you can still book July through December.)

If you live in Los Angeles and have a few minutes to spare, please contact your councilperson (and/or the Mayor) and ask what they are doing to help homeless Angelenos. They are very vulnerable right now. (Especially in Echo Park, where the bathrooms are being locked at night. Really, Mitch?!)

Low-income children often do not get enough to eat when schools are closed. If you can, support food banks, feeding programs, etc. (Do you have more backyard fruit and veggies than you can use? Some programs accept donated produce.)

When you can, support small businesses. One month of low sales can mean layoffs or even having to close.

Stay safe and look out for each other.

Goodnight from Frenchtown,


Thursday, March 12, 2020

We Need to Talk About Taix

Sometime around 1870, a family of bakers and sheepherders from the Hautes-Alpes left France, emigrating to Los Angeles.

For decades, customers have hotly debated how to pronounce their surname - Taix. Long story short, the family says it's pronounced "Tex".

In any case, the family purchased property in Frenchtown - specifically, at 321 Commercial Street - and opened the Taix French Bread Bakery in 1882.

1911 and 1912 were tough on Marius Taix Sr. In September 1911, his sister Leonie Allemand died in France. In the spring of 1912, Adrian Taix (co-owner of The French Bakery at 1550 West Pico Boulevard), died. By summer, brother Joseph Taix died, also in France. And finally, in the summer of 1912, Joachim Taix (who owned the other half of The French Bakery) also died.

That same year, Marius Taix Sr. tore down the Commercial Street bakery, building the Champ d'Or Hotel on the land and leasing the ground floor to a restauranteur.

Marius Taix Jr. was a pharmacist by trade, and owned the French-Mexican Drug Company nearby at 231-235 N. Los Angeles Street. Ads boasted "French and Mexican Preparations Our Specialty". (With the Plaza and Sonoratown so close by, featuring both French and Mexican medicines was a smart move on Marius Jr.'s part.)

Two stories are told about the origin of the Taix family's eponymous restaurant. One is that Marius Jr. got into an argument with the restaurant owner. The other is that Prohibition agents busted the restaurant owner for illegally selling alcohol, and that Marius Jr. confronted him about it.

This isn't too surprising. Prohibition spelled the end for Frenchtown, since it rendered French restaurant owners unable to serve wine (the vintners had long since sold off their vineyards for development). Without wine, diners didn't want to linger at a French restaurant for an hours-long dinner (Little Italy, on the other side of the Plaza, faced the same issue). The overwhelming majority of Los Angeles' French community took pride in being law-abiding, and although Prohibition was decidedly unpopular, it was still the law. Better to close the restaurant and change jobs than to break the law.

In either case, one day in 1927, words were exchanged, the restauranteur threw the keys at Marius Jr. before storming out, and the Taix family rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Taix French Restaurant in the 1950s
Marius Taix Jr. started out serving 50-cent chicken dinners at long, family-style tables, with private booths available for an extra 25 cents (he got around Prohibition by selling "medicinal wine"). He partnered with a French immigrant who had become an experienced restauranteur and baker, Louis Larquier. He also continued to run the pharmacy - a very busy guy!

Six years later, Taix French Restaurant could legally serve wine without having to call it "medicinal". Today, they serve more than 400 wines, along with affordably priced country-style French cuisine.

Marius Jr.'s two sons, Raymond and Pierre, grew up washing dishes in the restaurant. In 1962, the beloved Sunset Boulevard location opened under the name "Les Fréres Taix" - the Taix Brothers.

Taix French Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard
The original restaurant at 321 Commercial Street was forced to close in 1964 to make way for new government buildings, including a courthouse and jail (the same block once included the corral where Michel Lachenais was hanged). The Sunset Boulevard location has a bar called the 321 Lounge, presumably in honor of the original restaurant.

The two different restaurant names - Taix French Restaurant and Les Fréres Taix - were reportedly confusing to diners, and the Sunset Boulevard location dropped "Les Fréres" from its name.

In 2012, the intersection in front of Taix was officially designated Taix Square by the City Council. Intersections are typically named after important Angelenos - very few restaurants receive the same honor.

Alas, the good times will be coming to an end, at least for a while.

Taix has been a Los Angeles institution for 92.5 years. It's popular with couples, families, hipsters, Francophiles, foodies, city bigwigs, and Dodgers fans (Dodger Stadium is 5 minutes away). It even managed to survive Echo Park's decline into LA's scariest drug den (before the hipsters moved in). But the restaurant business has changed a lot, and in the 58 years that Taix has been open in Echo Park, the building's six banquet rooms are used less and less.

A building Taix's size, on a lot as big as Taix's, costs serious money to maintain. And in order for a business - even a legacy business - to stay open, it has to make enough money to cover expenses. That's hard to do when wholesale food prices have risen, labor costs have risen, and much of the building isn't being put to sufficient use.

Raymond Taix's son Michael, who currently owns the restaurant, sold the property in August 2019 for $12 million and is leasing the building as a tenant. The real estate developer which now owns the property plans to build a housing and retail complex, which will include a smaller version of Taix (6,000 square feet vs. the current 18,000 square foot building).

The plan is to store the bar, lounge, and signage, and reinstall them in the smaller future space - essentially shrinking Taix, but keeping everything that makes Taix what it is.

Except for the current building. Unless the developer decides to somehow convert the existing building (which I seriously doubt will be the case), it's doomed.

As of this writing, Taix is still open. Go while you can - no one knows for sure when the developer will get the go-ahead to start construction. And when it starts, count on waiting a good 18 months before Taix reopens.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Merci France-Amérique!

I am thrilled to announce that France-Amérique magazine, published in New York in both English and French, recently interviewed me about this blog and my Lost French Los Angeles walking tour.

The article is now live - read it in English or in French.

Note to my dear readers: beginning next weekend (3/14), all tours will book through Eventbrite. In the meantime, there is still some room on this Saturday's tour.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Crazy Life of Rémi Nadeau

Born in Canada to French parents, Rémi Nadeau is the one forgotten Frenchman every Angeleno should know about. After all, he helped to put sleepy little Los Angeles on the map.

Anglos called him "the crazy Frenchman". French Angelenos called him "crazy Rémi".

Was he really crazy? Was he hypersane? Or was he an eccentric visionary with a head for business?

We may never know the answer. But we do know his big dreams and "crazy" ideas made him rich.

Rémi Nadeau moved to Los Angeles in 1861. He quickly settled into the local French community - and secured a $600 loan from Prudent Beaudry.

With that loan, Rémi bought a wagon and a team of mules and set up his own freighting company.

Initially, Rémi made supply runs to faraway Salt Lake City - which took more than a month each way in those days. Harris Newmark reported that Rémi spent a few years in San Francisco, returning in 1866.

Rémi owned an entire city block - the same one where the Millennium Biltmore Hotel now stands. In his day, the land held his house, a stable, a corral, and a blacksmith shop.

Rémi's reputation as an eccentric was well earned: the Nadeau family's housekeeper wasn't allowed to clean the master suite. Mrs. Nadeau would do it herself. One day, when Mrs. Nadeau had fallen ill, Rémi's young niece Melvina Lapointe came over to help with the cleaning. While dusting, Melvina came upon a vase of fake flowers that seemed unusually heavy for its size. She pulled several wads of yellowed newspaper out of the top of the vase. To her surprise, the vase was filled with gold pieces! Mrs. Nadeau came into the room and instructed Melvina to put the vase back EXACTLY as she had found it so Uncle Rémi wouldn't change the hiding place.

In 1869, Rémi landed a very desirable contract: hauling silver and lead ore from the Cerro Gordo mines (near Lake Owens) to the Port of Los Angeles, where they would then be sent to San Francisco via ship for refining. (One of the partners in the Cerro Gordo mines was, of course, Victor Beaudry.)

The land in between Cerro Gordo and Los Angeles was rough, uninhabited, and in those days, devoid of roads. Rémi developed a large, heavy wagon with wide metal wheels that would be pulled by teams of twelve or more mules (depending on the load, twenty or more mules might pull a single shipment). The mines produced so much bullion that Rémi soon had 32 mule teams making regular runs to Cerro Gordo.

To maximize profits, Rémi sent the wagons to Cerro Gordo loaded with grain and other provisions. These would be sold to the miners, and the wagons would be reloaded with silver ingots for the return trip to San Pedro.

The owners of the Cerro Gordo mines demanded a reduction in freighting fees when Rémi's contract expired in 1871. Believing no one else could handle the task as well as his employees, he refused.

Barley prices had risen, and feeding hundreds of mules became very expensive. Rémi had taken out a loan from H. Newmark and Company to expand. Uncertain of his ability to pay the balance, he offered to turn over the freighting business to them. The company, believing in Rémi's ingenuity, encouraged him to find another contract instead.

Surely enough, a new opportunity soon arose when large deposits of borax were discovered in Nevada, and Rémi landed the contract. Boxes of 20 Mule Team Borax still reference Rémi's mule teams to this day.

When Rémi refused to renew his contract at a low rate, the mine owners had to route the silver bullion through other freighters in San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Bakersfield. Neither town could handle the output, and silver ingots began to pile up.

The Los Angeles business community wanted the silver trade back (it was the town's biggest moneymaker at the time), and tried to negotiate with the Southern Pacific Railroad - which announced a raise in freighting rates that would have made the plan too expensive.

Finally, the mine's owners (and the newly formed Chamber of Commerce) had to eat their humble pie and work out a fair contract with Rémi. He agreed to resume freighting silver bullion - on the condition that the mine's owners put up $150,000 to build freighting stations along his routes.

The Cerro Gordo Freighting Company soon had 65 stations ranging from San Pedro to Nevada to Arizona to San Francisco. Each station was a combination of hotel, trading post, blacksmith shop, and wagon repair shop, with stables and corrals for mules. Nadeau eventually had over 300 employees, and was so busy he put his brother-in-law, Michel Lapointe, in charge of the wagon works.

If you don't mind a 275-mile drive, Cerro Gordo is now open for tours (reservations required).

Some of the freighting stations grew into towns. In fact, one of them became the desert suburb of Indian Wells.

Eventually, railroads began to stretch across the Mojave Desert, reducing demand for mule teams. The Cerro Gordo Freighting Company sold off its mules and equipment, and Rémi began his next enterprise.
Rémi owned 3400 acres in South Los Angeles (the area is still referred to as Nadeau, or Nadeau Station), and tried his hand at growing sugar beets and refining the sugar. Unfortunately, it was a disaster. Harris Newmark, who was one of Rémi's best friends, recalled that "it was bad at best, and the more sugar one put in coffee, the blacker the coffee became."
Undaunted, Rémi turned to (what else...) wine, replanting the sugar beet fields with eight varieties of grapes (with a whopping two million grapevines total) and enlisting vintner Francois Escallier as supervisor. He also built a winery, and was successful at first. Unfortunately, the grapevines were destroyed by a sudden and unexpected insect infestation.

During the brief period of time that the Nadeau vineyard existed, it was believed to be the largest vineyard in the world.

Rémi also planted barley on the Centinela Rancho (modern-day Inglewood)...until extreme heat and a drought put an end to the barley crop.

In the 1880s, the Plaza and surrounding streets were still the city's primary business district. Rémi bought land at First and Spring Streets, and even Harris Newmark - Rémi's close friend and greatest supporter, who knew firsthand how smart and capable he was - called him crazy for buying land so far from the Plaza.

As per usual, Rémi didn't care what anyone else thought.

Initially, he planned to build a grand opera house or theatre with 1500 seats. (Even I think that was a crazy idea, considering Los Angeles' 1880 population was less than 12,000.) But that idea gave way to the city's tallest and grandest building of the era - a four-story business block, equipped with Southern California's first passenger elevator (made by Otis) and four fire hydrants on each floor, with apartments and office spaces planned for the upper floors and storefronts planned for the ground floor. No expense was spared, and the building was even equipped with twenty bathrooms - a VERY high number of bathrooms for the time.

Everyone laughed.

Everyone called the plan "Nadeau's folly."

Everyone said Rémi Nadeau, the crazy Frenchman, was crazier then ever.

Then "Crazy Rémi" leased the entire building to Ed Dunham, an experienced hotelier.

And just like that, everyone who was anyone checked into the Nadeau Hotel when they stayed in Los Angeles. It was the first truly first class hotel in the city. (Sorry, Pio Pico, but the Pico House didn't have an elevator, let alone twenty bathrooms.)

Sadly, it would be the final time Rémi got the last laugh. Less than a year after the Nadeau Hotel's 1886 grand opening, he passed away at age 68.

Rémi left the hotel property to his second wife, Laura, along with enough money to pay off its mortgage so she wouldn't have to come up with payments. His children from his first marriage (to Martha Frye) felt this was too generous a bequest for their stepmother and contested the will (sound familiar?).

The Nadeau Hotel was torn down in 1932 for the Los Angeles Times building.

Laura Nadeau decided to honor Rémi's memory with a 30-foot-high monument, topped with a marble statue of an angel, at the Nadeau family plot in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

Unfortunately, the Nadeau family plot happens to be very close to a rather large mature tree. Several years ago, according to a docent (who couldn't pronounce "Nadeau" correctly, plainly stated that she didn't know what Rémi did for a living, and rudely blew me off when I mentioned that he was a freighter...), a particularly windy rainstorm sent a very heavy tree branch crashing right onto the Nadeau plot. Every time I've visited Angelus Rosedale, a large and heavy chunk of monument has been in the same spot on the ground at a cockeyed angle. I was told that Rémi's living relatives couldn't justify the high cost of having it repaired. I get it - stonework is expensive.

When the monument was unveiled, the Los Angeles Herald claimed that Rémi's own accomplishments were the only monument needed to keep his memory alive. Rémi’s business interests accounted for ONE QUARTER of all exports leaving Los Angeles between 1869 and 1882. An earlier article in the Herald claimed Nadeau “has given employment to more men, and purchased more produce, and introduced more trade to Los Angeles than any other five men in this city.” 

You'd think that would be enough. Sadly, you'd be as mistaken as the Herald.

Rémi's name is forgotten today, surviving only in the family plot and on street signs - Nadeau Street, in the Florence/Nadeau neighborhood, and Nadeau Drive (which most likely honors Dr. Hubert Nadeau, no relation), in Mid-City.

Now THAT is crazy.