Courtesy of the California History Room
California State Library, Sacramento, California
Let's set the scene.
The year was 1878 and it was Christmas-time at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel. Only five years earlier, noted painter William Cogswell had purchased 473 acres of wild mesa land in the vicinity of present day Eaton Canyon Golf Course. After Cogswell's purchase, the hard work began and the property was soon transformed into one of the west coast's preeminent resorts.
Cogswell's son-in-law, William Porter Rhoades, supervised the work and was the proprietor of the hotel. Rhoades was captivated by the Villa's setting in the foothills of what were locally known as the Sierra Madre or Mother Mountains. And you can imagine the magic he saw as he looked south -- green orchards and vineyards stretching out in the valleys below and ocean views in the distance. He wanted to create the most beautiful spot in southern California.
Rhoades embarked on an ambitious scope of work. He hired 75 Chinese workers, whom he housed on site in a bunk house. They cleared the land of chaparral that was reportedly so dense a rabbit couldn't pass through it. They piped water down from Davis Falls to the property, built a reservoir, installed irrigation and then planted the orchard and vineyard.
Rhoades hired a carpenter to build a house for his family, which is pictured above and is the subject of an earlier post. By 1877, the 20-room Sierra Madre Villa Hotel was completed. The hotel provided luxury accommodations for the day -- boasting running water to each room, a wide veranda and spectacular views. Rhoades kept the Chinese workers on as hotel staff and to maintain the Villa property.
Now, Rhoades and his wife, Jennie, had children including a young son named William Lauren Rhoades. The younger Rhoades grew up at the Villa and later recounted his memories in a short book titled The History of the Famous Sierra Madre Villa Hotel. In his book, the younger Rhoades describes Christmas at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel in the late 1870's.
From The History of the Famous Sierra Madre Villa Hotel by William Lauren Rhoades:
Christmas morning was always the opening of an eventful day. I well recall of 1878. After breakfast I was taken out to the front of the house and there stood my donkey, which was given me two years before to ride and I named her after my Mother, Jennie, and there she was hitched up to a two wheeled cart made to order with a swell leather seat, the running gear was painted red and the body black, the harness was black with shining brass buckles. The guests all stood round enjoying my delight. I took Mother in at once and we drove off in style and many were the happy days I had with the children at the Villa in that turnout.
Christmas morning the coach that ran to the San Gabriel Southern Pacific Railroad Station daily for the mail and passengers, was ready to take any who might wish to go to the Episcopal Church in , as was the custom on Sundays. Then the day passed and all were in readiness for the big event in the evening with the Christmas tree.
Rhoades goes on to describe the evening festivities. The Rhoades family, Chinese workers and hotel guests all participated. To the guests' delight, the Chinese workers would enter the hotel parlor with a flourish. Dressed in fine silks, their heads were freshly shaved with their "cues" hanging down their backs and red ribbons braided into their hair. They came bearing gifts of sweet lichi nuts, ginger and dainty cakes. In turn, the workers were presented with a fattened pig for roasting. It must have been quite a show.
The evening also included traditional Christmas carols after which the tree was "stripped."