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Pioneers and Entrepreneurs

French Immigrants in the Making of Los Angeles and La Crescenta, 1827-1927

April 21st, 7 PM

The French immigration began in 1827 with the arrival of the first Frenchman to El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, then a Mexican village of 1,200 residents. By 1850, at a time when Los Angeles had become a cosmopolitan American city in the 31st state of the Union, the French residents, although largely outnumbered by the Mexican and German populations respectively, had become prominent, influential players in the city's development.

One of the first French immigrants to Los Angeles was Jean-Louis Vignes, a Bordeaux vintner who arrived here in 1831. He imported the first French vines here and lured so many compatriots to join him that he became known as the 'father of French immigration to Los Angeles.

Other immigrants followed the early pioneers in two subsequent waves: one during the Gold Rush years and a larger one during the 1880s. The Gold Rush years attracted more-educated immigrants who became political and business leaders; the second wave was dominated by poor and less-skilled migrants from the Pyrenees and Alps regions of France.

Today's French immigrant community in Southern California numbers 50,000 to 60,000, with no discernible center since the French Quarter on Aliso Street in downtown Los Angeles was swallowed up by municipal developments more than eight decades ago.

In the Crescenta Valley, French immigrants brought their knowledge of agriculture to this predominantly grape and olive growing area. Names like Phillip Begue, George Le Mesnager, and Pierre Escalle are prominent in most stories of the beginnings of La Crescenta. As we move into the future, the preservation of the Le Mesnager Barn in Deukmejian Park ensures that the contributions of French immigrants to the founding of La Crescenta will continue to be celebrated.

With 80 photographs and documents, this compelling presentation illustrates how the French colony was at the heart of Los Angeles and Southern California with its numerous stores, businesses, newspapers and influential French organizations.

Presenter bio:
Helene Demeestere graduated with a Masters degree in History from the Sorbonne in Paris and studied photography at Columbia College in Chicago. After a career in journalism in Paris, she moved to the United States A member of the A.S.P.P. (American Society of Picture Professionals), she is also on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles City Historical Society and is Curator of Photographs for the Mary Pickford Library. Ms. Demeestere is a photography consultant for books on local and social history and is currently writing a history of immigration to Los Angeles.

George Le Mesnager bio:
The colorful Frenchman George Le Mesnager (pictured above) moved to California from New York, but promptly returned to France in 1870 to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. After his beloved homeland lost the war, Le Mesnager came back to Southern California and tried a little of everything. He grazed sheep, opened a French marked in downtown Los Angeles, planted grapevines in Glendale and other locations, worked as a county court translator, edited a French newspaper, and finally started a winery using grapes that he grew. His winery, located in downtown Los Angeles at Main and Mesnager Street (named after George), produced well-regarded wines. As his business grew, Le Mesnager bought more land, including a large section in La Crescenta. During World War I at the age of 64, Le Mesnager returned once again to fight for France, enlisting as a private since he was too old to be an officer. He was wounded five times, returned to Los Angeles to recuperate, and then went back to France to fight again. He won three medals, including the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he came back to La Crescenta, only to have his wine business put under by Prohibition. After suffering a stroke, Le Mesnager and his wife returned to France in 1921, where he died two years later at the age of 72. (Courtesy Denice Spanwick.)