Untitled essay on - Professor Edward French

Richard Hughey

At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Los Angeles basin in Southern California was a dry and arid wasteland where, according to historian William Kahrl in his book "Water and Power," "God clearly never intended large numbers of people to live."

By the beginning of the 20th century the sleepy little pastoral pueblo the Spanish had founded in the basin was a budding metropolis whose population had increased 17 times what it was in 1860. That was only the beginning, however. A second wave of Argonauts was rushing to the state hoping to find gold in Southern California"s wheat, cattle and oranges. They were spurred by the strident and relentless boosterism of Los Angeles land developers and municipal officials. Just as in the Gold Rush, the arrival in California did not lead quickly to wealth and power. Often the result was tragedy. For example ...

A case in point: Professor Edward French taught Latin, literature, chemistry and mathematics at Wells College in the town of Aurora, a lovely little village in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of western New York on the eastern shores of Lake Cayuga, about 40 miles southeast of Rochester. He was a Civil War veteran, and he was licensed to practice law in New York.

Professor French had been induced to take a faculty position at Wells College by his wife, Mary Wells French. Mary"s brother was Henry Wells, of Wells, Fargo and Company, who had founded the college, a finishing school for women, in 1868. Professor French"s father, Augustus C. French, had been a well-known lawyer who served two terms as governor of Illinois (1846-1853).

,Avocationally, Professor French was also a botanist. His wife was an accomplished singer who performed for the family to the accompaniment of a flute or violin played by Professor French, while Nora May and Helen, his two daughters, struggled to follow on the piano. In the evenings Professor French read to his family, or they played word games designed to help the two girls build their vocabularies. Backgammon and cribbage were favorite family games as the girls grew older.

Life for the French family in Aurora was a happy one. Professor French was deeply interested in literature, and he maintained a fine library. His daughter, Nora May, learned to read before she was 4 years old. From her father"s library, the girl read all the classics from Shakespeare through Dickens.

In 1888 Professor French decided to move the family to Southern California. The French family was part of a mass migration to Southern California promoted by an aggressive publicity campaign orchestrated by Los Angeles boosters and driven by a fare-price war between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. At one point the Santa Fe railroad offered to transport riders to Southern California for as little as one dollar per person.

Professor French was but one of many professional men from the East and Midwest who sought mid-life career changes in California"s booming ranching and agricultural industries.

Once a nature lover"s dream

Soon after his family arrived in Los Angeles, Professor French bought a small fruit ranch in the Chevy Chase section of what is now Glendale, one of Los Angeles" many suburbs that was still devoted largely to ranching and agriculture. The setting was ideal for nature-loving children such as Nora May and her sister, Helen. The ranch was full of hills and canyons covered in the spring with wildflowers and sagebrush and chaparral the rest of the year. Both girls were much given to the outdoor life.

Southern California was seen at the turn of the century as a land of milk and honey, with gold being mined in the form of oranges and lemons, bumper crops of wheat and barley, and herds of fat, contented cows. Los Angeles was a sleeping giant just beginning to awaken. It was then a huge staging area for arriving immigrants from the East Coast and Midwestern states, many of whom migrated north to San Francisco, the Santa Clara Valley, Marin County, and beyond as far as Oregon and Washington. Most remained in the Los Angeles basin or moved down the coast to San Diego.

For all its glitz, even then, Los Angeles was a city of tragedy and disappointment. Few immigrants improved their lot in life, and most died with a sense of failure. More than a touch was needed to turn anything to gold, and Professor French"s little fruit farm failed to prosper. Like so many others in California, Professor French was hit hard by the depression of 1893.

Then tragedy started to dog the once-happy French family in earnest. The French home was totally destroyed by fire: furniture, furnishings, personal effects, heirlooms, Professor French"s fine library — all gone. Then the business failed, and the mortgage on the professor"s ranch was foreclosed and the property sold at auction.

Professor French took a job teaching in the Los Angeles public schools. Eventually, he lost even that. His eyesight began to fail from cataracts, and he sought treatment at the Old Soldiers" Home in Santa Monica. Professor French"s eyesight was restored, but he remained at the Old Soldiers" Home as a resident employee, taking a clerical position in the records office.

Professor French"s story is not unique. His daughter, Nora May French, experienced a series of romantic relationships and frustration in her ambition to be a writer and poet. She committed suicide while a guest at the Carmel home of the poet, George Sterling, and his wife Carrie. Helen worked as a secretary and lived to the 1960s. There are many stories like that in the City of the Queen of the Angels.

From: Mountain Democrat (Placerville, CA), March 1, 2004