Lost L.A.: Boys Republic and the Della Robbia wreath
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“Do real men make Christmas wreaths?” Tweet that to your presidential candidates and see how they respond. The answer is yes, of course -- for more than a century, at the Boys Republic in Chino Hills. Early supporter Margaret Brewer of San Francisco was what Americans in 1900 called a New Woman, a self-supporting, university-educated teacher who made an independent life for herself long before marrying Minnesota lumber and mining industrialist Eldridge M. Fowler and moving to swanky Pasadena.
With her husband’s fortune and her early experience earning self-respect through self-sufficiency, Margaret Fowler rallied wealthy friends to fund the Boys Republic in 1907. Two years later she purchased land that became its present-day campus to house, teach and inspire teenage boys brought down low by abuse and broken families.
The organization’s motto was “Nothing without labor.” Kids earned aluminum coins minted by trustees to pay for food and lodging. The boys planted and harvested crops on the land Fowler donated, and they maintained buildings in a village designed by Myron Hunt, architect of the Rose Bowl and the recently demolished Ambassador Hotel. The kids were self-governing, electing their own mayor and student council.
After a trip to Europe, Fowler conceived a craft tradition to extend the noble cause of honest pay for honest work. In 1923, Boys Republic residents made their first Christmas wreaths, still a Southland holiday standard. Beginning in January, boys and now girls trek through forests and fields gathering seeds, nuts, cones and pods to decorate by hand 40,000 fir wreaths, available on the Boys Republic website. Their classic circular form, with apples and lemons mixed with teasels and cotton burs, is inspired by Margaret Fowler’s original design, based on sculpture by the Italian Renaissance Della Robbia family.
There never has been glitter or glitz on a Boys Republic wreath, but Tinsel Town celebs have long endorsed the community’s annual Christmas campaign since the rise of TV in the 1950s. Natalie Wood (above right), Diahann Carroll, Tom Selleck and, of course, the goody two-shoes American family par excellence, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, have celebrated the holiday season with smiling endorsements.
In contrast to our fractious times, the Fowler era embraced a progressive faith in work and nature to heal social ills. After the Civil War, when the 1% first ruled the 99%, rapid industrialization fueled deep inequalities that kept poor children undereducated and undernourished, living in tenements, 12 to a room, and working sweatshop hours at Pittsburgh mills and West Virginia coal mines. Kids were easy to overwork and to underpay. They couldn’t elect government officials and organize labor unions. Smart and caring Americans understood that oppressing the underprivileged at the bottom to maintain an over-privileged top was fueling crime and corruption, wrong for a nation founded as a beacon of democracy offering opportunity to many with help from the fortunate few. By organizing clubs and communities such as the YMCA, YWCA and the Boys Republic, modeled on earlier groups in New York, wealthy Americans conveyed to troubled youth that self-sufficiency and hard work, tempered by fairness, respect and moderation, could lead to successful and moral lives.
And they were right. The Chino Hills program, which founded the Girls Republic in 1990, has graduated more than 28,000 teenagers from abuse and poverty. Actor Steve McQueen and L.A. Rams lineman John Houser were among the boys who found their way to merrier Christmases and happier new years making Della Robbia wreaths.
-- Sam Watters
Lost L.A., Watters’ column on the homes and home life of the past as seen through the lens of the present, appears here monthly.
Photos, top and bottom: Unidentified Boys Republic students assemble wreaths in undated images from the Boys Republic archives.