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Out of Stone, a Vintage History

Times Staff Writer

It’s a place where history is literally carved in stone -- and it sits just a stone’s throw from downtown Glendale.

Overlooking the Crescenta Valley and spanning two canyons is a historic stone-and-brick barn, the former ranch house and legacy of a pioneering French winemaking family -- and the centerpiece of the newly reopened Deukmejian Wilderness Park.

The rustic terrain was originally dedicated only for hiking and horse trails when it opened in December 1989. The new and improved park -- with upgraded hiking and equestrian trails, picnic tables and parking, bathrooms and water fountains, a nature center and a new home for the Glendale park rangers -- was rededicated Saturday.

But the park’s focal point -- the 90-year-old, two-story stone barn-turned-ranch house, crafted from hefty granite boulders -- remains tantalizingly closed until its seismic retrofitting is finished.

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Even former Gov. George Deukmejian’s most ardent supporters would probably agree that ecology was not the centerpiece of his two terms. Nevertheless, Deukmejian Wilderness Park preserves 702 acres of a former vineyard once owned by another George: French immigrant, winemaker and World War I veteran George Le Mesnager.

Nestled among a few towering cedar trees, the stone barn with its gabled roof, brick arches and cobblestone chimneys was built in 1914. True to its builder, it looks like something from the French countryside, not the California foothills. The barn’s 3-foot-thick stone walls housed tons of harvested grapes before they were carted to the family winery in Los Angeles.

Long after Gabrielino Indians roamed the foothill canyons, the land had been part of the Spanish-era Rancho San Rafael. The land includes Dunsmore Canyon, a favorite hide-out of 19th century bandito Tiburcio Vasquez. Legend has it that Vasquez watched for pursuing posses from a lookout at a prominent oak tree that locals say still stands on the property.

Le Mesnager was born in Mayenne, France, in 1850. He was 16 when he set sail for New York. The glitter of prosperity from the Gold Rush still lured people to California, and Le Mesnager was among them.

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He had been in Los Angeles for only a few months before the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. He returned to France, enlisting in the army as a private.

After France’s defeat, Le Mesnager returned to Southern California. He grazed sheep on land he leased on San Nicolas Island, opened a French-style “delicatessen” in downtown Los Angeles and planted grapes on parcels of land from Glendale to Fontana.

Speaking several languages, he worked as a county court translator and notary. In 1885, he became editor of Le Progres, a French weekly newspaper.

In the early 1880s, he used his grapes -- varieties such as Isabella, Concord and zinfandel -- to make wine and brandies at his Los Angeles winery at Main and Mesnager streets. (The latter was named for him in 1883 and still bears his name.) The wines were bottled and marketed under the Old Hermitage Vineyard label.

He was a great orator and soon immersed himself in politics and civic advancement. On Sept. 22, 1892, Los Angeles’ French community celebrated the centenary of the first French Republic, and Le Mesnager gave what newspapers called a “fiery speech” that resonated for years among local French residents. (The newspapers didn’t bother to report the substance of his speech, however.)

He was vigilant about his business: His testimony against Francisco Alvarez, who stole three barrels of brandy from his winery, sent Alvarez to Folsom Prison for a year. He fired a salesman who had defrauded the public by selling a poorer-quality brandy with a better label.

As Le Mesnager’s winemaking reputation grew, so did his business, along with his agricultural holdings. But with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he left it all behind, deeding it to his wife, Marie. He went to the aid of his native France.

“I promised in 1870 to be there if France were invaded again, and I want to keep my promise,” he told his son, Louis, who managed the family business in his father’s absence.

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Le Mesnager wanted to join the French army air service, but he was told that, at 64, he was too old. So he enlisted as a private again, 44 years after his first military tour. He was wounded five times and returned to Los Angeles in 1916 to recuperate from a serious artillery wound suffered at the Battle of Calonne.

He won the esteem and admiration of his army comrades, as well as many Angelenos, by returning to France the next year to finish out the war as a French army liaison under Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. He resigned as a lieutenant, having won three French medals, including the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.

While he was away, Louis built the rock-and-cobblestone barn in a “European” design, with three concrete floors and a stairway in the center. The family already owned the Le Mesnager Land and Water Co., securing partial water rights to a stream, now the Verdugo Wash, that fed the vineyards and 50 newly planted cedar trees.

A year after Le Mesnager returned from the war, Prohibition pretty much spelled the end for him and many other vintners. His wine shop closed. The equipment was stored in the stone barn. Grapes were still harvested, but sold for produce.

In 1921, after Le Mesnager suffered a stroke, he and his wife returned to France. They purchased the family home where he was born, and he died there in 1923, at age 72.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Louis Le Mesnager leased the barn and property to a group of World War I veterans. They opened their own winery. But what Prohibition didn’t do, fire and flood did. A few months after the veterans harvested their first grapes, a fire gutted the barn and destroyed the crop.

A month after the fire came the flood. Twelve inches of rain fell in 48 hours, culminating with a flash flood in the Verdugo Hills on New Year’s Eve 1933.

As the streets filled with debris, rocks and wrecked cars, people flocked to the safety of the American Legion clubhouse in La Crescenta. New Year’s revelers were there too.

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Around midnight, an avalanche of boulders and mud thundered into the hall, sweeping away the building and killing a dozen people.

Still, the stone barn stood its ground. Afterward, Louis Le Mesnager converted it to a ranch house for himself and his family. A mezzanine was added, along with living quarters and a kitchen. The Le Mesnager family lived there until 1968.

“I used to play up there,” recalled Dorothy Powell, a friend and neighbor of the Le Mesnager family. She remembers growing up with George Le Mesnager’s grandson, Louie. “We would go horseback riding up to the springs in Cook and Dunsmore canyons to remove rocks that got lodged, stopping the flow of water.”

Louie Le Mesnager joined the Merchant Marine during World War II, Powell remembers, and at the family ranch, the Army hauled in “big searchlights hidden in the oaks to track down enemy planes.”

Louie Le Mesnager once pointed out to her a plateau above the ranch house, saying it was where his grandfather “planted his special grapes from France ... from which he made a special brew.”

The grandson of the war hero died last year.

When the family moved out, they leased the property to the Circle J Ranch, a private equestrian center. Twenty years later, in 1988, a developer planned to build hundreds of homes on the hillside. Determined to save the wild land, Glendale pooled municipal funds with a grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to purchase 702 acres. The park was dedicated the next year.

It was a park in progress, with only hiking and equestrian trails. It was, and is, mostly chaparral-cloaked hillsides and a seasonal stream lined with oak and alder. Big cone spruce grow on the higher slopes. Bird-watchers find many native and migrant species: the California towhee, the rufous-sided towhee, the Berwick’s wren, the yellow-rumped warbler and that ubiquitous chaparral dweller, the wrentit.

Restoration plans include converting the stone barn/ranch house into a mini-museum of winemaking, recalling one of the major industries that flourished in the Crescenta Valley and in Los Angeles from as early as the 1830s until as late as Prohibition -- an industry in which the Le Mesnager family played a prominent role.


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