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Out of Stone, a Vintage History

May 16, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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