If you spent any time in Northeast LA lately – and there are lots of reasons to visit, whether for a breakfast at Kitchen Mouse in Highland Park, or a hearty lunch at Patio Burger in Habitat in Eagle Rock – you’ve no doubt seen the colorful signs proclaiming that “Lummis Day” is fast approaching. An annual neighborhood event, Lummis Day Festival celebrates the arts, history and ethnic diversity of Northeast Los Angeles with educational and cultural programming that brings the community together. We are pretty excited about the festival, and seeing the banners got us thinking about all the fascinating local history. We dug a little deeper and found that the event is named after Charles Lummis – read on to find out more about this writer, builder, mythmaker and an all around fascinating personality active in NELA a century ago.

A studio photograph of Lummis taken by an unidentified photographer around 1890. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles (N42477).

The Tramp Across the Continent

Charles Fletcher Lummis was born in Lynn, Mass., in 1859. In 1884, Charles Fletcher Lummis, a Harvard dropout (he was a classmate of President Theodore Roosevelt), set out to walk from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. He was offered a job as a reporter at a new paper out West, the Los Angeles Times, and thought it would be fun to write about his “tramp across the continent” in a series of dispatches to newspapers. Lummis had no shortage of adventures on his 143 days hike, developing a deep affinity for the natural beauty and cultural diversity of the Southwest along the way.

Land of Sunshine

After several years at Los Angeles Times, Lummis became the editor of Land of Sunshine magazine, a periodical that played a big part in popularizing the idea of California living. In the magazine, Charles went on to publish work by famous authors – the likes of John Muir and Jack London – that extolled the virtues of California, celebrating its natural beauty and spirit of adventure.

Civil Rights Activist

Photograph of Charles F. Lummis at his desk, El Alisal, Los Angeles, California, early 1900s, cyanotype, 4 1/4 in x 6 1/4 in. | Image: Unidentified photographer; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

Charles Lummis was a passionate activist for civil rights for minority groups. He was particularly active in pushing back against the mistreatment of American Indians, with whom he lived for several years in the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta on the Rio Grande River.

In 1902, Lummis formed an Indian rights group called the “Sequoya League,” after the noted early 19th-century Cherokee leader who developed a written alphabet for their language. The organization was dedicated to protecting Indian rights, opposing the unjust policies of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lummis used his personal relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt to force the Bureau to change some of its ways – he helped reverse  policy that led some U.S. government agents to forcibly cut the hair of Indian men.  Eventually, Lummis’ activism became too much for the regressive mores of his time, and he was was barred from the White House.

A devoted appreciator of Native American culture, Lummis used pioneering technology of the time to capture its musical and oral expressions by recording them with wax cylinders. He also advocated preserving “native American industries”. “The beautiful, artistic and valuable handiwork they used to do, which every educated person recognize as art-work of very high rank, would make the Indian people better off than to make them ashamed of all this, and teach them in its stead to play the mandolin, play football, wash dishes, sew overalls, and the like factory industries of factory minds.”

El Alisal

Photograph of El Alisal under construction, circa 1900, gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 in x 8 1/2 in. Handwritten caption on verso: “SOUTHEAST CORNER, ALL TO HAVE TILE ROOF.” | Image: Charles F. Lummis; courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West.

During his time as an editor of  Land of Sunshine, Lummis built a home “to last 1,000 years” in the Arroyo Seco portion of Los Angeles, a handmade castle of stone he named El Alisal.  The residence became a center of the burgeoning artistic and bohemian community in early Los Angeles, where Lummis entertained countless famous visitors, calling his lavish parties “noises”. 

Following his departure from Land of Sunshine, Lummis took the position of the first head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, and served on the committee to open the Southwestern Museum, in operation to this day.

Today, the El Alisal castle and grounds are a lovely, secluded public park – a number of events during the upcoming Lummis Day festival will take place there, so if you haven’t made a visit, this weekend would be a great time. Head over to lummisday.com for the  full schedule of the events – hope to see you there!

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