John Jacob Hart, born in Cleveland, OH, on July 8, 1843, was one of the San Gabriel Valley's most respected music teachers and an influential member of Sierra Madre's founding circle. He was equally known for his Sierra Madre winery, "Monte Vina," regarded as one of the finest in Southern California.
Born to German immigrant parents, Hart grew up in Cleveland's German community and displayed musical talent at an early age. His sisters encouraged his interest in music by taking him to Cleveland's town square to hear concerts, from which he would return home and pick out tunes he had heard on the accordion. Later in his youth, he received formal training in piano and violin with a French émigré from the Paris Conservatory.
When Hart was 17, the Civil War broke out, and though he tried to volunteer for military service, his parents discouraged him because of his age. A few years later, he joined the 150th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, where he was promoted to corporal, and helped defend Washington from Confederate forces in July of 1864.
A biographical sketch from the Sierra Madre Historical Archives notes that, "while at the Capital, he and a companion saw Lincoln out driving and received a bow from him in answer to their salutes." Later, after Lincoln's assassination, Hart served as an escort to the president's body as his funeral procession passed through Cleveland on its way to Springfield, IL.
After he was discharged, Hart went to Europe in 1869, where he studied for two years at the renowned Conservatory of Leipzig. His professors were some of Leipzig's most prominent musicians, including Ferdinand David and Carl Reinecke.
While studying at the conservatory, Hart impressed his professors enough with his talents as a violinist that they allowed him to play with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, a rare honor for a student in those days.
Returning to the United States in 1871, Hart helped to found the Cleveland Conservatory of Music with two other musicians, and the same year married Emma Corlett, a local woman. They had two children—John Jr. and Edwin--and in 1875 they moved to a farm on the Russian River in Sonoma County, CA, where they lived for a year before returning to Ohio.
It was at this point that a tragic accident cut short John Hart's performing career. Some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, when Hart was living in Cleveland, a neighbor lent Hart a shotgun so he could go hunting. The firearm exploded, blowing off the tops of several fingers on his left hand. The death of his third son and a mild nervous breakdown followed, and in 1884, he decided to move his family permanently to California for the sake of his health and to make a new start. The same year, a fourth son, Frank, who would become Hart's business partner in winemaking, was born.
Hart was entranced by the beauty of the San Gabriel Valley and bought 40 acres of land in Sierra Madre, which extended from Sierra Madre Boulevard south to Orange Grove Avenue.
At the time, agriculture was the primary industry in the San Gabriel Valley and vineyards its largest crop. Alhambra's nearby San Gabriel Wine Company claimed to be the "largest in the world," and the nearby Sunny Slope Winery in Lamanda Park was quite large as well. Seeing a business opportunity, Hart cleared the lower half of his property and planted grapevines, hoping to sell them to nearby vintners. He also began to teach violin and piano.
Selling grapes did not prove lucrative, however. Hart found that local wineries paid less than $10 for a ton, and soon he decided to try his own hand at winemaking instead. He studied viticulture, built an adobe winery on his property, and in 1885 began to produce his own wines under the label "Monte Vina." These he sold from a shop on Central Avenue, which his son Frank later helped operate under the name "J. Hart & Son."
Winemaking paid off, as Hart had hoped, but Hart continued to teach and compose music—his first love. In 1886, he was making enough money that he was able to open a studio on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.
Tragedy struck again when Emma Hart contracted tuberculosis and died in 1894. A later recollection by Hart's daughter-in-law, Elsie Blumer, illustrates the disturbing ease with which TB was spread in the 19th century; during a brief visit to the Hart household, a tubercular guest was "careless about spitting," and soon after he left, Emma developed "galloping consumption," a fast-spreading strain of the disease. Hart went through a period of profound mourning following her death, writing many elegies for the violin. He did not remarry for more than 10 years.
It is unclear exactly how long it took Hart's winery to achieve wider recognition, but numerous sources--including Sierra Madre Vistas, a 1976 compendium published by the Sierra Madre Historical Society--confirm that Hart's wines were eventually known and sold throughout the country. A recollection by Gertrude Cook, an acquaintance, validates that Hart's wines were "of the finest quality" and had numerous local admirers, including Dr. Norman Bridge, a notable trustee of Throop Institute (now Caltech).
Though it closed a year before Prohibition took effect, J. Hart & Son was nearly the victim of the earlier temperance movement. In 1906-'07, when Sierra Madre was on the verge of incorporation as a city, R.T. Cowles, editor of the Sierra Madre News, began to push for a dry town—an effort to polish the city's image, but also to further his reputation as a moral crusader. Cowles, a newcomer to the town, took the opportunity to attack any business that sold alcohol, and Hart's winery became a particular focus of his campaign.
Many who knew Hart found it a libelous assertion. Elsie Blumer's father, John George Blumer, wrote a rebuttal accusing Cowles of being an outsider unfamiliar with the character of the town, and others came to Hart's defense as well. Hart's winery survived the tiff, but when Sierra Madre was incorporated in 1907, all local hotels were banned from selling alcohol, which probably put a minor dent in his business.
As his winery grew in popularity, so did Hart's demand as a teacher. A 1920 directory, Who's Who in Music in California, notes that Hart continued to teach into his late 70s, from a second studio in the Braley Building in Pasadena (currently occupied by the Church of Scientology).
On his 80th birthday, Hart received a letter from the Tuesday Musicale Club of Pasadena expressing appreciation for "the service Prof. Hart has rendered Pasadena and the community in his faithful adherence to the highest musical standards, his reverence for the classics, his fine appreciation of the best in music and his sincere contributions in composition."
Hart quit the wine business in 1918 (a year before Prohibition sunk most other local wineries) and sold his property to the city, which later became Memorial Park.
When Hart died on May 5, 1932, the L.A. Times wrote: "the passing of Prof. John J. Hart of Sierra Madre takes from the musical life of Southern California one of its most distinguished pioneers." Hart is buried at Pioneer Cemetery, along with his first wife, his three sons and a stepdaughter. He is one of 16 Civil War veterans interred at the cemetery.
Hart's lasting contributions to the community of Sierra Madre include his help in establishing the first public library, his efforts to bring the Pacific Electric Railway to town, and an important cultural imprint. When the subdivision south of Central Avenue (now Sierra Madre Boulevard) was being laid out, Hart insisted on giving several streets Spanish names, including Mariposa, Ramona, Manzanita and Esperanza avenues. Given his reputation, Gertrude Cook's summation of him seems more than apt: "a thorough musician, a courtly gentleman of the old school, and a clean businessman."