by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last September’s donation by John and Barbara Clonts of a large cache of papers from Grover T. Russell, the long-time sales agent for North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights, is a rare source of information about the early development of residential communities in the Puente Hills.
North Whittier Heights was developed in the mid-1910s not long after the death of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who acquired most of William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente about 1880. The main agent for the tract Edwin G. Hart, who hired Russell to handle day-to-day sales. Russell built a home in 1916 that he occupied for nearly a half-century and the Clonts’ purchased the residence in 1962, including the papers that Russell left behind.
After experiencing success at North Whittier Heights, Hart turned his attention to another development nearby, acquiring a large portion of the former Rancho La Habra (really la abra, or “opening,” signifying the gap in the Puente Hills where the Portolá Expedition of 1769 passed through the chain and into the San Gabriel Valley.)
La Habra, about 6,700 acres, was granted to Mariano Roldan in 1839 and he later sold the ranch to Andrés Pico, brother of Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California. Abel Stearns, a Massachusetts-born merchant who amassed considerable holdings in southeast Los Angeles County and much of what later became western, central and northern Orange County, acquired La Habra in 1861, but soon suffered financial problems after that decade’s severe droughts.
Basque sheep raisers Juan Sansinena and Domingo Bastanchury bought most of La Habra and the Sansinena held 5,000 acres, which he left to his wife after his death in 1896. Willits J. Hole of Los Angeles acquired 75% of the Sansinena holdings in 1900 and sold 3,500 acres to Hart in the latter part of the 1910s.
Hart named the new community La Habra Heights and it was here that he pursued his passion for avocados and encouraged buyers of what is mainly hillside property to plant the fruit for commercial reasons. To this day, nearly a century later, there are still quite a few avocado trees in the community and many streets bear the names of varieties of the fruit.
In 1921, a water system was completed and ushered in the first phase of development, with lots including shares in the water company. In addition to residences and avocado groves, the Hacienda Golf Club was established, as well as a few nurseries and small farms and citrus orchards.
Some early homes included impressive mansions, often of the popular Spanish Colonial Revival style. In addition to Hart’s residence, potato chip magnate Laura Scudder had a home in the Heights. Oil company executives, an NBC producer and press agent, film actor Jack Holt, and boxers comprised other notable celebrity residents.
Today, La Habra Heights retains much of its rural atmosphere, maintained through strict zoning of Residential Agriculture with a minimum of one acre lots (excepting some divided lots before the zoning was codified), which sets the community apart from others in the area.
The highlighted artifacts for this post comprise a 4 April 1924 letter sent to Grover Russell by R.S. Taylor of Hart’s La Habra Heights Company, which had an office in downtown Los Angeles. Taylor was a sub-agent for that community as well as portions of East Whittier and property in Bloomington, near San Bernardino, and he offered Russell to be an agent for La Habra Heights and the others. A contract was included specifying commission rates and there is a five-page price list, dated 5 December 1923.
The price list specified the lot number, acreage, price per acre, total price, water shares per acre, and total shares. Prices per acre ranged widely from $275 to $1375 and lot sizes went from two-third of an acre to nearly seventy-five. Brief terms and commissions information was also provided A considerable number of the more than 700 lots were sold by spring 1924, a few years after sales began.
As the Clonts donation of Russell’s papers continues to be processed and cataloged, we’ll feature other items from the material here, so look for more of these rare examples of our local history in upcoming posts.