by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many towns that sprung up at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line that was the first direct transcontinental link to Los Angeles from the east, Azusa took its name from the rancho of that name, granted to Luis Arenas in 1841 and then owned for decades by Henry Dalton, a contemporary of William Workman and his northern neighbor, and, in turn, from a native aboriginal village name of Asuksa-nga (or variations of it).
Strategically situated just to the southeast of the opening of San Gabriel Canyon, from which the San Gabriel River emerges and is the core of a massive watershed for the area, Azusa was founded, as so many regional communities were, during the great Boom of the Eighties.
Dalton, whose rancho was dramatically reduced by surveyor Henry Hancock and who fought for many years to assert a larger acreage for Azusa (in fact, in the 1880 census, Dalton listed his occupation as “fighting for my rights”), lost most of the ranch to Los Angeles banker Jonathan S. Slauson, for whom the major west-east thoroughfare in the south-central part of the county is named.
As the boom flourished, Slauson laid out the town in 1887 and lots sold quickly and a small population inhabited the fledgling town. Though the boom went bust by then, there were some 800 residents of Azusa in 1890. Among the amenities created for the new community was a weekly newspaper, the Glendora Signal, which started in 1887 and, within a couple of years, was rechristened the Azusa Pomotropic, the name referring to the citrus culture that was the dominant economic engine in the foothill region from Pasadena to Redlands.
The paper’s proprietor and editor was John W. Jeffrey, who was born in November 1854 in Randolph County, Illinois, bordering the Mississippi River southeast of St. Louis. His father was an orchardist who self-reported an estate of $24,000, a substantial sum in that rural part of southern Illinois. By 1880, John was working as a school teacher, but he was lured west, as so many tens of thousands were, in 1885 to boomtown Los Angeles and was an early settler of Slauson’s new town of Azusa. He not only founded the newspaper and was involved with the agricultural section of the Los Angeles Times, but he was also one of the community’s first orange growers.
Despite an often sluggish economy (marked by a national depression in 1893) and several years of drought during the 1890s, Jeffrey continued to publish the Pomotropic and today’s highlighted artifact is the 18 November 1897 edition of his sheet. Like many rural newspapers, the Pomotropic covered news from areas in and around Azusa, including Covina, Glendora and Charter Oak.
A major piece of news in the issue was about a proposed protection district for access to water for Azusa-area farmers and orchardists, this latter including the editor. A meeting was held recently and boundaries for the district were reported on by a committee, including Slauson and four other men. The district was to include 5,000 acres from San Dimas on the east, south to the Big Dalton and Little Dalton washes, west to the San Gabriel River and north to the mountains.
There was discussion about seeking to move the eastern boundary to the San Dimas wash, emerging from the canyon of that name, but residents in that vicinity would not commit to joining the district. It was decided to have the committee work to get the San Dimas folks to agree to be part of the district, with some commentary offered by Charles Silent (!), a real estate developer, attorney and former judge in Arizona Territory, whose 100-acre tract in Glendora was renowned for its beautiful landscaping. A finance committee also reported on its efforts to raise funds for improvements to reduce flood damage from the streams in the district.
Another article of note was about the lemon industry, specifically how cooperative efforts (for example, the cooperative work in the orange industry through the brand name Sunkist became a staggering success) could improve conditions and output for growers. The Pomotropic professed to avoid telling growers how to manage their groves, but called for uniformity in basic principles of management.
An example was cited of a Covina-area orchardist who happened to be in the newspaper office as the article was being written. His experience was that problems in securing good profits occurred both independent of and within the local association. Consequently, it was argued, only forming a larger cooperative along the lines of what the region’s orange growers had could augur success for lemon growers. While there was some loose affiliation with the orange growers exchange, only a separate one for the lemon industry was called for “to bring the lemon product to the front and make it profitable.” Until then, “we fear the business will remain in an unsatisfactory state.”
A third major item on the front page was about Azusa resident and orchardist J.J. Ayers, who died on the 12th at age 67. Calling Ayers “one of California’s greatest and best men,” the paper noted that Ayers “by education, by choice and by eternal fitness . . . was a newspaper man.” A major part of his career was working with the Los Angeles Express, one of three English-language dailies in the 1870s and of which there are a number of copies in the Homestead’s collection.
Ayers’ journalistic work was lionized, especially “his lofty style and pure diction,” but it was oratory that was highlighted, including “his purity and sweetness of expression, his delightful simplicity of manner, the delicacy and fineness of his mental organization.” To Jeffrey, Ayers was “a friend always approachable, always sympathetic and never-failing in his kindness of spirit.”
The journalist was working on a history of early Los Angeles area pioneers, a project urged upon him by Henry Barrows, another frequent chronicler of the region’s history. Ayers’ work was finally published in 1922 as Gold and Sunshine: Reminiscences of Early California and has some interesting accounts of the Workman and Temple families, including the failure of their bank a few years after Ayers came to Los Angeles in 1872.
Jeffrey also had an editorial on the movement to incorporate Azusa as a city, writing “the town has reached the stage in which it must accept the responsibilities of its growth, or retrograde.” The matter of inadequate water supply and expected rising rates (a table of rates was published in the issue) was a paramount one and securing enough water for growth was an imperative. He continued, “business forethought demands that we prepare for the future . . . let it lapse and we will see our rivals go to the front. Let us be wise and take immediate steps to incorporate.” This did happen at the end of 1898, a little over a year later.
Some of the local news concerned developments with the local lemon association regarding a curing arrangement, some new members, and, despite many groves converting to orange raising, there was some encouragement felt by some growers. Meanwhile, orange packing was being done, with cars shipping fruit out “for the holiday trade.” There was also new management at the Hotel Azusa, built for the boom town ten years before, and a Thanksgiving dinner thrown by local restaurant owner C.B. Sallee.
There was at least one light-hearted item in the form of a pointed rejoinder from the Pomona Times in response to a claim from the Pomotropic that “so many weddings at Azusa are suggestive as to where the sweetest and best girls are found.” As to other local cities and towns like Los Angeles and Pasadena were full of old maids, Monrovia was out of the contest, but “Pomona never was in it.”
The Pomona paper mockingly noted that its city was “the one spot in all this world where feminine grace and charm reach their perfection” and advised “Come over, Jeffrey, come over to Pomona and stand in the presence of feminine loveliness, cover yourself with dust and ashes and make humble confession” of the error of his ways.
Finally, it is always interesting to see a newspaper’s advertisements, which provided the bulk of the revenue for these sheets to operate. Ads for the Hotel Azusa, the Azusa Valley Bank, local grocery stores, and other community businesses were abundant. There was also an ad for pure guano fertilizer and the pioneer undertaker of Azusa, Arthur Jenner.
Unfortunately for Jeffrey, there wasn’t enough support from subscribers or ads to keep his ownership of the Pomotropic sustainable. In 1898, the paper was shut down, though it was revived under new owners and operated for another three decades until it merged with its rival, the Azusa Herald. The combined newspaper survived until 1958 and then was shuttered.
As for Jeffrey, he remained in Azusa for a few more years, maintaining his orange grove and, publishing an address at a conference in a 1902 issue of California Cultivator, a long-running agricultural journal. He then moved to Sacramento, where he operated an orange orchard and served as State Horticultural Commissioner from 1907 to 1911. Jeffrey, who was married twice and had two sons, died in 1930 at age 75.