Sharing History Through the Viewfinder with the Azusa Historical Society

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was chilly and rainy as I headed out to Azusa and the Durrell House, the museum of the city’s historical society and which was built in 1923, a few years before La Casa Nueva, by Mayor R.T. Durrell, to give a talk to the Azusa Historical Society.  About twenty people braved the wet weather to come out and hear a reprise of my “Through the Viewfinder” presentation, given last November at the Homestead as part of our series on early greater Los Angeles photography.

The talk utilized historic photos from the museum’s collection dating from about 1870 to 1930 as a way to visually show the many ways in which our region transformed, in such areas of economics, race and ethnicity, transportation, leisure, education and others.  Images were of both Los Angeles and its suburban areas and included professional views and amateur photos in a variety of formats, included stereoviews, cabinet cards, real photo postcards, and snapshots.

The 1923 Durrell House, the home of the Azusa Historical Society, is situated in a park near city hall and next to the Santa Fe railroad line and was the locale for today’s “Through the Viewfinder” presentation to the Society.

Azusa’s history, as would that of many towns and cities in our region, encompasses many of the topics covered in the presentation.  Though a long-held myth says the town was named because it stood for “A to Z in the USA,” the name actually is from Asuksa-nga, a native Indian village in the area.

Formerly one of the many ranches under the control of Mission San Gabriel, the Rancho Azusa was owned for decades by Henry Dalton, the northern neighbor of William Workman, half-owner of Rancho La Puente.  Though the men were about the same age and natives of England, they don’t appear to have had much contact, though Workman was a patron of Dalton’s Los Angeles store.

The good folks who braved the chilly, wet weather to come out and hear a little of our region’s history, even if friend of the Homestead, Brad MacNeil of the Pasadena Museum of History, at lower right, came at this sideways!

When he was having the Azusa ranch surveyed for a land claim to the federal government, Dalton got on the wrong side of surveyor Henry Hancock, who greatly reduced the size of the property.  This led to years of litigation, which, coupled with bad business investments, problems with squatters, and fights over water, left Dalton, who gave his occupation to the census taker in 1880 as “fighting for my rights,” disillusioned and destitute by the time he died in 1884.

The following year, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad built its direct transcontinental line through the ranch to Los Angeles and the famed Boom of the Eighties resulted.  Among the towns that sprung up along the railroad line was Azusa, which was established in 1887, one of the peak years of the boom.

1118056 A Snapshot Street Scene With Boy Scouts Azusa 2015.420.1
This view and the ones below are from the Homestead’s collection and are of Azusa and nearby areas.  This is a great (though blurry) 1920s view of Azusa Avenue in the city’s downtown.

While the 1890s featured several years of drought and a major national economic depression, Azusa survived and was incorporated in 1898.  In succeeding decades, it grew into a prosperous town with orange groves, rock and gravel plants, and its status as a gateway into San Gabriel Canyon and the recreational opportunities found there as major features.

The Homestead has, in its collection, a few dozen artifacts related to the Azusa area, some of which directly tie into the themes discussed in today’s presentation.  For example, one image shows the San Gabriel Valley looking towards San Gabriel Canyon and the snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountain range, this being a very typical image of the region with its rural, agricultural setting punctuated by the occasional small farming town (like Azusa, though the one shown here looks to be to the southwest, perhaps in El Monte, which was somewhat similar in size and character).

1117088RPPC View Of Snow Capped San Gabriel Mountains From Azusa 2013.614.1.8.jpg
The foreground is probably in El Monte, but, in the distance is San Gabriel Canyon where Azusa would be just to the right, beneath the snowcapped peaks of some of the San Gabriel Mountains, in this circa 1920s snapshot.

More specifically to the town, there is a great, if blurry, 1920s image of downtown Azusa and what looks like Boy Scouts posed with a caravan of automobiles parked along Azusa Avenue, probably for a parade.  Several commercial buildings in the growing town are of note as are a portion of the mountains for a backdrop.

There is also a really interesting photo taken of Azusa Avenue quite a bit south of the town, perhaps in what is now West Covina, and looking north towards the mountains.  A lone auto plies the roadway, which has widened considerably, but then the traffic volume has, too!

RPPC Road Looking North On Azusa Ave San Gabriel Valley 2015.354
This is another 1920s photo and shows a lone car traveling north on Azusa Avenue south of Azusa, perhaps in West Covina.

It was a matter of pride for communities, including rural ones like Azusa, to have modern, well-built schools and one of the images featured here is for Slauson School, named for one of the town’s founders, James S. Slauson, whose name is best recognized for the street that runs from Whittier to the 405 Freeway.

The modest little school sported the popular Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the 1920s, including a red tile roof and white plastered walls, though the building lacked the exuberance of La Casa Nueva, the Temple family home at the Homestead.  The photo shows the newly completed school with landscaping still in progress and the image was likely taken to express pride in its construction and opening.

RPPC Slauson School Azusa 2013.614.1.7
The newly finished building, with landscaping still in progress, of Slauson School, also from a 1920s photograph.

The last image in the series shown here is of another important, though little considered, part of the history of Azusa and its southern neighbor, Irwindale.  A great many of our structures and roadways over the decades have been built with concrete derived from the sand and gravel plants that are built along and near the San Gabriel River.

This is because of millenia of deposits of material washed down from the mountains in torrents and which have provided a vast reserve for the processing of those items for use in building and construction projects throughout greater Los Angeles.

The plant shown here in this 1920s photo is of the Consolidated Rock Products Company, which, as its name reflects, formed as the combination of two other firms, Reliance Rock Company and Union Rock Company, which dated as far back as 1909.  Incorporated in 1929, which is about when the photo was taken, the conglomerate focused on crushed rock, gravel and sand for construction projects and had nearly two dozen plants in the region.

Consolidated Rock Products Co PLant Azusa 2011.204.1.1
The sand and gravel industry has been a major part of the economy of Azusa and its neighbor Irwindale for many years.  This view shows the Consolidated Rock Products Company plant in Azusa, which was likely built by a predecessor.

In the mid-1980s, Conrock, as it was known since the early Seventies, merged with the California Portland Cement Company (Portland cement is the main ingredient in concrete), formed in Los Angeles in 1891, and this created CalMat, Inc.  The firm works with ready-mix cement, aggregates, asphalt and real estate, including building construction, ownership and leasing.

Among the main reasons why the Homestead collects broadly in the greater Los Angeles region is because the Workman and Temple families had wide-ranging interests throughout the area, but also because we want to build the family story in the framework of the interpretation of the regional context.  Going out and sharing history with organizations like the Azusa Historical Society, just as with recent talks in Yorba Linda and La Verne and one coming in a couple of weeks in Ontario, is part of interpreting that context to better understand the times in which the families and their contemporaries lived.

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