by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The San Gabriel Valley experienced, as most areas of greater Los Angeles did, phenomenal growth during the 1920s, especially in the western sections closest to the city. While Pasadena, Alhambra and other areas in that vicinity had the largest populations and the most significant growth, there were major changes to the east, as well.
This included the formation by Walter P. Temple in 1923 of his “Town of Temple,” renamed Temple City five years later and noticeable improvements to existing eastern communities like El Monte, Baldwin Park, Covina and Puente. Compared to their western brethren, these remained in largely rural and agricultural confines, but future patterns expanded and enhanced after World War II was underway.
But, with so much happening in the valley, including a major county transportation study and ambitious plans like the proposed Arrow Highway that was to run from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, but was only partially built, it is not surprising that twenty-one communities got together and formed the “Valley Beautiful Association of Los Angeles County” in September 1925 to promote ways to improve the physical appearance of the valley and to promote its history, as well.
The Association had broad, ambitious plans and expressed them through monthly meetings held throughout the San Gabriel Valley as well as a monthly magazine, The Valley Beautiful. The enthusiasm and aims of the organization did not prevent its early demise within just a couple of years, but a look at tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings, the fifth issue of the magazine from July 1926 is instructive concerning boosterism of the valley and region during the Roaring Twenties.
Notably, a descriptive statement on the front cover notes that The Valley Beautiful was that it was “A Pictorial Historical Magazine.” There were actually few photographs in the publication, but there is some very interesting material in the issue. Among these were references to the upcoming June and July meetings, held in Monterey Park and Claremont, respectively, with speakers on landscape, wild birds, sanitation, planning and other topics.
At the latter city, a letter was printed concerning open-air concerts to be held in the summer that, writer William S. Ament, expressed “we hope ultimately to be comparable to those in the Hollywood Bowl” while offering that those areas “east and south of Los Angeles are large enough and interested in the finer things of life.” These performances, naturally, were in the category of “serious music,” that is, classical.
An open letter from Catherine Soper to the Alhambra Planning Commission exhorted that body to consider renaming Main Street to Arrow Highway, if the plan mentioned above was to carried through. Then, she offered an alternative “because more euphonious” of “Boulevard Beautiful.” Soper advocated planting cocoa plumosa along the entirety of the proposed highway, saying this would “give the San Gabriel Valley another title to world fame.”
Soper pointed to a precedent: “a fine example of the effect to be obtained by planting this palm along business frontage is found in a corner in the town of Temple.” She ended her letter by stating that San Gabriel needed to rethink its extension of Main Street, which was and remains Las Tunas Boulevard because, while it “is all right for San Gabriel at present, it does not seem to fit the Great Highway.”
Speaking of roadside trees, there was an article on that topic by State Highway Commission Assistant Engineer C.R. Blood (now, there’s a name for you), who observed that shade trees along public roadways dated back to the Spanish period and the El Camino Real. He noted that, in 1920, a commission was created to develop a shade tree plan, with a tree planting committee existing to hear requests for projects. The costs were borne by the applicants, but the state regulated appropriate plantings. In five years, 300,000 trees were planted along some 500 miles of highway and 85% of the plantings were said to be established.
Another interesting, and timely for us over 90 years later when fire season is now considered year-round, piece was on protecting brush and forest cover in regional watersheds, penned by H.S. Gilman, president of the Angeles Forest Protective Association. Gilman wrote that:
There is other valley in the world with the wealth and population of the San Gabriel Valley, that is so utterly dependent upon its hills and mountains for its climatic conditions and water production, to say nothing of the scenic background which they lend to the valley.
With thousands of acres of pine and spruce forests at higher elevations and wooded canyons, as well as brush covered slopes, there was much to protect. Yet, “because of its characteristically high inflammability, it presents our most serious problem of fire prevention and control.”
Gilman pointed out that recurring fires caused “deterioration of plant species” and “burning out the plant food and laying the soil open to loss by wind and water erosion.” The preservation of water resources emanating from the mountains was much more enhanced by brush and forest cover instead of the losses due to bare slopes. Suppressing forest fires was considered crucial to protection of the watershed and measures such as building more roads and trails, fire breaks, fire lines, telephone lines and lookout stations were invaluable in the plan.
Fire breaks, in particular, were highlighted because they assisted in “dividing the extended areas of brush into smaller tracts to which the fires may be confined.” The overall prevention plan was designed so that “the men charged with the protection of the forest may have a fighting chance to hold the fires to small areas.” Reforestation was also considered essential, but water production for this purpose was a serious constraint.
With major fires in recent years causing large losses in brush-covered and forested areas of the local national forest, Gilman concluded by warning, “we should begin to worry about how long we can continue to reduce the already unsafe minimum [of these lands].” He asked “what effect will it have upon our water supply, our climate, the recreational facilities for our people, and protection from flood damage. How long can we maintain a Valley Beautiful?”
On the historical front, Percival Cooney, whose Dons of the Old Pueblo was a well-known history of the pre-American period, wrote a piece on the “San Gabriel Valley in Civil War-time.” He noted what has long been discussed: that the Valley was a hotbed of secessionist support and sentiment, while “the Union men were a mere handful.” Cooney observed that a Los Angeles hotel refused to serve anyone in a Union Army uniform and had a painting of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard hanging prominently in the lobby.
Cooney spoke to a survivor of a confederate militia called the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” who claimed that the organization “was to oppose the draft it it should be called” and to protect “lands of southerners in case of Union victory.” Cooney said he examined records that showed that rebel supporters appealed to the Confederate government at Richmond, Virginia for help in a plan to capture California for the South.
Also mentioned was a parade of southern sympathizers around the home of Jonathan Tibbets, a rare Union man, who lived at the intersection of Valley and San Gabriel boulevards, but Union troops were sent from Camp Drum at Wilmington, whose founder was staunch Unionist Phineas Banning, to tamp down the activities of the rebel supporters.
Mention was made of the formation of a California volunteer battalion of some 1,500 men who enlisted for the Union and helped retake Arizona and New Mexico (or, really, parts of it) that Confederates briefly seized.
There was some regular coverage in local newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times and Covina Argus of the activities and plans of the Valley Beautiful Association. For example, planting of flowers and other plant materials was conducted in “New Walnut,” which is where the modern city of Walnut is today, a few miles east of the Homestead, and in Monterey Park.
A “Great Parks” plan was proposed in which 1000 feet on either side of the several washes running from the San Gabriels into the valley would be converted from “eye sores” to “places of beauty.” The adornment of the region’s highways from Alhambra to Cucamonga with trees and plants was also advocated. County supervisors and a member of the House of Representatives spoke at some of the monthly meetings.
One article talked about the desire to preserve the Carrion Adobe, a structure built in the 1850s by a family residing on the addition to Rancho San José encompassing Pomona, Claremont, San Dimas, La Verne and other areas. The home, which still stands near the Puddingstone dam and reservoir and Bonelli Regional Park, remains privately owned. Another noted the interest in San Gabriel for centennial celebrations for the arrival of the first Anglo to the Valley, noted fur trapper Jedediah Smith.
But, by summer 1927, the Association had basically stopped its work and the magazine went defunct. So, both lasted less than two years, but some interesting proposals, a few early stages of projects, and some notable contents of the magazine, of which the Homestead has a half-dozen issues, did see the light of day.
The County of Los Angeles is engaged now in general planning for unincorporated areas, including an East San Gabriel Valley Plan for which two public workshops were held at the Homestead in March. The Valley Beautiful Magazine might be of interest to planners from a historical perspective as they conduct their work now, nearly a century later.