by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead has worked a great deal with elementary schools over its nearly forty year history with fourth grade classrooms a particular and obvious focus because California history is part of the curriculum for that year. We’ve also done much work with third graders as local history is studied then. Not as commonly, we’ve engaged with high school students, though a recent partnership with Workman High School in the City of Industry has reflected more of our efforts with these grade levels in the last few years.
What has been rare in our experience is working with middle or junior high schools and, again, curriculum is a significant reason why. This is why it was great to hear a few weeks ago from social studies teacher Tom Erickson from Sierra Vista Middle School in La Puente.
Tom joined us for the hike we co-sponsored with the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority in late July to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition, the first Spanish land movement through California. Because he enjoyed the excursion so much, he got in touch for a new program Sierra Vista has developed for its students.
Called “I Love La Puente,” the initiative involves the development of lessons across school curricula and involving both historical research and the identification of challenges to the community resulting in student suggestions to educational and political leaders in the community.
We jumped at the opportunity to participate, not just because the junior high level has been lacking in our interactions, but because the idea of using history as a way to look at current issues and solutions is a vital and important concept. So, when Tom asked if I would participate, I attended a meeting with school administration and teaching staff to learn more about the “I Love La Puente” program.
This morning I went to Sierra Vista and gave a pair of roughly 20-minute presentations, providing a general overview of La Puente-history to two assemblies: the first for 8th graders and the second for 7th grade students and, as a last-minute addition, about 40 sixth-grade students from Workman Elementary, one of the feeder schools for Sierra Vista. With the inclusion of some parents and staff, there were over 250 people attending both talks.
A bonus was having La Puente City Council member Dan Holloway join us for the morning. Dan is not only a very engaged and community minded leader in La Puente, but his children all attended Sierra Vista and he maintains close contact with the school to this day. Dan added some remarks about the importance of local history and community building which complemented my contribution and enhanced the morning program.
My approach was to ask the students if history had to be written to be considered legitimate and, fortunately, many of them said it did not. I started, illustrated with a PowerPoint slideshow titled “The Road to La Puente,” by reminding us of the many thousands of years that the indigenous people of our area were here, without having a written language to record their history.
I noted that Awig-na, the local village, which has been identified as being at La Puente City Park, just a short distance from the school, as well as near El Campo Santo Cemetery near the Homestead and along San José Creek (it was likely both, depending upon flood conditions), was a thickly populated and prominent native settlement within a San Gabriel Valley with a good water supply and, therefore, much plant and animal life.
The Portolá Expedition was then brought up, especially in the concept that, once that group crossed over the Puente Hills from modern Orange County to the south, and entered, “stuck with wonder” by the landscape, into what it named the “San Miguel Valley,” this is essentially the beginnings of Los Angeles County history, at least from a written point of view.
I pointed out that Father Juan Crespí, in his remarkable and very detailed diary, noted that the party had to cross San José Creek by building a bridge and that he named it la puente del arroyo del valle de San Miguel. Even though modern Spanish speakers use the masculine “el” when speaking of a bridge, Crespí, Portolá and their fellow Catalonians back in the 18th century used the feminine “la” instead.
Two years after the expedition passed through the valley, the Mission San Gabriel was founded and that institution extended its control of the nearby landscape through the valley, including one of its many ranchos, La Puente. I did mention that native peoples were used as forced labor on the ranch, working with livestock and farming, and that there was a granary along Valley Boulevard very near their school.
After the Mexican government shut down (“secularized”) the missions, La Puente and other former mission ranchos were made available for private ownership and that led us to John Rowland and William Workman. I told the students that, though Rowland was an American from Maryland and Workman was British, they were Mexican citizens and lived for years in New Mexico prior to coming to California.
I briefly noted that the two men raised cattle and horses and farmed on their ranch and shared a couple of maps, including the diseño drawn for the land grant made to Rowland in 1842 and the partition map the pair had made when they decided, in their later years, to divide La Puente amongst themselves for the benefit of their heirs.
While Workman did not transmit his half to his family because of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and much of that land went to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the Rowland family, I told the groups, still own some land on the rancho today, almost 180 years after it was granted.
Within a decade of Workman’s death, a new phase in local history was brought about when the town of Puente was established along the Southern Pacific Railroad line that was built through the valley in the early 1870s. I showed an 1886 advertisement for the new community with all of the usual promises of active development and growth for a “flourishing town in the foothills.” Along with that, there was an article from the same year about a massive strike of oil in the Puente Hills on land owned by former sheriff William R. Rowland, son of John.
From there, I mentioned that the Puente area became particularly well known in following decades as an agricultural center with fertile farmland on which citrus and walnuts were raised in great abundance. I pointed out to everyone that, in the early 1920s, Puente had the world’s largest walnut packing house, a prominent demonstration of the importance of that crop (the Homestead was largely planted to walnuts at that time, as well).
I also shared some images taken from a 1927 promotional pamphlet of Puente, the pages of which highlighted signs of progress, including fine homes like the Rowland House and the Homestead’s La Casa Nueva (then just being completed); buildings in the town’s business district; churches and schools; and other elements. The idea was to point out that there are resources out there that can help a researcher learn about the community, where these be maps, photos, brochures, or letters.
Because our interpretive time period ends at 1930 and time was limited for the talks, I briefly noted the rapid changes that took place in later years, especially after World War II when many more homes were built as people moved into the area’s burgeoning suburbs.
A pair of photos taken from what was long called P-Hill (Puente Hill) and now known as Industry Hills and looking north toward the mountains demonstrated the change. One was probably from the 1940s and showed walnut or orange groves and a house here and there just north of the hill, but another taken in the early 1960s or so showed a great many houses built in the area near where Workman High is situated today.
Again, this was a quick overview designed to provide some basics of how La Puente came to be and Dan provided some important information to supplement that, including how the city was incorporated in 1956 just before the City of Industry was the following year; how school were segregated for many years, with white students going to Hudson Elementary and Latinos going to another school (Central); and more.
Leaving time for questions meant some that were about the local history, while others, not surprising given the audience, were more personal about how long I lived in the area, what my favorite sport was, and the like. There were, after the expected initial hesitance, lots of questions which seemed to indicate a good level of engagement among the students with the morning’s program.
I’m hopeful that we can build upon this first step and work with the staff at Sierra Vista on their “I Love La Puente” program. As I made a point of telling the students: loving your hometown should mean loving its history. Today’s modest beginning may lead to some deeper explorations to help the students in their goal of bettering their community and the Homestead will be honored to be part of that project.