Getting Schooled at an Institution of Higher Yearning: Surviving Scandal at Lordsburg College (University of La Verne,) 1891-1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As America’s population and economic power grew by leaps and bounds in the late 19th century, so did its educational systems, including colleges and universities.  In Los Angeles, St. Vincent’s College opened in 1865, though it served male students from grammar school upwards.

During the first significant period of growth in the city’s history, lasting from the late 1860s through the mid-1870s, there were efforts to bring new institutions to the region, but, as was the case with some boom towns, these schools did not always fare well.  One briefly-operated example was the Methodist Church-affiliated Wilson College in Wilmington, whose benefactor was Benjamin D. Wilson, a migrant of 1841 with John Rowland and William Workman, and a former mayor of Los Angeles and state senator.  The collapse of this first boom, which included the early 1876 failure of the Temple and Workman bank in Los Angeles, severely affected Wilson College, which soon closed.

Los Angeles Evening Express, 7 March 1891.

In 1880, the Methodists tried again, but, this time, garnered wider support with trustees including Roman Catholic John G. Downey and Jew Isaias W. Hellman, and the University of Southern California was established.  It gradually emerged as the preeminent institution of higher learning in greater Los Angeles.

During the great boom of the 1880s, when a significant spike in population included major growth in Los Angeles as well as in the suburbs, several new colleges came into existence.  Occidental College, affiliated with the Presbyterians, opened its doors in what was then considered Boyle Heights and is now East Los Angeles, in spring 1887.   The fall, Pomona College opened in the city of that name (and moved later to its current site in Claremont.)

Others came very soon after, even as the boom went bust.  Throop University, now the California Institute of Technology, was founded in 1891 and the same year, the Dunkards (also, Dunkers), a name for German Baptists formally known as the Church of the Brethren, established Lordsburg College, in the town of the same name established by Los Angeles businessman Isaac W. Lord on land formerly part of the Rancho San José, just northwest of Pomona.

Los Angeles Times, 18 May 1893.

The Dunkards, who were very conservative in the social bearing as well as their religious tenets, settled as a colony at Lordsburg in 1889, as the boom collapsed.  Their members, however, were determined to establish a college and several of them formed a corporation and then bought Lord’s boomtown hotel, which like so many of its kind, never really functioned as a hostelry, for the centerpiece of the campus.

Enrollment was around 100 students, according to some early news accounts, and rose to perhaps 140 or 150 within several years.  Still, it was rough going for Lordsburg College in its early days, even as there was an effort to promote it, in the mid-Nineties, as a business college.

Among the founding trustees were Dunkards, mainly from Lordsburg and Covina, including David and Henry Kuns, Daniel Hawser, Thomas J. Nair (who was described in one press account as a superintendent—this post originally took that to mean that he was president) and Samuel A. Overholtzer.  The first president was Dr. S.S. Garst, but his tenure was short and he was replaced by Edward A. Miller.  Miller had been president of a Virginia normal school, or teachers college, from 1887 to 1890 and then of Bridgewater College, a Dunkard school in that state that is still church affiliated, from 1890 to 1892.

Times, 21 July 1895.  The name of  John C. Pelton, the architect of the Lordsburg Hotel, longtime home of the college, is at the lower right of the image of the structure.  Pelton, whose father was considered the first public school teacher of San Francisco, practiced architecture in San Francisco and Los Angeles during the late 19th century.

Miller then headed west to take the reins at Lordsburg and was its president for seven years from 1892 to 1899.  While the student body’s population did not appear to grow significantly, Miller’s tenure appears to have generally gone well.  At the end of his first year, when commencement was held in mid-May 1893, a Los Angeles Times report stated that, “Prof. Miller, the principal, deserves great credit for the able manner in which he has conducted the college the past term.”  Moreover, the paper noted that “his motto is strict discipline, [and] close and exact attention to studies.”

Perhaps that last phrase should have been amended to “close and exact attention to students” because, in spring 1899, a scandal erupted at Lordsburg with its president.  In news that was published in papers throughout the country, allegations were made that Miller had improper relations with Celia Overholtzer, who was not only a former Lordsburg student and the president’s secretary, but the daughter of Samuel, one of the original incorporators of the college and a prominent citrus grower in the Covina area.

While Overholtzer was a student, she told a church committee deliberating on the matter at hand, Miller approached her after a class and put his arm around her in a way that was familiar to the Dunkards.  Then, she reported,

afterwards he met me in the library and kissed me.  From then on he began to tell me how he loved me, and soon gained my affections and complete control over me. When I remonstrated and said it was wrong, he answered that it was the natural outgrowth of love and that if I loved him I would permit him to continue.

The relationship went on for six years until Overholtzer graduated in November 1898, but then she was hired as Miller’s private secretary in an office, the Los Angeles Express added, “with frosted windows.”  About that time, the paper continued, “gossip woke up and Mr. Miller fell under suspicion, but begged the trustees to allow him to remain in the college at least until the end of the school year.”

Scandal The_Evening_Express_Thu__Mar_30__1899_
Express, 30 March 1899.

Overholtzer’s family “gently took her to task” and, while “she wept bitterly,” she did not reveal the secret until after the death of her mother.  Because Samuel Overholtzer was a trustee, the president “has been turned out of the presidency of Lordsburg College in disgrace” and “stands expelled from the Dunkard church and has fled from the community . . . among whom he has been for years a man of standing and influence.”

Miller asked to be allowed to resign, clearly because he hoped this would allow him to seek another job, but this was refused.  A trial before the Dunkards congregation was held from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. on a Friday night and Saturday morning “and intense excitement prevailed.”  The height of drama was when Overholtzer’s confession was read and then she was asked to confirm it before the gathering.

After all congregants turned in ballots with their vote, Miller was officially “read out of the church and the fellowship of the brotherhood.”  He immediately took a train to Los Angeles to move in with a sister, whose address was even published.  As for Overholtzer, the paper opined that “a ruined girl is left behind to live down the shame which he brought to her,” though it concluded its coverage by stating that she “pluckily resolved to live it down” and that “the sympathies of the gentle Dunkards are open to her.”

Times, 27 April 1899.

About a month after the trial and expulsion, however, Miller returned to Lordsburg and, with the encouragement of some supporters, appeared before the Dunkard congregation and asked for a rehearing of the matter.  As reported by the Los Angeles Times, promptly, a unanimous vote followed to confirm his expulsion and, additionally, “it was also suggested that he retire at once from the hall . . . and that force be used, if necessary, to expel him.”

By then, a crowd gathered outside the hall and “was in no mood to act as escort of honor.”  A deputy constable arrived, but his presence “did not prevent the shower of eggs of bad odor and uncertain age.”  The paper stated that it was rumored that there were some who wanted to tar and feather the disgraced preacher and president, “but Lordsburg contains too many quiet, law-abiding citizens to permit that.”  Consequently, the Times added that “Miller may be thankful to them that he is short on feathers.”

Notably, this account concluded by observing that “it is said that Miller claims that the charge is simply a case of blackmail, and that the Overholtzers are anxious to have for Prof. Andrew Overholtzer the position which he formerly held,” this latter being the brother of Celia and son of the founding college trustee.

College sorrows The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Mar_15__1901_
Times, 15 March 1901.

The Los Angeles Herald, however, ran a lengthy article at the time from a correspondent in Harrisonburg, Virginia, near Bridgewater College, asserting claims that Miller, while he was president there, had an affair with the wife of one the faculty and, when confronted trying to enter her room at an unseemly hour, “shot at parties who attempted to arrest him, and stabbed a brother preacher in an endeavor to escape.”  It was stated that, though Miller was tried before a committee of the Dunkards, he was allowed to resign with “full credentials from the college.”

The Miller incident faded away, but the stain on the reputation of Lordsburg College did not.  In March 1901, the Times ran a lengthy article on the “Dunker College’s Latest Sorrows.”  It reported that, in the aftermath of the Miller scandal and other problems, the school had but a dozen students to be instructed by ten teachers.  The situation was such, the paper added, that “Lordsburg College seems to be predestined for an early demise, although it may yet take a new lease on life”—the paper didn’t seem to comprehend the meaning of “predestined”!

In any case, it was observed that enrollment at the school was never high and it added that there were nearby schools that competed for attendance, including Pomona College, Chaffey College in Ontario, Throop, Occidental and U.S.C.  It added that the Dunkard affiliation limited its appeal mainly to members of the German Baptist sect.

College reopening The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Dec_12__1902_
Times, 12 December 1902.

There was also a lengthy recitation of the Miller scandal with the summation that the incident “naturally gave Lordsburg College a decided setback.”  Yet, the article also observed that, at the time of the incident, most resident of Lordsburg were convinced of the disgraced president’s guilt.  Two years later, however,

a revulsion of feeling seems to have set in, and there are today a number of people who openly proclaim that they believe Prof. Miller to have been wrongly accused and convicted by the sanhedrin of his church.  Be that as it may, a schism was started by the scandal which has done irreparable harm to the college and the Dunker community at Lordsburg.

The article noted that there were two successors to Miller in the presidency of the institution, one retiring almost immediately for health reasons, while the other worked hard to restore the school’s viability, but attendance dwindled to the dozen students of the time and the president then resigned.

The Times did report that, despite these issues, the college managed to remain out of debt because of the largesse of the trustees, including Samuel Overholtzer, who died in April 1900, a year after the affair involving his daughter and Miller.  It was noted, though, that the trustees founded the school with a commitment of ten years’ support and that time was up.  So, it was reported, the trustees offered to transfer the Lordsburg Hotel building to anyone who could raise $25,000 to keep the college open.

The college did, evidently, close its doors for over a year, but its fortunes were revived when William C. Hanawalt, a Pennsylvania educator who heard of the troubles at Lordsburg, approached the trustees with a plan to reopen, initially as a high school.  This quickly changed and the college did reopen at the end of 1902 on a six-year lease with Hanawalt as president.

New President The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Jul_23__1908_
Times., 23 July 1908.

In October 1902, the Times referred to the town as “a boom town with the bottom dropped out, and a healthy aftergrowth.”  It added “this is a beautiful town, straggled, orange surrounded, full of good people, and ought to be a good place for a college, and is a good place.”  It noted the building of the hotel which never had a paying (or any other kind of) guest and that “by hook and crook it turned into a college.”  With Hanawalt in charge, it was asserted that “there is no fence between success and the venture.”

In spring 1905, the Times reported on the commencement exercises at Lordsburg and stated that he began with just three students, but there were 100, evidence of a revival of substance.  Moreover, a pupil purchased $625 in stock and a visitor from Kansas shelled out $1,000 for his shares.

Three years later, with the lease expired, Hanawalt resigned as president, but continued on as business manager of the college.  While his successor as the head of the school developed health problems very soon thereafter and resigned, Lordsburg pressed on under a new set of incorporators in fall 1908 and new leadership.

When tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a real photo postcard showing the hotel and main school building, neat and manicured landscaping, and another campus structure, with a postmark of 7 December 1910, Lordsburg College was well on its way to future success.

RPPC College Buildings and Grounds La Verne Cal 2016.134.1.74
This real photo postcard from the museum’s collection has a postmark date of 7 December 1910 and shows the main Lordsburg College building, the former boomtown hotel, at the right.  The image was taken by Burton Frasher, who operated his photo studio at La Verne, but was better known as a prolific photographer at Pomona for many years.

That name came about, one story has it, because wags would joke to Dunkards if they were “goin’ to the Lord” when heading to Lordsburg.  Attempts to change the name did not sit well with the founder and Isaac Lord blocked all efforts to rechristen his town, an issue Walter P. Temple faced with a similar issue in the late 1920s.

When Lord died in spring 1917, however, it was quickly decided to rename the town La Verne and the name of the college followed suit tout suite and became La Verne College.  Sixty years later, another change was made to today’s University of La Verne.  The school still maintains close ties to the Dunkards, with trustee seats reserved for Church of the Brethren members and graduation ceremonies held at the local Brethren church, though it has always considered itself non-sectarian.

As for Celia Overholtzer, she married twice and returned to the San Joaquin Valley where she was born.  In 1971, she was a honored guest of the college as the last surviving member of the first graduation class of 1895 and died five years later, just a little short of her 104th birthday.