by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In fall 2017, I received an offer of a donation of papers left in the early 1960s in the home of Grover T. Russell, a sales agent for the North Whittier Heights subdivision, now the unincorporated community of Hacienda Heights near the Homestead. The donors, John and Barbara Clonts, bought the home, built in 1916, from Russell and they held on to the hundreds of documents for over a half century prior to its donation.
It’s taken some time to catalog the collection, but today’s post looks at a cache of letters concerning the opening of the tract in mid-May 1913 and they provide some interesting context for that event and the project generally. The North Whittier Heights property was part of William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente and was lost by foreclosure in 1880 to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank four years earlier.
Baldwin retained ownership for some thirty years until his death in 1909 and his estate was handled by his nephew and long-time business manager Hiram A. Unruh. This included the sale of a great deal of property that allowed for subdivision and sale to new settlers in the area, including Baldwin Park and the North Whittier Heights tract. Another outgrowth of the estate settlement was Walter P. Temple’s purchase several months prior of sixty acres, formerly owned by his father and lost to Baldwin the bank loan foreclosure and on which his son, Thomas, found oil in spring 1914.
The owner of the North Whittier Heights property was the Whittier Extension Company and those two monikers are illustrative of the fact that, even though the tract was on the north side of the Puente Hills and faced towards the town of Puente and the eastern San Gabriel Valley, the emphasis of the marketing was the perceived close connection of it with over the hills to Whittier.
In any case, the prime mover in North Whittier Heights was Edwin G. Hart, who later developed nearby La Habra Heights and areas of San Diego County—all of which were hillside properties that were suitable for another of Hart’s endeavors, raising avocados. In fact, Hart was a significant figure in promoting that fruit and was involved in the preeminent cooperative association of growers and the brand name Calavo.
So, as North Whittier Heights was subdivided and marketed for sale, the ability to grow avocados on the tract, including its steep slopes, was a significant part of the project, although oranges and lemons were extensively grown on the more level sections. There was ready access to a packing house about a mile from the Homestead at Hillgrove next to the railroad line of the Los Angeles, San Pedro and Salt Lake Railroad, now owned by the Union Pacific.
As the 17 May date for the opening of the tract approached, several letters from the Russell papers show some of the marketing and interest involved with the project. An 11 May letter, for example, from William E. Erwin of the Counts-Erwin Realty Company of Long Beach to the Whittier Extension Company at its Los Angeles office in the Union Oil Building stated that he was happy to attend but was not available to come to the office. If he decided, however, to drive up from the coast city, he wanted to know how to access the tract.
Ironically, there was no direct access to North Whittier Heights from its namesake city and a long roundabout route up Workman Mill Road to Valley Boulevard and then east to Tenth Street, adjacent to the Homestead, and south to the tract was the only point of access. Turnbull Canyon Road, a long, winding drive through the rugged Puente Hills was being built but not yet completed.
Another missive was sent on 12 May specifically to Russell by A.J. Hiatt of his namesake realty, insurance and loan company in Whittier. Hiatt, however, had car trouble and his machine was in the shop though he noted that “if we have the use of it by that time we will be glad to co-operate with you in any way that we can that may be of mutual benefit to us both.” He asked Russell to drop by his office “and tell us of your plan of operation and leave us some of your literature.”
There was some interest from places somewhat far removed as a letter the same day was sent to the company from a Santa Barbara man, who saw an ad in a Los Angeles newspaper and inquired about “price, terms, and so forth of your North Whittier acres.”
Then there was an interesting note sent to Hart from another Union Oil Building tenant, the real estate and investment firm of Mason-Kwis-Cram, which formed the prior fall. The company’s letterhead specifically noted its properties in the Antelope Valley and its alfalfa and fruit lands and the La Puente Valley and citrus fruit and walnut orchards. Charles Mason, one of the three principals, wrote and told Hart that the company received the information on the tract opening and stated “if we can be of any assistance to you in any way call on us, we will be glad to help make the opening a success.”
In this case, John D. Kwis (1882-1953) had an active involvement in North Whittier Heights as a realtor and a street and elementary school in the tract were named for him, though he later owned a San Joaquin Valley trucking company and from 1929 until his death was a developer and realtor at Palos Verdes Estates. As a side note, the third partner in the business, Charles H. Cram, had the Antelope Valley connections and was married to Isabel del Valle, daughter of Ygnacio and brother of Reginaldo, both featured in recent “Portrait Gallery” posts on this blog.
The last document is a 13 May draft letter from the Whittier Extension Company, with Hart and Volney H. Craig, who was born in San Gabriel and was named for Volney Howard, a family friend and neighbor who was a well-known attorney and judge in Los Angeles. Craig was a lawyer before turning to real estate and later ran a citrus ranch in San Fernando before being confined to a mental institution at San Gabriel called Baldy View (the most famous patient of which was Curly Howard of the Three Stooges fame), where he died in 1943.
The missive, the corrected copy of which was sent to a San Pedro man who requested North Whittier Heights information, accompanied “one of our descriptive folders” and gave details as to lots of from 5 to 50 acres at $700 an acre, while “we also have about 400 acres of rolling foothill land” planned for later sale and from $150 to $900 per acre.
Apparently in reference to avocados, the letter noted that “by planting the trees on a contour with the land the irrigation of these properties can be handled as successfully as if they were planted on land of more even surface.” Moreover, it was opined that “for scenic beauty and a location for a country home, they can not be duplicated in all the Southland.”
Further, “the owners of North Whittier Heights have purchased 20,000 high-class lemon and valencia orange trees which they will plant on a portion of the property in a few weeks” so that “these young orchards will also be offered on the market in tracts of five acres and up.” The estimated cost per acre for these planted properties was $875 and the trees were to be guaranteed as pedigree stock. In any case, terms were 20% down in cash, 20% in two years and the remaining 60% due in five years from the date of purchase.
There was also provision for “those who wish to have an orchard developed and who do not expect to immediately reside on their property” consisting of “our force of orchard experts [to] care for the groves of nonresident purchasers.” The fee for this service was $25 an acre for the first year and $5 increases the following two years.
It was added that
if you are in the market for ‘proven citrus lands’ of young groves where every condition essential for success is evident, I am confident that, if you will take the time to go out with us to look our property over, you will not be disappointed in North Whittier Heights.
Some $100,000 of land in the tract was sold prior to the opening and the letter offered that “we would be glad to have you talk to some of these men and hear what they have to say regarding our property.” As a draft, the document is unsigned but does have the title of “Sales Manager” in the signature area, so, presumably, this was Russell.
On the reverse of the first page of the draft is a map showing the location of North Whittier Heights within greater Los Angeles and a statement that the best way to reach the tract was as noted above from Pomona (Valley) Boulevard “and continuing to a point two miles East of Bassett Station [on the Southern Pacific rail line] or about one mile West of the town of Puente [this being Tenth Street, now Turnbull Canyon, and which was the western boundary of the 75-acre Workman Homestead], where you will come to a large sign showing the location of the lands on the slopes, South of the Boulevard.”
North Whittier Heights remained a subdivision of citrus and avocado groves for decades afterward with a massive change occurring, as throughout the region, with the post-World War II population and development boom. Tract homes began to appear by 1960, around the time that the name of the community was changed to Hacienda Heights, apparently in reference to the “hacienda” that was the Workman Homestead and now the Homestead Museum.
Fortunately, Russell maintained these papers for a half-century after the tract opened and then Barbara and John Clonts preserved them for another fifty-plus years before they were donated to the Homestead. These documents are among the hundreds that serve as foundational to the creation and development of Hacienda Heights and look for more of them to be shared on this blog in the future.