by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It can often be pretty challenging to find information on the history of unincorporated areas of our region and when it comes to Hacienda Heights, much of which was within the half of Rancho La Puente owned by William Workman from the early 1840s through the mid 1870s, that has certainly been the case.
Recent research in newspapers and donations of papers related to the early days of what was called, for nearly a half-century, North Whittier Heights have made a world of difference, however. In 2017, Barbara and John Clonts donated a cache of documents preserved by Grover T. Russell, the on-site sales agent for the tract from its beginnings and who sold his 1916 house to Barbara and John back in the mid-1960s. Occasional posts since have featured some of the material from this important collection.
With encouragement from Barbara, her neighbor Paula Martin donated just two days ago, another great collection of historic materials from the formative days of the community. These items, passed down through her family, who settled in North Whittier Heights in its early years, include stock certificate books and loose certificates, financial ledgers, incorporation papers, and other items from the North Whittier Heights Citrus Association, spanning the years 1916, when the organization was established, to 1935, when it appears to have been replaced by a new entity bearing the same name and which looks to have operated until about 1960.
Having just received these artifacts, it will, as was the case with the Clonts donation, take some time to sort, arrange and catalog the material and, just as with the Russell papers, we will definitely look to share items from time to time on the blog. In the meantime, here is a summary of some of the history prior to the Association’s formation as well as some aspects of its operations during the period covered by the collection.
First, the group was formed for the benefit of its members raising citrus fruits, principally oranges, and that fruit’s history in our region dated back to the establishment of the California missions, the first locally being that of San Gabriel. Originally situated in the Whittier Narrows on the banks of the Old San Gabriel River, which we know as the Río Hondo, the complex was flooded out and moved to its current location within several years. While the padres had orange trees there and at other missions, there was no commercial market in this far-flung outpost of the decaying Spanish empire.
It was not until 1841 that Kentucky native William Wolfskill, who lived in central Missouri and then New Mexico when William Workman was in those parts, but who came to Los Angeles more than a decade earlier as one of the early users of the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fé, established the first commercial orange grove in California. Located on Alameda Street south of the pueblo, Wolfskill’s orchard proved to be successful and durable, surviving for over twenty years after his death in 1866, after which it was managed by his son, John. Another son, Luis/Lewis, was a close friend and associate of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple during the region’s first development boom, lasting from the late Sixties through the mid Seventies.
As the region’s economy shifted from cattle ranching, following a devastating period of flood and drought in the first half of the 1860s, to agriculture, orange growing became a core component, along with wheat and wine grapes, especially in the citrus belt of the northern San Gabriel Valley from Pasadena eastward and centered in what was called the San Gabriel district north of the mission. While William Workman focused more on wheat and wine grapes on his half of La Puente, he did have a fruit orchard and orange trees were part of a garden at the rear of his house.
Workman’s success as a rancher and farmer did not, however, translate to business in a growing Los Angeles as he invested large sums in projects helmed by his daughter’s husband, F.P.F. Temple. Temple desperately wanted to play a major role in Los Angeles’ first growth spurt, including banking. The two men partnered in 1868 with the brilliant young merchant Isaias W. Hellman in the town’s second bank, Hellman, Temple and Company and the older men should have stood back, let Hellman work his financial magic and enjoy the proceeds.
This, though, Temple would not do as he wanted an active managerial role. Differences of view, especially about loaning policy, drove Hellman to buy out his partners early in 1871 and then form, with ex-governor John G. Downey, half-owner of the other commercial bank in town, Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles. Under Hellman’s considerably skillful oversight, that institution became an extraordinary success.
Undaunted, Temple convinced his father-in-law to press on and they formed their bank of Temple and Workman later in 1871, but, when a national depression was followed by a statewide economic crash when a bubble in Virginia City, Nevada silver mine stock burst, the poorly managed institution cratered and closed permanently early in 1876. The doomed bank’s owners borrowed almost $350,000 from San Francisco capitalist Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who’d precipitated the silver stock collapse by selling out when prices were inordinately high, reaping him millions of dollars.
A fraction of those proceeds were used in spring 1875 to buy the Rancho Santa Anita in present Arcadia and Sierra Madre and Baldwin, seeing the dire straits in which Temple and Workman were struggling, saw an opportunity to add greatly to his regional real estate portfolio by loaning them money “on rather hard terms,” as Temple wrote his father-in-law when the loan was consummated. Baldwin waited more than three years, however, to foreclose on his loan, allowing interest to accumulate to the point where no one would pay off the balance.
In 1880, Baldwin took possession of almost 20,000 acres of Workman’s share of La Puente, in addition to other choice holdings, such as what is now the Baldwin Hills, and ranches in the Whittier Narrows where the “Old Mission” community and the Temple family homestead were situated. He did sell that latter as well as a 75-acre portion of the Workman homestead to the family.
For close to thirty years, little changed on this baronial holding as farming and grazing took place on the valley floor and on the north-facing slope of the Puente Hills. Yet, change was in the wind as development continued its inexorable march eastward from Los Angeles, including during the first decade of the 20th century. That period ended with Baldwin’s death in 1909 and, once the estate was settled, large swaths of land were sold, including over 1,800 acres in fall 1912 to the Whittier Extension Company.
This name tells us all we need to know about the venture christened North Whittier Heights and which opened in May 1913 with its main active figure being Edwin G. Hart, a long-time San Gabriel Valley resident who blended the real estate project with his advocacy of the avocado, then all but unknown in our region. The steep hillsides at the south end of the tract were considered ideal for growing that fruit, while the lower sections toward the north were promoted for raising citrus.
After a few years, Hart and others decided it was time, once groves were being established in sufficient quantity and quality, to create the North Whittier Heights Citrus Association. As reported in the Los Angeles Express of 8 July 1916 “citrus growers in and around North Whittier Heights have organized . . . for handling the output of the fertile acres” of the tract. Growers were aligned with the Whittier Select Citrus Groves organization and would continue to do until a packing house could be built in North Whittier Heights.
Hart told the paper:
We found that it was absolutely necessary to take this step, as it is only a question of a short time when thousands of acres of young citrus orchards will come into bearing and the fruit from now on will require efficient packing facilities. Three years from now will witness a change to greater prosperity and by then all the land at North Whittier Heights will have been planted and practically every acre be in bearing.
He added that the growth of the first three years of the tract would be bettered over the next three.
There were 1500 shares of stock issued totaling $45,000 and priced at $30 a share, with a $1 due up front and the rest on a rate of up to 15 cents per 100 pounds of fruit shipped by the holder (the first year it was 7 cents per 100 pounds.) For any holder who did not ship product through the organization, “the entire purchase price for the amount of stock subscribed for by him [or her] shall become immediately due and payable to the association,” as enumerated in the stock subscription agreement.
In October 1916, after the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, later the Los Angeles and Salt Lake and which built its line through the area the prior decade, built a warehouse for processing beans with half of the structure leased for vegetable packing (a purpose recently employed at the Homestead and its 1860s-era winery buildings constructed by the Workman family), the Association announced that they hoped to have their citrus packing house on an adjacent parcel within a year.
Though it was reported in the Whittier News that there were 1,200 acres planted to lemons and oranges since North Whittier Heights was established, a report three months later in the same paper observed that the success there, with another 100 acres added so that there were over 1,000 devoted to citrus, more than 160 to walnuts and about 100 to avocados, led to the planting of 560 acres of citrus and about 300 more in walnuts in adjoining areas. Not only was it hoped that a packing house would be completed by summer, but a townsite and business center was being planned “near where the packing house and depot on the main line of the Salt Lake railway will be located.”
This new development had several proposed names, including Valencia, for the orange, of course, and decades before the planned community was built in today’s Santa Clarita, and Hartville, after Edwin Hart. Later, however, the owners settled on Hillgrove, referring to both the Puente Hills and the large number of groves in the area. Also mentioned in the January 1917 article was the recent completion of the $50,000 Turnbull Canyon Road and two pumping plants to provide water for North Whittier Heights growers and local roads in the tract totaling $170,000. Finally, to date there were some thirty houses completed in the tract with several more to come during the year.
By mid-November 1917, just two weeks before Walter and Laura Temple purchased the nearby Homestead, the Association had not started construction on the packing house, though $25,000 was set aside for the project and it was announced in the Express that a deal was reached with the railroad for a phased approach with the first of four sections to be hopefully completed the following spring for shipment of a crop during that season. It was also hoped that lots in the new townsite would be sold starting the next spring.
Further delays, though, ensued and it was not until late January 1919 when it was reported in the News that a five-acre parcel was acquired from the Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad by the Association and financing in place for building the facility. A major reason, it was explained, for the slowness of the project were wartime conditions, which included rationing of certain materials.
Construction took place through much of the year and a formal grand opening was held on 4 October 1919 at the site on Clark Avenue and 9th Avenue in what is now the City of Industry. The News reported that the building was 183′ x 100′, but that there would be two future 100′ additions and proclaimed that its completion demonstrated the fact that “North Whittier Heights is rapidly coming to the front,” especially as streets had also been laid out in the new townsite.
It added that the structure, being on a higher level than other parts of the tract, “looks like a court house or city hall” and “gives an appearance of permanence,” so that “if the new town lives up to the new packing house, it will be a beauty and joy forever.” One interesting feature of the opening was the showing of movies “depicting the many phases of the orange and lemon industry,” including the budding of trees in nurseries, planting, care of the fruit, picking (one wonders how much of the people of color labor force were shown), packing and shipping. There were also guided tours “who asserted that the building is merely a start” and not only were there to be the two new segments but “then a large orange house in the rear of the lemon houses,” though the current building was, obviously, used for both fruits.
So, look for future posts that will highlight some of the material from this collection and many thanks to Paula for her donation which definitely enriches out knowledge and understanding of the formative years of Hacienda Heights.