by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the last week or so of February 1927, the Puente area got some regional promotional media attention, including a feature by Mrs. H.L. Hostetler in the Los Angeles Times on the 20th on the agricultural development of the area. Hostetler noted that, “La Puente Valley has a diversity of products, although it has been known principally for its vast industry since the building of the plant of [the] La Puente Valley Walnut Growers’ Association in 1920.”
The journalist continued that the packing house, at the edge of the town of Puente along the Southern Pacific Railroad line, was the biggest on earth with floor space of 225,000 square feet and cost almost $200,000 to build, while it drew from some 7,000 acres in the district embracing Puente, Walnut and West Covina. The average value per acre of these groves was pegged at between $2,000 and $3,000. One of those groves was that at the Workman Homestead, which had walnuts raised at least as far back as 1880, when Francis W. Temple occupied the property, though it may well be that William and Nicolasa Workman planted the first trees.
After Francis’ brother, Walter, purchased the ranch in late 1917 and then, following the termination of an existing lease to a Japanese farmer, known only as K. Yatsuda, which expired at the end of 1918, he planted a large grove on the southern portion of the 92-acre tract adjacent to San José Creek, from which irrigation could be utilized for the trees. Temple did not depend on the walnuts for his financial bottom line, but he continued to grow the high-value crop throughout his ownership of the Homestead, which lasted until summer 1932.
Returning to Hostetler’s article, she added that a normal year’s crop totaled some 3,700 tons valued at $1.25 million and, at the height of the season, from mid-September to mid-November, the plant employed 65 women and 55 men, with the former usually handling the sorting and grading and the latter bringing in the nuts off the growers’ vehicles before that process and then taking the sacks out to be sent elsewhere.
The piece added that there was a newly invented branding machine for each nut that rubber-stamped those that were in the highest grade with the Diamond brand and the Puente packing house had five such machines. Hostetler also noted the fact that “the hillsides of North Whittier [Hacienda] Heights, Puente and Walnut districts have many of the choicest citrus groves of the State,” with some 2,500 acres in the first two and about 3,000 in the latter, as well as in Otterbein [Rowland Heights] and Spadra [southwestern Pomona].”
Hostetler concluded that the packing house of North Whittier Heights Citrus Association, which stood along the Union Pacific line at the northern edge of the community, in a section also known as Hillgrove, shipped 609 cars of fruit in 1926, with a value, when transferred from a seller to a buyer, of about $870,000. Meanwhile, the Puente Mutual Citrus Association reported a return of some $100,000 for its most recent crop. In Walnut, the fruit company was unusual in that it handled both walnuts and citrus, with 2,400 acres of the former and just under 1,000 acres of the latter.
Then there was the growing importance of the avocado at North Whittier Heights, whose principal founder, Edwin G. Hart, was largely responsible for the introduction of the fruit in the region and whose development of that tract and, later, the adjacent La Habra Heights (as well as in the San Diego County community of Vista) was directly tied to cultivation of the avocado on the steep slopes of the Puente Hills.
The article observed that between 1,000 and 1,200 acres in North Whittier Heights was devoted to avocado cultivation, purportedly the most of any area in California. Hostetler noted that all varieties of the fruit were raised in the tract, but “the largest acreage is in the Puente variety [which sounds like it was developed specifically there] with many acres also in Pueblos and Tafts.” She added that the fruit was marketed by the California Avocado Growers’ Exchange under the brand of Calavo.
Also mentioned was the recently completed Puente feed mill of C.C. Stafford, who provided hay, grain and other food for stock to dairies spanning from Chino in San Bernardino County to Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County. His plant, costing $50,000, is about where the Los Angeles County Sheriff City of Industry station is situated today, and, with 15 employees, it was said to generate $1 million in business annually. Finally, there was mention of the local bean crop, with the previous year’s crop setting a record at 25,000 sacks valued at a quarter million dollars, $100,000 more than in 1925.
The article was accompanied by a collage of five photographs, including a panoramic view of North Whittier Heights from high up in the Puente Hills, the hilltop house of Charles C. Lewis in that community, Puente walnut grower Ray E. Scheerer’s residence, the Puente Community Church (which still stands at the corner of Glendora Avenue and Hill Street), and the Silver Peak Guest Ranch in Walnut.
The other promotional piece, published in several regional newspapers, involved Turnbull Canyon Road, from which that expansive view in Hostetler’s Times article was taken. The road, built when North Whittier Heights was relatively new in development, was touted both as a cut-off from the San Gabriel Valley to the Los Angeles Plain, or inland to coast, as well as a beautiful scenic drive.
The piece appears to have been generated by the Automobile Club of Southern California and, likely, the promoters of North Whittier Heights, and it was observed that “looking through the windshield on the drive over Turnbull Canyon reveals a distinctive attractiveness comparable to no other region.” A drive on the scenic route “opens up vistas of rare beauty, and the vast panorama of fertile valley and snow-crowned mountains seen from the summit is an inspiring reward for the tour.”
Noting that the road was reached from Valley Boulevard and Tenth Street, this latter one of the streets in the La Fortuna Farms subdivision but later became an extension of Turnbull Canyon Road, the article continued to note that, for the nine-mile route, “motorists travel in high gear over the smooth, easily graded, curving pavement . . . along the hilltops so that pleasant views are offered throughout the drive of the deep valley and the highly developed fruit groves of the hillsides.”
On the north-facing slopes of the hills were the avocado groves and “marvelous views of many terraced hillsides . . . have a background of the patchwork of the valley’s agricultural area.” Trees lined much of the downgrade towards Puente and there were ferns and wildflowers found, as well, while, at the bottom of the drive, citrus groves were common. It was added that “after the recent prolonged rains, Turnbull Canyon has fresh beauty in vivid green trees and hillsides.”
It was claimed that, historically, “bandits and bad men formerly roamed the trails of Turnbull Canyon, hiding in the openings between the hills of the area.” Moreover, this portion continued, there were “many small battles between sheriff’s posses and bandit forces,” though none of these were named nor are known to have been documented, and “Sheriff [William R.] Rowland, an officer of no small fame for many years [1871-1875, 1880-1882], captured several notorious bad men of the time in this beautiful gap of hills.” While Rowland was widely known for his planning the capture of bandit chieftain Tiburcio Vásquez in spring 1874, that was in what is now West Hollywood and there is no known record of his arresting “bad men” in the Puente Hills, though it is possible.
Adding to the questionable historical associations, the piece went on to state that Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who took possession of over 18,000 acres of William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente on a foreclosure of a loan made in 1875 to the doomed Temple and Workman bank, “once owned Turnbull Canyon as part of his 90,000-acre Rancho [La] Puente, according to records of present owners.” The ranch, while one of the largest in the region, was just shy of 49,000 acres, though, with Baldwin’s many other landholdings in greater Los Angeles, the 90,000-acre figure may have applied to his total portfolio.
In any case, the article ended by pointing out a perennial problem on Turnbull Canyon Road, namely that speeding was a source of danger, while “motorists are advised to sound the horn when turning the curves.” On these, there was some protection in the form of white fences (albeit, made of wood, not our steel guardrails of today), but the Auto Club urged that “ordinary caution should be used.”
There was another important event in the last half of the month, but not promotional or positive. As we grapple with yet another year of drought and have just learned that western America is in its driest state in some 1,200 years (and those showers that were possible today and tomorrow appear to be elusive), the winter of 1926-1927 feature some very heavy downpours and major flooding throughout the area.
In the Puente area, disaster struck when torrential flooding mid-month on what was referred to as Puente Creek, but which is San José Creek, took out a trestle and most of the cars of a Union Pacific transcontinental passenger train plunged into the roiling waters. While engineer Charles Ireland was killed when he tried to leap from the locomotive and was crushed under it, it was remarkable that there were no other fatalities.
In any case, there were many washed-out roads, flooded houses and other structures and other damage done by the massive storm. The Auto Club reported on the 26th that “beginning with the second day of the rain, the sign-posting department of the club was busy day and night signing temporary routes.” A report issued by that department showed that more than 6,500 such signs were placed in only four days and “this established a new record, and tens of thousands of motorists were able to dodge disaster through this service.”
Among the routes most severely affected was Valley Boulevard, especially a section east of Puente, and a detour lasting several days sent east-bound motorists into Puente and then north through Covina to get to points east, including the widely attended National Orange Show at San Bernardino. Yet, as county road crews worked to address the conditions on that major thoroughfare, officials at the Pomona Chamber of Commerce demanded action from Supervisor Fred T. Beaty, who professed shock that Valley was still closed. Motorcycle officers from the sheriff’s department were sent out to take down those Auto Club detour signs, while 16 men were sent out with shovels and wheelbarrows, two gravel trucks and several scrapers to create a temporary roadbed around a failed bridge at Spadra.
The severe flooding was observed in news accounts by Thomas W. Temple II, who, with his brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, was sent to Massachusetts the previous summer to attend schools in the family’s ancestral home state. Thomas was in his second semester at the prestigious Harvard Law School, while his siblings were attending high school at Dummer (uh-huh) Academy north of Boston.
An assiduous letter-writer, Thomas sent his weekly missive to his father, one of dozens of family correspondence donated by descendant Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, Walter, P, Sr., on 21 February and opened with
I have been expecting to hear from you all this week and especially concerning the recent storm in California. We read where the Puente Creek had destroyed one bridge and are somewhat worried, not having had a word from you relative to conditions at home.
Thomas added that “we are also having a heavy snow storm, I just barely got back from church, the wind and snow almost knocked you over and blinds your eyes.” This was his first winter outside of California, so there was, of course, a good deal of adaptation to the climate of New England.
He mentioned visiting with cousin Edward Bancroft the previous Monday evening as well as attending a Valentine’s Day dance with woman from San Marcos, a town in Texas between Austin and San Antonio. Thomas was also confident that he performed well on an exam, adding that he put in ten-hour study days in preparation.
He informed his father that he was going to visit with his brothers the following weekend by invitation from Dummer’s headmaster Charles Ingham and noted that he’d sent “a lot of valuable stuff for the book” on the Temple family being prepared by J. Perry Worden, though the tome went unfinished. Thomas added that the material forwarded to the historian “must have floored him.”
As a possible indication of the increasingly difficult financial circumstances involving Walter Temple with his oil and real estate businesses, as well as the near-completion of La Casa Nueva and other Homestead-related expenditures (bonds were taken out the previous year for the Town of Tempe, renamed Temple City in 1928, and other real estate and oil projects, while La Casa Nueva was mortgaged), Thomas reminded his father that his rent at the Brattle Inn, where he lodged for his three years at Harvard, was three weeks past due.
But, he went on, “I can just imagine the ranch half under water [flooding did cover much of the southern portion where the walnut groves were mainly situated] and the Tias [Walter’s sisters, Lucinda and Margarita, who lived in small houses off Turnbull Canyon Road at the west end of the Homestead] being rescued and all that.” Margarita’s son-in-law, Bill Knueven, who’d been the ranch foreman for some years left with his wife Angeline and children to move to the Town of Temple, so there was a new foreman, known only as “Will.”
Finally, Thomas closed by informing Walter that “there were 6″ headlines in the Boston Papers about the biggest storm that California ever experienced so you can imagine how we felt for awhile.” Fortunately, the Workman House and La Casa Nueva are on a knoll, which was higher in 1927 than surrounding areas than is the case today, so the flooding stayed well south. Still, the letter is interesting as a reference to storm conditions that wreaked a good deal of havoc in greater Los Angeles that winter—in great contrast to our own time!