by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a short-lived organization, the existence of which seems to have been just about two years, between 1925 and 1927, but The Valley Beautiful Association, comprised of enthusiastic boosters of the beautification of the San Gabriel Valley, was able to produce, if not the fullest extent of its aims and ambitions, a monthly magazine that produced some very interesting and instructive content during its brief life.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is the April 1926 edition of The Valley Beautiful Magazine, published by the Association, which stated that “What It Is” was:
A group of men and women who love our wonderfully sunny Southern California; glory in its past history and wish to preserve its landmarks and identify them accurately for future generations; proud of its progress and hope to make its beauty a world-wide advertisement; jealous of its good name and its good looks and endeavor to worthily preserve and maintain them for all time.
The specific goals were to have more parks and centers of recreations, see a uniform development of landscaping, lighting, parkways and trees; reforest “our magnificent mountains and watersheds;” identify, preserve and account for historic sites, including battlefields, landmarks, posts, settlers, and trails “with proper memorials;” the “lavish use of native wild flowers in the hills, vacant lots, and parkways;” and, lastly, regulating billboards and signs along the region’s roads.
In promoting “A Wonderful Work—Our Work,” the organization explained that a recently issued county Regional Planning Commission map demonstrating “the vision, the future needs and the realization of the possibilities of the section lying east of Los Angeles to the east line of California was not an inspiration, a dream full grown from a per-fervid [intense or impassioned] imagination.” Rather, it came from years of planning concerning the topography and physical characteristics of the region “to be glorified and practically utilized.”
This involved conservation of runoff waters from snowmelt and rain; improvements to streams and washes to limit flooding; improvement of roads “for more, wider and picturesque travel” in connecting local towns and cities; “eliminating the customary unsightly areas of shacks, dumps and tumble-down out-buildings” of these communities; the planting of thousands of trees “to bless us all with health, equitable climate and beauty;” acquiring land for native flowers and shrubs “to gladden the eye of host and guest;” and, a plan to keep costs reasonable for landowners “and permit the whole plant to mature by the poco y poco [little by little] unit plan.”
The idea of improvements of parks and parkways was perfect for consideration by the Association and its journal because they “were the natural, specially designed and peculiarly capable instruments at hand to popularize and realize it.” Its members, from nearly three dozen communities, “are enthusiastic and zealous advocates of each and every idea embodied and constituting this wonderfully utilitarian and practical, though immense, regional plan,” which, it concluded “justifies our existence” just as “our existence justifies the plan.”
Yet, in a feature titled “It All Seems So Slow, Doesn’t It?” it was expressed that, while “the hurry and bustle and impatience of our American people are proverbial,” it was often “impossible or impracticable to accomplish tomorrow what we dream today.” So, for the Association, “it takes time to work out a highway plan, a park plan, a decorative scheme, a reforestation campaign” because of property rights, legal procedures and proceedings and more.
So, because “worthwhile things are only finally accomplished by the indomitable, persistent, courageous souls” who persevere until the work is accomplished, secretary and field superintendent A.M. King averred that
The tendency of our climatic and seasonal environment is to Latinize us somewhat. The Latins, you know, tend toward small conception of the value of time. It is too easy to waste time out here. What’s a day more or less in a place that hasn’t changed much in a million years? The hills are never in a hurry. Ocean and sky and growing things follow their steady cycles, returning so sure that it never seems to change.
Obviously, King had to be aware (or was he?) that there was actually an enormous amount of transformation in a million years! His purpose, however, was to promote propaganda for the Association and the “Latinizing” of the area had to be counteracted, with allowance for realistic aims, by the need to pursue the goals of the organization with dispatch.
So, he went on to praise “the magnificence of our dream, the magnitude of our need,” adding that “the sunshine and the shadow are boon companions,” but the latter had to be removed as an obstacle so that “then it is all sunshine.” The job of the Association was “to remove the solidity of prejudice, of indifference, of ignorance, of carelessness from our path of aesthetic progress” and “to permit the serene rays of knowledge and beauty and culture to permeate and re-create our Southland.”
In a separate paean to the “Personnel of the Valley Beautiful Association,” King worked himself into quite a revelry as he basked in the descriptive glow of “the advantages of climate, the wondrous beauty of snow-capped mountains leading down to warm, wave-lapped shores, of valleys enriched with the semi-tropic verdure of the ages, and adorned with the choicest tints from the Divine palette, all these we inherited without money and without price.”
Unable to tear himself away from his musings, King added that “the serried ranks of beautiful trees, marching up the majestic slopes of the protecting ranges, with uplifted arms as if in prayer for preservation from wanton destruction, with myriad leaves all atremble with eagerness to bless and heal and serve mankind . . . need the shield of programmed altruism, idealism and realism contributed by every agency within the power of our citizens to create.” It sounds as if King should have lived among the era of the Romantic poets of a century or so before!
He went on to rhapsodize about the flowers in carpets “woven on God’s loom” and the “undulating plains and level mesas” developed over long stretches of geologic time but which “need the guiding hands of all the protective agencies conceived by man to preserve them from commercial exploitation.” Those taking the task of such obligations were “assuming ownership of this, the garden spot of God” and who differed from the merchant, farmer, office worker, lawyer, doctor or theologian, all doing valuable work.
Rather, King offered,
Our Valley Beautiful Association is fast becoming, has in fact become, the gathering place, the council of minds, the unification of hearts, the combination of hopes, the machinery of effort to accomplish a duty fast becoming a pleasure.
A more intelligent, a more earnest, a more willing, a more happy, a more enthusiastic and a more able body of men and women were never assembled together than sit about our tables on the last Friday of each month.
And that is our personnel, men and women from every walk of endeavor, mental, physical; real, ideal; practical, visionary; blushing youth and sere old age. And they are giving, of their time, their thought, their money, without any desire or hope of reward other than service to their fellowman and his homeland.
Treasurer Frank M. Colville contributed a brief piece, “A Rose Bordered Boulevard,” in which he stated that it was unusual for people in California to be surprised by something that stood out when it came to beauty among the landscape. He, however, pointed out that “a real thrill is in store for everyone who had the good fortune to journey from Puente to Covina along the Glendora boulevard, for here in prodigal profusion has the sun, the soil and the climate of Southern California poured out its very soil in the springtime offering of lovely flowers.”
Today, Glendora Avenue, which starts in downtown La Puente, merges with Hacienda Boulevard a couple miles to the north before reverting to the original name in West Covina. Where the Clara Baldwin Stocker home is, Glendora branches off towards the northeast, while Vincent Avenue heads north, and ends at Garvey Avenue South, the old west-east route through the central part of the valley before the construction of Interstate 10.
Almost ninety years later, we read that “for miles on either side of the glasslike boulevard the roses—red, pink, salmon and pure white—bloom in myriad clusters and the air is freighted with their delicious perfume.” Some were climbing roses, twining palm trees, while others formed hedges that nearly blocked views of orange trees, but all “invite the poetic affinity of the soul of the passerby.” Colville concluded, “to those whose thoughtfulness and sense of beauty prompted in the first place the planting of these varied roses, we owe a debt of profound gratitude.”
Inscribed in pencil at the left edge of the front cover is “Prof. P.J. Cooney—El Monte—Calif Historian,” and a main feature of the publication is by Percival J. Cooney and essays the story of “The Battle of San Gabriel River.” A native of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, northeast of Toronto, Cooney came to this area in 1908 after several years as a teacher and journalist at Butte, Montana and Deadwood, South Dakota and taught at Ontario High School. He followed this with stints in South Pasadena, Imperial (in southeastern California), Perris (near Riverside) and, finally, El Monte, where he taught at the high school until his death in 1932.
Cooney was widely known for his two books, The Kinsman (1916) and, especially, The Dons of the Old Pueblo (1914,) which was popular enough that the title was placed on his gravestone at the Mission San Gabriel Cemetery. His short article here began with the observation that “few people who drive over the bridge across the San Gabriel [River] at Montebello, realize that they are looking at the scene of the last armed conflict for the possession of California.” After noting that eastern historians were dismissive of events on this side of the continent, Cooney highlighted the importance of the seizure of Mexican California by the United States during the Mexican-American War.
The battle, on 8 January 1847, took place with the American forces having marched from the south, with 500 soldiers and a few mounted officers in a square with cattle in the center and wagons and four cannon at the corners. An equal number of mounted Californios were at an elevation in the hills and “attempted the old trick of trying to stampede the Americans, by driving down on them at a furious pace,” much as happened at the stunning victory for the natives at San Pasqual about a month earlier.
In his case, however, wrote Cooney, “the frontiersmen of the American army, advanced to the front, shot down a number of horses, which caused the herd to divide into two parts, and to pass the Americans harmlessly.” These sharpshooters crossed the river and engaged the Californios in gunfire while other American forces came across, though there were challenges with the quicksand-like bed. Commodore Robert F. Stockton also ordered cannon fire at a counterpart on the other side and this was successfully prosecuted, though it was also providential for the Americans that their opponents had poor power for their cannon, which did not cause much damage.
Remarkably, as the Californios mounted “a desperate charge,” they appeared to nearly break the American ranks, but Cooney added, they “did not follow up their advantage.” A second sortie was stopped by Navy sailors and their carbines and the locals retreated to nearby hills, perhaps those near today’s Monterey Park or City Terrace. While he stated at the beginning of his account that the San Gabriel River fighting was “the last armed conflict” of the war in California, he noted that “while they were defeated, they were not discouraged.”
On the 9th, another engagement was undertaken “on the spot where now the office building of the Los Angeles Stock Yard now stands” in the City of Vernon and which was called the Battle of La Mesa. While he accounted the battle at what became the Río Hondo (after flooding in 1867-68 led to the creation of the New San Gabriel River to the east) as not being “great” with respect to the number of combatants, Cooney concluded that “it was important, indeed, as it gave the United States complete control of California.”
Of great interest was his observation
That only last month, at La Verne, California, died Ramon Vejar, the last person who was an eye witness of the battle of San Gabriel. As a boy of twelve, he stood on the Whittier [east] side and witnessed the cannnonade and the charges across the riverway. He was the last living link with the period of the California conquest.
Cooney ended his interesting summary with the statement that “a movement is now on foot [afoot] to mark the site of the battle by a suitable monument.” This was before the establishment of the state historic landmark register and, in late 1945, the site was so declared as State Historic Landmark #385.
Arthur M. Ellis (1875-1932), who was raised in Pomona and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, was a lawyer with an avid interest in history. He served on the boards of The Southwest Museum and the Historical Society of Southern California, being the president of the latter in 1927-1928, and his photo negative collection is at the Huntington Library. Ellis wrote a letter to Association President W.A. Johnstone of San Dimas and wrote favorably of the organization’s work to preserve local history.
The attorney quoted the author of an article in the June 1924 issue of Century Magazine, who claimed “Los Angeles is, of course, the newest city in the world” and was “a city without a past” as “it has no memories, because it has nothing to remember.” Because of this, “it has no interest in tradition and no respect for the past” due to its being “lively and alert and forward-looking.” Moreover, it was averred that “existence in Los Angeles is merely transient” as it “lives merely in the here and now.”
Ellis lamented that “most of our residents are wholly indifferent to the history of this section” and called for better education for children of the subject, from “the aboriginal inhabitants” up to modern times. He added that “another enterprise that should be started is that of erecting explanatory signboards along the highways telling of the historical associations of the vicinities traversed.”
The attorney noted that “the Indians of your section were the most advanced natives in the whole Southwest” and pointed to a recent bulletin from the federal Bureau of American Ethnology as a source of useful information about these first inhabitants of our region. He featured the arrival of fur trapper Jedidiah Smith a century ago on Thanksgiving 1826 and also cited the battlefield location discussed by Cooney, stating “this should be purchased and made into a county park.
Ellis added, “on the east bank of the San Gabriel, east of El Monte, Kit Carson got his men into condition to travel overland” and take the news of the conquest of California to Washington. This was on William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente and Carson and Workman knew each other well from New Mexico and Workman’s brother’s saddlery, where the young Carson was an apprentice, in Franklin, Missouri.
He concluded with the note that there were many ranches and historical topics “to which your Association can profitably give attention” and stated “your efforts along the lines you have indicated will be followed with great interest.” We can add that Walter P. Temple had an avid interest in early California history, whether it was collecting historic cannons found buried in the San Gabriel River bed and perhaps from that battle, placing a marker for the original site of Mission San Gabriel, and in the romanticized decoration of his house La Casa Nueva, which was nearing completion in 1926.
King followed with an article called “Appropriate Markers for Historic Points” referring to Ellis’ suggestion and pointed out that a group in Arizona was pursuing plans similar to that of the Association. King noted that “the matter of marking the various localities with the original Indian names is too appealing and valuable to be neglected” and “would add interest and attractiveness to our drives for citizen and stranger.”
A Landmark Department of the Association was to help meet that “urgent need for prompt action, since these historic points are fast losing their identity on account of modern improvements,” while “the oldest settlers, from whom alone identification ca be made, are passing.” One idea being considered was “a special honorary membership” with annual dues of $5 or $10 “to provide means to investigate and procure suitable permanent markers and erect them in [next to!] public highways. Always energetic, King ended by writing “Oh, we have plenty of work to do and, we believe, sufficient enthusiasm to do it, and do it well.”
As noted above, though, the Association didn’t have quite enough of what King claimed it did and wound up folding by 1928. Still, the pages of its magazine are of great interest for the unfulfilled aims of the group and, especially, its attempts to preserve local history and provide for the beautification of the San Gabriel Valley and nearby areas.