by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A half-dozen years ago, John and Barbara Clonts donated to the Homestead hundreds of file copies of letters and documents related to the early history of North Whitter (Hacienda) Heights, the unincorporated community immediately south of the Homestead, and preserved by them after they, in 1964, purchased in the house of the tract’s first sales agent, Grover T. Russell.
Russell worked for manager and general sales agent Edwin G. Hart, later a founder of the “avocado subdivisions” of La Habra Heights, adjacent to Hacienda Heights, and San Diego County’s Vista, and his preserving of these copies of correspondence are important for our understanding of how this community developed in those first years.
As noted here previously, most of North Whittier Heights was within William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente, situated on the massive land grant’s southwest corner, but was lost in 1879 to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin when he foreclosed on a loan he made to the Temple and Workman bank three years earlier.
The Baldwin-owned sections of La Puente remained largely intact when he died three decades later, but his estate began selling tracts in the capitalist’s significant portfolio, including to the investors who established the Whittier Extension Company and launched the North Whittier Heights project in 1912.
The major focus of the project was on its horticultural and agricultural development, including field crops on the flatter sections adjacent on the south to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, absorbed by the Union Pacific in the 1920s, and citrus and avocados in the upper elevations on the north face of the Puente Hills.
While most of the attention was directed toward the latter, the Whittier News of 18 August 1914 observed that as black-eyed peas stood to be a very successful regional and statewide crop, “just over the hills in the North Whittier Heights tract, hundreds of acres are ready to harvest” and added that “many Whittier people own land in this addition and are interested in the bean harvest” while “most of the land is rented on the share basis” with respect to distributed profits.
Beyond the emphasis on agriculture, there were at least two other significant elements to the endeavor in these early days. One of these was the townsite of Hillgrove, plotted at the north end of the tract with the railroad track as the northern boundary and along which were the packing houses for the products raised at North Whittier Heights, Gale Avenue on the south, 7th Street on the west, and 10th Street (Turnbull Canyon Road) on the east. Hillgrove never became the bustling little town that was projected 110 or so years ago, but the last-named thoroughfare comprised another important facet of the North Whittier Heights enterprise.
Conceived early on as a vital link between the San Gabriel Valley and the coastal plain, a scenic route for pleasure-driving, and a connection from the new tract to its namesake, Whittier, Turnbull Canyon Road was heavily publicized as part of the early promotion for the development. The 6 August edition of the News reported that
For the purpose of starting preliminary work on a new road to connect the Los Angeles-Pomona [Valley] boulevard and the roads in the vicinity of Puente and Covina to the new Turnbull road, now in course of construction, a meeting of good roads enthusiasts was held last evening in the Puente bank building.
Hart was one of three-person committee appointed to discuss the project at the next meeting of the county Board of Supervisors so that the county could include in its road-building program and the paper noted that “the proposed road has its route through Happy Valley to the eastern end of the Turnbull road, which terminates near the divide of the hills.” It concluded that the completion of the thoroughfare “will add much to Whittier” and that “the residents of Happy Valley will have an extra inducement to come to” the Quaker City.
Just under two weeks later, the News published a trio of photos showing Whittier car dealers and a garage owner, posed with the latest automobiles on completed portions of Turnbull Canyon Road during an inspection tour and it was posited that it would open in mid-November. Boasting that “Whittier has been termed the mecca for automobile tourists,” the paper observed that “one scenic trip which can be taken by the busy automobilist is the Turnbull Canyon route.”
While the road was obviously still in the process of being built and the county was working on a section that required a “big cut” before drivers could get to North Whittier Heights, there were still “cool side canyons [which] invite side trips for those who enjoy walking.” Then there was what was named “the Pepper Trees” and where “many park their machines and descend to a natural cover which has been a mecca for picnickers for years” as “this is an ideal spot to spread [a] luncheon.” Today, there are many trails traversing this section of the Puente Hills and which are under the management of the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority, which does great work with its stewardship.
As for the copy letters, four of them were written on 27 August, including one to Harley M. Jordan, a Whittier citrus nursery owner who had lots in North Whittier Heights, with Russell telling “Friend Harley” that he’d spoken with Hart “about the water bills and tax assessment and explained the commission matter,” this last apparently having to do with a sales commission so that Jordan could pay the first two items when the latter was received. Hart, telling Russell he thought he’d communicated with Jordan about the issue, also allowed for an extension, saying he “would have taken care of you anyway.” Notably, Hart also told Russell “that cash was a scarce article with all the big operating companies, and that this company could really use it when it was convenient for you to meet the bills.”
Another missive was to John M. Frazier of Hemet, who was formerly a denizen of El Modena in Orange County as well as Whittier before he relocated to the Riverside County town but who previously communicated with Russell about helping to find buyers for North Whittier Heights land and commission rates were discussed for that. In 1916, the year Russell built the home sold nearly a half-century later to the Clontses, Frazier acquired ten acres on Los Robles Avenue and became a community leader with citrus and water associations, living in the area until his death at age 97 just as North Whittier Heights became Hacienda Heights.
Russell wrote to send Frazier “the contract which we are signing up for spraying our trees at North Whittier Heights, for you look over and sign for your two lots if it is satisfactory to you.” Noting that there was a plan to being treating the trees in several days, the agent added that “you had better to make up your mind to take the acres of Valencia [oranges] that I showed you at $800.000 per acre.” He continued that “since we have irrigated and cultivated it it is looking much better, and there isn’t any better location or trees on the tract.”
Russell informed Frazier that he had some equity on the tract, with three payments of somewhat higher than that due in about 2 1/2 years, so “if necessary I would consider taking one-half of my equity [about $530 in cash] and give time on the balance.” As he’d told his correspondent, he sought the deal at what he termed sacrifice because “I am carrying more orchards than I can afford to keep an develop” and selling out “at the bargain price” was his way “to get some cash out to help carry my others.”
The other two letters were sent out to potential buyers of North Whittier Heights property, one being Edward T. Abbott, a 24-year old native and resident of the Orange County town of Garden Grove. Abbott was told about the fact that the subdivision being divided into tracts of 5 to 5 acres and that “these unplanted tracts with water are being sold at prices are ranging from $400.00 to $800.00 per acre, according to the location and lay of each particular subdivision.” Less expensive tracts “are the low-rolling foothill portion of the holdings” while those “particularly choice locations for scenic homesites in addition to their being excellent citrus lands” commanding higher prices.
Among available properties were those planted in spring 1913 to the Valencia oranges, Eureka lemons and Marsh seedless grapefruit and being sold from $750.00 to $1025.00 per acre, while there was also 150 acres of softshell walnuts that were planted in that year’s spring season were offered from $700.00 to $850.00. Moreover, there was “water stock which goes with each acre . . . is salable outside of our tract at $150.00 per share.”
There was also reference to Hillgrove and Turnbull Canyon Road, as Russell informed Abbott that
We expect to subdivide a modern townsite on a portion of our property which faces on the Salt Lake Railway during the coming Fall and with the completion of the boulevard from Whittier through Turnbull canyon of the Whittier Hills and the North Whittier Heights property to the Pomona boulevard, which road is now under construction by the County Supervisors an the Whittier Board of Trade, the demand for and value of the North Whittier Heights subdivisions are certain to increase materially.
To add to the attraction to Abbott, the agent was sure to say that “some of the most successful orange and lemon growers and nurserymen in Southern California are investing” in the community, which, naturally, “indicates that we have the location, soil, water, and climatic conditions necessary for growing ‘citrus groves that pay’ and that the prices at which we are selling our property are reasonable.”
He named several of these, including Jordan, and told Abbott that any of them would share their experiences “regarding the conditions and merit of our property and the reliability of the owners and agents.” Russell concluded by stating that if Abbott was considering an investment at North Whittier Heights and would be in Los Angeles, an auto tour of the tract could be arranged and any other information provided as well, ending with the prediction that “we are confident that if you once see the property you will desire a portion for yourself.” Abbott apparently did not purchase there and went to graduate from a Los Angeles osteopathic college and worked as a physician in that discipline and in that city.
The other sales pitch was to Jay Tremont of Chicago and the information provided to Abbott was largely the same, though there was some discussion about payment terms for sales, involving 20% down in cash, the same amount due two years from purchase and the remainder in five years, while noting that there was no difference in price for cash sales or those made on terms. It was added that each acre purchased included a share of stock in the Whittier Extension Mutual Water Company, which supplied the precious fluid for irrigation and domestic use and “delivered at actual cost” at what was deemed “very cheap water for foothill citrus land,” while this was also separately saleable as noted above. A buyer could try to provide their own well water but Russell doubted if there’d be another to water the trees and the cost would be prohibitive, making any such venture impractical.
Russell added that there were successful orchardists who invested at North Whittier Heights and, it being evident that Tremont was specifically interested in lemons, he concluded that
If you are contemplating going into the lemon business in the United States, and wish to secure a property on which you can make the most money for the amount invested, I am confident that if you will come out to California and investigate the merits of our property, this is where you will decide to invest.
A nearly identical missive was sent on the 28th to Mrs. A.A. Bohuert, who resided just west of Central Park in New York City and who’d sent a card indicating her interest in knowing more about North Whittier Heights. It is not known whether anything further came out of these communications, it, of course, being typical to have plenty of inquiries that did not lead to sales.
The following day, Russell wrote to William H. Crook, a long-time resident of the Whittier area who was in a late-stage real estate career, concerning “those Chaffee groves” involving some five acres of lemons, planted to lemons, and available at $2,500 per acre, along with two other five-acre tracts held by Jack Chaffee near a dozen others owned by the Ontario Investment Company, and offered at $2,200 an acre—these being more than double what Russell was conveying to others in his correspondence.
Morton K. McMillan, a former Buffalo, New York lawyer and long-time citrus rancher at Corona, was mentioned as having recently checked out the Chaffee lots would return to Whittier and Russell, who was going on vacation, asked Crook to drive him out for the tour. After letting Crook know that “there isn’t any use to talk anything to him larger than a 5-acre, and her prefers lemons,” Russell implored Crook that “any financial dealings he might have with you I was sure would be entirely satisfactory” but “If he shows up out there to see those properties while I am away be sure and land him.”
Finally, the 29th brought a short letter from Dr. Thomas G. Dodds of Oakland to Hart at the latter’s office in the Union Oil Building in Los Angeles, in which the physician wrote that he saw a recent advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (see accompanying image for one from that paper on the 18th). Dodds added, “[I] have been thinking of investing in Southern Calif for some time” and inquiring as to the per-acre cost of orange and walnut-producing properties and expected net income per acre.
We’ll have to look at the collection to see if there was reply from Hart or Russell, but it seems unlikely that Dodds purchased anything in North Whittier Heights or elsewhere, for that matter, as under a year later, his wife secured a divorce and was awarded $250 a month in alimony, but the physicians, said to be wealthy through a large practice, was nowhere to be found. Another year passed and he was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, where he said he went to earn money as a doctor for a mining company so he could provide those payments, and taken back to Oakland for a hearing. An out-of-court settlement was reached and the criminal charge preferred by Mrs. Dodds was dismissed, but the doctor probably lacked the funds for investing in citrus or walnut lands!
There are plenty more documents to share from the Clontses donation of North Whittier Heights documents from the collection collated by Grover T. Russell, so we’ll continue to share more of these foundational artifacts of early Hacienda Heights history.