A Brief History of La Verne

The history of La Verne, a delightful community in Southern California, goes back to before its founding in 1887. 

Small bands of California Indians had lived in the area for centuries.  Evidence of their inhabitation consists of remnants of artifacts such as grinding stones and arrowheads.   A curious fist-sized stone “cogwheel” has been found here:  its use is still unknown.

An overland expedition of settlers for California came past what is now La Verne in 1774, following the mission trail, now Arrow Highway.  The expedition, led by Juan Bautista de Anza, camped at Mud Springs and went on to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco.

In 1837 Ygnacio Palomares received a land grant of 15,000 acres known as Rancho San Jose.  He built “La Casa Primera” (The First House) in what is now Pomona, and a second house, the Palomares Adobe,  a mile northeast   A nephew, Jose Dolores Palomares, was given land by his uncle and built a home along what is now Arrow Highway.

The earliest Anglo resident of what is now La Verne was “Col.” Heath, a teamster who bought land from J.D. Palomares and built a small Victorian cottage now on 1st Street.  He also built a small schoolhouse for his children and the Palomares children, on land which J.D. donated.

In the 1870s and ‘80s, a long drought starved cattle and impoverished many of the Mexican ranchers.   Los Angeles businessman I. W. Lord looked over the possible routes for railroads and decided that a logical route for the Santa Fe railroad would be through here, north of the Southern Pacific railroad which went through Pomona.  Lord purchased considerable acreage from Heath and Palomares and persuaded Santa Fe officials to extend its line by this route.

May 25, 1887, saw the official founding of a new community.  Lord had the land subdivided, and hosted a large land sale, advertising it by sending brass bands up and down the streets of Los Angeles and San Bernardino inviting people for a free ride to the new town of "Lordsburg." Over 2,500 people accepted the invitation and enjoyed a free barbeque.  Dozens of lots were auctioned off.  At the end of the day, some purchasers had begun living in tents: others went home but returned to begin buildings.

Lord and other investors had work started on a hotel with more than 60 rooms, known as the Lordsburg Hotel.  Soon water mains were put in, a post office opened, a newspaper published and stores opened, all within four months.

Competition between the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads became intense.  At one point, passenger rates from the Midwest to Los Angeles dropped to $1 per person. This brought an avalanche of people to California. Thousands came just to see, while many stayed and bought land.

The fancy Lordsburg Hotel was completed and waited for its first guests, but none came. It is believed that it never had a paying guest. The land boom was over.  There were a few residents in Lordsburg who were committed to farming, but others were tradesmen and construction workers.  Speculators who bought lots to resell were left with property that was about worthless. This was true all over Southern California. The fever had subsided.

In 1889 an M.M. Eshelman came by rail from the midwest to visit Lordsburg.  A member of a church denomination known as German Baptist Brethren, he had been helping establish a church college in McPherson, Kansas.   George McDonaugh, also Brethren and a promotion agent for the Santa Fe, sought out Eshelman with a plan to unload the hotel in Lordsburg.  McDonaugh suggested that the empty Lordsburg hotel would make a fine college building.  Eshelman liked the idea and secured the support of several other men.  They offered just $15,000 for the hotel and 100 city lots -- and to their surprise, the offer was accepted.

Eshelman joined McDonaugh as an agent for the Santa Fe and launched a campaign to bring Brethren migrants to Lordsburg so that their young people could go to the college. Many came, saw the possibilities, and bought land. 

On Nov. 1, 1890, a Brethren congregation was organized in the little schoolhouse built by J.D. Palomares and Col. Heath.   Then Lordsburg College opened in the fall of 1891, with eight faculty members and 135 students. From that time on, Lordsburg drew many Brethren families who came as farmers or to retire, in a town where children could attend a Christian college.
A number of ranchers settled north of Lordsburg in the foothills.  The first family was that of L. H. Bixby.   Mrs. Bixby and her sister named their property “La Verne,” believing that this was a French term meaning “growing green” or “spring-like.”  It actually means “the alder.”  A few ranchers settled in the foothill area to the north.  The Bixbys and a few others became members of a land company also named La Verne.

The ranchers were not much involved with Lordsburg.  They were attempting to raise crops in poor soil, with floods, freezes, windstorms, and fires. There was not enough water for their crops and fruit trees over the long dry summers, but they solved this problem by bringing down water from the mountains and digging deep wells.  Some of the soil was so close-packed that it had to be broken up with dynamite before fruit trees could be planted.

The first commercial crops produced were wheat, oats, and hay which were shipped west by rail for Los Angeles’ bakeries and horse stables.   Col. Heath and others planted fruit orchards, and by 1890, a few groves of citrus trees were set out as an experiment. The oranges and lemons did well, and more and more groves were planted.

The community grew slowly, with several churches, Lordsburg College, merchants, and ranchers finding that the citrus industry proved very profitable.

A small town that grew up west of Lordsburg was known as La Verne.  It had no railway depot, and while people came to this area, La Verne withered.  New arrivals settled in Lordsburg or San Dimas.  Eventually, most of the homes were moved away: the name La Verne was seen only on orange crate labels. 

Lordsburg city fathers and the community incorporated the town in 1906, but the name was not popular.  Non-residents who saw the beards, bonnets, and black clothing of the conservative Brethren, jested “Goin’ to see the Lord?”  The denomination itself took the name Church of the Brethren in 1908.   With the arrival of a new newspaper editor, the residents of Lordsburg tried to change the town’s name, but I. W. Lord was proud of the name and blocked the attempt.  He passed away in March 1917, and citizens soon voted to change the city name to La Verne.  A large celebration was held with a symbolic wedding at which "Miss Lordsburg" was married to "Mr. La Verne."

By 1919, more than a thousand carloads of fruit were being shipped annually, and the demand continued to grow. Growing, picking, packing, and shipping oranges, lemons, and grapefruit influenced all life in La Verne.  The city motto was “Heart of the Orange Empire.”  La Verne had the biggest orange crop in history in 1923.  Within two years, more than 125 people were employed in the packing houses.  By 1927 La Verne oranges were even being shipped to London!
Camps of orange pickers included Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and Filipinos.  Mexican immigrants who settled in La Verne after 1910 lived south of the Santa Fe tracks and worked extensively in the orange groves and packing houses.  A sort of de facto segregation occurred when in 1927 the City built the Palomares school south of the railroad for Spanish-speaking children to attend.

Large Craftsman homes were built through the 1920s but new construction ended with the Depression.  Citrus sales dropped sharply, as did college enrollment.  The town itself did not suffer as greatly as other areas during the 1930s as much food was homegrown and as citizens helped each other find jobs.  Men worked on public works projects such as the San Dimas Dam.  The Brethren benefitted, as unemployed members built an enormous new church with cement supplied at cost by a prominent construction family.

While the Depression waned, the citrus industry began to have a problem.  The quality and size of the fruit declined.  A mysterious malady termed “the quick decline” struck the orange trees.  It was a combination of aging trees, lowered water levels, and years of smoke caused by smudging.   More and more trees were affected.

Through World War II, La Verne remained a relatively small college town.   Hundreds of men served in the military or in alternative service.   After the war, thousands of people who came to California for military service or to work in war industries decided to stay.  Many from small towns in the Midwest and East felt quite comfortable here.  A progressive school superintendent integrated the schools with new buildings and by selling the old Palomares school.

Groves began to be sold for housing developments.  Sometimes an entire grove would be uprooted in a day as the demand grew for housing.   The city grew north into the foothills, east to Pomona and Claremont, and west to San Dimas.

Today La Verne is a city of about 33,000 residents with a good mix of residential, commercial, and industrial features.  Local traditions include an annual July 4th parade, and the city sponsors many events that attract a variety of age groups.  The La Verne Historical Society and La Verne Heritage are active, as is the Downtown Business Association and Chamber of Commerce.  It is a close-knit community that is becoming increasingly ethnically and socially diverse. La Verne is home to many fine institutions and facilities including the University of La Verne (formerly La Verne College), Brackett Airport, Hillcrest Homes, many churches, multiple mobile home parks, and fine public and private schools.   It is one of the most desirable communities in metropolitan Southern California, a progressive city that has retained much of its small-town charm.

For more information about our history, contact:

Sherry Best, President
La Verne Historical Society

PO Box 7761
La Verne, CA 91750

(909) 596-4679