photo by Reina Santa Cruz

photo by Reina Santa Cruz

by Amber McLaughlin
photography by Reina Santa Cruz

Lordsburg, Calif., Feb. 2, 1912
Dear old girl,
Did you notice that this letter was headed “Lordsburg.” Of course you did. But did you know that I might not head many more letters that! Of course you didn’t. That means one of 2 things. Either the Frantz family is going to move away from this berg, or the name of the town is going to be changed.

Ruth Frantz wrote these words 92 years ago in a letter to an unknown friend regarding the hot topic of the time: a proposal to change the name of the city of Lordsburg. Along with many in the community, Frantz and other students of what was then Lordsburg College conspired and rallied to change the name of both the town and the fledgling college at its heart.

In 1872, Isaac Wilson Lord moved to California to stake his claim on a stretch of land and build an empire among the orange groves. Not liked by the residents, he was something of a carpet-bagger, concerned with earthly matters that his name implies. In a narcissistic gesture, he named the town after himself: Lordsburg. Until the last days of his life, Lord’s vanity would prove contentious to the residents who made his real estate investment into their home.

At the center of his plan, the $300,000 Lordsburg Hotel guaranteed success when construction was announced on May 12, 1887. Unfortunately, by the time the gorgeous hotel was completed, the turn of the century real estate bubble had burst, and it never hosted a paying guest. Four German Baptist Brethren bought the vacant hotel and proceeded to open it as a college in the fall of 1891, naming it after Lord. Soon after, came the students, who in short time complained about the name. Ridiculed for living in “Jesusburg,” particularly at athletic events, they found the name a regular embarrassment. Some believed the town had been piously named for “the Almighty” Lord instead of Mr. Lord, and the school’s association with the Church of the Brethren added to the misunderstanding. Even though the initial Academy was a Christian institution, the students did not enjoy being the punch lines in the jokes of strangers.

“Thousands of persons each year come to Southern California in order to escape the cold winters in the East and North. Within the past few years quite a number of families have moved to Lordsburg so as to be near the Colleges for the education of their children. Many other families locate here because of the cultural advantages, religious, social and educational, to be found in a college town. The town is entirely free from rowdy-ism so common in college towns.” —The Lordsburg College Catalogue, 1912-1913

A rebellion was at hand. Eventually, the students gained support within the faculty and petitioned the Board of Trustees for an immediate name change.

Everyone had an opinion on the matter and several names were suggested, such as Palmvilla, Salara, Vernita, and Verndale. Perhaps were there more college town “rowdy-ism,” perhaps the students would have been less obsessed with the issue.

Palmera College was the absolute favorite. “Palmera” means palm tree in Spanish, and students felt it signified victory, rejoicing, contentment and peace while maintaining a more subtle Christian theme. Even the Trustees regarded the petition favorably and backed the Palmera plan. Putting the cart before the horse, they printed a “Palmera College Students’ Pocket Manual” for 1913-14.

“Lordsburg College will soon be ‘Palmera College,’” Frantz wrote in one of her letters. “I’m glad. We school folks are so tickled and pleased and surprised that we just grin at each other, talk only of the change of name,” she gushed in another letter. “Rah! Rah! Rah! Palmera College!”

When Lord got wind of the plan, he was mortally offended. He made all manner of threats, promising to take the issue up with the Supreme Court. To escape Lord’s wrath, the Board backed down. The unhappy students did not let the matter rest and changed the name of a bi-monthly publication from the “Lordsburg College Educator” to “The Palmerian,” which it remained for seven years. They even wrote editorials in “The Palmerian,” referring to the school as Palmera College: “There is nothing more enjoyable to her faculty and student body than maintaining and exalting the honored and respected name of Palmera College, and the exalted, noble, and virtuous principles for which she stands.”—The Palmerian, September 1913

For years the debate continued, culminating in a 1917 election when residents voted to change the name of the town. Lord made no fuss this time; they hardly finished burying him when the election was held. To his last day, Lord left the world with his namesake and legacy intact.

Newly renamed after the northern orange-growing district, La Verne it has remained since. But after years of being the talk of the town, the residents of La Verne were not finished yet.

Like celebrating revolutionaries, they whooped it up with a peculiar ceremony. With an orchestra playing, “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” on hair combs, a memorable mock wedding took place on Sept. 27, 1917. Local barber Oscar W. Raley portrayed “Ms. Lordsburg” and was married to “Mr. La Verne,” played by W. S. Romick, in the old hotel auditorium.This bizarre event was homespun vaudeville, a type of quirky live entertainment that soon saw its demise in the Radio Age. Emboldened by the wedding, the Trustees followed suit, renaming the school to La Verne College.

“CHRISTIAN EDUCATION means the development of the intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual nature of man, the education of the head, the hand, and the heart. La Verne College is committed to the task of promoting this type of education. Here the religious and spiritual needs of the student are safely guarded and cared for. Religious instruction is given in the school curriculum; Sunday School, and daily Chapel attendance is required; the weekly devotionals, Mission Band meetings, Mexican and Church prayer meetings furnish adequate opportunity for expression of religious impulses.” —La Verne College and Academy Handbook

By 1977 such impulses had fallen from the official curriculum, and the Trustees, moving again to keep up with the times, rechristened La Verne College as the more illustrious sounding University of La Verne.

“If in 1891, anyone had tried to predict the nature of Lordsburg College 75 years later, how far he surely would have missed it!” wrote Harold D. Fasnacht, La Verne College president from 1948 through 1968. “Those who gave the college birth did not doubt that it would live for many years; but its nature, some of its purposes, even its name look much different from the perspective of 75 years.—“La Verne College—75 Years of Service”