by Kendra Craighead
photography by Alexandra Arkley
Imagine living in a community where your neighbor runs the local grocery store, where your parents live down the street, where the police department has two squad cars, and the lot across the street belongs to a watermelon farmer. There were citrus orchards sweeping to the base of the foothills, milk delivered in glass to your door. Parks, schools and baseball fields were just beginning to develop. This was the city of La Verne in its early days.
Since 1973, The La Verne Historical Society has been active in saving the past, with individuals who collected city artifacts. In the late 1970s, a strong, proactive coalition known as “Save Old La Verne’s Environment,” or SOLVE was organized through the Historical Society. That group evolved into volunteers seeking to preserve local homes and buildings, as well as providing the community with historical city tours. The group also sponsors a vital speaker series. While the organization’s mission has shifted and evolved, its mission to create a closer sense of community has stayed the same. Going forward, the Historical Society continues its work in preservation, currently searching for a space where the history of La Verne can be shared. The Society also continues to find, mark and preserve historical places worthy of recognition and preservation.
Sherry Best, a retired educator, is the current president Since she took on the responsibility in 2015, Best has promoted a strengthening of the organization’s community outreach. The La Verne Historical Society is a volunteer based organization, and making its presence known is at the top of her list. “Outreach is an evolving process. We’ve had a newsletter for years, and that has always been like our lifeline to our members,” Best says. Her goal is to reach out to the local La Verne community and to the surrounding communities, searching for active members who have a passion for history and a desire to volunteer. She says that the Society is currently exploring “additional avenues of outreach.” The group maintains a strong online presence through electronic newsletters, a web page and Facebook.
Presently, the Historical Society is partnering with Hillcrest (a local retirement community), the city of La Verne, University of La Verne and Bonita Unified School District in creating a “History of La Verne” exhibit. Barbara Smythe, a Hillcrest resident, is also the chair of the Cultural Arts Society in La Verne, helping with this project. “We have started a gallery for visual arts,” Smythe says. But now Hillcrest is working with the Historical Society on a new type of gallery. “We wanted to do a history of Hillcrest as a permanent exhibit, and that idea expanded to including the city of La Verne, so we got the Historical Society on board, and then it expanded to the University of La Verne and the Police Department, and the Fire Department and to everyone who wanted to be a part of the display.” Hillcrest and the Historical Society want to be able to create a space where La Verne’s local schools and residents can come to learn about the history of their city, with artifacts contributed by various organizations and with volunteers not limited to the Historical Society.
Smythe says she has participated in several Historical Society tours. “Although I was not born and raised in La Verne, I moved to Hillcrest nine years ago, and I have always been interested in places I have lived and the history of those places.” Most of the items that Hillcrest and the Historical Society plan to put into the exhibit will be coming from a collection of historical artifacts kept by former Historical Society President Galen Beery. “If you don’t know your roots, you don’t understand the community you’re living in, so the La Verne Historical Society keeps the history of La Verne alive and well for everyone and maintains the core values of the community,” Smythe says.
Therefore, more than preservation, the Historical Society is concerned with building a strong sense of community for the greater community. “People get very, very, busy, and the history of one’s city isn’t a priority interest—it’s where you sleep and eat and sometimes go to the movies.” Smythe says that exposing people to the history of their community reduces it from just becoming “a bedroom community,” a place where residents commute to work, come home and do not make an effort to know their neighbor or to get involved in community events that promote a small town culture.
Best plans to continue Beery’s work of marking historical houses and places in La Verne. The Mills Act is a state contract with the homeowner, who commits to the restoration and preservation of their home as a historical landmark, in exchange for a property tax break. The Bronze Marker Program is run by the Historical Society and connects homeowners with the Mills Act and in turn promotes recognition of significant historical La Verne structures. “It’s not about the house, but more about the people who once lived there. Our history is our roots that anchor us to our present. It is important to know all aspects of our past, even if we are less than pleased looking back. Looking back helps us look forward,” says Best.
During 2016, the Society expanded its involvement and organization with local activities and programs. The group has also changed its logo, gained visibility through its new “Get on the Bus” tours, home tours and participation in the La Verne Fourth of July parade. “We have more than 200 members and are striving to achieve a membership count of 400 ultimately, which would be great for the size of La Verne,” Best says.
Don Kendrick, mayor of La Verne, has worked with the La Verne Historical Society since the 1980s, back when SOLVE emerged as a powerful non-profit organization fighting threatened zoning changes to old town La Verne. Kendrick, who owns a home in the old town district, served as president of SOLVE for three years. “The same people who were a part of the La Verne Historical Society were also a part of SOLVE because they all wanted the same thing,” Kendrick says. SOLVE soon achieved its preservation goals. “All of the objectives of SOLVE got satisfied; the zoning got changed back as soon as the city completed the Lordsburg Specific Plan,” which Kendrick says outlines what can and cannot be done in terms or remodeling a house in the old town area.
The mayor says his family dates back to 1885, to the Bixby family, who were prominent citrus growers. “I don’t want the history preserved because of my family; I want the history preserved because I think you’re better if you preserve and honor history as a community.”