by Jocelyn Arceo
photography by Nikky Huynh
B ill Lemon sits comfortably in a Wallace Red flannel button-down with a tablet to his left side and a laptop to his right, staring intently through thinly framed glasses at photos from the past. This is his passion: finding aged black and white photographs of the Lordsburg Hotel that date back to the 1880s, or a rare aerial photograph of D Street from the 1930s near Bonita High School, with a landscape showing the sea of citrus groves climbing toward the La Verne foothills. Bill is so lost in his work he hardly notices that he is literally sitting in the confines of a historical cage—the archive room on the second floor of the Wilson Library. He is almost in a time warp as the time passes by ever so quickly in reverse as he researches
Bill began his historical research using an old-school microfiche reader with a dirty lens and newly replaced light bulb, to look at old copies of the La Verne Leader—the town’s reliable link to its past. Projected through that murky reader lens are newspapers that date back to the 1910s, with the exception of copies belonging to the years dating from 1939 to 1940, for a reason still unknown to Bill.
Being the vice president of the La Verne Historical Society, Bill contributes a vast amount of knowledge on the history of La Verne. His peaked interest began as he sought to find corroborating information regarding his family history. His search started with a manuscript his aunt had assembled in the past for the family’s own genealogy records. “I have the write-up from my parents’ wedding in 1933—who was in it, what songs were sung, that sort of thing,” Bill says. “But off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything surprising [about my family] that I’ve found in the newspaper because my family had always talked about all of these people, and then there was the manuscript my aunt wrote, which had a lot of information already in there.”
Even though his family’s history at first did not surprise him, his aunt’s research gave him a starting point that sparked his continuous, ever-expanding interest in telling the stories of La Verne’s own past families, organizations and varying businesses. His family has a deep-rooted history in La Verne, dating back to 1919 when his mother first settled in the city just a week before her 8th birthday. Bill mentions his mother often, and references back to her stories about the various jobs she held and what life was like in the past.
One story he cites fondly dates back to 100 years ago when the graduating class of La Verne College used mirrors to communicate to position white bed sheets and to form a massive letter “L” on the Sunset Ridge foothill area north of La Verne. This huge effort (once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest block letter in the world) still can be seen today, however, only on rare days with snowfall which outlines the massive “L.” According to Bill, this was an annual tradition fondly remembered by many La Verne College students who once participated in the annual “L Day.” Coming together, the students removed overgrown brush from the side of the steep ridge to make the letter more clearly visible to the Pomona Valley. Although the tradition no longer remains, Bill says he enjoyed seeing the resurrection of the “L” in February when the snowfall highlighted the massive letter on the hillside. He posted a photo of it onto his Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/bill.lemon.904, where he tends to post much of his historical findings.
Although Bill has spent much of his life in La Verne, he counts 13 years living elsewhere: Paradise, San Dimas, Fresno and McFarland, California, Bernville and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, New Windsor, Maryland, and Nappanee, Indiana are only some of the places Bill has once called home. He recalls the complexity of his early life regarding where he lived and went to school, even needing to reference his father’s past tax documents to determine where exactly could be called his past city of residence. “I’ve went away several times, but I’ve always come back,” Bill says. “I’ve been back now for almost 40 years. I was gone a total of 13 years at different points; I wrote it out one time because I had to figure it out too, and some of it I wasn’t too sure of because I was a kid—I had to look at some documents like my dad’s tax papers and some deeds, things like that to refresh my memory.”
Having lived in several places, sometimes for only a few months at a time, he considers La Verne to be his hometown, and has permanently resided in the city since 1976. He held various jobs before he found his career as a bus driver for the Bonita Unified School District, something he did for 28 years until he retired 10 years ago. Bill recalls spinning interesting stories on the history of La Verne for the students as he drove them to and from school, noting that while most of them showed little interest, there were a few students who remained curious, some whom he has as friends on Facebook today.
Bill, who graduated in 1960, was part of the second class to ever go all the way through the then newly established D Street location of Bonita High School. That complex was built in 1959; however, Bonita High School was originally established in 1903. Damien High School, located on Damien Avenue, was the original location for the first ever established Bonita High School campus, that is, until the Archdiocese of Los Angeles bought the campus and converted it into the Pomona Catholic Boys High School in 1960. The school then changed its name to Damien High School in 1961. With the sale, Bonita High School then moved to its present-day D Street location. “When I started, there was no gymnasium, no auto-shop, no music room—there was no separate boy’s locker room!” Bill says. “There was only one locker room, which was attached to the gymnasium, and it was divided in half so it could hold both the boys and the girls. Within a year or so, there was a boy’s locker room built so the girls could have the original one.”
While he loves everything historical, he has a special interest in delving deep within the businesses and buildings of a past La Verne. He and a friend once considered the possibility of creating transparencies every 10 years that would show maps of the buildings within the downtown La Verne area, as well as which businesses once resided in those buildings. They wanted to create a visual component that would allow for those interested to see the changes in business throughout the area after every 10 years; however while the transparency idea, first considered in the ‘60s and ‘70s, did not come to fruition, Bill still found a way to use the advent of computers to essentially do the same thing—the difference is that instead of transparencies, he uses computer folders and files to differentiate between the businesses, buildings and specific addresses that he has obtained through his steady research. “We never did anything like that; it was too cumbersome, I guess,” Bill says. “With the advent of computers, I was able to do the same thing with folders and files. For example, I have one folder for D Street, then I break it down and have a sub-folder for the 2300 block, and one for the 2200 block, and under each of those I have the east side and the west side, and I put each business according to its number so then you can look them up.”
These files exist on his own personal laptop, and he uses them for both his own personal research as well as the professional research he conducts for the La Verne Historical Society. While describing the process of the files, he brings forward on his computer an old photo of Bonita High School from the 1960s where the screen from the old drive-in theater could still be seen. The old drive-in theater, Mt. Baldy Drive-In, lasted until 1984 and was located near White Avenue and Foothill Boulevard where the La Verne Post Office now resides. Bill fondly reminisces about his days at Bonita High School when he and his friends would sneak into the orange groves that surrounded the drive-in to watch the films for free. “A lot of people had these speakers that they would leave hanging on the fence post when they were done watching, and they wouldn’t turn them off. You would be out in the groves but still be able to hear the movie from the speakers, and of course you were able to see the movie on the screen from out there.”
Much of Bill’s research lies in the heart of Downtown La Verne. His curiosity behind the past and present businesses that line the blocks between Bonita Avenue and Third Street have led him to devote much of his time to sifting through various articles to discover the enterprise of the past. His main sources include advertisements found in local papers, old photographs within the ULV Archive and aged postings from the La Verne Leader. All have helped him to methodically categorize the addresses, names and owners of past La Verne commerce.
Take, for instance, the corner of D and Third Street where “Sigal Diamonds & Jewelry” now resides. Prior to the now present diamond store, that corner was once the site of one of the first businesses to open up when the city was still known as Lordsburg in the early 1900s. The business was known as “Lordsburg La Verne Furniture Store,” and Jacob Mclellan, a prominent business owner during the early years of the city, owned the business while catering to both the city of Lordsburg as well as the city of La Verne, which, at the time, was only a small town northwest near the foothills. “As far as I know, this was the first business,” Bill says. “He served both the city of Lordsburg and the city of La Verne, that is, until Lordsburg changed its name to La Verne [in 1917].”
Bill’s extensive research has granted him knowledge toward the various downtown buildings. Café Allegro is actually comprised of what was once four different store fronts. When walking past the restaurant, one can almost picture the four different rooms as you notice the separation of the glass windows outlining what used to be one single room per frame. Real estate agents, radio shops, insurance companies, beauty salons, dental shops, hole in the wall restaurants, clothing stores, jewelers, bicycle shops, and even vintage Mexican imports—these four store fronts have truly seen a rich, revolving history offering diverse commerce. The store fronts once held individual addresses of 2118 Third St., 2120 Third St., 2122 Third St., and 2124 Third St. However, they all merged under the label of 2124 Third St., when Café Allegro opened. Numerous owners have come and gone, each bringing their own touch even if only for less than a year.
Bill has found that one of the most important aspects is to always have corroborating sources when stumbling upon newfound information. Through his extensive historical inquiry, Bill has used many resources to aid him in the process, such as the La Verne Historical Society, Ben Jenkins, the University’s archivist, and various old photographs and yearbooks. He also has found another way to put technology to use when he uses the power of the internet to aid in his search through the past. He says that periodically searching through eBay or Google can land him even more corroborating sources, such as old Bonita High School yearbooks, which he has previously obtained through Ebay in the past. “You can always discover something that you didn’t know was there,” Bill says. “But you have to try to discover new sources, new to you anyway. You just keep looking for things.”
With well more than 50 years of historical research and counting, Bill won’t be ending the process any time soon. He says that Galen and Doris Beery, the former presidents of the La Verne Historical Society had a computer with a massive number of scanned photographs from the past. With their death due to a car accident, the La Verne Historical Society leadership, including himself in his role as vice president, are unable to access the captions of the photographs, leaving the group oblivious to any information regarding location, photographer and other necessary elements. Bill described the program used by the couple as proprietary, making it difficult for anyone else to understand how to properly and efficiently use it.
However, Bill says he and his fellow Historical Society colleagues plan to diligently gain accurate photographic information. “That’s the thing; just periodically check eBay, or do a Google search on something, because you might find it somewhere else,” Bill says. “Just ask around; at Hillcrest some of the residents either grew up in La Verne or worked in La Verne years ago, they might even have great information.” ■