by Christian Shepherd
photography by George Keeler & Christian Shepherd
Legacies are a tricky thing. If you are Martin Luther King or Nikola Tesla, you can rest easy knowing that your name will carry on in the history books forever. If you are Isaac Lord, however, you probably will not be able to rest as easily as those other guys—especially when the residents of the city you founded in the 19th century vote to remove your name from the city.
And then to rub it in your face, they throw an entire wedding to commemorate the event. You might even turn in your grave when, 100 years later, the mayor of that city officiates a re-enactment of the celebration to an excited audience. Again, legacies are a tricky thing, and to understand the legacy of Lordsburg/La Verne, you have to start at the beginning.
The Birth of Lordsburg
Isaac Lord, a runaway who had been part of the first group of people to drive cattle from the East Coast to California, would become one of the earliest developers and first secretary of the city of Los Angeles. Using his influence, Lord eventually convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to build a station between the cities of San Dimas and Pomona, an area where he owned a substantial amount of property. On May 25, 1887, Lord then endeavored to push the sale of the property surrounding that station to people who lived in already well-established and developed cities. He arranged for brass bands to perform up and down the streets and avenues of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, inviting people for a free ride to the new town of Lordsburg.
According to the city of La Verne, the purchase, at the time, was the largest land sale that had ever been recorded in Southern California. More than 2,500 people accepted Lord’s invitation, purchasing around $200,000 worth of land lots. When adjusted for inflation, that is more than $5.4 million in today’s currency.
“Building began immediately. The most notable building was a large hotel with more than 60 rooms. Lord and others had invested some $70,000 or more in it. Water mains were put in, a post office opened, a newspaper published and stores opened, all within four months,” says the city of La Verne’s website.
“This Town Needs A New Name”
While the rest of the nation’s press was running their inkwells dry on news about German retreats on the battlefield and the 1917 world-wide war that was consuming Europe, the weekly Lordsburg-La Verne Leader was focusing on a different story about a public sentiment that had been growing in popularity: the changing of the town’s name from Lordsburg to La Verne.
The name change was first prompted publicly by Will Green, the new editor for the Leader. On Dec. 5, 1912 — Will’s first week on the job — he published an article titled, “THIS TOWN NEEDS A NEW NAME.” “Some names are so unfortunately chosen as to excite ridicule,” Green wrote in the article about Lordsburg. “There is in this county a town whose name has been the butt of ridicule since it was founded. Passengers going through it give a smile of derision when they hear the name called or see it on the station house.”
Bill Lemon is the vice president of the Historical Society of La Verne. He wears a red plaid shirt tucked into a pair of light denim jeans. He is an older man, but not so old that he cannot carry with him a backpack packed tightly enough to assume he is going on a year-long backpacking tour through South America. Tucked into that backpack is a historian’s dozen of photocopied Lordsburg-LaVerne Leader newspapers, books and a laptop. He says this is his only set, the others are entrusted to other members of the La Verne Historical Society.
After showing the contents of his hard copies, he excitedly opens up the laptop. It looks to be more than a few years old. Despite the years of use it has gotten, Bill takes his two index fingers and pokes around slowly at the keyboard, looking intently for historical photos. Every image, newspaper clipping, and chapter in the books has an accompanying story from Bill, and it becomes abundantly clear that the history stored on the pages of the archives he brought with him are nothing compared to the history stored in his head.
He begins talking about the name change, and why many people were so interested in the change to begin with. “People misunderstood why the original town was called Lordsburg. A sports team would go to another town and, a lot of time, people thought the town was named Lordsburg for religious reasons, and that [the residents] considered themselves ‘holier than thou.’ That was part of the reason — that confusion.” But that also was not the only reason. The orange groves that have become synonymous with certain parts of the Inland Empire played a big role in the community’s desire for a name change as well. “Most of the citrus groves were in the outlying areas of the city. There was the feeling that the name of La Verne was more recognizable commercially than Lordsburg was.”
Between the time Lord had founded Lordsburg and Green published the article, Lord had been spending increasingly less time in his namesake city. On Jan. 30, 1913, Isaac paid a visit to the Lordsburg-La Verne Leader and to discuss an article Green wrote. Will Green, a thorough journalist, on Jan. 30, 1913, wrote about the visit in a follow-up article titled, “I.W. LORD VISITS THE TOWN HE FOUNDED.” “I.W. Lord of Los Angeles, founder of Lordsburg and still the owner of the large property interests here, was in the city Wednesday and made the Leader a call,” Green wrote. “Mr. Lord said he had not known there was a newspaper here until someone sent him the other day a clipping in reference to the proposed change of name. He at once decided it was time for him to get in closer touch with his namesake.”
Green then gave a brief overview of Lord’s contributions to the town, followed by some of his less savory business ventures. “Then he and some other parties built a hotel, the building now occupied by Lordsburg College. In this, Mr. Lord personally invested $88,000. The structure was never used for a hotel and for a long time it was a problem to know what to do with it. Finally, it was sold, with two blocks of land, to the Church of the Brethren for $12,000.”
Later, when members of the community would endeavor to change the town’s name away from Lordsburg, Lord was quick to shut the efforts down with a court order. As long as Isaac Lord was alive, the town he founded would remain known as Lordsburg.
Lord Dies, Lordsburg Marries
Lord’s death was recognized by the Leader on March 22, 1917. “After a lingering illness, Isaac W. Lord, founder of the City of Lordsburg, a California pioneer who had much to do with the early development of Los Angeles and other sections of the Southern part of the State, died Friday morning, aged nearly 81 years, at his residence, 340 Occidental Boulevard, Los Angeles,” the article reads. Just three months later, on June 7, 1917, the Leader published an article that informed its readers that the debate surrounding the name change was postponed until June 21 to avoid conflict with a local high school commencement. “Prominent men in the community have agreed to take part in the discussion.”
High above stories pertaining to the drafts of World War I, and how local men were attempting to petition their selection, the Leader continued to publish name change stories on the front pages of its weekly editions. On June 14, 1917, Green published another story, “SHALL IT BE LORDSBURG OR LA VERNE?”
One month later, on July 5, 1917, the Leader published the following notice: “All who desire to vote at the coming election August 14th on the change of name of the city of La Verne must be correctly registered no later than Saturday, July 14th, as registration must close 30 days before election.” This notice ran again on July 12, 1917.
On Aug. 9, 1917, the Leader continued its coverage with a similar headline, “SHALL THE NAME OF LORDSBURG BE CHANGED TO LA VERNE?” The article called the pending vote “the most important election perhaps ever held in the city of Lordsburg.” It also reported that the opposition to the name change had probably been quiet because the original petition was signed by 347 people in a time when U.S. Census Data reported the total population of Lordsburg to be less than a thousand. The Leader also found it important to note that there was “little excitement during the campaign.”
“The issue is clear and direct,” the Leader reads. “It is difficult to see how the most blundering person can make a mistake in voting.” In the same article was published what Green considered — presumably facetiously — to be a threat to the name change. “One logical argument against the proposition that has come to our attention is that given by a woman who says she just hates the town and is opposed to its having a nicer name because it just doesn’t deserve it. If enough people feel that way about it, the ship is lost.” As history would have it, the following month, on Aug. 16, 1917, the town voted 239 to 81 in favor of changing the name of Lordsburg to La Verne. The following week, the Leader wrote, “To all intents and purposes, the City of Lordsburg became the City of La Verne on Thursday, August 16th, at 8:48 p.m.”
In the same year as its founder’s death, the city of La Verne celebrated the end of the Lordsburg name with a symbolic wedding attended by 350 residents, where Miss Lordsburg was married to Mr. La Verne. “LORDSBURG PASSES INTO MEMORY,” the Leader wrote.
A Renewal of Vows
While the legacy of Isaac Lord may have been lost, the legacy of La Verne is being carefully tended by those who love the community. La Verne is now a bustling city, more so than Isaac Lord could have ever imagined. It has more than 32,000 people. The hotel built by Lord that did not host a single guest was razed in spring 1928, and was nevertheless the foundation for the University of La Verne, which today has more than 8,000 students across all its campuses and 74,000 alumni worldwide.
On the 100 year anniversary of the symbolic wedding, the La Verne community re-enacted the event. Donned in 1917 era attire, Mayor Don Kendrick officiated the faux wedding near the University for the entire city to see. During the re-enactment, Bill Lemon was the one responsible for giving away the unmarried Miss Lordsburg.
“The re-enactment that we did — the 100 year anniversary — we wanted to call attention to [the original wedding], especially to those who were not familiar with it,” Bill says, excitedly. “We wanted it to be a living history for the residents of La Verne. I think it lived up to that goal.”