Remembering the City’s History One Century Later
by Natalie Sirna
photography by Rachel Kendrick
The 1920s are remembered as one of the most prosperous decades in American history. America had just rejoiced in her victory in The Great War, a deadly influenza pandemic was on the decline, and new hope was on the horizon. The colossal disaster that was to be the Great Depression was still a few years away. The East Coast was experiencing a cultural jubilee with the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age. But the small Southern California town of La Verne was removed from the lavish, overindulgent, 1920s lifestyle that inspired the art-deco style reminiscent of Los Angeles. This still rural area had just begun to form a different type of identity with its fresh name change from “Lordsburg” to “La Verne.” Isaac Wilson Lord, a wealthy land developer from Los Angeles, had originally named the town after himself. He purchased a majority of the downtown land because of its choice location adjacent to the Santa Fe transcontinental railroad route.
Sherry Best, president of the La Verne Historical Society, explains that “I.W Lord never lived in La Verne. He lived in what would now be Rancho Cucamonga.” Lord’s absence from the town perhaps explains why La Verne residents had never been keen on the name. The vote to change it to “La Verne” was approved in 1917, only a few months after Lord’s death. It was commemorated with a symbolic wedding. The resulting city-wide celebration ushered in the 1920s to La Verne.
Although sparsely populated, La Verne flourished in the 1920s, with a handful of local D Street shops that offered for sale just about everything you needed. This small business epicenter saw the likes of shops that included Brower’s Grocery, Blue Bell Cleaners and W. S. Hufford’s Drug Store. Aside from the downtown shops, the main cash cow that drove La Verne’s booming economy in the 1920s was the citrus industry. The La Verne Historical Society’s website details just how impressive the citrus industry was during this decade: “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.”
Agriculture was a way of life for many who resided in this region. The La Verne Historical Society’s website notes, “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.”
The citrus industry could not have thrived without the railroad. Ben Jenkins, University of La Verne archivist and assistant professor of history, explains how these two entities, the railroad and citrus agriculture, worked together to foster one of the most economically prosperous times for the region. He explains how the illustrious railroad system, coined the “Octopus,” swallowed up southern California just as the citrus industry began taking off. “While most of the area was still quite rural, La Verne provided a place for citrus farmers to work and cultivate their life. This entire region has the perfect weather for growing citrus fruits. Southern California sits at about 34 degrees north latitude. Because of that distance from the equator, it has what geographers refer to as a ‘mediterranean climate,’ just like you’d see in Italy or Greece.”
The long summers and rare cold snaps in this region foster the ideal growing conditions for finicky citrus fruits. Jenkins explains, “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.” Historical records proudly tell how boxes of the fruit graced the table of the royal family. This earned La Verne the motto, “Heart of the Orange Empire.” La Verne quickly became famous for its Sunkist oranges. “This was the golden age of oranges,” says Jenkins. Southern California oranges earned a reputation that soon surpassed those grown in Florida. The citrus groves ultimately experienced several agricultural maladies. Eventually the land became too valuable to grow citrus, and the citrus groves were replaced with housing developments.
In the 1920s, you did not have to wander too far off D Street before you stumbled upon the humble La Verne College. The maze of citrus trees suddenly opened near the college boundaries. The school gained its foothold when Lord’s “land boom” hotel never attracted a single paying guest. Consequently, he sold the hotel to a group of Church of the Brethren elders, holding them to their promise that they would not try to outdo him with the hotel but instead start an academy. Such was the 1891 start of Lordsburg Academy, which went through name changes to its present identity of the University of La Verne in 1977. The name change from Lordsburg College to La Verne College came with the city’s name change in 1917. By the 1920s, La Verne College had greatly expanded from its original 65 students upon opening its doors in 1891. The college saw the likes of three presidents all in the span of 10 years: S.J Miller (1915-1921), I.V. Funderburgh (1921-1923) and Ellis M. Studebaker (1923-1938).
You will get no better sense of La Verne College than the one found in the school’s yearbook, “The Orange Blossom.” The 1921-1927 editions of “The Orange Blossom” provide timelines of events throughout the school year, as well as show pictures of students in their classes and extracurricular activities. The yearbook pages capture how La Verne students valued much of the same things 100 years ago as they do today. Sports were extremely popular, with many students playing more than one. Coach Arnett led athletes to achieve the first touchdown in the football history of La Verne in 1922. Students engaged in ditch days and looked forward to “L” day, an annual hike to the La Verne “L” in the mountains. The “L,” once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest block letter in the world, is still visible on the Sunset Peak mountainside. Debate was a popular elective, and the debate team helped get La Verne College’s name out. The College was known for its vibrant music and education departments. Ultimately, La Verne students seemed to show their playful side in the annuals, where they were more carefree and took themselves less seriously. The yearbooks are full of juvenile gossip and banter, often referencing the personal and dating lives of students. It shows just how tight-knit this small community was. La Verne was a place where everyone knew everyone. Dress style included short hair for women with long ankle length, slender dresses and skirts. Dapper dress pants or suits were worn to class by the men.
The college culture was more buttoned up than present. Men and women resided in separate dormitories. Then, as now, it was a “dry” campus. The school’s “Sneaky Park” eventually gained its reputation for obvious reasons. Despite the frivolity, there is mention of serious world issues, including the flu, which did not spare La Verne. The Orange Blossom makes references to students being vaccinated, presumably for Smallpox, since the first flu vaccines were not licensed for civilian use until 1945.
Students in the 1920s probably felt culturally enlightened as they attended higher education; nevertheless, references to groups of people other than white come off today as insensitive and racist. For example, there is mention in the yearbooks of an “Oriental day” where students ignorantly pretended to slant their eyes in racist caricature of Asians.
Students were expected to engage in school activities. In sports, men, especially, rotated through the seasons, playing in football, basketball and baseball, for example. These same students were also engaged in choir, speech, and debate and theater. There was total camaraderie, and everyone knew everyone.
Although the University of La Verne is now considered to be a secular college, it was not always like that. The Church of the Brethren held a strong influence over the city of La Verne as a whole, but especially La Verne College. “The Orange Blossom” makes it clear that Christian values were dominant. Many of the students used Bible verses as their senior quote. For La Verne, community service and Christian values were one in the same. To teach at La Verne College meant one needed to be affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, and many students were pursuing a life and career in the clergy.
Undoubtedly, much has changed in both the city of La Verne and its University. Nonetheless, there are several parallels of the 1920s to today. A worldwide pandemic is on the decline. The U.S war in Afghanistan is slowly being drawn to a conclusion, just as the end of the First World War signaled the entrance into the 1920s. Even though La Verne has grown and changed significantly, it still remains a fairly tight knit community made up of hardworking, family-oriented citizens. Looking back at our history helps us understand just how far we have come, and what the 2020s may have in store for us.