A Donation of Artifacts on the Early History of Hacienda Heights

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On Friday morning, I went out to the home of Barbara and John Clonts, who donated hundreds of documents relating to the early history and development of Hacienda Heights, then called North Whittier Heights.

Russell Clonts home HH 1916
The 1916 Craftsman-style home of Grover T. Russell, sales agent for Edwin G. Hart’s North Whittier Heights subdivision, created three years before.  The residence is owned by John and Barbara Clonts, who donated to the Homestead a cache of papers left with the house by Russell when he sold the home to them in 1961 and related to the early development of what is now Hacienda Heights.

This remarkable collection is not just a very rare cache of material about the unincorporated community south of the Homestead, but is a window to the opening of development on a large portion of Rancho La Puente that had been owned by William Workman, lost by foreclosure to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, and then sold after Baldwin’s 1909 death and the settlement of this estate.   It is also is an illustration of a boom period in greater Los Angeles real estate and development in the early 1910s.

Russell home from SE
A photocopy of the Russell home provided by the Clonts’, showing the home probably shortly after it was built in 1916.

In 1961, the Clonts’ purchased the home of Grover T. Russell (1884-1962), the sales agent for the North Whittier Heights project developed beginning in 1913 by Edwin G. Hart (1874-1939).

Hart, born in Cleveland, Ohio to German immigrant parents, migrated to the San Gabriel Valley with his family, likely due to his parents contracting tuberculosis.  The Harts resided in Sierra Madre and became well-known in the town.  Edwin worked making wine on the family ranch, but later branched out into citrus and avocados and spent several years in Mexico in the first years of the 20th century.  Returning to the area, Hart was a prominent figure in the incorporation and early development of San Marino before he became the developer of North Whittier Heights, through his Whittier Extension Company.

Russell home and valley 1920s
The Russell home and portions of the very rural and agricultural La Puente Valley, likely in the 1920s (judging by the car parked next to the garage, which still stands.

In 1919, he arranged for the purchase of 3,500 acres of Rancho La Habra and developed La Habra Heights (his sales office still stands off Hacienda Road, where it is used by a long-standing realtor in town).  Several years later, he was a founding father of the San Diego County town of Vista.  In all three examples, avocados and citrus were major elements of the subdivisions, as tracts suitable for the raising of these products were laid out.

Grover Russell was born in Texas and was raised in what was still known as the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, meaning Oklahoma.  In the first decade of the 20th century, he joined his brother George in migrating to Los Angeles and was drawn to real estate.

An early advertisement for North Whittier Heights, listing Russell as a realtor for Edwin Hart, from the Los Angeles Times, 19 January 1913.

One of his major projects was “Orchard Dale,” promoted for the raising of oranges and lemons and located in East Whittier.  Working in the same field of citrus lands, Russell began working for Hart when North Whittier Heights was created.

North Whittier Heights was filled with avocado, lemon and orange groves, with the first especially well suited to the steep sides of the Puente Hills and the cirtus trees occupying the flatter, lower sections of the tract.

One of the hundreds of documents in the Clonts donation is this 22 July 1916 letter from Edwin Hart’s Whittier Extension Company, owner of North Whittier Heights to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.  The missive concerned storm drain issues on Tenth Street, then known as North Whittier Boulevard and now Turnbull Canyon Road, just a short distance from the Homestead.

In 1919, Hart and others formed the North Whittier Heights packing house that was on Clark Avenue bordering the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (William A. Clark, a Montana copper mining magnate, was the railroad’s president) in what was then called “Hartsville.”

As for Russell, he built, in 1916, a Craftsman-style clapboard home on a hillside section with fine views of the La Puente Valley.  Just off Las Tunas Road on the driveway leading to his residence, he installed a small little wooden building that served as a sales office for North Whittier Heights.  Remarkably, both the home and the small office building survive.

Russell NWH sales office
The small wooden North Whittier Heights sales office used by Grover T. Russell and which still stands off the driveway of the property after roughly a century.

Russell lived in his home for 45 years and continued to remain associated with Hart, until the latter’s death in 1939 when he struck and killed by a drunk driver just after recovering from a major stroke.

Russell, who was president in 1938 and held other offices for the California Real Estate Association, also raised lemons on his property, some of which are still on the site.  Just after he sold the home and land to the Clonts’ at the time when the community’s name was changed to Hacienda Heights, he died in Orange County in 1962.

This 16 September 1917 letter from the California Avocado Association, which Edwin Hart helped found and served as an early pesident, is another interesting artifact from the donation.  The association’s office was at the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station, now the University of California, Riverside.

Walking the site and snapping photos of the house, sales building and grounds, it occurred to me that the Russell/Clonts residence is almost certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, homes in Hacienda Heights.

Yet, looking at the newly built larger homes that have sprung up around the property, it is obvious that, because the Clonts’ are preparing to sell their home of 56 years, the house, office and probably many of the old lemon trees will be razed to make way for something new.

Russell Clonts lemon trees
A couple of lemon trees flank the driveway of the Russell/Clonts property with Las Tunas Drive behind them and, in the distance, a portion of the Puente Hills.

Fortunately, Barbara and John kept the Russell and Hart papers concerning North Whittier Heights and their donation of the artifacts to the Homestead will ensure that these rare objects connected to the early development and history of the area will be preserved, publicized and available for succeeding generations.

It will take some time to review, clean, organize, catalog and house the materials, but a couple of examples shown here give a glimpse into the kinds of items included, including correspondence, invoices and much more.

A property listing card kept in a steel tray used by Russell’s realty firm, Russell-Chamness Co. of Whittier.  Dated 22 September 1927, the card has information on the 6.23 acre parcel used for avocado raising and a listed price of $4,500 per acre and laying out the terms, including a $10,000 cash down payment.

One of the more interesting ones is a dual steel tray with cards dating from the late 1920s and early 1930s of North Whittier Heights properties, some with detailed descriptions and all with pricing, for sale.

We’ll be sure to share some of the artifacts in the donation on this blog, so look for those in future posts.


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