No Place Like Home: Houses in the “Mexican Quarter,” San Dimas, April 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead is happy to take part in a grant-funded project with the University of Southern California’s Digital Library, in which we will be providing up to 500 images from the museum’s photo collection to staffers at the university for scanning and uploading on an online platform.

What is especially meaningful about this project is that the photos will be related to underrepresented ethnic groups in greater Los Angeles, whether these be blacks, Latinos, or Asians who are seldom seen in published photographs of the region.  My colleague, Michelle Muro, is our liaison for this important project and will soon be delivering the first batch of objects to USC.

Tonight’s highlighted artifacts are among those that are slated to be part of the project and are a pair of snapshots taken on 26 April 1925 by Thomas Ward of Los Angeles and identified by a brief inscription as being in the “Mexican Quarter” of San Dimas.  Unfortunately, that is all the information provided with the photos, but they are rare examples of housing found in Latino areas of agricultural towns in the region.

San Dimas, once known as Mud Springs and formerly part of the Rancho San Jose which included Pomona, La Verne, Claremont and other areas, was one of the many towns along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains that was part of a significant “citrus belt” that grew rapidly in the last decades of the 19th century and the first few of the 20th.  It is said that Crawford Teague planted the first orange tree at Mud Springs in 1879.

1117078A Snapshot Of The Mexican Quarter San Dimas 2013.573.1.46
These two snapshots from the Homestead’s collection were taken on 26 April 1925 by Thomas Ward, a Los Angeles resident, and are labeled the “Mexican Quarter” of San Dimas.  It seems likely these were the homes of laborers in the town’s citrus groves, which formed the backbone of the community’s economy.

Paul McClure, who wrote two self-published books about the San Dimas citrus industry and specifically about Teague and his family, stated that Teague’s son Robert had the largest citrus nursery in the world during the early 1910s.  Moreover, he added, the contours of the land with good access to water from San Dimas Canyon through Walnut Creek (a recent post here discussed dams added in the 1920s in the area) helped make San Dimas “The Crown of the Citrus Belt.”

The town’s location along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s transcontinental railroad line, which opened in 1885 and launched the massive Boom of the Eighties that followed, was crucial as packing houses next to the tracks helped in the shipment of San Dimas’ oranges and lemons to market.  Edwin T. Earl, whose Los Angeles mansion was the subject of another recent post here, patented a refrigerated and ventilated box car in 1890 that revolutionized the shipping of citrus and other fresh produce.

The growth of the industry in town continued dramatically with the technological advances in transport mentioned above as well as in water supply, packing, marketing through the Sunkist cooperative, and in other ways.  There would, however, be significant challenges in the Great Depression and World War II years, including economic stagnation, rationing, disease and, then, following the war, the onset of burgeoning suburbanization.  McClure’s book ends in 1953 when the citrus era in San Dimas essentially ended.

What is usually missing from many narratives about the industry and in greater Los Angeles suburban communities, generally, are stories and images of those who labored in the groves doing the manual work that was obviously critical to the industry, but not well-recognized in the media, documented through photos, or otherwise preserved for posterity.

1117079A Snapshot Of The Mexican Quarter San Dimas 2013.573.1.47
This image is particularly striking for the profusion of plantings associated with the house on the right, with many of these appearing to be ornamental and others part of a kitchen garden.

That’s what makes these images so important, as they show the very basic housing units in the so-called “Mexican Quarter” of San Dimas, almost certainly adjacent to the railroad tracks, that likely had much of its population associated as workers in the citrus industry, especially the groves.

One image shows a row of several of these residences, built exactly the same, with a dirt road running next to them and power poles across the lane.  An automobile is parked in the street, though whether it was that of a resident, the photographer, or someone else outside the community, isn’t known.  At least a couple of the homes have some form of landscape with them, though the next image gives us a better example.

That image includes two homes (and a small part of a third) and also includes a young man in overalls and a snap-brim cap and two younger girls playing off to the left side.  The house on the right not only has a tree in front, but also has fenced in areas at the front and side with an abundance of plantings.  On the small porch there are a couple of hanging potted plants, as well.

19106 RPPC Lemon Packing House San Dimas Calif 2016.134.1.23
Visual documentation of the citrus industry in San Dimas and other towns like it in the region are more likely to consist of views like this ca. 1910s photo of the San Dimas Lemon Association packing house.

It appears that some of these are ornamental, but also that others are what you’d find in a kitchen garden, whether this would include greens, vegetables and fruit can’t be determined.  Still, the profusion of plantings is impressive and shows a great deal of care and consideration for maintenance, something not likely expected to be noticed by those of the ethnic majority in the region.

Again, it’s too bad we don’t know more, but these rare views of housing in the Latino community of San Dimas give us an inkling of what others like it would have been throughout greater Los Angeles, especially in agricultural areas that were largely dominated by the citrus industry.  To have these pair of snapshots included in the USC Digital Library project is also exciting for the Homestead and its collection of historic artifacts.

 

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