by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When it comes to greater Los Angeles and its prized agricultural products during the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930, it is the orange, hands down, which had, by the far, the greatest impact and appeal. After that, some of the more valuable and prominent examples included lemons, walnuts and field crops like wheat, while truck farming of fruits and vegetables were common attributes of local agriculture.
At the end of that period, there was a relatively new local fruit (yes, a fruit) that began to have a major impact in certain areas of the region: the avocado. The epicenter of the industry locally was in the Puente Hills south of the Homestead, including the subdivisions of North Whittier Heights (renamed Hacienda Heights around 1960) and La Habra Heights, as well as portions of Whittier.
Today’s highlighted artifact is a decal, issued by Standard Oil Company of California, which also produced its high-yield and valuable project in this region, for the fifth annual Avocado Show, held in Whittier between 14-19 May 1928. While the event wasn’t as large or well attended as the National Orange Show at San Bernardino or the Valencia Orange Show in Anaheim, it did grow significantly in these early years as the industry began to take root.
The avocado was particularly well-suited for the steep and rocky areas of the Puente Hills and the prime mover of North Whittier Heights and La Habra Heights was a major promoter of the fruit named Edwin G. Hart, who also developed the northern San Diego County community of Vista. Hart, who began his work with avocados in San Marino, a city he helped establish in the early 1910s.
Hart was born in Cleveland in 1874 and migrated with his family, apparently because of tuberculosis in the family to the San Gabriel Valley, where many people with the malady came to convalesce, when he was ten years old. His father, John, acquired forty acres in Sierra Madre and raised grapes and made wine. Edwin had two prominent brothers, John W., who became a deputy district attorney and Frank, a talented pianist who also managed the Southern California Music Company.
Hart became a real estate developer after spending some years working with vineyards and citrus orchards, including time spent in Mexico, where his passion for the ahuacate, or avocado, blossomed. Not long after coming back to the area, he settled in San Marino, where, in 1909, he built a very interesting adobe bungalow at the corner of Huntington Drive and West Drive, directly south of Henry Huntington’s estate (now the famed gardens, library and art galleries) and today the site of the city library.
After Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin died, also in 1909, his vast estate was settled and most of William Workman’s half Rancho La Puente he acquired by foreclosure on a loan to the Temple and Workman bank was gradually sold off and subdivided. The Whittier Extension Company purchased land south of the Homestead with Hart as the principal agent for North Whittier Heights. In the very early 1920s, he developed La Habra Heights and followed that later with Vista. In all three cases, citrus and avocados were heavily promoted.
Hart was the founding president of the California Avocado Association, which had its first meeting at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles in fall 1915. There were a number of prominent supporters including Charles Silent, whose Rancho Los Alisos in the foothills above Glendora included large numbers of avocado trees on its steep slopes and who has been featured on this blog, and Frederick Popenoe, an important figure in the propagation of the fruit in California, and whose son, Paul, who was largely responsible for the establishment of the date industry in the Coachella Valley and was a widely known eugenicist, was also highlighted in a post here. The association later created the brand name “Calavo,” much like “Sunkist” became associated with oranges and “Blue Diamond” for walnuts.
A little under a decade later, the Whittier Avocado Show was launched in modest fashion compared to the orange shows at San Bernardino and Anaheim, but, by 1928, it was growing and there were ambitions to develop it further by the sponsor, the Whittier Progress Club, which seems to have hosted the event for about fifteen years through the end of the 1930s.
For the 1928 edition, the final two days included the annual meeting of the California Avocado Association, marking the first time since the organization’s founding that the gathering was held outside of Los Angeles. Moreover, a special guest was Dr. Wilson Popenoe, son of Frederick and brother of Paul as well as a longtime research scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and who was described in the Los Angeles Times as “an avocado enthusiast and a pioneer in the industry in Southern California.
The paper noted that, for the previous two years, Popenoe was in Honduras in the employ of the United Fruit Company, which was so powerful in that Central American nation that it embodied the term “banana republic.” Popenoe timed a vacation around the show so that he could attend and be a speaker at the association banquet on the final day at the gymnasium of Whittier College.
The Los Angeles Express in an advance article about the show observed that it “has passed the experimental stage, and has become one of the unique and interesting events of the year” while “the exhibit space is all sold out weeks before the show is open, indicating the popularity of the undertaking.”
One of the main exhibitors was Edwin G. Hart, Inc., which proudly advertised that “the Avocado Show . . . will have exhibits of this fruit from all parts of the avocado fruit growing areas of the state” and that “the show is growing in fame and public favor.” Moreover, the firm “shall have a double booth and a separate display exhibition,” which garnered an award during the show.
The location was in a very large tent at the corner of Hadley Street and Magnolia Avenue, west of downtown and, on the first day, it was opened an hour early for guests to see displays before the official 8 p.m. welcome by Whittier’s mayor to inaugurate the event. After the preliminaries, entertainment included five acts of vaudeville and a performance by Blackburn’s Band, a local outfit. With everything formal done within an hour, there was plenty of time for attendees to visit approximately sixty booths staffed by merchants and see “the great feature displays of avocados.”
Highlighted during the week were “style shows” (fashion shows) sponsored by the J.C. Penney Company, which over 90 years later had just declared bankruptcy, while “Eddie’s Country Store,” an interactive experience by the exhibition company that organized the entertainment, was brought back after a successful inaugural the prior year and offered “prizes and fun for everyone.”
An automobile show and concessions staffed in a separate tent by the American Legion, formed after the conclusion of World War I, were also mentioned. With a floor rather than the dirt from the lot, more improved parking, and other changes, the venue was proclaimed to offer “an air of dignity lacking in years past” with its “maelstrom of light, color and fun.”
In its coverage of the opening night, the Whittier News reported that some 4,000 people attended, more than previously, and that “the show’s sparkle and brilliance evidenced the more expensive and dignified plan in force this year.” Other elements of the evening not mentioned in other accounts included a poster contest, a performance by the Baldwin Park Boys’ Band. Those displaying fruit came from Monrovia, Carlsbad, La Habra, La Habra Heights, Baldwin Park, Pasadena, Montebello, Tustin, and Camarillo.
Among those who made the biggest impressions with displays and exhibit was Carlsbad’s Sam Thompson, Hart, and John M. Elliott, who came to Los Angeles in 1870, was a cashier for the Los Angeles County Bank which opened a few years later, and rose to become president of one of the city’s largest banks, First National, with whom he was associated for nearly a half century from 1881 until his death in 1929 as well as a trust company director and member of the city’s water board as it worked on planning for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Elliott was an early buyer of property in North Whittier Heights and had nearly three dozen varieties of avocado at the show from his Altamira estate.
Also highlighted was a photographic exhibit from the University of California that “show[s] and explain all the known standard varieties of avocado” and which “form a display that merits study.” Advertising displays and merchants booths were also given some recognition.
The Times provided a typically enthusiastic description of the opening festivities by describing how the assemblage gathered “amid sparkling lights and gorgeous decorations [featuring] the largest display of avocados ever assembled anywhere at any time.” The throngs were noted as a “crowd of merry makers made gay by a Mardi Gras spirit in this atmosphere of carnival.” The article even claimed that Whittier’s status as a “seat of higher learning” was forgotten amid the “fun, frolic and frivolity.”
It was averred that the show “compares favorably with the other great shows of the Southland, and furnishes a proper background for a display which is both entertaining and instructive.” Amid the elaborate displays of growers and the booths of packers was a laboratory demonstrating how the fruit was judged in quality by the California Avocado Association. Coverage of the other elements already mentioned (the nightly entertainment, the concessions, the merchants booths and the car show) was also included.
When prizes were handed out on the third day, Elliott took home a Kiwanis Club cup “for the most educational and artistic display.” Thompson, the Carlsbad grower, also took home a prize for his exhibit, while Hart was honored for a general display. Recognition was handed out for growers of over thirty varieties and seedlings of the fruit as well as other exhibitors.
The advertising and promotion apparently brought more attention than in the previous four years of the show and the Whittier News quoted from a Los Angeles Examiner editorial which noted that “not so many years ago raising ‘alligator pears’ was a fad with a few” but, with the onset of the Whittier show, “you would see that the fad has become of formidable proportions and marvelous in its development of a high-class product.”
The Examiner also proclaimed that the exhibits “are displaying the same kind of intelligence which has made citrus growing here so successful” and that “avocado raising, in fact, is rapidly getting into the class of major agricultural industries.” This, it added, was for a proper reason: “there is no product that is more satisfactory from the standpoint of edibility and nutrition than the avocado.” The editorial ended with the observation that growers were reaping rewards for their efforts and that:
those who are putting on the splendid show at Whittier have met all the requirements [for success], and for their patient fight for victory they deserve especial credit.
On the final day, the California Avocado Association had its program of offerings including presentations on “The Avocado in Northern California;” “Vitamin Investigations of the Avocado;” “Oil Analysis of the Avocado;” and others on the history of the fruit and its future, and the threat of leaf burn, while business items featured committee reports and the election of directors of the body. Some 450 members attended the banquet, including Popenoe, described as a “horticultural soldier of fortune,” an interesting characterization considering his work in Honduras, of which he spoke with slides as illustrations. The president of Whittier College also gave a talk, though little was said about it in press coverage.
In its editorials after the conclusion of the show, the Whittier News praised the “unqualified success from every standpoint” not just for the avocado but for the city. Consequently, the paper suggested that Whittier provide financial support because it “needs just such an excuse to invite the rest of the world here at least once a year.” Other cities had shows for their products and Whittier had its for the avocado.
The paper looked forward to the day when the show could become so big that a larger organization than the Progress Club would oversee it and “it would not be amiss if the [theoretical] association should own its own show grounds, properly set to avocados with permanent buildings, rather than tents,” which, for example, is what San Bernardino did as its National Orange Show grew in prominence.
The 1928 show made enough of a profit to fund some expenses for the planning of the following year’s edition, which was deemed to be assured of taking place, especially with the continued cooperation and support of the state association. With the onset of the Great Depression, the ambition of the News to have a permanent show grounds was not to be realized though, as noted above, the show did continue for another decade.
After the Second World War came the massive growth of the postwar period, including the relentless suburban development that meant the removal of much of the commercial orchards that marked the Puente Hills communities as “avocado subdivisions” though traces of the trees still remain in Hacienda Heights, La Habra Heights and Whittier today.
In a few weeks, I’ll be recording a PowerPoint-illustrated presentation on Zoom concerning Edwin G. Hart and his role in establishing North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights and La Habra Heights as prime avocado growing communities. This will be part of the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources department and its Virtual Avocado Festival & Education Academy, which was supposed to take place at the South Coast Extension and Research Center in Irvine and which is being held from 22-27 June, More information will be forthcoming!