by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Yesterday was long planned to be an avocado festival held at the South Coast Research and Extension Center of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources department, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was recast into a week-long virtual one. As part of it, I was invited to speak on Edwin G. Hart, a real estate developer and avocado enthusiast and promoter whose subdivisions of North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights and La Habra Heights were largely planned for avocado (as well as citrus) growing.
I recorded the talk about two-and-a-half weeks ago and it was uploaded with other presentations during the festival. This post summarizes what is in the talk concerning the development of these tracts in the slopes of the Puente Hills adjacent to the Homestead and largely during the time that Walter P. Temple, who a contemporary of Hart, owned the ranch.
Edwin Giles Hart was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874, the son of German immigrants. His father was a professor of music at the conservatory in that city off Lake Erie, but the family, as so many others did, migrated to sunny greater Los Angeles in the 1880s and settled in Sierra Madre. While Hart’s father continued to teach music, as well as to established, with a nephew, the Southern California Music Company, one of Los Angeles’ largest firms of its type, agriculture in the fertile San Gabriel Valley became an avid interest.
In fact, Hart, in the 1900 census, listed as occupation as winemaker working with the family’s vineyard in Sierra Madre—today, the Hart Park House Senior Center in the city’s Memorial Park is the last remaining structure from the family ranch. He also, however, had exposure to the ahuacate, or avocado, while traveling in Mexico at the end of the 19th century and this began over 40 years of appreciation and advocacy for the virtually unknown fruit (yes, it is a fruit!)
In 1904, however, Hart began a new career in real estate and over the next decade or so, he developed projects in several areas in greater Los Angeles, including the new town of San Marino where he settled (the site of his home is now the city library). His budding (!) interest in the avocado, however, led him to conceive of a new type of development at North Whittier Heights.
This tract on the north side of the Puente Hills fell within the portion of Rancho La Puente long-owned by the Workman family. After the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876, however, the land was taken over by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned funds to the stricken institution shortly before its collapse. After Baldwin died in 1909, his estate sold off much of his vast landholdings in the region, including the North Whittier Heights property, purchased by the Whittier Extension Company.
The firm, incorporated in late July 1912 as another real estate boom burst forth in greater Los Angeles, purchased 1,844 acres of the ranch with the property valued at some $728,000 with about 1,200 acres considered flat or gently rolling hills idea for raising oranges and lemons. The remaining 600+ acres was hill land and one reference said it was “suitable for growing grains or grazing purposes,” though nothing was said about the exotic fruit those who knew of it sometimes called the “alligator pear” for its rough skin.
Ten-year first mortgage bonds were issued by Torrance, Marshall and Company, a firm whose namesakes were Jared S. Torrance, later the founder of that South Bay city and E.J. Marshall, an oilman who made his pile in Texas and then, at the beginning of the 20th century, purchased the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in modern Chino and Chino Hills. It was likely when Hart was hired to be general sales agent for North Whittier Heights that the promotion of some of the land for avocado raising was introduced.
In fact, his method of terracing the steep slopes of the upper portion of the tract for avocados involved innovative techniques and garnered attention for the subdivision, which included a proposed town of Hillgrove at the northern end along the rail line of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railway. A citrus and avocado packing plant was built along the rail line in that community, which never became a full-fledged town as planned.
In May 1913, there was a tract opening event with a “Spanish” barbecue and land sales began from there. The on-site agent was Grover T. Russell, who built a bungalow on a lower hill side in 1916 that he sold in the early 1960s to the current owners John and Barbara Clonts, who donated a large cache of Russell’s papers for North Whittier Heights to the Homestead three years ago.
With North Whittier Heights successfully established, Hart turned his attention to the south on the other side of the Puente Hills and worked with investors to acquire some 2,400 acres of the Rancho La Habra at the southerly limits of Los Angeles County. By 1920, La Habra Heights was in the works and one of the first signs of activity there was the development of the Hacienda Country Club in a valley off the main road, Hacienda Road, just completed through the hills and connecting the two communities.
As with its older sister, La Habra Heights was also actively promoted as a place to raise avocados and, because the community did not have nearly as much of the flat or low rolling land found in North Whittier Heights, the fruit was given even more attention in the newer tract. One notable innovation mentioned in advertisements for the communities was that a potential grower could hire the developer to plant and care for trees as a paid service.
By the early 1920s, as well, the avocado was being given more formal and professional attention in terms of promotion for growers and consumers, though it remained an expensive novelty item for the most part. A California Avocado Growers’ Association was launched in May 1915 at an organizational meeting at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles and, within a decade, it was decided to establish a brand name, much as was done by orange growers with the highly successful Sunkist brand. Hart was a long-time president and officer of the organization and wrote articles about its work and the general promotion of avocados.
The name chosen for branding the avocado was Calavo and there were even serious and intensive efforts to have people discontinue the use of the word “avocado” and replace it only with “calavo,” though this attempt did not succeed. What did work, however, was the establishment, by the mid-Twenties, of an annual avocado exposition or show, along the lines of the famous California Orange Show at San Bernardino and a Valencia Orange Show at Anaheim. This even was held in nearby Whittier and grew markedly by the end of the decade.
The Los Angeles Times, always an avid promoter of commercial activity to boost greater Los Angeles, ran articles with some frequency on the avocado and its growing, marketing, and sales. One piece in the agriculture section labeled the avocado groves in Hart’s developments of North Whittier Heights and La Habra Heights as “the hanging gardens of Southern California,” a reference to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the hanging gardens at Babylon. This, evidently, was because avocados could be raised in steep hilly areas where most crops could not be grown.
By the later 1920s, Hart added another project for a trifecta of “avocado subdivisions,” where he and partners acquired land in northern San Diego County and developed the town of Vista. In all, there were several thousand acres of land in Southern California established in tracts by Hart for the promotion of the avocado, as well as other crops, and this made him one of the chief advocates for the fruit in the region. Included in the growing cadre of growers was his brother, John W. Hart, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County.
Despite the growing presence of the avocado in greater Los Angeles, with the avocado show at Whittier becoming a larger affair with each passing year, and the three tracts doing well in terms of sales and raising of the fruit, the onset of the Great Depression had a major effect on the industry, as it did with virtually all others. Hart, however, continued on with his advocacy of avocados, including after he moved from San Marino to La Habra Heights.
In 1939, Hart was killed as he stepped out of his car and was hit by a driver. While at the time, he was readily recognized as one of major figures in the introduction and promotion of avocados, his name has become virtually unknown today, even though the fruit became mainstream in recent decades and enjoys the type of popularity and consumption Hart likely dreamed of but did not see in his lifetime.
As for his “avocado subdivisions” of Hacienda Heights and La Habra Heights, the post-World War II spread of suburbs dramatically changed the character of these communities. The five, ten or more acre farm plots with their orange, lemon and avocado trees mostly gave way to residential tracts in Hacienda Heights, especially from about 1960 when the name was changed, while in the hillier La Habra Heights, lot sizes remained larger, but an interest in commercial raising of avocados and citrus declined. While the latter incorporated in 1978, several efforts to do the same in the former have failed and it remains administered by Los Angeles County.
There are, however, in both communities remnants of citrus and avocado raising, providing a continuation and connection to the origins of these subdivisions a century or more ago when Edwin G. Hart was establishing the avocado as a household name, if still a novelty, among the agricultural abundance still very much in evidence in greater Los Angeles.