Saturday, June 13, 2015

Featherstone Quarry

We neighborhood kids used to call it the "Chalk Mine." To us, the abandoned quarry looked like something out of the Old West. We thought for sure it had been there since cowboy days; maybe even a hundred years! There were a bunch of other tall tales about the place, but it would be another half century before I finally uncovered its factual history. Much was surprising to me. For one thing, the rocks mined there weren't "chalk" at all...

"There was a large deposit of [diatomaceous] earth on Covina Hills Road that the Featherstone Company successfully mined and processed through the 1920s and early 1930s. The operation closed during the Depression. The property was part of the 2,100 acre Hill Ranch that Frank Marion Chapman and E. G. Shouse purchased from the Hollenbeck family of East Los Angeles."                    --Barbara Ann Hall, Ph.D.1

So, far from being there a hundred years, it turned out the quarry wasn't even as old as my parents. The diatomite itself, however, was actually formed about 7 million years ago, in the upper Miocene epoch.2

Featherstone Quarry (upper right), Covina Hills, 1926. I-10 now passes from l. to r. through the low white hill at center.
'Dick' Whittington Studio, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. Link to full-res image.

The photo above is the only one I know of that shows the quarry when it was still in operation. The diatomaceous earth mined there was used primarily in the manufacturing of tile, pipes and conduits.2

Exactly when quarrying began at Featherstone is not known. Looking at old maps, it can be seen that roads associated with the mine were present in the 1910s, which would be earlier than other accounts. Exactly when quarrying stopped is also uncertain. A geology field report based upon data compiled in 1932 stated that operation of the mine "ceased several years ago,"2 so it may be that Featherstone Quarry did not survive into the 1930s, after all.

The abandoned quarry (right), 1948. Fair use courtesy

The "Chalk Mine" as seen from our house on Rancho El Encino, June, 1962.3
What we called the "Quartz Mine" can also be seen to the left of center. Inside that cleft was a thick outcropping of crystalline gypsum.

In 1965, all of the ancient hills north of our neighborhood were bulldozed to create the Covina Heights housing development. Almost a mile square, the massive earthmoving project took a year to complete. Our chalk mine and the whole wild rangeland surrounding it were no more...

View of the former quarry site from Rancho El Encino, December, 1968.

The mine may be gone, but 50 years later, many surface deposits of the white diatomaceous earth are still plainly visible.

Treasure! My own specimen of Featherstone diatomite, collected in 2010 in situ from an intact geologic stratum.



1Hall, B.A. (2007) Covina (Images of America). Arcadia Publishing, San Francisco, California. 127pp.
2Harshman, E.N. (1933) Geology of the San Jose Hills, Los Angeles County, California. M.S. Thesis. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. 91pp.
3PS: If any of my old neighbors from the Ranchos has a better picture of the chalk mine than this one, please let me know!


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Casa Mirasol

Local history has changed a little! Likely unbeknown to almost everyone, it turns out one of the buildings of the old Baptist Seminary in the Covina Hills still stands today.

Now a private home, this lone survivor was originally the residence of the Headmaster of the California Preparatory School for Boys.

As this student-made drawing from 1936 indicates, the house in its Cal Prep days was known as "Casa Mirasol." According to Assessor's Office records, it was built in 1929.

In 1942, Dr. Gottfried de Purucker moved his branch of the Theosophical Society to the Covina Hills campus, and Casa Mirasol became his home. After the California Baptist Theological Seminary acquired the property in 1951, it was used as the Dean's residence.

Casa Mirasol in 1942

The old school campus was important in Covina's history, and part of my own history, as well. One can only speculate why this building alone was spared demolition, but I'm happy to know it's still with us.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Oldest Building in Covina

The other day, I got to wondering which might be the oldest structure still standing in Covina. Considering how few buildings from the turn of the last century must remain, the field of candidates could not be very large. Citrus Avenue would probably be a good first place to look. I can't think of anywhere else in town where more structures from that time period could still be standing – at least commercial ones.

The logical place to find this information is the Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor. The Assessor maintains public records for every parcel of land: its legal description, its valuation, etc. If the parcel has a building on it, the original year of construction is also recorded. Fortunately, the County Assessor has an interactive map online where the public can easily access all of this information.

Although not the oldest, the building that has remained in its original state of construction for the longest period of time is 126 N. Citrus – originally the Warner & Whitsel Grocery, and the place most of us who grew up in Covina knew as Custer's. The Assessor's record states that it was built in 1905. I have to question that date, however, as a photo taken on the Fourth of July, 1906, clearly shows the older Warner store still standing. Additionally, two historical accounts agree that the new grocery building did not open until Summer, 1909. Whatever its actual construction date, however, aside from some modification to its frontage and interior over the decades, the Warner/Custer's building has remained largely unchanged and still recognizable for the last 105+ years.

The Warner & Whitsel Grocery (later Custer's, left) and the Allison-Webb Building, circa 1910.

The earliest build date on the east side of Citrus is given as 1880, for the parcel at the northeast corner of Citrus and Badillo. For over a hundred years, the Reed Block/Covina Theater occupied that site. The Reed Building could not have been built in 1880, however. Covina as a townsite didn't even exist until 1882 (although settlers were living at a crossroads called "Citrus" north of present-day Covina in the 1870s).

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it is possible that a structure was built at Badillo and Citrus in 1880 that was subsequently incorporated into the Reed Building. That would account for the date in the Assessor's official records. According to descendant Glenn Reed, his grandfather's simple two-storey brick building – so familiar to generations of Covinans – was actually erected in 1900. Sadly, in 2004, it was razed to construct the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. If the Assessor's record still gives an initial build date of 1880, however, then it's possible that some portion of the Reed Block and its supposed predecessor (perhaps part of the foundation) was retained in the 21st century structure.

The oldest building still standing on the east side of Citrus is actually next door to the former theater – The Allison-Webb Building at 114 N. Citrus – which is now occupied by the unwholesomely-named "Rude Dog Bar & Grill." It was constructed in 1903, though looking at its current false front, 114 N. Citrus today is completely unrecognizable to anyone who grew up in 20th century Covina.

The Reed Block (1900) and the Allison-Webb Building (1903, left) circa 1905.
Courtesy USC Digital Library. Click image to enlarge.

On the west side of Citrus, across the street from the former location of the Covina Theater, there is another candidate for Covina's oldest existing structure: the Chapman-Workman Building (now called the Old Covina Bank Building) at 101 N. Citrus. The Assessor's record shows (as does a photo of the building, below) that it was erected in 1897.

The Chapman-Workman Building (1897, left) and the actual oldest building in Covina (1885, center) circa 1905.
Courtesy USC Digital Library. Click image to enlarge.

But even the Chapman Building isn't the winning entry in our race. Turns out the oldest existing commercial structure in Covina is actually the little hole-in-the-wall storefront next door: 111 N. Citrus (the dark two-storey building in the center of the photo above). The Assessor gives its build date as 1885, with its "Effective Year Built" being 1905 (probably when the second storey was added).

Here it is today. Not much to look at, is it? But evidently, behind that chintzy 20th century facade, and inside its walls, is a structure that is almost as old as J. S. Phillips's township of Covina itself.

Concerning houses, it appears some of the oldest ones still standing in the original residential section of Covina are three small homes built in a row in 1901 on Cottage Street. It's actually quite shocking to me just how few private dwellings remain in the downtown area bounded by Badillo, 2nd, Hollenbeck and San Bernardino Road. Most of them were swallowed up over the years by municipal parking lots, and by Inter-Community Hospital.

The oldest building of all, however, would almost certainly be the Thomas Griswold House, which was one of the earliest American homes built in Rancho La Puente. Originally located at the intersection of Citrus and Cypress in the aforementioned settlement of Citrus circa 1877, Barbara Ann Hall's book "Images of America: Covina" (p.15) states that the Griswold House was moved to Covina Boulevard in 1891, where it was said to still stand today. I tried to find it via the Googlemobile, but was unsuccessful. If the Griswold House does, indeed, still exist, it would not only be the oldest building in Covina, it would be one of the oldest structures in the entire San Gabriel Valley.

Source: Images of America: Covina, by Barbara Ann Hall, Ph.D., Covina Historical Society, Arcadia Publishing, 2007.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Glen

In the closing months of World War II, a grieving father resolved to create a place of peaceful repose dedicated to the memory of his son who had died defending freedom in Europe. This father's labor of love lives on today at Covina's "Parque Xalapa."


Charles Jobe and his wife Betty were citrus growers in the hills east of Covina. They were the proud parents of two sons: Harold Glen (left, b.1922) and Claude (b.1929), and it was Harold who lost his life at Saint-Lô, France, during the last days of the Battle of Normandy ("Operation Overlord") in August, 1944.


A small, wooded creek ran through the Jobes's land on Holt Avenue, and it was in this mixed stand of valley oaks and orange trees that Charles Jobe created "Memorial Glen." Near the center of the grove, in the shade of a magnificent 400-year-old oak, Mr. Jobe set up a stone monument with a bronze plaque dedicating the park to his fallen son and to the other servicemen from Covina who had sacrificed their lives in World War II.


Over the next two decades, the Jobes hosted multitudes of visitors to Memorial Glen. Sadly, after Charles Jobe died in 1967, and his widow had to relocate elsewhere, the park became the haunt of youths who used the secluded spot for, well, let's just say less-than-reverential purposes. During this period of neglect, almost all of Mr. Jobe's labors were trashed by disrespectful vandals.

To make matters worse, when Interstate 10 was widened in the early 1970s, the adjacent service road was realigned to the east, and all of the trees in the western third of the former Jobe property were taken out. The removal of this protective canopy exposed the trunk and limbs of the ancient valley oak to the sun's direct rays, and this resulted in the slow death of the veteran giant. Arborists tried their best to save it, but finally, in the early 1980s, what remained of the great tree had to be removed.

By this time, the City of Covina had acquired the land, and its Parks & Recreation Department created Parque Xalapa, named after Covina's sister-city in Mexico. In 1998, part of the park was turned into a formal Veterans Memorial. This interpretive monument was erected on the site...

  ...and a new commemorative plaque was installed to replace the long-vanished original.



More recently, the family of nephew Jere A. Jobe donated these new bronze plaques to the park.


As someone who grew up only a mile from Memorial Glen during the 1960s, and who personally witnessed its decline in the following decade, I am truly grateful to the City of Covina for restoring and preserving this unique historical site for future generations.

Color photos © J Scott Shannon. Special acknowledgment and thanks to fellow local historian J. David Rogers for the black-and-white photographs, the biographical details of the Jobe Family, and the history of Memorial Glen.