The “Willows” and Wrigley District

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The “Willows” and Wrigley District

The Willows

Early development in the Willows/Wrigley area
Early development in the Willows/Wrigley area

The Wrigley District of today is part of what was once known as “Willows.”  In 1887, on the flat west of the American Colony (Long Beach was the city portion of the American Colony), was an area known by three names:  The Willows, the Wilmington Colony Tract, and Lucerne.   All three names were given the area which was situated 18 miles south of Los Angeles, 2  1/2 miles northwest of downtown Long Beach and 4 miles north of Wilmington.  The settlement which became known as Lucerne in the late 1890s started as the Wilmington Colony Tract.  Then, when a school district was formed the name of the district was designated “Cerritos.”  This was exceedingly confusing since there was already a settlement known as Cerritos three miles northwest.

The area was much different than today.  There was no river next to the 710 Freeway, or 710 Freeway.  In later years Pico Avenue and Julia Street became the course of the river and the 710 Freeway.  In these earlier times the river entered the marshy area above San Pedro Bay where the 103 Freeway is today, around Anaheim Street. There was also the Cerritos Slough which ran from Anaheim Street to what would be known as Channel Number 3 of the Long Beach harbor area. Street names changed, Humphries becoming DeForest Avenue, Perris Avenue becoming Santa Fe,  State Street changing its name to Pacific Coast Highway.  There were 4 major roads connecting the colony, State Street which ended at the river near present day San Gabriel Boulevard, Hill Street and Willow Street which also ended at the river, and Anaheim Road which connected the area to Wilmington.

Colonization began in 1878 when land was acquired from Jotham Bixby.  The Teel family was among the first settlers.  James Teel and his wife Lula bought land in 1882 on Perris Road (now Santa Fe Avenue), between State (now Pacific Coast Highway) and Hill Street.  Their ranch was just across the street from Elijah Teel, James’ father.  In June 1882 there were about twenty families living in the colony.  Most were farmers who purchased land from Bixby at $40-$80 an acre.  Crops included apples and pears, corn, pumpkins and alfalfa.  A school (1415 W. Willow) had been established which was also used as a church on Sundays.  Jotham Bixby provided the lumber for the school and the colonists the labor.  Settlers had to travel to Wilmington to get supplies since Willmore City didn’t exist and there were no stores in the Colony.

In 1895 Mr. and Mrs. W. True Moulton bought eighty acres in the area, including present day Silverado Park for $13,000.  They lived in what later became the Silverado Park Clubhouse for twenty-seven years.  They sold the property in 1922 for $80,000.  Many of the palms and other trees in the park were originally planted by the Moultons.

Around 1893 an area of the Willows, located near present day Santa Fe Avenue and Hill Street, started to call itself “Lucerne,” which is the British name for alfalfa.  It seemed an appropriate choice since so much of the crop was grown in the area.  However, when residents applied for an official post office designation, authorities refused since there was already a Lucerne in Colorado and a settlement called Lucerne at the head of nearby Lake Elsinore.

The marshy lowland received its “Willows” name after a great flood in January 1867 when the San Gabriel River left its bed near the northern line of Rancho Los Cerritos and cut a new waterway to the sea. The flood brought willow seeds to the area and within ten years willow trees were growing all over the region.

Byron Lyster told Walter Case in Case’s Did You Know That? column of September 12, 1932, that at high tide the water used to come up all the way to Hill Street.  After a heavy rain, water would stand two feet deep for up to ten hours.  Frequently the incoming tide would meet the water from the hills and inundate the Willows. Though the area was very fertile, families were often forced to take their livestock and themselves to higher ground during winter rains.

The colony got its start around 1879 when the William Martin family rented some land from Jotham Bixby near what are now Hill Street and Santa Fe Avenue.   By February 1887, thirty-five families resided in the Willows.  They had a school, taught by Professor W.  Bailey, a church, with regular services, and a brass band and glee club.  The brass band, led by Prof. Arthur Thompson, consisted of N. Roach, J. Inman, Arthur, Samuel and Altia Thompson, Byron Lyster and C. Rolston.  They were available for any occasion.  A large brick kiln, built by Mr. Fetterman, providing building material for growing Long Beach, was also in the area.

The Hugh Mundell family was lured to the area in 1886 after receiving rave reviews from their cousin Byron Lyster.  When the first newspaper in Long Beach, the Long Beach Journal, began publication on January 27, 1888, the Mundell’s daughter, Mattie, became its “outside correspondent.”  She wrote two columns, one called “The Willows Department,” the other “Cerritos Colony” and signed her pieces “Pajarita,” a Spanish word meaning “little bird.” Real estate transactions, illnesses, school activities, obituaries and accidents were all included in her reports.  When the Journal changed ownership in 1890 and became the Breaker, Miss Mundell continued as a reporter.

In September 1932 Miss Mundell shared memories of the little colony with Walter Case as she gazed over the grove of eucalyptus trees her father had planted forty-five years earlier.  She reminisced about the one-room schoolhouse, which was also used for church services and social activities, and the neighborliness of those who lived there.  “When a cow or hog was killed, the meat went the rounds of the valley,” she told Walter Case (Sun 9/22/1932).

Mattie remembered the story of a poor girl from the area who went to Los Angeles to work at the city’s high-toned Westminster Hotel.  The son of the hotel owner fell in love with her.  They married and lived happily ever after.  Despite her new wealth the girl never forgot the Willows folk and came to see them often.  One day the now aged woman was found dead in her Los Angeles home.  Rumor had it that she had her money buried about the place. After her death men went mining with picks and shovels but no treasure was ever unearthed.

Also whispered about was the lynching of a Mexican laborer— the only lynching that ever occurred in the area.  It was said the man had tried to assault a young woman who was riding on a horse through a section of the Willows where trees and thickets were being cleared away.  A small mob grabbed him and the tree used in the lynching was known afterward, until it was cut down, as “Hangman’s Tree.”  The lynching occurred in the area of present day Silverado Park near the intersection of Willow Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

One of the most well-known farmers in the area was William Penn Watson, famed throughout the country for his dry-farming methods.  Water is a valuable commodity in Southern California, and William Penn Watson knew how to use it wisely.  In 1888 Watson and his family moved to Long Beach from Linden, Washington, settling on a ranch at the Willows at the corner of Willow and Perris Road (now Santa Fe Avenue).  Here Watson attracted the attention of horticulturists all over the country by his successful experiments in dry farming. At his farm, Watson produced a 61-pound sugar beet, a 78-pound squash and an 18-pound red table beet, all put on display at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.  Watson, however, became furious when a sign was put in front of his produce stating “These are Los Angeles products.”  He immediately removed the produce and brought them back to Long Beach and put them on display.

Watson was born in Morgan County, Illinois, December 28, 1828.  In 1849, attracted more by the reports of the richness of the western soil than by the rumors of gold, he crossed the plains in an ox cart, following the Oregon Trail to Portland.  He settled in the Hood River region to the west of Portland.  The area was considered a desert and Watson was told he was foolish to try to raise anything on the land.  But he planted apples and peaches and by intensive cultivation soon had the horticultural showplace of the whole region.  His apples were awarded gold medals at the Chicago fair in 1893.  His fame spread. He believed that to water soil that could be farmed dry was an unpardonable sin.  Purchasing 1,000 acres in the Coachella valley, this “Wizard of the Willows” was among the first to plant date palms in California. On April 14, 1910, one of the foremost agriculturists of the Pacific coast died, surrounded by his widow, Priscilla, three sons and two daughters.  He is buried at Long Beach’s Sunnyside Cemetery.

“It was good farm land,” a Willows man told the Los Angeles Times in July 1887 (7/21/1887). But things were changing with the announcement that a railroad was soon to go through their colony:

“Our colony has been having a big boom as well as the rest of the neighboring towns. At last it seems as if our land is being appreciated by all who claim to know what good land is.  We do not expect the Willows to become a flourishing city; quite the contrary. Our world cannot all be city; if it were where would we derive all our food?”

It seemed that everyone in the area now claimed the proud title of a real estate man.  The 20 acre Robinson ranch had sold for $2000; the 80 acre Lewis ranch for $8000; the Bailey property of 40 acres for $6000.

The arrival of the railway did affect land sales, but for the most part the Willows remained farm land, until another railroad, the Pacific Electric railway arrived in 1902. Development in this area began in 1906 with the Willows Park tract, built to take advantage of the nearby Pacific Electric trolley junction.  But there was an added bonus to owning land in the Willows—the creation of a major boulevard between Los Angeles and Long Beach.


Boulevard Plans

In March 1904 Southern California business men gathered to talk about building an 11-mile  boulevard to connect Los Angeles and Long Beach (LA Herald 3/19/04).  All agreed that the highway “pass through a charmingly picturesque country calculated to make the most attractive long-distance drive in California.”

In May 1906, George Barron, for many years a resident of Compton, joined the Long Beach real estate firm of Fitch & Lazenby.    Barron had great connections being both a member of the Boulevard Association and president of the Willow Park Improvement Company.  By May 27th, 1906, the firm of Lazenby, Fitch, & Barron sold three ranches near Compton, aggregating about twenty acres, for $13,000. The purchasers were all counting on subdividing their land for housing.

Not to be outdone, in June 1906 the Slack-Wall Real Estate Company in Long Beach began selling land in the Long Beach Boulevard tract.  The Los Angeles Herald (6/17/1906) reported:

LA Herald 7/29/1906

“The activity along the virtually decided route-of the Pacific boulevard connecting Los Angeles and Long Beach has attracted widespread attention. Winding driveways and vast reclamation schemes are to be carried out In the vicinity of the boulevard and the property will, some prophesy, be the most desirable of any about the city. The principal streets of Long Beach now run through this Boulevard tract.”

The macadam boulevard linking Long Beach to Los Angeles opened in December 1910. But there had been obstacles along the way.  There were water pipes that needed to be moved along the right of way, to make sure the boulevard would be of an equal width from Los Angeles to Long Beach, some property owners refused to donate or sell their land at a reasonable price and condemnation proceedings were needed.  All of this taking place in the recession period following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.


American Avenue Subdivisions

Development on American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard), was not only the result of being on the electric car line, but the fact that it would be part of a boulevard linking Los Angeles to Long Beach.

In February 1903, 136 lots were offered in the new Bartow tract. It was bounded by American Ave., Anaheim St., Tenth St. and Atlantic Ave.  In March 1903, 24 lots in the Martz tract, bounded by Atlantic and Iowa between 11th and 12th Streets were put on the market.  These residences were in the city limits of Long Beach; three minutes’ walk from the street car line and close to the schools.

In May 1904, the Crescent Heights tracts, close to Signal Hill, began offering lots priced from $400 to $600 per acre.  The Dayman tract placed its 24 lots on the market July 30, 1904.  It was located between Twenty First Street and State Street (which would become Pacific Coast Hwy.), and between American and Pasadena.  Lots were priced from $300 to $450.  The Fair View tract lay at the junction of the electric line on American Avenue where the line left American for Alamitos Bay and Huntington Beach.  In August 1904 they advertised lots at $200 and $250 per lot.

In 1905, there was Eagle Park tract on the old Eagle Park ball ground between American and Pine, Burnett and Eagle Street.  Locust Avenue went right through the tract.  That same year the American Avenue tract between American and Pacific avenues, Twenty-third and Hill, began selling lots for $160 and up.  Terms on the 50-foot lots were negotiable, with $10 down and $10 per month, and no interest. Also on American, about half a mile outside the city limits was the Allen-Rhea tract.  They too advertised the “cheapest lots in the city” running from $160 to $335.  Terms were $10 cash down, and a balance of $10 a month until paid for, without interest.

LA Times 1/14/1906
LA Times 1/14/1906

Development continued into 1906.  In January of that year the Willows Park tract began advertising.  It was located on the boundary line of the city of Long Beach within five minutes of the sea via the electric line.  It was far enough away from the beach city so that pleasure-seeking crowds and drifting sands wouldn’t be a bother.  It had its own electric railway depot station at a strategic juncture between Long Beach and Huntington Beach.  The lots were roomy, 50 x 150 being the smallest size, oiled streets, water to each lot, sidewalks and curbs.  In August, the Pacific Boulevard tract, just north of Willow on Pacific Avenue, got underway (more about this area in my blog: Willows & the Wrigley District).



The discovery of oil on Signal Hill in 1921 triggered another land boom in the Willows area with the opening in 1922 of Magnolia Hill (west of American Avenue) and Silverado (Wardlow & Spring by the flood control channel) subdivisions.  But it is the 12 acre Wrigley tract at Twentieth and Magnolia that has given the area its current name.

Wrigley was elated when in May 1924 Long Beach voters approved a $5 million harbor bond.  This, and the fact that the Ford Motor Company was considering building a factory close by, meant that any land he developed was sure to go up in value.  In July 1927, he announced his latest real estate venture.

In October 1927, surveying and grading of the 12 acre William Wrigley Jr. tract at Twentieth and Magnolia had been completed and work soon started on streets, sidewalks, curbs and gutters.  Water, gas and electrical lines were installed to service the first of sixty homes built by the Fleming & Weber Company, a Wrigley organization formed to purchase and develop Southern California real estate.  The Wrigley interests had also invested $1,000,000 to develop the Banning Park section in Wilmington.  Dave Fleming, President of the Fleming & Weber Company, designed each of the unique homes in the tract.

The Long Beach Wrigley undertaking had the support of E. J. Williams, who owned twenty-five adjoining lots.  Williams planned to coordinate his building program with the Fleming & Weber Company. Each lot had a 35-foot setback, and no two houses were alike.  All prevailing types of architecture were encouraged — Spanish, English, Norman and Italian. No flats, apartments or stores were allowed. Ownership was restricted to the Caucasian race.

The current Wrigley District has boundaries vastly larger than those of the original Wrigley tract, and much smaller than the Willows colony. Wrigley never bought any other property in Long Beach, but his name somehow stayed with the original parcel of land, and when developers enlarged the area they were quick to recognize a good publicity gimmick, so they continued to call it the Wrigley District.

Wrigley District today
Wrigley District today

In a 1976 article in the Long Beach Public Library Wrigley District files, Kay Daugherty, wife of aviator Earl Daugherty recalled that when they developed the land that was once their former air field, near Willow and Cedar, David Fleming asked them to name their subdivision after Wrigley, so it would appear to be a larger project. Since the Wrigley name on anything became a magic selling potential, the Daugherty’s agreed.

Long Beach benefited from the Wrigley name and the Wrigley District just grew.  A newspaper map of Long Beach printed in 1941 designates Santa Fe Avenue as Wrigley’s western boundary.  Later maps outline a rectangle–Anaheim Street north to Wardlow and Long Beach Boulevard west to the flood control. The area’s  current boundaries are Long Beach Boulevard, the Los Angeles River flood control, Wardlow Road (the 405 Freeway) and Pacific Coast Highway.

Today the area of the Wrigley District along the Los Angeles River is one of the only sections in Long Beach that maintains a rural atmosphere.