Friday, June 27, 2008

Sierra Madre Villa

Sierra Madre Villa Hotel, ca. 1890
William H. Fletcher
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

The Sierra Madre Villa Hotel got its start in 1876 and is now remembered as southern California’s first famous resort. Above, you can see the Villa’s vineyards and citrus groves, the two story hotel and Victorian Cogswell/Rhoades House all set against the Sierra Madre/San Gabriel Mountains. The hotel building was just above where the Eaton Canyon Golf Course is now and the Villa property stretched all the way down to approximately Foothill.

Villa visitors were treated to fine accommodations (running water in each room) in the middle of a beautiful ranch setting. The Villa maintained its own bee apiaries, stable of horses and small herd of cattle. Then there were the groves:

“There is probably no pleasure and health resort in either this country or abroad that will compare to the Villa in this respect. The hotel proper is literally surrounded with orchards. To particularize: there are upwards of 5,000 large orange trees…, upwards of 150 lemon trees, … and besides deciduous fruit trees, nut trees and a fine line of ornamental forest trees, shrubs, flowing plants, ect. Not only does the Villa grow all its own fruits, but also all the vegetables, small fruits, nuts, grapes, ect. with which the tables are freshly supplied three times a day.” (Rural Californian 1891)

Sierra Madre Villa, Looking South
J.B. Blanchard
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

The views from the Villa were spectacular. Visitors had sweeping views of the stirring San Gabriel Valley. In the distance, the view extended all the way to the coastline, including San Pedro and Catalina Island. It is said that Villa guests could watch steamers out at sea as they approached San Pedro.

Sierra Madre Villa, Looking North
J.B. Blanchard
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

The generally well-healed Villa guests had lots to do. Nearby mountains offered hunting, fishing in the San Gabriel River, trips to Eaton Canyon or to the "grotto" in Davis Canyon that was the Villa's water source. Visitors could relax in the Villa’s gardens or stroll in its groves. Or they could enjoy their talented and gracious hosts, the Cogswell and Rhoades families. There were also nearby attractions like the Baldwin Ranch, Sunny Slope winery, Shorb winery and San Gabriel Mission.

The Villa’s proprietors and beautiful setting were magnets for the rich and powerful and the Villa’s notoriety quickly grew. The eminent guest list reportedly included Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. William Sherman, Hollis P. Huntington, John L. Sullivan, Helen Hunt Jackson, the Crocker family and the Jacobs family. Other visitors, like Abbot Kinney, Charles Hastings, James Crank, and the Brigdens were guests at the Villa before buying their ranches.

Time has dimmed the memory of the Villa, but it played an important role in early settlement of the San Gabriel Valley. As noted in an 1887 Pasadena Union article, “The Villa since it was opened has entertained many of the distinguished people who have visited this coast. Its place in the development of the valley is highly important as among those who have settled here and expended large sums in the improvement of ranches and the building of elegant homes, many were first guest at this charming place…. Pasadena owes not a little to the Villa, especially in the pioneer days when our hotels were few and accommodations for the tourist limited.”

The Villa Hotel in 1894 and the hotel structure was torn down in 1923. Today, the Sierra Madre Villa’s name is carried on in Villa Street, Sierra Madre Villa Avenue, a namesake reservoir and the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Station.

More on the Villa's history is at this excellent neighborhood website.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Striped Racer Snake

Our ten year old spotted this striped racer snake weaving its way through a hedge next to our front porch. A quick call to Eaton Canyon Nature Center confirmed this was a striped racer. The person at the Nature Center knew all about these snakes.

The Nature Center's Reptile List says striped racers eat lizards, rodents and small birds and are common in oak woodlands, chaparral areas and washes. California Herps has some great striped racer pictures and says these snakes have acute vision, are fast moving, alert and difficult to get close to. They climb vegetation and seek shelter in burrows, rocks or wood piles.

I am continually amazed at how much our kids see that we miss.

Mother Mountains

Snow Scene on the Sierra Madre from the Raymond
Lucien Emerson Jarvis, 1890
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

It will push 100 degrees today and snow on the mountains looks awfully inviting, even if its 1890's snow. But, I add the photo because it refers to our mountains as the “Sierra Madre.”

A lot around here is named Sierra Madre – there’s the city to our east, and Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre Villa Ave., and the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Station. But, I always wondered why we had so many things named Sierra Madre when our local mountains are the San Gabriel Mountains.

It turns out that the mountains have gone by both names, with the officials favoring San Gabriel Mountains (named after the mission) and many locals preferring the name Sierra Madre. As the Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains points out, in 1927 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names ended the controversy and ruled the mountains would be officially known as the San Gabriels.

Early Pasadena historian J.W. Wood knew the official line, but preferred the name Sierra Madre anyway:

“Officially the range we contemplate is known as the San Gabriel, but the padres of old -- more poetic and sentimental – chose from their own nomenclature the more satisfying “Sierra Madres” – or Mother Mountains; and so they are known and preferred, despite geographers and pedagogues.”

J.W. Wood, Pasadena Historical and Personal (1917)

I like where J.W.'s coming from.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Circle of Life

The house is filled with chirping again and we have six tiny chicks in an old rabbit cage in the living room. This is Rhode Island Red, three days old.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Our chicken coop is silent and all our chickens gone. Coyotes got them.

Early Friday morning as I was getting ready for work, I heard the dog barking the kind of bark that means someone or something is in the yard. I walked out to see a coyote in the chicken coop holding a brown chicken in its mouth. I yelled at the coyote and it ran out of the coop still with the bird. Eventually it dropped the chicken, jumped the fence and it ran down the street. I checked the coop and all six of our chickens were gone.

We know there are coyotes in the area and know that neighbors have lost pets. We've been very careful about protecting the chickens and our cats too. But Thursday night apparently the coop door didn't completely latch shut. One mistake on one night was all the opportunity the coyotes needed. It is sad to lose Big Bertha, Brit and the others. And its sad to walk by an empty quiet coop.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cogswell/Rhoades House -- from East Pasadena to Porterville to Disneyland

The main residence at the Sierra Madre Villa was this Victorian home built in 1874 by noted artist William Cogswell and his son in law, William Porter Rhoades. Back in the late 1800’s, “the Villa” was world famous as a resort hotel.

The hotel and the Cogswell/Rhoades house are long gone from Pasadena. But, part of the old Victorian house still survives at The Happiest Place on Earth. Here’s the story:

In the mid-1940’s, the Cogswell/Rhoades house was sold to an up and coming studio in nearby Burbank – the Walt Disney Studio. Disney moved the house up to Porterville where it was used on the set of So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 movie. They modified the old Victorian into a general store and the house appears in the movie as Grundy’s Mercantile.

You probably recognize So Dear to My Heart as Burl Ives’ first full length film. But, it was also one of Disney’s first live action films. So Dear to My Heart contains both live action and cartoon characters that appear every so often during the movie. The movie is great family fare – entertaining with a pronounced moral to the story. My kids both liked it.

Not long after So Dear to My Heart, Disney embarked on building his theme park in Orange County. Park visitors would enter the park on a street that recalled town centers from a time gone by. As Walt Disney described it, "Main Street, U.S.A. is America at the turn of the century - the crossroads of an era. The gas lamps and the electric lamps, the horse drawn car and the auto car. Main Street is everyone's hometown...the heartland of America.”

As related by the Villaloa Neighborhood History Society, after So Dear to My Heart was filmed, Disney removed the decorative Victorian trim from the old Cogswell/Rhoades home and placed in storage for later use. The trim quickly found a place on the turn of the century buildings that line Disneyland's Main Street. Seems kind of fitting that trim from the Cogswell/Rhoades home that dates back to Pasadena's pioneer days and recalls the bygone era of the Sierra Madre Villa, was saved and is being re-used on Main Street USA.

The photo is interesting. Its a scan of a glass magic lantern slide. The slide was the work of Los Angeles photographer Frederick Hamer Maude and was probably made around 1890. If you click on the photo, the Victorian trim comes into better focus.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Acorn Woodpecker

A few weeks ago we watched this acorn woodpecker working away on the power pole in front of our house. The Eaton Canyon Nature Center has a great website that lists the birds, reptiles and animals that live in our area. The acorn woodpecker, and two other woodpecker varieties are common here. Acorn woodpeckers eat insects and, surprise, acorns. They drill holes in trees and even power poles where they store their acorns. Acorn woodpeckers live in extended family groups and are territorial as a group. So, it looks like we have a group of woodpeckers living around here. Now, I'll be watching the power pole to see who else flies in for dinner.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Growing Tomatoes

We did a lot of work to prepare for a garden this year -- rototilling, weeding, amending, weeding. Did I mention weeding? Actually, I've enjoyed working with the dirt. The tomatoes have been in since early April and we're starting to see some good results.