By Pamela L. Smyth
One look at the American farming landscape and we envision history. Row crops, trees, barns, hillsides, blue skies—and in some places an old, weather-beaten and faded hand-built rustic cottage, a stagecoach road, and maybe a natural running crystal clear spring. Such a scene draws us in and speaks to us of the past. It calls us to think about where we have come from and why history matters. Who lived there once upon a time? Who drew water from that running spring? Who rode in that stagecoach and where did that dirt road eventually take those passengers before the turn-of-the 20th Century?
We all need a place to call home. But what is home and what is the connection of natural landscapes to a place we call home? And, most importantly, why must we protect and preserve historical structures and their natural backdrops that form the context of human experience? Demolition of history and all that it represents and stands for is not the answer to what to do when an old building, home, or ranch becomes neglected or even abandoned. Demolition is not the answer when a known historic site is taken over by vagrants who trash the property, illegally tap into public or privately owned utilities, and set fires on the premises or even inside the structures for whatever reasons—to manufacture drugs, to keep warm, to cook, whatever the need. Demolition should not be the only way to resolve the problem of blight and creation of no longer habitable dwellings or historic outbuildings such as woodworking shops, carriage barns, or water pump houses.
Yet, this is exactly what was done just days ago to one of the City of Redlands’ oldest ranches and sites of historic and scenic interest, Crystal Springs Ranch & Water Company, established by one George D. Heron, a Chicago Colony group pioneer who came to Redlands from Chicago when he heard that farmland was plentiful in this citrus farming town in southern California.
Heron, born into a farming family near Ottawa, Canada in 1857, joined the Northwest Canadian Mounties as a young man and served out his required five-year tour of duty as a peace officer before heading to Chicago in search of adventure and prosperity. While working for the Elgin Watch Company there, he heard a pitchman with the Chicago Colony group selling Redlands as a promising citrus growing area. With two gold Elgin watches and $100 in cash and change, his stipend on retiring from the mounted police, he bought over 100 acres ‘sight unseen’ as accounts in his journals and other articles published in several books detailing Redlands history tell.
A year later, he made a trip to look around Redlands, learning about the ranch property and making a homestead claim on the Crystal Springs quadrant. When Heron arrived in Redlands and drove a rented hack up the hill, he soon discovered what he had purchased: the tiny 1850s cottage, the running natural springs, the stagecoach road that traversed the property, and the spectacular panoramic views from the top of the hill protecting and watching over the homestead just below. He learned also that Redlander F.E. Brown had given thought to running water pipes from Crystal Springs down the hill to Prospect Hill near Highland and Cajon, and had actually laid a pipe “part way.” This intrigued him enough to work with Brown, an engineer working on the Big Bear Dam project. That pairing of like-minded visionaries led Heron to develop his own irrigation system and water bottling plant while working as the town’s first barber, farming, and doing carpentry work.
Heron had the water tested for impurities by the State of California, built a water bottling shed and pump house, designed a way to transport the precious commodity in glass jugs toted in handmade wooden crates and touted his new business as “Crystal Springs Mountain High Water,” which he established between 1886 and 1887. He later called the venture the Crystal Springs Ranch & Water Company. He continued to farm, cut hair, and develop the ranch, all the while building the water business.
In the midst of these energetic endeavors, he married Miss Mary Ellen Hogg. In 1905, their first child, Lola Myrtle, was born with a son, Avalon Donald born in 1908. When Avalon was old enough, he joined his father on the covered buckboard wagon. Dressed in elegant company uniforms, they set off across the Inland Valley delivering the water. By then, Heron was well known in Redlands and had opened a business downtown and established himself as a successful entrepreneur.
Heron’s business brochure or pamphlet, as it was most likely referred to then, featured many testimonials from prominent Redlands residents, physicians, and dentists who could not say enough about the benefits of drinking the pure mountain water. Heron and his family also took delight in serving the water to passengers aboard the stagecoach line that ran through Redlands and stopped at Crystal Springs to change and water the horses.
To serve the drivers, rejuvenate the horses, and meet a need for local folk looking to travel, he built a stagecoach ticket office adjoining his buggy barn not far from the original cottage he had to remodel and enlarge when his family came along. Featured in a photograph that comprises the cover of the pamphlet, Daughter Lola, dressed in a fancy white crocheted dress, appears to be around the age of five. In her lap she holds a struggling cat while her father, dressed in his Sunday best, stands alongside the covered buckboard water delivery wagon hitched to a two-horse team and ready to go. An avid fancier of photography, a collection of photographs from the early 1900s shows Heron took great pride in his appearance, his young family, and in the pristine care of his beloved “Cozy Nook” cottage and ranch.
Decades later, Lola would take over the business and deliver the water after both Heron and his son died, George in 1941 and Avalon in the 1960s. Until her health began to fail in the 1970s, Lola lived in the cottage. Eventually, after several fires destroyed parts of the structure, the county found the cottage to be unfit and lacking modern plumbing. It thereupon attempted to force her to leave her beloved home.
To remedy that problem, she found a Victorian era farmhouse in Riverside and moved that onto the property where George had planted his small crops and not far from the well that supplied the home with water.
Then, a husband and wife moved to the ranch to take care of Lola and renovated the old house to bring it up to modern standards. Before she died, she bequeathed the ranch to a long-time family friend, Pastor Dan Judy of Los Angeles. She and Judy agreed that the water and surroundings would provide a good place for men recovering from substance abuse and related problems to live and work in order to get well and build skills that would enable them to return to healthier living.
When Pastor Judy took ill and fell behind in paying property taxes, he was approached by an area realtor who offered to pay the debts in exchange for the ranch in its entirety. Judy accepted the offer and after he died, the realtor then proposed to the City of Redlands a large development consisting of vineyards, a winery, a boutique, and possibly a small restaurant. The city required a number of estate homes as well, but the new owner’s dreams were not realized for financial reasons, and the property went into foreclosure. At auction, two prior lenders from out of town who supported the project bought the property with plans for residential development.
In the meanwhile, the foreclosed property consisting of approximately 48 acres fell further and further into disrepair and ruin with the discovery of the abandoned ranch by vagrants. As these vagrants moved onto the property, they stole whatever was left behind, and literally trashed the place from one end to the other with garbage, junk cars, discarded mattresses, piles of tires, and all manner of blight. The original structures, along with the “main house,” as Lola called it, were badly abused. Vagrants came and went, even setting fires on the open ground and ramming the fences with trucks to get onto the property.
The destruction and squalor made for a sickening sight: shattered glass jugs, corks, labels, crates, once lovely antique oak chairs broken to bits, parts of Mary Ellen Heron’s precious piano built in and shipped from Chicago, and George’s hand tools all tossed into the weeds and rusting year after year.
For whatever reasons, the horrific neglect and abuse continued. Complaints from neighbors about the fires, the vagrants, the mess, and fear of these unsavory people camping out and living illegally on the property went largely without corrective action. They were told, “Code enforcement is working with the owner to get the place cleaned up” after some twenty-six calls had been made to law enforcement and fire department personnel. One wonders if the slow demise was intentional.
The ranch could have been saved in 2011 when two neighboring residents presented the City of Redlands Scenic & Historic Preservation Commission with a well-researched application for scenic and historic designation. The ranch, in accordance with the qualifications following those of the State of California Office of Parks and Recreation, which oversees historical landmark and designation of historic resources, met all and more of the requirements for designation. Three years of delayed hearings on the part of the property owners allowed the property to be left abandoned and to further deteriorate.
The property owners were interested in selling it, but the price was too high for the city, the Redlands Conservancy or other private parties to consider. At the final hearing, the city council denied the designation, saying that the property owners, who refused to allow the historic designation, had a right to do what they pleased with their property, so voted against the designation, but did agree to several stipulations that must be met before any development project can be undertaken.
Over the course of those three years, many Redlands residents attended the hearings and spoke in favor of the designation, often explaining what the ranch tells them about the past and what it would mean to keep that ranch intact for future generations to see and to explore in accordance with Lola Heron’s final wishes — that the ranch become a roadside museum filled with her father and mother’s collection of turn-of-the 20 Century “firsts” and other antiques, along with becoming an agricultural learning center to benefit the children and families of Redlands. By then, however, all of the original furnishings, antiques, and artifacts had been vandalized, stolen, and sold to various antique shops as the applicants for the nomination learned and continue to learn, even now as Redlands residents continue to react to the demolition and loss of a unique piece of Redlands history.
Among those who wrote letters of support for the designation was Gloria Flora, executive director of Sustainable, Obtainable Solutions, a non-profit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to sustaining public lands and the communities that depend on them” and whose article, “Remapping Relationships: Humans in Nature” was published in the 2012 summer edition of the Redlands Reader. Flora, a veteran of forest management, public lands sustainability, and expert on cultural landscapes, wrote a letter to then-mayor, Pete Aguilar, in which she stated, “I’d like to share my perspectives on why preserving the 125-year-old, unique and intact heritage landscape of Crystal Springs is so important to the understanding of people and places in the American landscape. And more exactly, your own contributions to keeping that heritage intact for this and future generations in your own backyard.” Flora went on to explain how, as a lecturer, she is often asked “Why we are losing our natural environments, our life-supporting natural systems.” To this she responds, “The disconnection between humans and our environment lies at the heart of the problem. While we humans have always depended upon the land for provision of our basic needs, nature also meets our intrinsic need for a sense of belonging to, or evolving with, particular landscapes.”
What does that mean, then, with respect to the demolition of Crystal Springs Ranch? Flora explains that what studies and occurrences tell us is that “a community comes to know and understand the plants, animals, resources and seasons of a particular locale,” and that “from that familiarity springs a whole body of profound place-based knowledge and wisdom and a connection to the land that carries through generations.” Flora doesn’t stop there. Bringing the issue of preservation forward, she writes, “While the desire of private property owners must be respected, the benefits and importance of cultural landscapes, wildlife habitat and minimum development to society and local citizenry needs to be respected and integrated into decisions that you make every day.” She then adds solutions to the problem of how best to make use of the ranch at this point in its history to include developing partnerships with groups formed in the interest of conservation, schools, and other educational groups interested in teaching agriculture and environmental studies, as well as considering its use as a community serving urban farm. Flora concludes her letter to Mayor Aguilar, stating: “I encourage you to make this place an example. I hope your decision will reflect a positive and healthful use of this land, for as I have said before, little will change until we apprehend why humans resist altering practices that degrade our life-supporting natural systems. You have a wonderful opportunity here, I pray you take advantage of it.”
So, five years later, Crystal Springs is reduced to rubble. Gone is the 1850s era cottage, the stagecoach ticket office with bars at the window and a hand-made narrow screen door, the buggy barn with its sliding oak door and small stable that was used to feed, water, and rest the team of horses, the carpentry workshop, Heron’s “new” garage built to house his turn-of-the century motor-driven water delivery trucks and farm equipment.
Most importantly, perhaps, was the precious cinder block pump house and water bottling shed with the shards of smashed glass jugs, corks, labels strewn all over the floor. Not far away in the ticket office were the remains of Heron’s hand made blue crates with black lettering announcing CRYSTAL SPRINGS WATER. Buried in the dirt and weeds were broken hand tools and small wooden boxes, left behind since the realtor’s forced eviction and sudden departure.
That all of these structures were still standing and largely intact until 2018 is a testament to the indomitable spirit of George D. Heron, a self-made man, a rugged and hardworking man, but also a dapper fellow who loved to read, subscribed to the latest periodicals and newspapers, made a fine living for his family and provided his daughter with the best education money could buy at the University of Redlands, from which she graduated, later becoming an elementary school teacher serving several district schools over a lifetime teaching career.
About the importance of protecting and preserving cultural landscapes and our sense of place and cultural identity, Flora writes, “These landscapes aren’t just a picturesque backdrop for personal dramas and triumphs or something to buy and sell to finance lifestyles. Landscapes are not just the storehouse of goods and services to keep us happy. This way of thinking disconnects and dislocates us physically and psychologically.” Beyond landscapes providing the need we all have for open space and refreshment of the soul, she reminds us that landscapes “allow us to experience history, the people and animals who walked this way before us, and to contribute to our collective legacy in walking those same paths.”
Did the videographer who recorded the brutal demolition of Redlands history, California history, and American history even know on whose sacred paths he was walking? Did he even know that the Serrano Indians were there first and settled on the hillside around the cottage prior to the 1850s? Did he know he was walking along the last remaining stagecoach road in California? Did he know how many gallons of water poured forth from beneath the bedrock for millions of years and how fast the water came? Did he know that the pure and clean mountain spring water bottled by hand and carried for miles on a little buckboard wagon brought health and healing to hundreds of people across the Inland Valley and Redlands for a century? Did he know that when he announced that the city didn’t consider the Ranch historic and could thereby demolish it over last weekend that the city did, in fact, recognize its historic significance at the time of the public hearings but voted in favor of potential future development to honor the property owners’ wishes? Did he know that not long after, the city would hire consultants from Pasadena to come to Redlands to evaluate historic properties in order to create a guide that would help property owners determine whether or not their properties qualified as historic? And, did he not know that within that document, the Historic Context Statement, Crystal Springs Ranch & Water Company would be represented in several categories of historical significance, namely as an example of early overland transportation by stagecoach, an example of the early water bottling industry, and as an example of early California ranch land architecture?
What one wonders, really, though is this: Did the City of Redlands ever place any value whatsoever on the life and contributions of one of its own early pioneers, George D. Heron? Did the city even care about the legacy left behind enough to insist that the owners take responsibility for allowing the ranch to become a public nuisance—or was it all by design—a way to get around the Scenic & Historic Preservation Commission’s rule that historic properties should not be demolished, especially if most of the structure or structures are intact? And, was the recently passed ordinance allowing for demolition of properties deemed uninhabitable, unsafe, beyond repair, and a public nuisance the best way out to benefit the absentee property owners? We have lost a special place. As Flora puts it, “The intrinsic connection people feel to the landscapes they love is rightly called sense of place. Sense of place encompasses one’s holistic interpretation of a landscape. We synthesize this meaning from symbols, values, feelings, events, and our knowledge of the land. We layer aesthetics, personal experiences, and cultural activities—as well as social, political, and economic attributes—over the biological and physical setting.”
But what does sense of place do for a community? Perhaps in light of the recent demolition, it is fitting to end with how Flora answers that by saying, “Sense of place then speaks to the unique sum of values that individuals, communities, and societies ascribe to their landscape and their relationship with it. And woe be it to anyone who attempts to violate or discount people’s sense of place.”
By Pamela L. Smyth