The small city of Covina, California truly has it all. This Los Angeles suburb offers the charming downtown, traditional values and safe, attractive neighborhoods you’d expect in a cozy small town, but is cradled within a system of freeways and rails that make it an ideal site for business. Los Angeles is just half an hour to the west, and the ocean, desert and San Gabriel Mountains are minutes away. In Covina, you really can get anywhere from here!
It’s a beautiful city, with palm-lined streets, well-maintained homes and neighborhoods, with spectacular mountain views. But Covina is more than just a pretty face. It has an exceptionally strong heritage as a business community, and generates the second-highest per-capita retail sales in the entire San Gabriel Valley.
Covina began life as a coffee plantation carved from the Rancho La Puente that was purchased by John Rowland from the Mexican government and later shared with his partner William Workman. After Rowland’s death, his widow, Charlotte, sold 5,500 acres to Julian and Antonio Badillo from Costa Rica who attempted unsuccessfully to raise coffee plants. Two thousand acres of the Badillo land were sold to Joseph Swift Phillips who subdivided the tract and laid out the Covina town site.
Phillips opened his tract in January 1885, preceding the Southern California land boom by several years. On July 4, 1885, a large crowd attended a picnic and free barbeque he gave on the banks of Walnut Creek. There were patriotic speeches, a band concert and rides on a merry-go-round. In the evening, supper tables were set up along Citrus and there was dancing in a tent.
After the Civil War, more settlers began to arrive in the Azusa Valley as the East San Gabriel Valley was then called. Some purchased land from Henry Dalton or Phillips. Others homesteaded on Henry Dalton’s disputed acres above San Bernardino Road. These hardy pioneers cleared cactus, giant sunflowers and caster beans to build a farming community. Phillips brought water to his tract by building a ditch from the San Gabriel Canyon to Covina. Daniel Houser, inventor of the combined harvester, helped pay for the ditch.
At first, farmers from the East and Midwest wanted the crops they knew — grain, vegetables and deciduous fruit. Pioneer nurserymen John Coolman, Michael Baldridge, James R. Hodges, Madison Bashor, J.R. King, G.W. Lee and A.L. Keim started Covina’s citrus industry by raising seedlings in their nurseries, often bringing barrels of water from the canyon to water them by hand. Gradually, tiny trees covered bare land. These nurserymen planted groves for absentee owners and tended them until the owners moved to Covina. As time went on, citrus became the major crop. The growers realized that transportation and improved marketing would make their industry grow. Azusa, Covina and Glendora formed the first Citrus association to pack and market their fruit. Community leaders persuaded the Southern Pacific to bring a line to Covina. Later they persuaded the Pacific Electric to also provide service.
In 1894, James Lewis Matthews from Manitoba, Canada rode a buckboard into the little village of Covina where he had been hired as a printer. Three months later, he bought the business and for 50 years as Argus editor and publisher, he became Covina’s most energetic booster. He published special holiday editions with pictures of Covina’s beautiful ranches and homes for subscribers to mail to friends and family back home.
After the Southern Pacific arrived in 1895, an opera house was built across from the depot. Covina’s most famous resident was Ellen Beach Yaw (Lark Ellen), an opera singer who thrilled audiences throughout the world with her four-octave soprano voice. Below her home on Cameron in the Covina Highlands, she built the Echo Bowl to provide a venue for concerts. Covina became neither a rural nor an urban community. Before 1900, a rich diverse social, cultural and civic life had been established. Three of the earliest organizations were the Farmer’s Club, the Amphion Society and the Ancient Order of United Workman. Both men and women belonged to the Farmer’s Club. Dues were 50 cents a year. Members attended agricultural seminars and extension classes.
The Amphion Society held white tie dinners in member’s homes followed by musical programs and papers presented by the members. They also presented public programs and brought professional musicians from Pasadena and Los Angeles to play in Covina. The Ancient Order of United Workman was a beneficiary lodge that had a large varied membership and a women’s auxiliary. Their marching group made Covina’s first appearance in the Pasadena Rose Parade. On October 17, 1898, 17 women started a reading club. Founded as the Monday Afternoon Club, it is the third oldest woman’s club in Southern California. When their clubhouse, designed by Arthur Benton who designed the Riverside Inn, opened it became a center for community activities. Among their many civic projects, the women ran a hospitality cottage for women shoppers who could enjoy a cup of tea, read literature about Covina, and where they could leave their children while they shopped on Citrus.
By 1901, due to the success of the Citrus industry, Covina’s business community was growing and prospering. The Vendome Hotel opened on Citrus and new buildings called blocks were built — banks, stores and restaurants opened. Downtown Covina became the shopping center for the valley. The merchants hired the transfer wagon to bring shoppers from Azusa and Glendora. Photographer C. W. Tucker set up his first studio in a tent across from the Vendome Hotel. He took the photographs and his wife, Grace, developed them — they worked together for 60 years to document life in Covina.
Wanting local control over their town, Covina voters petitioned the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for incorporation. The election on August 3, 1901 made Covina a first class city. At the first meeting of the elected trustees in October, Covina became a city, outlawed gambling and went dry.
In 1898, Hamilton Temple, the first person in Covina to own an automobile, drove his St. Louis up Citrus. By 1901, there were four other men, A.P. Kerckholl, Herman Headley, I.C. Fairley and Clarence Fabrick, who owned automobiles. They formed a cooperative garage to keep them running. Covina Electric Light Company started service in 1901, followed by the Home Telephone Company in 1902. The New Carnegie Library was dedicated in 1905.
Before 1900, the Covina Country Club at Second and San Bernardino Road served as an unofficial Chamber of Commerce where community leaders met for lunch and entertained important visitors such as Henry Huntington. At the club they exchanged news, ideas and worked on community projects. After several unsuccessful attempts to start a Chamber of Commerce, the doors were opened in 1909 to a new Chamber office on Citrus. C. W. Potter was the first president and there were 200 members. After World War I, the Chamber of Commerce was re-organized to include farmers and business members. They sponsored a contest for a town motto. The $20.00 prize went to Mrs. F.E. Wolforth for “Covina, One Mile Square and All There.”
After World War II, the citrus industry sharply declined due to a virus that attached to the trees causing them to die in two weeks. Some growers lost 50 percent of their groves. They were also faced with the increased chore of picking and processing their fruit and the pressure from contractors to sell their land for subdivisions. Citrus takes four years to mature. The growers who wanted to replant and stay were faced with paying residential taxes on their farmland. There was no green belt zoning. So one by one they left.
As the economy of the East San Gabriel Valley became more urbanized, Covina was poised to change with it. Today, this vibrant, modern city specializes in retail, manufacturing and high-tech industries. This transition has been so successful that Covina now ranks fourth in overall retail sales in the San Gabriel Valley. Solid leadership in government, business and development make Covina a stable place to live, work and invest.
“The Vintage Years, before 1950,” is a historical journey on display at Covina City Hall. Private tours are available with Barbara Ann Hall, Ph.D. Curator. Please call for reservations. The Covina Valley Historical Society operates two historical building museums: one, the Firehouse/Jail Museum located in the historic jailhouse adjacent to City Hall, and the Heritage House located in Covina Park, both offerings a fascinating glimpse of Covina’s storied past. The Covina Museum is open every Sunday from 1-3pm.