Friday, September 16, 2016

Early Signal Hill Settlers - The Dillon Family

Henry Clay Dillon 1846-1912

            One of the first to make Signal Hill their home was the Dillon family.  They transformed their 140 acres of sage and mustard into one of the most beautiful and productive farms/orchards in Southern California. Their beautiful home became one of the centers of social life in the area. 
           The patriarch of the family was Henry Clay Dillon. H. C., as he was known, was born November 6, 1846, in Lancaster, Wisconsin, where he received his early schooling. He later graduated from Racine College in 1872, and was admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin two years later. In 1876 he married Florence Hood of Denver, Colorado. Henry and Florence brought their family to what was then known as "Cerritos Hill" in the spring of 1887. They had come from Denver to settle outside the new town of Long Beach.  Here Dillon wore two hats, one as a farmer, the other as an attorney.
View from Signal Hill 1901
        Theirs was the "finest farm in this part of Southern California" according to the Los Angeles Herald of December 4, 1892.  It was "admirably situated on the south slope of Signal Hill, three miles from Long Beach and commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding mesa and the sea." Dillon's 140 acres had been purchased from Rancho Los Cerritos owner Jotham Bixby for $150 an acre in 1887.  The land was covered entirely with sage brush and mustard plants, which had to be cleared. There was much work to be done. They first built a barn, where they lived until the house was finished.  Reservoirs were then built, windmills installed and orchards planted --- oranges and lemons, walnuts, olives and lots of guavas and figs. They called their farm Colorado Orchards.  

            H. C. was elected Long Beach city attorney in 1889, a position he held until October 1891, but the job didn't pay much. By 1890 the Dillons had spent more than $100,000 on improving their land. To support his farm, and family, H. C. resigned as Long Beach city attorney and opened a law office in downtown Los Angeles, spending the week in the city but returning to his farm on weekends.  By 1892 H. C. had made a name for himself in the law circles of Southern California.  He was encouraged to run for District Attorney of Los Angeles County, which he did.  To help finance his campaign, which Dillon won, the family divided their land into five 20 acre lots and one 40 acre tract and sold several to prominent Denver business men.  The Dillons retained, however, the 40 acre tract and one 20 acre lot. On it there were seven orchards, segregated into various fruit varieties.  There were 2000 fig trees, 2000 olive trees, 120 navel orange trees, 300 walnut trees, 200 apple trees, 500 plum, 500 peach and apricot, and 3500 guavas. Their lemon grove, consisting of 1250 Eureka lemons, was between Vine and Cherry Avenues, south of Catalina Street. All in all there were over 30,000 plants fertilized with sewerage from the house and stable.  (Los Angeles Herald 12/4/1892)
Most of the area was farmland

             Josephine Dillon shared her memories of growing up on Signal Hill with reporter Walter Case in March 1934.  She remembered yellow violets, Indian paintbrush, poppies, wild onions and lots of cactus.  There were “robber caves” in the canyons, and a “haunted cave” where there were old horse bones, and an “Indian scout path” down which to run and play.  The other great play place was the basement of the Dillon house.  It ran underneath the entire house and had a big gas machine where light for the house was generated and which the six Dillon children were told must never be approached on pain of spanking.  But the safe end of the basement was perfect for a theater and it was here that many shows were performed.  Josephine recalled a big house, square, with a veranda on all sides, and long, French windows, and a fireplace in each room and the grand times they had sitting around them while her father read Dickens to the children or their mother played Mozart or Beethoven. (Sun 3/22/1934)

            There are numerous references to H.C. Dillon in early newspaper accounts.   Following the April 14, 1890, Long Beach election for trustees, the “wets” in Long Beach gained the upper hand.  This, the Los Angeles Herald reported, was due in large measure to H.C. Dillon, who went to a political meeting at the Methodist Tabernacle the evening before the election and won them over to his cause by reading numerous verses from the Old and New Testaments in which the use of wine was commended.  At the meeting, Dillon talked about strong Biblical grounds in favor of wine and personal freedom.  In fact, drinking wine was commended in the scriptures, Dillon remarked, if one cared to look.  Also pointed out was the belief that if a liberal alcohol policy was adopted in Long Beach thousands of people who previously traveled to competing beach communities such as Santa Monica or Redondo Beach, where they could indulge in intoxicating beverages, would come to Long Beach.  Dillon’s command of the language and knowledge of the Bible knocked his reverend adversaries silly, according to the press.  At the meeting four spoke against the liberal stance contemplated on alcohol, three of them preachers.  Despite the Reverend  Parkhill calling the supporters of the alcohol measure "representatives of Satan," the measure passed.  Dillon's oratory skills had won the day. But this was not to be the end of the battle over alcohol.  As the prohibitionists feared, the way had just been opened to allow a saloon into their midst. This saloon would divide the city, and lead to the City of Long Beach disincorporating in 1896 (more on this in my book Murderous Intent?). 
          Dillon's legal acumen was responsible for clearing the legalities of building the Pine Avenue Pier in 1893---the first municipal pier in California.  He would serve as District Attorney of Los Angeles County from 1892-1894 and was a national delegate to several Democratic conventions.  In 1900 he left the legal field to go into the oil industry, joining the Hartford Oil Company of Los Angeles. But he did not give up the legal profession altogether, becoming a lecturer at the University of Southern California College of Law, which officially opened in 1901.  He was also one of the first members of the Long Beach School Board, served as Long Beach city attorney from 1889-1891, and was a commissioner of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court. 
Josephine Dillon was the first Mrs. Clark Gable

     The family sold their home (located at the corner of Twenty-first and Cherry) in May 1906 to Samuel Brown of Exira, Iowa. The 60 acres were subdivided into half-acre villa lots with a park in the center and “romantic" scenic drives throughout the subdivision.  The lovely old house, according to Josephine Dillon, was turned into a boarding house for oil workers before it burned to the ground. Josephine went on to become an actress, and the first Mrs. Clark Gable.  Sisters Florence and Viva became opera singers, sister Fannie a composer, brother James a lawyer.  Sister Anna married, producing the only grandchild in the family.
Henry Clay Dillon died April 10, 1912 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, along with daughter Florence.

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