The First Spark

The History Project

Researched and Written by Kathleen Reeves

We must always remember that first there were the native
people, the Tongva Indians, and this was their home.

The First Spark

1888 Map of California

 

In 1888, in a young orchard town called Pomona, named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and fruitful abundance, a few progressive minded people came together with common beliefs and a desire to worship in the liberal religion of Unitarianism. They were encouraged by their beliefs to think for themselves and do good works because it was right, loving and kind. These people, on the heels of the civil war would begin to build a new country, and new way of living and a new church, our church. This spark would grow, sometimes struggle and flicker, almost die only to return as the brightly burning chalice of our beloved Monte Vista Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

 

California here we come

 

The 1800’s saw the arrival of railroads in southern California. In 1888 California was a young state; only 38 years in the union with the gold rush just a recent memory. Abraham Lincoln had been dead only 23 years and Grover Cleveland was president. The first citrus groves had been planted in Pomona only 16 years earlier by Cyrus and Amanda Burdick after sundown because oddly enough, it was believed that to plant by sunlight would harm the delicate orange trees. The oranges that were planted by lantern light eventually grew from 40 acres into a sea of citrus groves carpeting the inland empire. It was Burdick who was one of the first settlers in Pomona after his San Dimas cattle ranch failed in the drought of 1869. Burdick was able to start again as a result of a land deal that was developed by Ricardo Vejar and his business partner Ygnacio Palomares. Land changed hands and some shady deals were done. The unsuspecting Don Vejar signed what he thought was a credit agreement in English for some cattle supplies but what he really signed was a mortgage on his property. Speculators eventually bought the land and vineyards, olive trees and citrus groves sprouted across the fertile valley.

On Feb 22, 1876 the new trains delivered hundreds of hopeful people to the virgin California town to build prosperous lives and create a city out of the untamed land. Nearly 20,000 land purchases were made that winter day. Pomona was built on the American dream, but the brave settlers had work to do and much to worry about. “Boom Towns” were plentiful and speculators greedy. But Pomona survived where others failed, and the American Dream prevailed. Pomona became the Inland Empire’s first incorporated city on January 6, 1888.

 

Gala ball

 

That same year College Instruction began, in a small, rented house in the city of Pomona. The following year a gift of land located in the neighboring town of Claremont was made to the brand-new college. This land included an unfinished hotel and the school relocated there soon after. The school, although located in Claremont kept its name and in 1888 Pomona College was born. Churches were some of the first establishments to grow as people needed to build familiar connections and community. Our founding members were strong and brave enough to stand apart from all the traditional Christian churches and start a new Unitarian church so far away from Boston. They secured a location in an opera house at 3rd and Thomas in Pomona. They called their little church; The First Unitarian Society of Pomona.

 

Opera House 3rd & Thomas

 

That year they hired their first minister, The Reverend Oscar Clute. In 1893. Within five years of the first meeting and four ministers later, the congregation built a church of their own across the street from the public library under the leadership of Minister Ulysses G.B. Pierce. Only a few years after Pomona became a city the Unitarians settled into the heart of that city!

 

 

Hard Times a’comin

 

Many years had passed, and the church transformed itself with the times. It flourished when the new city sprouted around it, so too did it suffer as hardship and war took its toll on the country and the city of Pomona. WWII disrupted lives and pulled our country forth where it had not been willing to go. America was up to the task, however. Sacrifices were called for and sacrifices were made. Men had gone off to war or active war jobs and money was scarce. To stay afloat they merged with the local Universalists in the 1940’s and became “UU” s long before the official merge in 1961. They renamed themselves “the Community Liberal Church of Pomona” during this time of hardship. The small congregation of mostly women struggled to keep the doors open as their numbers dwindled down. In 1943, the church could barely afford to pay Reverend Samson, and his services were shared with the Riverside Universalist church. He became a part time minister for the little Pomona church until they could no longer afford to keep the doors open. If you can go there today you will find not a church, but rather, a parking lot. The beautiful church is gone now, sold by the AUA as the little church struggled during the war. On February 14, 1943 at 5pm a vote was taken to shut the doors.

The document reads:

Resolved that the board of directors of the community Liberal Church of Pomona California(1) Suspend services of the church until there is a greater need for them here, (2) Release the present minister in order that he may devote his entire time in other fields, (3) Thank the AUA and the Universalist Gen Conference for the generous support they have given us in past years (4) Pay outstanding accounts, and (5) Turn over church properties to the AUA before March 1st 1943 so that proceeds may be used to further the work of the church in more productive fields or war conditions make it more possible.

The meeting was adjourned to the auditorium and Mr. Calderoth preached the closing sermon.