By Michael J. ARVIZU
On a relatively quiet stretch of Commerce Avenue as it intersects Valmont Street in Tujunga, next to stucco homes and apartment complexes, one cobblestone building surrounded by a park with manicured grass, maple trees and a tall evergreen stands out – Bolton Hall Historical Museum.
The museum celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. As part of its 100th birthday celebrations, it will host a rededication ceremony and open house at the museum from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Inside the 1913 building are treasures that reveal Tujunga and the surrounding area’s storied past and chronicles the lives of its earliest settlers by exhibiting artifacts, photographs, memorabilia and old newspaper clippings taken from what is now Sunland, Tujunga, Lake View Terrace and Sun Valley.
The building itself represents the efforts of these settlers to create a utopian society among the chaparral and dusty trails.
“A lot of it – the old photos especially – will tell you how times have changed,” said Bolton Hall Historical Museum director Regina Clarke. “Almost any book that you open, you’re going to find something interesting. You have to understand the past to know where you’re going.”
The photograph collection alone contains more than 14,000 photographs that have been digitized, with about another 10,000 to 12,000 left to be scanned. Most of the images are the work of photographer, settler and Maine native Joseph Harry Lamson who took extensive photographs of the area and its people from the late 1800s to early 1900s.
“Even when I go down Foothill [Boulevard] – even by looking how Foothill is from Sunland, Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Cañada – it seems like the history changes so much with each town as you keep passing,” said Bolton Hall Museum docent Miguel Sotelo.
The museum also houses a research library and document archive. Residents are welcome to browse through the collection for their own personal research. The museum also gladly accepts artifacts from the public.
Permanent and rotating exhibits are on display year round.
“People are given things they’ve gotten, things in the garage or the attic,” said Little Landers Historical Society president Sheri Smith. “When they no longer want to keep those things, they can donate them to the hall. A lot of people who live in this area have ancestors who lived and grew up here. It’s amazing to me. I’ve never been involved in a community where that was true to the extent that it is here.”
Four men stand out as the early settlers responsible for developing Tujunga and building Bolton Hall: William Ellsworth Smythe, George Harris, Marshall Valentine Hartranft and Bolton Hall.
Smythe was a utopian. It was under this utopian philosophy that Smythe founded the “Little Lands Colony” movement. It was the idea that one could own a little slice of land (no more than 2 or 2.5 acres), make a successful living off of it by growing crops and raising animals, and have enough money left over to buy or sell at the local general store and raise a family. Residents of the “Little Lands Colony” called themselves “Little Landers.”
By 1913, Smythe had already established similar colonies in Idaho, San Ysidro, Haywards Heath in England, and Cupertino before coming out west. His next Little Lands Colony was the future city of Tujunga.
“It was just the idea of having a special community environment,” said Smith. “It wasn’t communist or socialist; it was something a little different. They were very much in favor of the idea of ‘a little land and a living.’”
Bolton Hall – then simply known simply as The Clubhouse – would come to serve as the social and civic epicenter for the Little Landers.
It was Hartranft, a real estate developer, who provided the land on which Bolton Hall, the colony’s buildings and the early settlers’ homes would be built. Hartranft shared many of Smythe’s ideas and was instrumental in allowing them to come to fruition.
“Hartranft’s major interest was developing home sites and then selling them,” Smith said. “He was a member of the Little Lands community and was very generous.”
It is unclear, however, if Hartranft donated or sold the land for Bolton Hall, Smith added.
Harris was a so-called “nature builder,” whose idea of architecture revolved around using materials from the surrounding area. For Bolton Hall, Harris opted to use stones taken from the local mountains and washes. This style of architecture would later be adopted by the colony’s settlers themselves as they built their new homes on land provided by Hartranft. Many of these cobblestone homes still stand to this day.
Hall was a mentor and friend of Smythe. Hall’s writings on land development inspired Smythe, so when the time came to name the new hall, Smythe chose to name it Bolton Hall in honor of his friend and to perpetuate a harmless pun.
“So you could say the hall is really called Bolton Hall Hall,” Smith said with a laugh.
Smythe’s utopia did not last, however. By 1920, Smith said, the colony was suffering form financial troubles perpetuated by, among other things, World War I, and the hall went into default. It was handed over to the American Legion shortly thereafter. In 1926, the newly incorporated city of Tujunga took it over. Finally, in 1932, the hall was annexed by the city of Los Angeles and housed city offices for a while.
Efforts to demolish Bolton Hall gave rise to the Little Landers Historical Society in 1959, named after the original settlers. The battle to preserve and, thereafter, restore the hall lasted into the 1980s. Bolton Hall Historical Museum opened in December 1980. The Little Landers Historical Society now operates the museum.
Another celebration takes place on Nov. 9 when the museum will host a dance to commemorate the hall’s first dance. Dances popular in 1913 will be re-enacted.
Bolton Hall Historical Museum is at 10110 Commerce Ave. in Tujunga. For more information, call (818) 352-3420 or visit www.littlelandershistoricalsociety.org. The museum is also looking for volunteers to fill a variety of positions. Call the museum for more information.