Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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La Crescenta Elementary’s Class of 1888

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

Last week I wrote about the La Crescenta Elementary School bell which was hung in the steeple of the new schoolhouse in 1890. But there was a school before that, in a little one-room cement structure on the northeast corner of Foothill and Dyer, where the library parking lot is today. It was built by Dr. Benjamin Briggs in 1887 to serve as school, church and community meeting room. The cement was from Germany as there were no local sources of cement at that time, and it had come to San Pedro as ballast in a sailing ship. Briggs built both his house on Briggs Terrace and the schoolhouse with this somewhat exotic “fire-proof” material, and they may possibly have been the first cement buildings in Southern California. The land and $500 toward its construction were donated by Dr. Briggs’ sister Maria, who had purchased hundreds of acres in the valley at the same time as her brother.

Briggs needed a teacher to get the ball rolling with his new school. He was able to get his niece, Maria’s daughter Helen Haskell, to start the school year as a volunteer teacher until he could hire a permanent teacher for the school year. Helen was young, beautiful and wealthy, a San Francisco socialite on vacation to take the clean air of the valley. She must have seemed glamorous to the rural kids whose families were carving out new homes from the sagebrush. She taught for two weeks, until Mary Merrill was hired as teacher, then went over to the new La Cañada Elementary School (where Memorial Park is today), and performed the same volunteer service there. From there she was off to Paris, where she became an art student. There she met and married a promising young American painter, Stephen Seymour Thomas, who went on to fame for his portraiture.

Back in La Crescenta, 18 students were crammed into the little cement schoolhouse, and were being taught by young Miss Merrill, according to the Bathey sisters. Allie and Winifred Bathy were part of that first class and related their memories of the school’s beginnings in a newspaper article in 1957.

Merrill was followed by Miss Toombs who, according to the Bathy sisters, was a pushover and couldn’t control the class. She was followed by a male teacher, Mr. Hayes, who was just the opposite and used the strap liberally on the students. He opened class with a Bible reading, a prayer and singing which he accompanied on a concertina. Sadly, he had tuberculosis and didn’t last long. The teacher’s salary was quite high for those days – $65 a month.

The following are some of the students the sisters remember: Rosa, Louise and George Englehardt, from a German family who built a ranch in the area that is now Oakmont Woods. George Cryer, who later in the 1920s became the mayor of Los Angeles. The two Arnold girls, whose parents ran the first La Crescenta Hotel on the corner of La Crescenta and Rosemont (where Foster’s Doughnuts is today). They were both killed that first year, along with their mother, when the hotel collapsed during a fierce windstorm in December 1887. There were the descendants of the original landowners, the Verdugos, along with their cousins the Urquidezes. Another family of the original Californios were the Aquinas. The sisters said that after that windstorm, some families moved away, dropping the student total to 10, and the Aquinas kids just lost interest in school and stopped going.

After a couple of years in the cement schoolhouse, the new school was built, right where La Crescenta Elementary is today.

A fun memory from the Bathy sisters: They lived in Goss Canyon at the top of Briggs Avenue. At 8:40 each morning they heard the school bell ringing through the quiet valley. They took off running, following a water pipe crossing diagonally from Briggs Terrace to Rosemont and Foothill, making it to school before start of class at 9 a.m. Is that even possible? Perhaps yes, for the hardy pioneer kids of the Class of ’88.

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