Treasures of the Valley

Pioneer Memories: Helen Haskell Thomas (Part 1)

Continuing to delve into a 1938 newspaper treasure trove of pioneers’ memoirs of the Crescenta Valley, we turn next to Helen Haskell Thomas. Here’s a quick background on her.

As we know, Dr. Benjamin Briggs is considered the founder of La Crescenta. Dr. Briggs had several brothers and sisters, many of them wealthy. His sister Maria (Briggs) Haskell lived in San Francisco, and had children of her own. When Dr. Briggs bought the Crescenta Valley, Maria partnered financially with him. Helen Haskell Thomas was Maria’s daughter, and she came down from San Francisco to visit a few times after the purchase in 1881. Helen was young, beautiful and wealthy. She stayed for a few weeks each time, but eventually moved to Paris to go to art school. There she met and married an up-and-coming young artist, Seymour Thomas. The pair moved back to La Crescenta during WWI, and lived out the rest of their lives here, Seymour Thomas becoming one of the top portrait artists in the nation.

Helen’s memories are long and scattered. I’ll paraphrase her writing. (My comments are in brackets.)

Helen said that her uncle Benjamin and her mother Maria came to the Crescenta Valley in 1881 to buy land. Benjamin Briggs’ goal was to establish a home and sanitarium for the treatment of lung diseases. [Briggs’ first wife had died of tuberculosis, and Benjamin had contracted it as well. He became a doctor specializing in lung disease specifically because of this.] According to Helen, Dr. Briggs had traveled extensively – Switzerland, Italy and France – looking for the perfect climate for his sanitarium. [Clean, dry air was the only treatment available for TB in that time.] The doctor found that the Crescenta Valley had that perfect climate he was looking for.

He built his home on Briggs Terrace at the top of Briggs Avenue and treated a few patients there. Helen related that her uncle named the valley La Crescenta because of the visual crescents of the hills surrounding his valley.

Maria, on the other hand, was looking for a rural experience for her San Francisco city-raised children. She wanted particularly for her sons to learn how to till the land and grow crops. She felt the city was no place to raise boys, so she left her husband behind in San Francisco and brought her sons with her. She immediately found the soil of the Crescenta Valley too rocky for a farm. [No kidding!]

So she sold her portion of CV to one of the many Briggs nephews and bought land in La Cañada instead [above Foothill and east of Angeles Crest]. This land she did find farmable. She and her sons built an adobe house and planted the land in grapes and peaches. They stayed until 1887 when they sold out and moved back to the city of San Francisco.

Both Maria and Benjamin wanted to establish schools for their new communities, Maria in La Cañada and Benjamin in La Crescenta. At that time, about 1885, state law said a school had to have a teacher in place in order to qualify for state school funding. It just so happened that young Helen happened to be visiting from San Francisco, and she volunteered to be the teacher for both schools, with no pay, so that state funding could be established. In the case of La Crescenta Elementary, it was only for two weeks. After that a state-paid “real” teacher took her place. [Because of this Helen Haskell Thomas is always cited as the first teacher for both La Cañada and La Crescenta, even though it was only for a couple of weeks. After Helen died in the 1940s, her husband Seymour Thomas donated two paintings of young Helen he had done soon after she moved to Paris. The portrait of Helen, the first teacher at La Crescenta Elementary, hangs in the school library and the portrait of Helen, the first teacher at La Cañada Elementary, is displayed at, I believe, the Lanterman House Museum.]

Next week I’ll continue with Helen’s memories of early CV, including some gossip and [gasp!] a scandal.

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