Fontana past seems faded on centennial
By Kelly Rayburn, Staff Writer

FONTANA - The old house at 8863 Pepper St. is locked up. Its roof is sagging. Rusted farm equipment rests in the side yard, and weeds grow up from cracks in the concrete.

A historic landmark, the house is perhaps the oldest in Fontana. And it is said that A.B. Miller, Fontana's founder, camped here on his way back from the Salton Sea 100 years ago.

"This is where he pitched his tent,' said Joe Bono, former president of the Fontana Historical Society, "This is where he got the idea to start Fontana.'

Miller dreamt big dreams of turning a stony landscape of sagebrush into a garden of citrus trees and vineyards. When he died in 1941, those dreams had largely been realized.

A century after Miller's arrival, Fontana is a city mushrooming with shopping centers and houses. Amid the sprawl, there are few obvious signs of its agricultural beginnings.

The centennial anniversary of Miller's arrival is passing with, so far, seemingly little fanfare.

History is not easy to preserve, Bono said.

Like many other Southern California cities, Fontana is a town that is constantly remaking and repackaging itself.

Sometimes as is the case with California Speedway, built on a site that was once the Kaiser Steel Corp. mill and before that a hog farm history is literally layered on top of itself.

And all too often, it is forgotten, says Tonia Lewis, who has lived in Fontana for 66 years and is the Historical Society's treasurer.

Lewis doubts if most residents and school children, including those who attend the high school named for the city's founder, know much about Miller or the town he built. That doesn't mean his story doesn't matter, she said.

"People labored so hard to build this town, and we need to honor that,' Lewis said.

"It's hard to be proud of yourself,' she added, "If you can't be proud of your history.'

Any history of Fontana includes Miller as one of two giants of the city's past, the other being Henry J. Kaiser, who built the steel mill.

Soon after Miller arrived in March 1905 at what he later described as a "little clearing in the brush,' the rain began pouring.

"It started to rain pitchforks with saw logs for handles,' he wrote in 1923 in the Fontana Herald. Where some would have been discouraged, Miller was inspired. In his writing, he noted the unlikelihood of a good rain in California. He saw promise.

Over the next five years or so, according to his account, Miller and the people working with him cleared 14,000 acres.

They tapped Lytle Creek as a water source. They planted eucalyptus for wind breaks. By 1910, 1,000 acres of citrus had been planted, and in 1913, the town of Fontana was christened.

Starting in the early 1920s, Fontana began receiving train shipments of garbage from Los Angeles. Angelenos' trash proved a valued input for Miller's economic model.

The garbage was used to feed hogs. Manure from the hogs was, in turn, used to fertilize citrus groves.

Fontana also grew into a center for poultry and grapes. The farming community Miller built became a model of diversity and efficiency.

Miller became acquainted with leaders of the state and nation and would later go on to serve on the state Board of Agriculture and the University of California board of regents. Still, historical accounts show that Miller was not above working the fields.

In a history of Fontana that Cornelius De Bakcsy wrote in 1926, Miller is portrayed as a man who calculated and planned by night and toiled with his employees by day.

In 1938, as the city celebrated its silver anniversary, Miller addressed residents.

"We witnessed the growth of our orchards and vineyards,' he told them, according to a transcript of his speech, "Our poultry industry, our business life, our homes and our population. And today there are over 2,000 homes with over 7,000 people living in Fontana; the community is second to none in the southland in beauty of gardens and surroundings and, best of all, in the spirit and neighborliness of its residents.' Only a few years later, Miller died, and a chapter of Fontana history passed with him. In the year following Miller's death, Kaiser brought the steel mill and agriculture eventually faded from the landscape.

Ray Bragg, Fontana's redevelopment and special projects director, says the city is doing a much better job of preserving what is left of its past compared with just 10 years ago.

In March of last year, for example, the city dedicated the Hazel Putnam Historical Plaza in downtown Fontana at the site of the old Pacific Electric freight depot.

Before the dedication, two of Fontana's historic buildings, the pre-1912 land office that is now the Historical Society's research library and the minuscule chapel built in 1925 for the Pagliuso family, were moved to the plaza.

Perhaps the clearest links to a bygone era are the living memories of the city's elders those who watched the agriculture town vanish into history.

"There was always the smell of orange blossoms,' Lewis said.

As he sat on the back steps behind the Pepper Street house, Bono repeated an idea of which he seems very fond: that studying history will provide a path to the future.

Bono's family came to Fontana in the 1920s and tended to vineyards for decades before smog and growth forced them to abandon farming. He noted the change Fontana is experiencing. He said he hopes the city's leaders take the past into account when building the Fontana of the future.

"Suppose A.B. Miller was alive today would he be happy with Fontana? Or would he not like it?'

Without an answer, he shook his head slowly.