For most folks in Los Angeles, Vernon is not a recreation destination—unless you’re heading that way for a Mike’s Hockey Burger or to check out the psychedelic pig mural over at Farmer John’s packing plant. As of the last census there were only 114 people actually residing in Vernon, but thousands arrive each day to work in the factories of this straight-up industrial district.
Vernon has a distinctive smell that drifts as far away as my hometown in South Gate. Once these gritty streets were all open prairie, part of the Mexican land grant Rancho San Antonio that was owned by the Lugo family. The area was also the scene of the 1847 Battle of La Mesa, the last showdown between the U.S. and the local Californios.
In 1905 entrepreneur John Leonis and rancher brothers James and Thomas Furlong bought a chunk of land southeast of Los Angeles and managed to get it incorporated to encourage industrial growth. Leonis was part of a Basque family that had worked the land since the 1880s, but he envisioned more than grazing lands when the railroads arrived and three separate lines crossed the property. Land speculators were already subdividing parcels outside of L.A., but Vernon was the first exclusively industrial city in the entire Southwest.
An old dirt road called Vernon ran through the center of the property, and the investors just named the entire place after that bisecting byway. The sharp Leonis went to work, persuading the railroads to run spur lines into Vernon and leasing land investors to build a baseball stadium and boxing arena.
The colorful Jack Doyle built Vernon Avenue Arena, and he also opened a magnificent tavern with a 30-yard-long bar that was manned by 37 bartenders! By 1908 Doyle was staging boxing matches that drew high rollers into the area—men who were soon eager to make manufacturing investments in this “sporting town.” Vernon’s growth was further spurred by the blue laws that forbad alcohol in L.A. proper. Thirsty Angelenos headed to Doyle’s to indulge in a bit of the brew. In 1909 a meat packer named Peter Maier built a fine baseball stadium next to Doyle’s Bar, and the Vernon Tigers joined the Pacific Coast League. They dominated the minor leagues for some years in the teens.
At the end of World War I, Vernon was filled with slaughterhouses—27 in all. Around the time this map was made, the demand for heavy industry was luring big operations west. Glass manufacturer Owen’s Illinois (my employer for my short-lived career as a factory worker) moved to Vernon, as did Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa, and Norris Industries. Factories producing Poxon China and Vernonware sprung up in the area, and even Studebaker built a huge automobile manufacturing plant in 1938. Lumber, food packing, and trucking yards filled out the powerhouse economic force.
Strong unions in Vernon created a healthy economy and a workforce that lived a middle-class life. Some 20,000 people worked in Vernon, a number that grew to over 51,000 by the 1980s. In ensuing years, though, manufacturing waned, and Vernon got caught up in a wave of political shenanigans that swept across the communities of the Southeast.
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.