“Norco, the Vale of Dreams Come True”
That’s what greeted readers of the Los Angeles Times on April 26, 1923. Norco was developer Rex Clark’s vision of a utopian settlement of independent farmers reaping the rewards of their hard work on small farms and ranches. Clark saw Norco as a refuge for city dwellers—no boss, no commute, no postage stamp-sized apartment—just fresh air and the satisfaction of making your own way in the world.
However, Norco did not start with Rex Clark. At the turn of the twentieth century the area that would become Norco consisted of the open range of Rancho La Sierra (Sepulveda). Unlike other rancho properties in Southern California, this one remained undivided well past the boom years of the late nineteenth century. Its owner, the Stearns Rancho Company, held onto the land in hopes of selling it whole to a potential developer. The Los Angeles Times, commenting on its long delayed sale, observed, “…as the years passed…La Sierra entered on a sleep longer than that of Rip Van Winkle ….”
Well, Rip blinked his eyes open in 1908 as Willits J. Hole and George Pillsbury handed over $500,000 to buy the sleeping giant. Hole retained the portion of the rancho east of the Norco Hills and subdivided it into farm and town lot parcels, but also farmed a large portion of these lands for nearly 30 years. In the Norco Hills of Riverside, he built a beautiful stone mansion where he lived until his death in 1936.
Hole and Pillsbury sold most of the land west of the Norco Hills to investors that came to be known as the Citrus Belt Land Company. Citrus Belt platted Orchard Heights, a subdivision of farm lots consuming most of the land south of today’s Fifth Street. This tract became an area of successful farms yielding peaches, pears, apricots, alfalfa, peanuts, sweet potatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. By 1922, with most of the lots sold, Citrus Belt Land Company was looking for a buyer of its unsold lots and several thousand acres of un-subdivided land north of these tracts.
Enter, Rex Clark, a businessman but also a dreamer and passionate, creative individual. He believed in the goodness of mankind and that independence fosters creative energies and economic prosperity. He promoted his development to the “average Joe” looking for a chance to make a living from the sweat of his brow. Clark named his new town “Norco” a contraction of the first two parts of his company’s name, the North Corona Land Company.
Clark’s town consisted of five Norco Farms subdivisions surrounding a village center containing a general store, gasoline station and the Norco Garage. North of the Norco Store, Clark created a manufacturing district with a warehouse, plumbing shop, pipe-making facility, concrete block-manufacturing operation, machine shop, lumber yard, and construction department. There, a Norco resident could arrange to have a home built, buy a prefabricated chicken coop, purchase irrigation pipes, buy a tractor or have one serviced. The Norco Store offered groceries, clothing, hardware, dry goods, auto parts, and other essentials. Early Norconians dined at the Norco Grill, gathered at a meeting hall and checked out books at a library staffed by volunteers from the Women’s Progressive Club.
Upham’s Drug Store was built next door to the offices of North Corona Land Company and the Orange Heights Water Company later in the 1920s, and is now occupied by the Friends of the Library and the Norco Historical Society. The Land Company building was given a new façade shortly after the City incorporated in 1964 and now is the main part of the Norco Branch Library. To the south of these buildings, Clark built a pavilion where town-folk and farmers could meet, dance, pray, and exchange ideas. The American Legion now sits on that site and to its west, Clark built the Norco School. Serving Norco’s children from 1924 to 1947, that school survives as the Norco Community Center.
Norco was essentially in “the middle of nowhere,” so Clark sought to draw attention to his remote community. Atop a hill near the town center—known today as Beacon Hill but once known as Chocolate Drop Mountain—he built a 38-feet tall lighthouse with a powerful revolving light that pulsated like the North Star in the night and became the symbol of Norco. Today, the foundation of the lighthouse remains intact, and the Historical Society displays the revolving light in its museum.
Norco’s grand opening took place on Sunday, May 13, 1923. The Los Angeles Times reported that “Despite threatening weather approximately 5,000 visitors motored to this district….and enjoyed a program which included band concerts, contests of various kinds, speeches and fireworks.” The article noted that an aerial bomb burst at 12:30 p.m., releasing a large American flag as the band played the national anthem.
Many people bought into Clark’s vision, building modest homes, planting gardens, and raising chickens or rabbits. Clark provided markets for their farm products, helping them distribute to area communities. To help neophyte farmers polish their skills, he established demonstration farms where people were taught about raising chickens, growing foodstuffs, and bringing their products to market. Property owners held shares in the Orange Heights Water Company and helped set its rates. Not surprisingly, horses were a significant part of early Norco’s everyday life, used for transportation, recreation and farming. Many streets were lined with trees, creating picturesque de facto equestrian trails—a precursor to the 140 miles of horse trails enjoyed today.
In 1924, while drilling for water, Clark discovered a hot mineral spring. No small thinker, he saw this as an opportunity to develop a resort. But not just any resort. Clark announced he would build a “resort supreme,” bigger and better than just about anything in the West, or maybe even the entire United States. When completed his Norconian Resort consumed over 700 acres and included a 250,000-square foot hotel, 60-acre lake, two Olympic-sized swimming pools, pavilion, tea house, chauffer’s quarters, massive auto garage, 18-hole golf course, and many other amenities. Unfortunately, the resort was completed just months before “Black Tuesday,” an event that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. As a result, it never had a chance and lost money heavily. In 1941, the U.S. Navy bought the hotel and expanded it into a premier World War II-era hospital. Today, its grounds are divided between a weapons research facility and a state prison. Most of the resort remains intact, though, and its history and architecture have earned it a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, local leaders and organizations like the Lake Norconian Club Foundation work to ensure its recognition and preservation.
The Norconian Resort is the most prominent testament to Rex Clark’s dreams, but what has happened to other landmarks from the City’s rich history? Well, many of them are gone, removed for freeway construction, land development or the elimination of blight. Yet elements of Norco’s heritage still remain. Often overlooked, they are tucked in between newer construction or set back out of casual view.
—Prepared by Bill Wilkman, Historic Resources Consultant