It is the most desirable place I have seen, why is it I did not read of it in the papers! —Los Angeles Times, 1886
Today the legendarily corrupt industrial town of Vernon is 5.2 square miles of concrete, steel, and smokestacks. A daytime drive through the city can feel almost post-apocalyptic—humans are scarce, ensconced as they are behind the walls of factories, or adult toy outlets, or warehouses. Around 50,000 people work in Vernon every day, but fewer than 500 live there. It is almost unbelievable for the modern visitor to Vernon to believe, but a little over 100 years ago, this area southeast of Downtown Los Angeles was an idyllically agrarian stretch of land, known as “the garden spot” of Los Angeles County and “sweet Vernon, loveliest village of the plain.”
By the 1870s, the area in and around present-day Vernon had been settled by a small group of farmers, including a Civil War hero named Captain George R. Vernon. The unincorporated rural farming district was called both Vernondale and Vernon, and included a good deal of what we now know as South Los Angeles.
It was a land of magnolias, lemon groves, palm, and pear trees. “Orchards and gardens and berry patches were planted out in the Vernon section,” one reporter remembered, “until it became practically one large garden.” The “loamy soil” was perfect for crops like corn and alfalfa.
In 1887, developer Ezra F. Kysor began to subdivide a portion of Vernon for a suburban housing tract and built a 10-acre park for his new residents. Dubbed “Central Park,” it was located on Central Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, and became known as the “pride of the whole Vernon countryside.” Here, children swung on swings hung from pepper trees while adults picnicked under their shade. That same year, the Los Angeles Times reported on the park-like conditions on the small farms in the greater Vernondale area:
Vernon is one of the finest southern suburban localities of Los Angeles. Roses are successfully propagated and raised for the market year-round. Mrs. Isaac Gibbs has 325 different standard varieties of roses. ... Pretty homes abound with the necessary improvements to beautify them. A large quantity of nursery trees of the standard varieties are raised here to supply the increasing demand. Citrus and deciduous fruits thrive successfully.
The middle- and upper-class people who lived in the cottages and farm houses of Vernon saw their lifestyle as the antidote to the cosmopolitan Wild West atmosphere located a stone’s throw away in Los Angeles. In 1890, a group of Vernon residents wrote of their hopes and dreams for their little community:
The nearness of Vernon to Los Angeles, the fertile soil, the beautiful orange groves, the orchards containing every variety of the choicest fruit trees, the character and social standing of the incoming people, together with the rapid growth of our district during the past year, seem to indicate that in the near future Vernon will be filled with beautiful residences, the homes of those who like beauty, quietness, and the many advantages derived from being in a productive vicinity and among a deserving people.
Citizens in Vernon described their community as a land of churches, cobblers, and chemists, and neverending orchards. “We are a happy people,” residents wrote, “rejoicing rather in churches and schools.” There were literary groups, sewing circles, and bicycling clubs. “The Vernon school grounds of three acres are located on the west side of Compton Avenue opposite the Post Office,” city boosters bragged to the Los Angeles Times. “They are beautifully ornamented with pepper and eucalyptus trees and cypress hedges, making it the prettiest school playground in the county.”
For many, Vernon was a fairyland of Southern Californian abundance and temperance. But of course it was a whitewashed one. Many Chinese farmers lived in the Vernon area, and their skirmishes with white and Californio residents—especially over water rights—were often fueled by prejudice. The farmers of Vernon also constantly fought with LA over that old SoCal bogeyman—water. The booming growth of Los Angeles during the 1880s was a threat, and as early as 1889, Vernon residents sensed that their rural utopia was threatened with extinction:
We cannot wonder at this when we consider that this is the loveliest section in Southern California, and must needs draw to it that class of people who desire a beautiful home, surrounded by every blessing their hearts could crave, with no evils such as sewer wells and saloons. We may well rejoice; these latter we will contend against to the bitter end.
It was a fight they were destined to lose—quickly. By the 1890s, Vernon had been divided into east and west, and developers had begun to suburbanize vast tracts of land. Much of west Vernon was annexed by the city of Los Angeles and swallowed up into the ever-expanding city.
Into these fast-paced times came a Basque businessman and merchant named John B. Leonis, who slowly began buying up land in what was left of the east Vernon farming district. Leonis had learned many tricks from his legendary, ruthless kinsman Miguel Leonis, “the King of Calabasas,” who he worked for until the latter was crushed to death by a wagon in 1889. He planned to control Vernon much like his uncle had once ruled Calabasas; it wouldn’t be a land of ranches and farms he oversaw, but a modern city of industry.
By 1903, reporters and LA city officials were apparently aware of Leonis and his cronies’ plans. Bemoaning the loss of Vernon’s beautiful farmland, a writer for the Los Angeles Times mused: “All this is now passing away, the irrigation water has been shut off, and the last of the old orchards and gardens are falling into the hands of the ruthless subdivider.” A racetrack was in the works, and Leonis made a deal with the railroads whereby they agreed to build short tracks into Vernon off the main Downtown Los Angeles lines.
On September 16, 1905, the remaining citizens of Vernon voted to incorporate as a city; 62 residents voted for incorporation and four against it. The papers reported incorporation “was said to be for manufacturing purposes.”
“Though outside opposition fought hard to kill the project,” a reporter wrote, “and automobiles and livery rigs scoured the town limits for voters to knock the incorporation scheme, the victory for incorporation was overwhelming.” Not surprisingly, both Leonis and his right-hand man James Furlong were installed on the board of trustees, which would rule the industrial hamlet for decades.
The changes in Vernon were staggeringly swift. Leonis, William Stevens, Furlong, and his brother Tom controlled everything that happened in the city. They were accused of being underhanded and vulgar; laws were unenforced and criminals and drunks ran amok. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Under present conditions, Vernon is in a bad way. Sundays, it is the scene of the wildest debauchery and drunkenness. Inflated with their own sense of importance, the Trustees are apparently endeavoring to alienate manufacturing interests and keep out projected improvements. They have no water, gas, electricity, stores, or churches. They have saloons and unrestrained disorder.
The board of trustees seemed to feel no pressure to play nice. Feeling they were being taken advantage of, they engaged in a brutal battle with the city of Los Angeles Gas Company over a proposed plant in Vernon. At one meeting, the differences between the old Vernon and the new were on full display:
In a schoolroom dedicated to the education of the boys and girls of Vernon gathered the cohorts of Trustee Leonis. The air was thick with tobacco smoke. Many of the audience kept on their hats and frequently broke in upon the remarks of some speaker who was urging temperance and judgment in debate.
Leonis cursed and sneered. He was reported to have “more than once insulted citizens and property owners who were on the floor.” He and the other trustees bullied the gas company in typical strongman fashion, threatening: “If the site is one we approve of and they agree to lay mains to our houses and put up the kinds of smokestacks we want, and do a lot of other things, we may consider a new application.”
The gas company withdrew their application.
By 1907, previously genteel Vernon was a town of saloons, gambling dens, and disreputable day-trippers from Los Angeles. According to one visitor:
It is alleged that saloons, gambling joints, drunkenness and debauchery are allowed to exist in the main business section of the city, that the streets are not safe for a woman at night, and that lewd and dissolute characters gather on Santa Fe Avenue and offend reputable citizens by their conduct … Drunken men stagger about the streets, toughs shout ribald remarks at passing women and crap games are played … it is further alleged that the trustees are holding office illegally.
The board of trustees indeed overstayed their welcome, not holding the elections they were required to have every two years.
The citizens of Vernon complained to no avail as the town became more and more disreputable. One reporter described a typical night in the new Vernon, which was centered around Jack Doyle’s Center Saloon:
At a long bar in the Center Saloon, two bartenders were kept busy supplying a drunken crowd with liquor. In a back yard were several men in the last stages of intoxication … A number of slot machines were in place. They were being played almost continuously ... Staggering forth from this groggery, which is being run in open defiance of law and the wishes of the respectable people, vicious men filled the air with loud oaths and vulgarities … Nearby was a Mexican tamale parlor ... in the hall … women were dancing to the music of a guitar while drunken men leaned up against the side of the building and made insulting remarks to passersby … Decent people hurried by with the sound of profanity in their ears and the sight of debauchery before them.
In 1908, a Vernon citizen filed a lawsuit against the board of trustees alleging that they “willfully and knowingly refused and neglected to pass any ordinance providing for the election of their successors.” Their backs against the wall, the trustees finally held an election on March 1, 1908. Suspiciously, the ruling trustees won by a landslide, but everyone in the county knew they were adept at “manipulating things to suit themselves.”
Leonis leaned into Vernon’s reputation and set about to make it the capital of sporting events in Southern California. He encouraged Jack Doyle to open an outdoor boxing ring, which quickly became one of the preeminent boxing venues in America, hosting 20 world championship fights. Next door, Doyle’s Center Bar featured a 100-foot-long bar lined with pithy sayings like “If Your Children Need Shoes, Don't Buy Any Booze.” World champion boxer Jim Jeffries also set up shop in Vernon, opening his own sporting club. In 1909, Leonis lured the Pacific Coast Baseball League to Vernon, and soon the minor-league Vernon Tigers were playing in their own custom-built baseball park. There was also a scandalous “country club” where dancing girls solicited the company of city men.
There were consequences to this booze-soaked atmosphere. The “country club” closed after 18 people were killed or injured in drunk driving accidents after leaving the club. A young boxer was accidentally killed in the ring at the Pacific Athletic Club. A deputy marshal was shot to death after an altercation in a saloon.
But these tragedies were a small price to pay in the trustees’ eyes. City leaders used the raucous sporting and social centers to woo prospective investors and big factory owners from back East. Numerous monetary incentives and very few industry restrictions were also a lure. By the 1910s, LA’s “hustling neighbor” was flourishing. In 1915, a suspiciously fawning article (or was it an ad?) ran in the Los Angeles Times, declaring that the “people of Vernon like the smell of factory smoke and freely admit it.”
It was a good thing they did because the city was filling with oil refineries, slaughterhouses, and stockyards. There were beef companies, paper plants, iron works, and even a car wheel plant. And all this was thanks to President James Furlong, City Clerk “Uncle Tom” Furlong, and Trustee John B. Leonis.
By the 1920s, Vernon was a thriving manufacturing center—in many ways America’s first “industrial park.” As a consequence, a steady stream of longtime residents left Vernon for fairer climes (it was even alleged that board members did not actually live in the city). In 1929, there were 300 industrial plants in the city, 20,000 workers, and only 140 registered voters. Leonis was the “uncrowned King of Vernon,” as legendary and feared as his kinsmen Miguel had once been. According to a local businessman:
Why, only 32 voters went to the polls at the last Vernon election. Leonis runs the Vernon government. In that town you do not file papers at City Hall. You simply hand them to John and he puts them in his pocket. If he is in favor of the proposition, it goes through, if he is opposed, that is the last you hear of it. There were some voters there he did not care for so he had the Vernon government draw a line around the seven blocks in which they lived and cut them off by divorcing the territory from Vernon.
Descendants of the Furlong family would co-rule Vernon until 1974. The Leonis family would hang on until longtime Mayor Leonis C. Malburg (John’s grandson) was convicted of voter fraud and conspiracy in 2009.
Rumors of corruption and connections to organized crime have clouded the reputation of the small town, which continues to be known as the “most business friendly city” in the country. Its sordid reputation has also inspired filmmakers, and it was the inspiration for the city of Vinci in season two of HBO’s True Detective. One can only imagine what the Victorian residents of Vernon would think of their rural agrarian paradise today.