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The Growing West


"I was born in Los Angeles, California. When I was about a year old, my mother decided to move out into the country eleven miles west of the city. There, in an area of lima bean fields as far as the eye could see, one of the first legendary California real estate developers had laid out a pattern of streets and had built the Beverly Hills Hotel nestled against the foothills.

"We moved into the hotel, and my mother bought the 19th house in the development. It wasn't even a town yet. It grew rapidly and soon had its one school, but there were still only three or four stores and one policeman, Charlie Blair. It was a very small country town. Everyone knew everyone else. There was no way for small boys to get into trouble. It was a great place to grow up.

"But it wasn't your typical American small town. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were building a large place in the foothills. Movie stars were glimpsed from time to time, and the film companies shot some of the scenes on the streets of that peaceful place."

John Gardner, Journals

John Gardner was born at a time of transition in the American West. Nineteen years before his birth, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the American frontier. Although the area known as the West was fully explored, by the early part of the 20th century, it was poised for growth, and Los Angeles, Gardner's hometown was no exception.

In 1876, the city was connected to San Francisco and the rest of the country by the transcontinental railroad. That was a boon to farmers in the region giving them new markets to sell to, and the railroad brought thousands of new residents to the city. In 1892, the first oil well was drilled in Los Angles, kicking off the start of the city's oil industry. By the turn of the century, the peaceful lima bean fields that made up the area now known as Beverly Hills was sold for oil development.

By 1906, however, oil drilling ventures in this part of Los Angeles proved unprofitable so a new city, Beverly Hills, was laid out for development. Six years later, John Gardner was born in this sleepy rural village, and in 1914, the city of Beverly Hills was incorporated (in 1925, it would join with Los Angeles). His family arrived just as the city and the region were about to undergo a remarkable change. In 1909, the Selig Polyscope Company became the first motion picture company to leave the East Coast for Los Angeles. Other companies followed suit when they saw that the sunshine and temperate climate allowed for year-round film production. In 1911, the Nestor Company opened the first film studio in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

But in the West, there was always one barrier to growth: water. For Los Angeles, that meant that they needed more water than the Los Angeles River could provide. So in 1908, William Mulholland, the city's chief engineer, began construction on an aqueduct that would bring water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, across the Mojave Desert, to LA. In 1913, a 200-mile aqueduct was opened, and LA had its water. This link coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, which now linked the ports of the West to the ports of the East, Europe, and beyond. A new economic era had begun.

As for John Gardner's sleepy rural village of Beverly Hills, by 1919, the first movie stars began to call it home as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford built their famous home, "Pickfair," in the town. Movie stars had now replaced lima beans as the city's most popular crop, and the Los Angeles area began its rise as one of America's biggest cities.

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