Robert "Roy" van de Hoek, President
Whittier Area Audubon Society
Co-Director, Biogeographer, Environmental Historian, and Conservation Biologist
December 25, 2008
The history of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in El Monte has many twists and turns from its beginning in 1939 as bird sanctuary of the Los Angeles Audubon Society. Soon after 1939, the National Audubon Society became interested in the location due to Erna Comby. By 1942, a small nature center was established by the National Audubon Society. It was called: "Audubon Center of Southern California." However, the name for the Sanctuary remained unchanged as: "San Gabriel River Wildlife Sanctuary at Whittier Narrows."
Alma Stultz became the first director for the Sanctuary and Audubon Center in the late 1940s. She had lived in the Pacific Palisades earlier, but moved to El Monte to be able to be a resident director. Occasionally she went bird watching to Malibu. She kept notes of the birds and ecology at Malibu Lagoon. For example, she recorded the very rare and endangered California Black Rail. I suspect that it was an inhabitant of the vast tule reed beds at Malibu Lagoon. Interestingly, Lloyd Kiff believed that the Black Rail occupied pickleweed habitat. I do not agree. Nonetheless, here is their quote which mentions Alma Stultz.
In 1952, Alma Stultz was visited by the distinguished couple of birding fame, Helen Gere Cruickshank and Allan Cruickshank. She wrote a story about the Whittier bird sanctuary, while he took photographs of the director in action with visiting kids from a nearby school. The caption at the base of the photo clearly states that Alma Stultz is the director and an educator at the bird sanctuary.
The National Audubon Society both owned and operated the Whittier Narrows Nature Center from the 1939 to 1969 (30 years). During this time period it was called the San Gabriel River Wildlife Sanctuary and the Audubon Center of Southern California respectively. However, in 1970, the National Audubon Society either sold or donated its Sanctuary and Center to Los Angeles County, which placed it under the responsibility of its growing Department of Parks and Recreation. And so in 1970 the name was changed to the Whittier Narrrows Nature Center.
Now continuing into the 21st Century, the Nature Center ("Museum") will celebrate its 40th anniversary of operation as a Los Angeles County facility in 2010, but please note that for 20 years previously it was operation by the National Audubon Society for a grand total of 70 years in 2009. And similarly, the Natural Area ("Wildlife Sanctuary") is celebrating its 40th anniversary of management by the Los Angeles County in 2010 but it was a "wildlife sanctuary" for 30 years previously by the National Audubon Society for a grand total of 70 years in 2009 (1939-2009).
Whether we refer to it as a sanctuary or natural area, a museum or nature center, this portion of the San Gabriel River and RIo Hondo at Whitier Narrows has functioned as an "outdoor education center" with notoriety as the first one in Los Angeles County and for that matter all of southern California. and indeed for the whole state. In fact, the "Audubon Center of Southern California" was only the second one in the nation for the National Audubon Society and its first one in California, so obviously the National Audubon Society was quite proud of the facility. In essence, this upcoming year in 2009 will be the 70th anniversary (1939-2009) for the protection of birds, including the Cardinal, in El Monte with its river woodland on the bank of the San Gabriel River at Whittier Narrows. It explains why the National Audubon Society and Whittier Audubon Society asked Helen and Allan to visit the museum and sanctuary. The result of their visit as a husband and wife team, was a beautiful and informatiave article from the the pen, typewriter, and cameras of Helen and Allan. Helen wrote the article and Allan took the photographs of the birds and children at the Sanctuary and "Audubon Center of Southern California." It is important to note that the first Audubon Center in the United States had been started only a few years earlier in Connecticut.
The distinguished magazine of the National Audubon Society featured a 6 page article with 6 photographs of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center and Natural Area. The photographs show the interaction of children with nature at Whittier Narrows. In addition to photographs by Allan Cruickshank, there are several photos by Arthur Barr and R. H Dill. Two photographs feature the two Audubon leaders, Mrs. Alma Stultz and Mrs. Gertrude Woods, whose responsibility also included management and administration of the Audubon Sanctuary and Center. The article has one phogtoraph that features Alma Stultz in the woods with the children. The caption of this photograph states:
"The children stared speechless at the golden beauty of a hooded oriole." Photograph, Mrs. Stultz with a class in the sanctuary, by Allan D. Cruickshank.
And another photograph features Gertrude Woods in the muesum with 10 children. The display cases with live animal exhibits, taxidermied hawk, chalkboard, bird nests, bird eggs, and dried plant specimen are all visible in the photograph. The caption of this photograph states:
"Mrs. Stultz and Mrs. Woods have developed a plan which prepares children for sanctuary visits." Photograph of Mrs. Woods with children inside of museum (left) by Arthur Barr, (right) by R. H. Dill."
Yet another photograph dsiplays 14 boys and girls on the cobbled shore of the San Gabriel River looking at some wildlife across the river. There was a teacher with the students as well as Gertrude Woods showing the children the wildlife. The caption of the photograph states:
"One class of youngsters follows another through the sanctuary." Photograph by Arthur Barr.
There is also a very special photograph that shows the museum (nature center) building with its porch, slanted roof, signage, trees, garden, and a child walking alongside the museum. The caption of this photographs states:
"The Museum is the center for a program that spreads over more than 300 acres of sanctuary land." Photograph by R. H. Dill.
The sixth and final photograph of the article shows four young men, in boy scout uniforms, looking at birds and plants in the river woodland and wild grape vines. The caption of the photograph states:
"These young men find in the sanctuary a varied laboratory of open water, marsh, field, woodland and dry chaparral.
Curiously, Julius Hugh Comby and his wife, Erna Comby, who had become a confident conservationist and leader in the National Audubon Society as its southern California representative, as well as President of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, is not mentioned in the article by Helen Cruickshank. I wonder why this happened when two other women (Alma Stultz and Gertrude Woods) were mentioned in photo captions that accompanied the article? As a matter of fact, from the 1930s to 1989, Erna and Julius resided immediately across the San Gabriel River but adjacent to the Audubon wildlife sanctuary. Erna founded the nearby Whittier Audubon Society in 1949. In the same year, Erna was responsible for shepherding the founding of three other Audubon chapters in California for the National Audubon Society (San Bernardino chapter, San Diego chapter and Santa Clara chapter).
This brief introduction is meant to orient the reader about the legacy of National Audubon Society in Los Angeles County, as well as some little known environmental history in Los Angeles, but also to provide the context for the transcription of the article by Helen Gere Cruickshank which was appropiately called: "BIG CITY SANCTUARY."