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Witness to a changing WORLD

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

It’s almost inconceivable to imagine all of the changes in Claremont since 1920. The city had incorporated just 13 years earlier, and the population was just was 1,728. Many of the citrus groves which came to define the area were still too new to bear fruit. There were no improved roads in the north part of town, which meant a trip to the “Village” took a fair amount of effort. Pomona College was still our only institute of higher education.

Yet, one Claremont resident, Eleanor Forbes Pierson, has lived through it all, and on December 29, 2020 she celebrated her 100th birthday. She is perhaps the last living link to the early days of our city.

“My one-hundredth birthday was very special,” Ms. Pierson said on Tuesday. While the party was a subdued event because of the coronavirus, many of Ms. Pierson’s friends did stop by to greet her from afar.

“She was treated with great love, and it was a great day for her,” Ms. Pierson’s daughter, Cynthia Schleicher said.

Ms. Pierson’s parents, Grace and Kenneth Forbes, had a lemon ranch on Padua Avenue where she was raised with her younger sister Marcia. It was a primitive existence. The family lived in a home that was moved from First Street in two pieces by a mule team. At first the family did not have electricity, but this was far from a hardship in Ms. Pierson’s eyes.

“My memories growing up on a citrus ranch were absolutely wonderful, I think we were very privileged children to have that experience,” Ms. Pierson said during a Claremont Heritage talk 30 years ago.

The family had a large collection of animals, many of which were dropped off by strangers who no longer wanted their pets. When Ms. Pierson was still a child, a couple of donkeys from Kelly’s Camp high in the San Gabriels wandered into the yard. Since it was the slow season at the backcountry resort, the family fed the donkeys and provided a temporary home.

Eleanor and her sister, who was six years younger, had lots of fun with the donkeys, including taking them on picnics.

“I tied a little red wagon to the donkey’s tail and put my sister in it and the lunch. I’d get on the donkey and head off to olive hill, where of course there were no houses, just olive trees and we would have our picnic. It was just wonderful. I think once the wagon tipped over and my sister fell into some cactus,” Ms. Pierson said. Olive hill was another name for Padua Hills.

Around that same time, Mr. Forbes decided he needed to increase his revenue so he cleared some additional property to plant more citrus. As anyone who has ever dug a hole in Claremont knows, clearing that land necessitated digging out a large amount of rocks.

“And we had plenty of rock piles already, we didn’t need any more.” Ms. Pierson said.

Mr. Forbes used his ingenuity and built up a large flat rock pile that was wide enough to construct a tennis court on top. “And to this day I still enjoy playing tennis, thanks to the start my father gave us.” Ms Pierson said during the Claremont Heritage talk.

In fact, Ms. Pierson played tennis twice a week at the Claremont Club well into her 90s with a group of senior women, including Doris Drucker, who was 99 at the time.

Ms. Pierson attended Claremont Elementary School, present day Sycamore School and Girls Collegiate for secondary, which is now Western Christian. She entered Pomona College at age 16 and was student body president in her senior year, graduating in 1941.

During World War II, Eleanor worked for a contractor at the flight training airport in Dos Palos, in California’s Central Valley, where she met a “dashing young flight instructor from Oregon named Lenn Pierson,” according to her family.

Their first date included a tennis match during which, her family said, “Lenn realized that he was never going to win any future matches.” The couple married in 1942 at Bridges Hall of Music.

Mr. Pierson’s war assignment was the dangerous mission of flying supply aircraft from Burma to China a route called “The Hump.” Over half of the planes and crews were lost, including his younger brother, Ray Pierson.

After the war, the young couple settled into a stone house owned by Mr. Forbes on the corner of Miramar and Grand avenues where they raised a family, and where Ms. Pierson still resides. In addition to Ms. Schleicher, the Piersons had three other children Forbes Pierson, Jan Pierson and Doug Pierson.

Mr. Pierson ran a flight school and Cessna airplane dealership at Cable Airport where he taught hundreds of people to fly well into his 80s. He died in 2006 at age 91.

Four generations of Piersons were pilots, including Lenn’s father. Jan Pierson had a 23-year career as a pilot for Southwest Airlines and Ms. Schleicher holds a private license.

The Piersons were famous for the many plane trips they organized for friends and paying passengers to Mexico. Ms. Pierson arranged travel, hotels, and cultural experiences with great success, well before the convenience of cell phones. Most of the communication was by mail and if they did not hear back, they would just go anyway and hope for the best.

The family adopted an orphanage in the small Tarascan Indian village of Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacán. Every Christmas, they would pack the old twin engine Beech aircraft full of toys and clothing collected from Claremont friends to donate. Because there was no airport in Patzcuaro, Mr. Pierson would land in a rut-filled corn field, after buzzing low to chase off the donkeys.

“I took mother back to that village ten years ago, and they told her that she was considered a saint for everything she did for that village,” Ms. Schleicher said. “Of course none of us ever knew that the town really revered her.”

In 1954 they were a founding family of Foothill Country Day School, where Ms. Pierson was at first a volunteer and then joined the staff in 1964. She eventually became the director of admissions and community outreach coordinator and retired in 2015.

“Mother is the most adventurous and full-of-possibility person. I never heard her say a mean word about anybody,” Ms. Schleicher said.

Similar to her life growing up, Ms. Pierson allowed her children to have whatever kind of animal they wanted. At one point, the menagerie numbered thirty including ponies, goats rabbits, cats and dogs. “My father was not so thrilled with that,” Ms. Schleicher said.

Ms. Pierson never allowed a television in the house—the children had to entertain themselves in other ways by riding a pony or reading a book.

“Mother wanted us to be imaginative on our own, not just be entertained,” she said. “We led an idyllic childhood there before all the subdivisions. We would take off on our ponies and be gone all day riding up Potato Mountain or exploring the groves. My mother never worried about us.”

During the Claremont Heritage talk, Ms. Pierson reflected on the tranquility of her childhood home. “Life was so serene and comfortable up there that we never had a lock on our door. We didn’t know what keys were.”

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