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Historian digs up little-known facts in once-fertile ground of California pioneers

August 13, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Even before Midge Sherwood learned that she was living on George Smith Patton's south pasture, she was becoming hooked on local history.

As she turned up horseshoes while planting a garden in the 1950s, Sherwood was also unearthing little-known facts showing that San Marino was once fertile ground for California pioneers.

Not all of them were as famous as Patton's son, the World War II general, or his neighbor, Henry E. Huntington, who built the renowned library, art gallery and botanical garden. But the San Marino area produced enough early politicians and innovators to convince Sherwood that it was also a fertile field for a career historian.

Sherwood's second volume on early San Gabriel Valley history came off the presses this month. She has written a third volume that is yet to be published and says she may produce two more.

"The San Gabriel Valley is where it all began," Sherwood said during a break in her research at the Huntington Library. The earliest ranchers built political and economic fortunes here, she said.

Always intrigued with history, Sherwood began her writing with some sketches for the San Marino Historical Society around the time she and her husband, Jack, moved to the city in 1956. That's when she learned that their home on Windsor Road was on Patton's old south pasture.

Patton's ranch was next to Huntington's, and the family home still stands on Patton Way. George S. Patton Sr. was San Marino's first mayor when the city incorporated in 1913, and his famous son grew up in San Marino.

With support from Historical Society members, Sherwood used some of her early research in the first volume of "Days of Vintage, Years of Vision." The book focuses on the San Gabriel Valley in the 1860s and on Benjamin D. Wilson, a state senator and owner of the 14,000-acre San Pasqual Ranch, which covered much of Pasadena, South Pasadena, Altadena, San Marino and Altadena. Mt. Wilson was named after him.

In the second volume, which has the same title, Sherwood has concentrated on James De Barth Shorb, a lesser-known early Californian who was a powerful businessman and influential in politics in the 1880s.

When she discovered Shorb's uncatalogued papers at the Huntington Library in the 1970s, Sherwood said, she found her occupation for the next decade.

"That was the point of no return," Sherwood said. "I knew I would write a biography of Shorb for the second volume. Shorb was Wilson's business manager and he married Wilson's daughter, Sue. George Patton Sr. married another of Wilson's daughters. So here I had a family saga."

Shorb planted vineyards throughout the valley and built a large winery in what is now Alhambra. He named San Marino after his family home in Emmitsburg, Md.

Some of the other influential men who lived and worked in the area in the late 1800s were Sen. Leonard John Rose, Gen. George Stoneman, Sen. Stephen Mallory White and Gov. Henry Harrison Markham.

Sherwood, a homemaker, said her books are a labor of love. She has worked full time at researching and cataloguing the Shorb papers at the Huntington Library. She self-published 750 copies of each of her books after most of them were pre-purchased by friends and members of the San Marino Historical Society. She said copies are in libraries throughout the country.

San Marino Librarian Lois Deines said she has just received the second volume of "Days of Vintage, Years of Vision."

"It has been valuable to our collection, because until now there has been nothing on Shorb except a few typewritten pages," Deines said.

Sherwood writes in a scholarly, detailed fashion. Her second volume has 36 pages of footnotes and index.

"So much history is superficial junk," said Sherwood, a crusader for giving history a more important place in education and in journalism. She is regional vice president of Westerners International, a society of history writers. She was a founder of the Huntington Westerners and is a member of the Western History Assn. and Western Writers of America.

In June she received an award of merit from the Conference of California Historical Societies for "distinguished contributions to California History."

"I honestly believe I'm serving my country" by being a historian, Sherwood said. "In our materialistic society, history is at its lowest ebb in academe, along with classical literature. So much of it is fictionalized, and history has been eliminated from some educational programs.

"If you don't know history, you'll do all sorts of wrong things. You won't even know what you're basing your voting on."

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