Jean Platt had never heard of Claremont before her husband, Joseph, took the job as the founding president of Harvey Mudd College in 1956.
"It was a small village, heavily treed, with nothing above Foothill Boulevard but wonderful orange groves," Platt recalled.
Now, after more than 30 years, the Platts have joined the ranks of many city residents who came to Claremont to attend college or teach and stayed on in a neighborhood with a strong sense of identity, historical preservation and civic involvement.
Whether residents of Old Claremont are gathering for breakfast at Walter's restaurant, attending a lecture at one of the city's six colleges, chatting at Bud's Bike Shop or stopping for dessert at Some Crust Bakery, they are bound to run into friends.
"It's a small town which has a very friendly feeling to it. Shopping in the village always takes longer because you see so many people you know," said Ray Fowler, who has lived in Claremont since 1954 and owns the A. Kline chocolate shop.
Old Claremont is the residential part of town that surrounds the city's downtown Claremont Village and lies west of the Claremont Colleges. A city-protected historical district includes homes dating from 1890. Other homes in Old Claremont were built from the 1920s to 1940s and tend to be larger and grander than the early faculty bungalows.
Judy Wright, a City Council member whose 1927 Monterey Revival-style home will be included in a Claremont Heritage home tour this Sunday, said she loves living in an older neighborhood.
"We tend to spend time on our front porches, so we get to know our neighbors. We're close to Claremont Village, and the trees are wonderful," Wright said. "There's a quality of life here that we all enjoy."
Although many of Old Claremont's historical homes are modest, land values have soared there in recent years and the community tends to be comfortably well off.
Old Claremont residents are excited by the planned refurbishment over the next several years of the Santa Fe railroad depot at the south border of Claremont Village. Edith Fagg, whose husband, Howard, was the last Santa Fe station agent to work in Claremont, is especially happy with the prospect of the Spanish Revival-style depot's being turned into a station for a commuter rail line into Los Angeles.
"It's thrilling to think of it being opened again," Fagg said.
Because of the draw of the Claremont Colleges, residents tend to be well-educated. "More often than not, the leadership of the community is pretty enlightened and there are exciting cultural and intellectual things that go on here," Fowler said.
Along with the colleges, Old Claremont is unique because it has the only cooperative organic foods store in the San Gabriel Valley, the Yale Avenue Market. Local businesses are almost entirely individually owned and the village boasts high-quality bookstores, restaurants and coffeehouses.
For its size, the town boasts more than its share of committees, museum docents, friends of the arts groups, charity organizations and political forums. In the 1950s there was a film committee formed to make certain that movies shown in the village theater were of a worthy nature, Platt recalled.
Some of that civic spirit is the legacy of Claremont's founders, a group of Congregationalist educators who descended on the fledgling town from New England in 1888.
Before they arrived, "Claremont the Beautiful," as it was touted by the Pacific Land Improvement Co., was nothing more than a dusty, desert refuge for rattlesnakes and jack rabbits that nearly became a ghost town when the California land boom went bust.
But before the town folded up entirely, Charles B. Sumner and a handful of other Pomona College founders arrived. Sumner wrote that the only structures in the desolate town when he opened the college in 1888 were the railroad station, a hotel and two or three houses.
"No other sign of cultivation appeared except for a Chinese garden in an apparently swampy tract half a mile distant, while the wilderness pressed closely at the north, and all the veritable desert waste seemed to shut off all approach from the east," Sumner wrote.
The professors and ministers who came to Claremont missed the lush landscapes of Massachusetts and Connecticut, so they set about immediately planting trees, many of which still exist a century later.
Along with the foliage, the Congregationalists left other legacies in Claremont. Temperance was an important issue for the town's settlers, and the dislike of alcohol persisted for decades. Claremont did not have a full-service liquor store until the 1960s, and liquor was not served by the glass in Claremont Village until a pub opened there in 1979.
Another Congregationalist legacy is a unique retirement community for missionaries and pastors called Pilgrim Place. Located on Harrison Avenue in Old Claremont, it was founded in 1914 for retired people with 20 years of Christian service and its first residents were returned missionaries from China and India.
Today, residents of Pilgrim Place are the backbone of many of Claremont's civic organizations. "They're absolutely wonderful," said Ginger Elliott of the Claremont Heritage historical society. "They're the least retiring people I know."
Claremont Heritage is sponsoring a home tour and antique fair Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. The tour begins at 472 W. 10th St. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 on Sunday. For more information, call (714) 621-0848 from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.
CLOSEUP: Old Claremont
Total (1990 est.): 6,243 1980-1990 change: +11.8% Median age: 39.2
Racial/ethnic mix: Latino: 5.8% Black: 2.3% Other: (including Asians) 3.6% White (not including Latinos): 88.3%
Income Per capita: $19,325 Average household: $41,962
Median household: $32,403 Income Distribution: More than $150,000: 1.3% $100,000-$149,999: 5.1% $75,000-$99,999: 5.1% $50,000-$74,999: 18.2% $40,000-$49,999: 11.0% $25,000-$39,999: 20.1% Less than $25,000: 39.3%