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Digging up history

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Packinghouse District Phase 2 is under construction

The Packinghouse District Phase 2 will sit south across the Packinghouse District 1, anchored by Sprouts Farmers Market, and PetSmart.  Packinhouse District 1 is also home of Plant Power, Luna Grill and Wingstop, among others.  The Packinghouse District 2 will house the Escape Craft Brewery and the Jeremiah Riley Whiskey Distillery, among many other retail shops.

Archeologists investigate by digging, uncovering and finding clues about the past to preserve cultures. But in Redlands, archaeologists are rewriting history.

After weeks of intense work, archeologists from the company Statistical Research Inc., spearheaded by Donn Grenda, uncovered and recovered thousands of artifacts that depict how the Chinese and Mexican people lived in China Town and Sonora Town, respectively, during the early years of the city of Redlands.

According to Grenda, president of the archeological firm, both communities coexisted for about 20 years, living completely different lives as artifacts revealed. Grenda said that in China Town, which had a lifespan from the late 1880s to the 1920s, most of the residents were men, and were heavily discriminated.

Donn T. Gremda

Donn R. Grenda, president of Statistical Research Inc., a Redlands-based archaeology firm studying the remants of the city's old China Town, displays a soy sauce pot.

“The Chinese showed up in 1882 and abandoned the site maybe in 1922 or 1926.  In 1893 there was a large riot and even the National Guard showed up. Discrimination against them was very heavy. They could not hold jobs or own land because of the Chinese Exclusion Act,” said Grenda.  

According to historic records, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in in the spring of 1882 and signed by President Chester A. Arthur. The act provided a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. In reality, the act discriminated against an ethnic group under the argument that it “endangered” the good order of the nation.

Grenda said that among the artifacts found on what was China Town were empty bottles, trash pits and ceramic pots. Archeologists even found the foundation of the old laundry room, a women’s cosmetic kit and lots of pig bones.

“Back then opium was legal and alcohol wasn’t. We found lots of empty bottles of alcohol buried because they could not dispose of them on the trash, otherwise they would be caught. We found some toys and what we noticed is that they had a diet rich in pork,” said Grenda. “We found a pair of boots, an oven and common things such as a cosmetic kit.”

The excavation performed around the Redlands Auto Electric Store, which will eventually become the Jeremiah Riley Whiskey Distillery, also revealed what was a brick structure about 120 feet long that could have easily house eight rooms. The Chinese population ranged from 400 to 500.

Grenda said that proof of the heavy discrimination against the Chinese population was the Redlands Emergency of 1893. Threats of personal violence to the Chinese developed during the latter part of August, forcing companies E, F and G of the National Guard to respond. Historic records indicate that such action discouraged the would-be rioters and the unrest subsided.

Mexican shanty town

On the other side of town, the archeological site has revealed a very different life for Mexican families, who were there for decades living in what Grenda has described as a “Shanty town.”

Sonora Town residents, mostly families, excavated deeper holes, about 6 to 7 feet deep, to fill with trash. Many of the artifacts found there were soda bottles, medicine bottles, plates and dishes and cow bones.  

Grenda said that Sonora Town was a domesticated area, a residential neighborhood with no formal buildings. It is difficult to pinpoint who lived there because the earliest maps don’t register Sonora Town and information from the census got lost during the 1906 earthquake, he added.

“It’s extremely interesting to compare the two ethnic groups, they had very different lives. There was a huge influx of Mexicans when the Mexican War began,” said Grenda.  

The Mexican-American War, also called the Mexican War, was fought between the United States and Mexico and stemmed from the U.S. annexation of Texas territory in 1845. The war resulted in the U.S. acquiring more than 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory.  “Acquiring” or “stealing” territory depends on who is asked. The term “influx” is also debatable since many scholars argue Mexicans were already here.

Grenda said that one of the best artifacts found is a woman’s necklace with the name “Laura.” However, without records of addresses it would be difficult to ever find the real owner, he said.

Sonora Town of Redlands should not be confused with Sonora Town of Los Angeles.  According to KCET’s Nathan Masters, Sonora Town was located in what today is Chinatown in Los Angeles and was home to many immigrants from the northern Mexican state of Sonora in the mid-1800s.

Many settled there after coming back from the north during the gold rush. By 1930 the neighborhood was completely lost because Mexicans moved to different parts of the zone looking for work, mainly in the railroad jobs.

Rewriting history

To Grenda, the project gives Redlands the opportunity to rewrite history as members of these towns have been usually depicted negatively.  

Mario Saucedo, member of the Redlands Planning Commission, agrees.  

“With the city being a little over 130 years old, it has come to realize it’s time to face its history,” Saucedo said. “It’s kind of unsavory, kind of embarrassing how discrimination has worked. I think these stories need to be told. I think it is important to interpret the story, to interpret the history, and it’s mostly based on the immigrant labor force that Redlands has in these two areas in town and that many of these cultures are here still living, families from those areas, maybe not the Chinese but certainly the Mexicans are in our town.”

“We need to be able to celebrate the diversity of Redlands in a way that says we come face to face with our history and be able to acknowledge it and celebrate it in our services, in our common areas and in the good and services that we do here in Redlands.”

According to Redlands’ Historic Context Statement, certified on April 11, 2016, Redlands has a diverse population from its earliest days, including Native Americans, Latino Americans, Chinese Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans and Dutch Americas along with other European Americans.

“Many of these residents worked in the booming citrus industry, and established neighborhoods and institutions to serve their communities,” states the Redlands Area Historical Society timeline between 1819 and 1866. “The period of significance for this context begins in 1819, with Native American and Latino involvement with the Zanja and Asistencia, and ends in 1980.”

By the turn of the century, Redlands’ citrus industry was by far its largest employer and the primary driver of its economy. Most of those employed were largely local Serrano and Cahuilla people at first, then came the Latino Americans. Soon, they were all joined and in some cases “replaced” by Chinese workers, stated the city historic records.

“After the national financial panic of 1893, the local Chinese served as convenient scapegoats for frustration about a downturn in employment; some Redlands residents seized on the 1892 Geary Act, which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act, as an excuse to attempt deportation of the mostly non‐naturalized population,” states the Redlands Citywide Historic Context Statement.

“An anti‐Chinese riot in Redlands in 1893 required the National Guard to be called out, and coerced most of Chinatown’s residents to leave. One source states that by 1896 only 24 remained.”

After such an embarrassing incident, Japanese workers began to fill the jobs left by the Chinese workers.

According to the Redlands Area Historical Society, in 1909 something “quite  extraordinary” happened in downtown Redlands. The building at 344 Orange Street, where the firm Kline and Underwood first opened, became a pool hall and barbershop run by a Japanese man who had come to the area attracted by labor.

“The area roughly around Central Avenue between eighth and 11th streets, became populated by many of them in dwellings, boarding houses and tenements, according to Sanborn maps from the period,” states the Historical Society.

 “The pool hall no doubt served as an important institution for the largely male community.”

Eventually, the tenements were torn down and the Japanese population dwindled and with the World War II Japanese were forced to leave the area and relocated to internment camps, an embarrassing chapter of this nation’s history.