“The Last Best Small Town In Southern California”
Joseph D. McNab, of the Sespe Land and Water Company, who laid out the town of Fillmore in 1887 prevailed upon the Southern Pacific Railroad to establish a station in Fillmore and was instrumental in much of the development of early Fillmore.
The late 1800’s were a busy time in Southern California. The railroad arrived, real estate sales were booming and a pioneering spirit permeated the air. Every town liked to think of being the best place to live, raise a family and prosper. Our little Santa Clara Valley, which was wheep and cattle country, was no exception. The first orange grove was set out on five acres in 1888 as an experiment, ten years later in 1899 Fillmore was classified as “a horticultural center for oranges, lemons and apricots.” Apricots proved to be too risky so they were replaced with walnuts. Walnut groves also required too much work so in the late 40s walnuts were replaced with navel and valencia oranges.
Since 1950 many acres of avocados have been planted. The late 1800s oil was discovered and in 1924 the Texaco Refinery was built east of the downtown, it was shut down in 1950. When the Southern Pacific railroad came through our valley in 1886-87, company representatives wanted to promote the area east of Fillmore. The landowner would not sell any of his property so they went west to an area where the Santa Clara River and Sespe Creek meet. The Sespe Land and Water Company joined the Southern Pacific Company in promoting Fillmore, named after Jerome A. Fillmore, the Southern Pacific General Superintendent.
Two and one-half minutes before midnight on March 21, 1928, the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed. As the dam collapsed, twelve billion U.S. gallons (45 billion liters) of water surged down San Francisquito Canyon in a dam break wave destroying everything in its path. The flood traveled south down Santa Clara River bed, flooding the towns of Castaic Junction, Fillmore and Bardsdale. The flood continued west through Santa Paula in Ventura County, emptying its victims and debris into the Pacific Ocean at Montalvo, 54 miles (87 km) from the reservoir and dam site. When it reached the ocean at 5:30 a.m., the flood was almost two miles (3km) wide, traveling at a speed of 5 miles (8km) per hour. Bodies of victims were recovered from the Pacific Ocean, some as far south as the Mexican boarder. Telephone operators in Fillmore (notably Lauise Gipe) and two motorcycle policemen in Santa Paula notified people in their homes of the danger, until the rising floodwater forced their retreat.
On August 1, 888, a street map of the town of Fillmore was recorded in the Ventura County Courthouse. Fillmore continued to grow and prosper. By 1900 Fillmore had a population of 150. the first schoolhouse was built in 1874 or 75. It was 20 by 30 feet with three windows on each side. The first graduating class of Fillmore High School was in 1911 with four students.
Main Street was originally the street that businesses built on, but in 1903 a fire burned most of the businesses. A building spree in 1910 on Central Avenue took place, along with streetlights. Much of the land was owned by the Sespe Land and Water Company, which gradually sold off parcels to ranchers who began raising lemons and oranges. After 1910, large parcels began to be subdivided for housing. Other later tracts have been developed but have not detracted from the small town image Fillmore still wishes to retain. In 1914, Fillmore was incorporated as the City of Fillmore in Ventura County. On January 13, 1935, the last passenger train stopped here, ending a colorful era. Many changes have taken place and will continue to take place in the future as we continue to grow as a mid-western type town located in the very heartland of bustling Southern California.
Since the city’s incorporation in 1914, Fillmore City Hall has been in six locations. The sixth building is the beautiful Neo Classical building, built in 1997, and located at the corner of Central Avenue and Santa Clara Street. Fillmore has now grown to almost 16,00 population and still can proudly say agriculture is the main source of income. The railroad is back in operation as a tourist train, downtown still has the 1930’s look and the city still boasts that it is The Last Best Small Town in Southern California.