Nearly a year ago, we one of Sierra Madre’s founding citizens, John Jacob Hart, the musician and vintner whose former property became Memorial Park.
Months later, a surprise came—we received an email from Hart's great-granddaughter, Frances Hart, who lives in Portland, OR. An avid genealogist, she was Googling her great-grandfather's name and ran across the article.
The granddaughter of Frank R. Hart, one of John J. Hart's three sons, Frances Hart grew up in Orange County, where her father, Frank R. Hart Jr., worked as a real estate developer. Later, he moved to Oregon, where he founded Wildlife Safari, a wild animal park and sanctuary, in 1973. "[My father] had a lifelong fascination with Africa," Frances Hart explained.
Though she came to Sierra Madre with her family as a child, she was "too small to remember.” Yet the Hart family lore always held a fascination for her. "My own father spoke constantly of J.J. Hart," she recounted. "He and my mother had a sip of one of the last bottles of J.J. Hart's wine in 1947, when they were married."
Years later, she visited Sierra Madre during the city's 2007 Centennial. “I fell in love with the place—doesn’t everybody? It’s an unusually lovely place in Southern California with a genteel smaller-town feel to it.”
Though the Sierra Madre Historical Archives has a wealth of information about J.J. Hart, Frances Hart shared fascinating new details about her family—including Hart's German parents, Christian and Catherine, who emigrated to Cleveland from Kaiserlautern, Germany, in the 1800s.
“The original family name was ‘Hirth,’ not Hart,” she explained. “In Germany, ‘Hirth’ is pronounced more like ‘Hart.’ It bothered [Christian Hart] to hear the name pronounced like 'Herth' so he changed the spelling."
More details about John J. Hart's three sons were also revealed from our correspondence. Though they did not remain in Sierra Madre, they each made important contributions Southern California; John Wilson Hart served as Acting District Attorney of Los Angeles; Edwin Giles Hart helped incorporate the city of San Marino; and Frank Roland Hart became manager of the Southern California Music Company and an accomplished pianist who played with Enrico Caruso and others.
Subsequent generations of Harts made their own mark on the Southland. Of Frank R. Hart's three children, John L. Hart became a successful actor, Enid Hart Douglass founded the Oral History Program at Claremont Graduate University and became mayor of Claremont, and the aforementioned Frank R. Hart Jr. became CEO of Walker & Lee Real Estate, once the "largest land development-home sales organization in the United States," according to the L.A. Times.
Despite their many triumphs, tragedy struck the family several times. J.J. Hart’s first wife, Emma, died of tuberculosis in 1894, and Hart himself contracted the disease, struggling with its crippling effects until his death in 1932.
Several other misfortunes that befell the family. Frank R. Hart Sr. was stricken with influenza during World War I, leaving him with permanent heart damage that brought an untimely death at age 58. Edwin G. Hart was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 1939, just after he had recovered from a debilitating stroke.
Nevertheless, the three Hart sons left lasting imprints on the local landscape. Edwin G. Hart in particular blazed an impressive path in life, succeeding in several different fields. "He was likely the most energetic and toughest of the Hart men," Frances Hart explained. "He was very charismatic. You could see the energy in his eyes, and he was very attractive to the ladies. He liked boxing and was never afraid to defend himself in a fistfight as a young man."
Edwin became a successful real estate developer, and cultivated relationships with influential men like Henry Huntington. He was also a pioneer in the state's avocado industry, forming the California Avocado Society in 1915. After helping to found the San Marino School Board, and donating land for an elementary school in the city, he eventually moved to La Habra.
Frank R. Hart Sr., a star tennnis player during his youth in Sierra Madre, also moved to San Marino as an adult. His former house and property occupied the spot where Crowell Public Library now stands. All three of his children attended South Pasadena High School, along with future actor William Holden, who became a friend of the family. Holden, John L. Hart and other friends would play in ancient oak tree on the property—said to be 2,000 years old—which they converted to a treehouse.
Coincidentally, Frances Hart’s father reconnected with Holden later in life, when they were both on safari in Africa in 1971. “Mr. Holden was quite surprised to discover Dad was the little kid from the Tarzan tree house of his youth," she recalled. "My father wound up bringing several tour groups in later years to visit Mr. Holden's animal orphanage in Kenya, and retained a relationship with his foundation.”
Though many of them eventually put down roots elsewhere, Frances Hart believes that Sierra Madre had a powerful influence in shaping the character of her family. “I feel strongly that J.J. Hart would not have become who he was, and had such a creative, satisfying life without having come to Sierra Madre. Based on everything I've heard and read about him, he was really nurtured there, especially after the Civil War and other profound experiences with loss, and his sons were nurtured there, too. They acquired enormous confidence and capacity to succeed in life, and had a great cultural foundation as well, having been raised in that environment.”
Tracing her genealogy has become a long-term project for Frances Hart. "I appreciate the importance of validating the lives of the people who came before us," she told me. In October, she plans to travel to England and the Isle of Man to trace the ancestry of her great-grandmother, Emma Corlett. “I believe I'm the first of her descendants to do this.”