Who was Palomar’s ‘Butterfly Girl?’

Who was Palomar’s ‘Butterfly Girl?’
Esther Parnell Hewlett aka "The Butterfly Girl." Photo Courtesy of the Robert E. Ellingwood Model Colony History Room, Ontario City Library

ESCONDIDO — While most people can appreciate a beautiful butterfly, Esther Parnell Hewlett had a true love for them. So much so that she created a cottage industry raising and later selling them to people the world over starting in the 1920s.

As a result, she will be forever known as the “Butterfly Girl of Palomar.”

And someone who hopes to bring her into the forefront even more and perhaps even make her a household name is Peter Brueggeman.

Brueggeman recalled he discovered “The Butterfly Girl,” while researching and knew he had to write her biography.

For months he has been doing just that — researching her and writing her story, which is a work in progress. It will be posted on his Palomar Mountain history website  in the near future. 

“I decided to research and write about her because there are several mentions of her in various historical items on Palomar Mountain,” he said. “She’s interesting to me due to butterfly farming being an unusual and unexpected activity on Palomar Mountain. She was an entrepreneur at an early age and for that time period, being a female entrepreneur makes her very interesting.”

So, who was the “Butterfly Girl”? Someone who was before her time.

Early on

While growing up as a teenager on her family’s apple orchard on Palomar after they moved there in 1913, there were always butterflies flying and flittering around. It is perhaps at that time when the fascination began for Hewlett.

She read in a magazine about a young woman who raised butterflies for money, paying her way through college. 

Hewlett took $5 (a large sum in that day) and subscribed to a yearlong correspondence course from that young woman about how to go about raising them for money.

With said instructions she covered tree branches with net or paper bags which held butterflies that produced eggs, then caterpillars and later the chrysalises for a whole new group of butterflies to sell.

Her business took off so much that she was able to get the entire family involved, thus it became their livelihood for years. The family moved from Palomar to Upland in 1920 in order to live where butterflies could be more easily farmed.

The cover of Catherine M. Wood’s 1937 book, “Palomar: From Tepee to Telescope.” 

“Miss Hewlett is enthusiastically in love with her chosen occupation and plans for bigger business next year,” wrote the Ontario Daily Report on Oct. 30, 1920, provided by the Ontario Library. “When one can unite an intense love for the great outdoors and a study of its beauties and marvels, with a successful business, the combination is a happy and satisfying one.”

She advertised butterfly and moth specimens for sale in lepidoptery (butterfly collector) magazines, and many collectors from around the world contacted her to buy her specimens. She and her family also mounted butterflies with dried plants in artworks for sale, such as trays, pictures and jewelry boxes.

At one point her business was exporting butterflies to such far way places as South Africa.

According to another article, in the Los Angeles Times in Oct. 28, 1923, “around 1921, the family business was asked to fill an order for tens of thousands of small pale-blue butterflies needed by a manufacturer of glass lockets and other ornaments.

The Hewletts worked “dawn to dark” for several weeks collecting the butterflies mostly in an area near Redlands where the insects seemed to congregate,” the article added.

Also, while in Palomar, she was able to capture the then unknown tiger moth — Apantesis hewletti —later named in her honor, according to the 1937 book, “Palomar: From Tepee to Telescope” by Catherine M. Wood.

But don’t be mistaken, this wasn’t an easy business.

Her dad, Walter, had applied to forest officials to lease a 30-acre tract in Cucamonga Canyon for $50 a year to plant flowers and raise butterflies in large numbers. It was not approved immediately but was reversed on appeal in late 1923.

Then the Los Angeles Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals said in January 1924 it was investigating the method she used to kill the insects — via arsenic gas — suggesting chloroform was more humane. Although that issue never affected the Hewlett operation, according to another article.

By the time World War II began it was hard to cultivate butterflies and things changed for the Hewlett family.

But this didn’t keep Hewlett down for long, she promoted her artwork and in 1940, she wrote “Butterflies for a Hobby,” about raising and processing butterflies and how to incorporate them in art. Copies of the book are in Upland’s Cooper Museum.

Crocheting

As a teenager, Hewlett loved crocheting and created new crochet designs, getting those designs published in women’s magazines starting in her teenage years. As she developed her crochet expertise, publishing her crochet designs became a source of income along with the family butterfly business.

Her skills and determination for the craft led to her becoming a world-renowned crocheting designer, a hobby that she had also enjoyed as a young gal.

“She has been originating crochet designs and planning crochet books since the mid ‘30s,” said a 1953 article in the Ontario Daily Report. “After designing and making the new piece, Miss Hewlett prepares charts and diagrams and other explanations for the books. After the new designs are color photographed, she plans the entire book.”

She went on to produce 150 to 200 designs a year for publication and her brother Frank took the photographs for her many books and magazine articles.

In 1954, she created “the first new look in crocheting in years,” said the Daily Report on Sept. 1. It was a wrought-iron design made with black thread. Following the dark metal trend of that time, she also produced a line of table appointments and other accessories such as fruit bowls, wall hanging and flower holders.

Esther Parnell Hewlett died in 1975.

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