Poor boys need to hope for more than janitorial work

When Newt Gingrich declared last week that he wants to abolish laws prohibiting child labor so children could be employed to clean up public schools, he took me back to my own long ago experience as a school teacher. In fall 1968, I moved from my Southern California home to teach fifth grade in an all-black public school, Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill section.

The Vietnam War was on and I was a young man of draftable age who already had had the privilege of a student deferment and a graduate student deferment from a war I was determined not to fight. Ever the thorough researcher even then, my research in 1968 had turned up the information that the Maryland State Draft Board was the most generous in the country for handing out occupational deferments for teaching at public schools serving the disadvantaged.

 My belief was that the best way I could serve my country was not by participating in somebody else’s wasteful and futile civil war of attrition in Southeast Asia, but in trying to heal some of the very real wounds and injustices right here at home. So I traveled to Baltimore that summer for an interview, and was hired to teach that fall.

 That September, I was one of three white men who showed up to teach at Carter G. Woodson. The principal and all the other teachers at the school were black women. When the principal met us, she gushed, “I guess you’ll be our 10%!”

 Teaching there was a collision of cultures for me. I had attended public elementary school mostly in new schools in new suburbs on Long Island (NY) and in Southern California. The Baltimore school building was of indeterminate age, but was shabby and had broken windows that were not repaired until after the first snowfall. I conducted classes some days with everyone in coats and scarves. The cardboard in the windows failed to keep the strongest snow gusts out.

 Once, another day, all classes were summoned to the school auditorium for a program. Before it could begin, the boys in the front row jumped up and began stomping their feet as hard as they could. As teachers do, I rose to my full height and prepared to confront them. But another teacher, a sweet woman with several years’ experience there, gently touched my arm and shook her head. She explained: “They’re just stomping roaches!” And sure enough, they were. So I let them.

 A white teacher – perhaps a white person of any kind – was a novelty to many of the children. One especially liked to ask me a question about the lesson and then experimentally touch my fine hair as I bent over her desk to explain.

 Over all, despite its difficult location in a poor neighborhood and its lack of resources, Carter G. Woodson was doing a pretty good job of educating – the girls. It had been, of course, a female dominated environment until we draft dodgers showed up. So the young women seemed to respond and to be working at grade level, at least by fifth grade.

 So I found it puzzling that the standardized testing showed such a different profile for the boys. Most had tested at grade level, like the girls, through second grade. But by third grade there was a serious lag. And most of the boys were stuck at third grade level by the time I saw them in my fifth grade classroom.

 I was reminded of the apparent reason for the boys’ indifference to school by Gingrich’s recent remarks:

 Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.

But at Carter G. Woodson in Baltimore in 1968, this theory was given the lie. I came to realize as I observed the boys there more carefully that there was one other male at the school, and that was Mr. Moody, a black man who worked as the school janitor. And the highest honor the boys could be granted was permission to follow Mr. Moody around the buildings and help him.

The boys, I further realized, had given up on the female institution of school because the only positive black male role model they saw there was that hard-working janitor. None of them seemed able to conceive of anything higher than to grow up to be Mr. Moody. And since reading and writing and the rest of the educational drill clearly was not necessary to pursuing his career, they had given up on education at about third grade.

My job, I decided, was to find some way to motivate them, to help them want to better themselves. So I went shopping for wall posters of prominent black men of that era – Sidney Portier, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, and others.

One morning I posted the posters on the front wall above the blackboards and waited for the students to enter the classroom. “Wow! Who are THOSE guys?!?” was a frequently heard exclamation. “You mean you don’t KNOW?!?” I asked them in feigned astonishment. Their homework assignment was to find out.

When they finally knew who those men were, they knew that it was possible for someone who looked like them to aspire higher than just to Mr. Moody’s job. They seemed excited. The point was made that an education helped all of those men to prominence. There seemed to be a shift in the boys’ general attitude. Suddenly many of them were more serious about reading and writing and math.

Ultimately I found the conditions at their school and the peculiar irony of a white man trying to encourage black boys to (perhaps overreaching, considering societal barriers) greatness to be more than I was comfortable with. I did not stay in that job for a second semester. But I have always wondered what kind of lives those boys made for themselves. And if I helped any of them in any way.   

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A Unique Perspective on “J. Edgar”

When I saw it recently, Clint Eastwood’s interesting new film, “J. Edgar,” stirred old memories for me. I know firsthand that he got at least one thing wrong, and missed another major opportunity to accurately portray long-time FBI director Hoover in his last days.
In 1971, I was a young reporter in Washington, D.C. Eager to prove my investigative reporting chops in the big leagues, I had just transitioned to a position as a leg man for columnist and ABC TV personality Jack Anderson. Anderson had heard that President Richard Nixon wanted to replace the top G-man. So Anderson decided to put Hoover under surveillance using the same techniques that the FBI was then known to be using against Jane Fonda and others accused of no crimes but being harassed by the government for opposing its policies, especially the Vietnam War.
I was sent out to interview Hoover’s neighbors in his upscale Northwest Washington neighborhood, stake out his house, follow his chauffeured limo, watch him and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, as they ate lunch every day at that same corner table in the Rib Room at the Mayflower Hotel up on Connecticut, and pick up Hoover’s trash.
There is a reference in the film to the possibility of going to Tolson’s “house” for dinner. But I know firsthand that Tolson actually had a highrise apartment in 1971, not a house. I know because Anderson had heard that Tolson owned a collection of antique vehicles formerly belonging to major crime figures arrested by the FBI. So he sent me out to look. Tolson’s building had a parking structure underneath, I found, and there were, indeed, several antique black vehicles from the 1930s parked there.
The Eastwood film does not include any reference to Anderson or my work for him. But at least two major biographies of Hoover included an account of my escapades picking up Hoover’s trash. I did so on several occasions, the most notable being one morning with a reporter from Washingtonian Magazine riding along with me.
The L-shaped alley adjacent to Hoover’s two-story brick house ran behind to the west and then on the north to the street east of the house. When we pulled up to the trash cans in the alley beside the house, we noticed that Hoover’s limo was still at the curb out front, engine running, and a film crew from ABC was across the street. Apparently the film crew wanted to grab a quick interview with Hoover on the way to work, but Hoover was refusing to come out of the house until they left.
Nonetheless, I opened the trunk of a large car I had borrowed for the occasion, and began loading Hoover’s trash into the car. Suddenly the film crew noticed me and began filming. That alerted the people in the house to my presence. Within a minute or two, Hoover’s chauffeur — a tall black man who seemed to be nearly seven feet tall — came to the side gate and loomed over me.
“What do you think you are doing?” he demanded.
I knew the applicable law at the time in Washington was English common law, which held anything put out as trash to have been abandoned by the former owner. Anyone could legally pick it up.
“He put it out to be picked up and I am picking it up,” I said simply, continuing to load the car. Fortunately the film crew continued to film. My chances of being assaulted or at least physically restrained seemed diminished by their presence. I flashed them a “V” for victory.
Meanwhile, my companion from Washingtonian remained in the front passenger seat in the car, but he was now shaking like a leaf.
“Don’t you think you’ve got enough?!?” he kept asking piteously. “Don’t you think you’ve got enough?”
When I finished my work to my satisfaction, I closed the trunk and we drove away.
Anderson reported on the basis of these forays into Hoover’s wasteland that the top G-man meticulously wrote menus for his housekeeper to prepare on small stationery emblazoned, “From the Desk of the Director.” While he and Clyde generally had a light lunch at the Rib Room, evening meals were heavy with beef and rich desserts. Although Hoover had railed against the evils of drink in WTCU publications, the trash included miniature Jack Daniels Black Label Whiskey bottles. The public and private man seemed greatly at variance. And there were Gelusil antacid packages, too. Anderson suggested tongue-in-cheek that it was possible Hoover no longer had the stomach for his job.
Hoover responded dourly, “The only time I have indigestion is when I read a certain man’s column!”
From my perspective, the major thing the Eastwood film missed, though, was Hoover’s severe paranoia in his last years. Hoover’s neighbors told me that he would not enter or leave his waiting car at the curb any time a long-haired youthful neighbor was anywhere within sight. And they pointed out that he placed a hat on the rear shelf of the limo, then sat on the other side and hunkered down. At the Rib Room, I also observed, Hoover and Tolson sat side-by-side with their backs to a wall, and vigilantly faced the entry way. The last time Hoover saw me there, he scowled at me.
He must have been particularly shocked when he began trying to find out who I was, and learned that my roommate was the son of an FBI Special Agent stationed in Oregon, and that the large apartment we shared with two other young men had been rented in the agent’s name. I do know that the agent was soon on the phone to his son, and the son made certain that I moved out. But not before a couple of men — one older, one younger — showed up with a large old Graphflex camera outside the building as I arrived home from the office. Since Anderson by then had written about my work regarding Hoover, I considered the possibility that they were with a wire service or some other news organization newly interested in my story.
“Who are you guys with?” I asked as they blinded me with the flash, taking pictures.
“Oh,” said the older fellow in ominous tones, “we’re just neighbors!”
While taking the last of my things out of that apartment one day when my roommate was absent, I found a letter from Hoover to my former pal. “Thank you for your actions in regard to this Charles Elliott matter,” Hoover wrote, adding to my astonishment that he especially appreciated my roommate’s “concern for my personal safety.”

I also know Eastwood’s film got the entry hall of Hoover’s house all wrong, since I went to the door one morning and looked in through the screen while Hoover was away at work and a cleaning crew was in there with everything wide open. That entry way was sparse in the film, but the real one would have provided a telling indication of his character, since immediately to the right inside was a pedestal with an imposing, life-sized bust of J. Edgar Hoover. And the wall behind it was covered with such things as framed letters of commendation, plaques awarded for achievement and photos of Himself posing with presidents including Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Truman.

After his death, Hoover’s coffin was placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol,  and more than 25,000 visitors passed by to pay their final respects. The coffin was kept closed. A camera was set up at the bier, and everyone who passed by was filmed. Someone was making a movie, checking to see who showed up. As I recall, I smiled into the camera. That time, too.

What’s that in your eye? Truth?

Mark Feldstein at the Nixon Library

“Who are you going to believe, me – or your lyin’ eyes?!?” Groucho Marx famously asked, with a conniving, eye-brow-raising leer and a dismissive wave of his big cigar.

Groucho was spoofing politicians of his day. That is a species of liar that – unfortunately – we continue to be familiar with today. And too many of ours seem even less connected to verifiable, scientific truth that ever before. They all seem to practice a known species of folie à deux or folie à plusieurs in which a delusional belief is transmitted from one dominant individual to another – or to many others.

Not long ago I saw one species of this kind of folly in action at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Mark Feldstein, author of “Poisoning the Press:  Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture,” was describing Nixon’s mutual hatefest with nationally syndicated columnist Anderson. During the early 1970s, Nixon spoke in the Oval Office with a top aide about the possibility of killing the columnist, perhaps by placing poison on the steering wheel of Anderson’s car.

From the audience, one woman of advanced age loudly declared that she simply would not believe that. Feldstein pointed out that she herself could listen to the tapes and read the White House transcripts. But the woman was still having none of it. She knew who she will always believe, and it was the President known to many – but not to her – as “Tricky Dick.”

This dowager was not about to be deceived by Feldstein and those “lying” tapes. Even though they were made by Nixon himself.

In every age the question of the real reliability of eyewitnesses – or “earwitnesses” in this case – is a vital one to researchers and law enforcers alike. Recently the New Jersey Supreme Court raised questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony – generally considered one of the most powerful tools prosecutors have at their disposal in criminal cases.

The “witness stand identification” of an  alleged offender has always been a moment of high courtroom drama in film and stage plays. But the New Jersey court is the latest judicial body to question this kind of evidence, noting a “troubling lack of reliability” in eyewitness identifications that has been identified by academic researchers. The unanimous opinion by the state court declares that the specific tests for eyewitness reliability, set out by the U.S. Supreme Court 34 years ago, should be revised.

The Innocence Project, which submitted evidence to the New Jersey court, suggests as many as one- third of the 75,000 witness identifications that take place in the U.S. every year may be incorrect. The issue will be examined by the U.S. Supreme Court in November. Their take on this vital issue could have serious implications for the way many U.S. law enforcement agencies handle eyewitnesses.

Any journalist or historical researcher quickly runs into the unreliability of eyewitnesses, too. As a reporter years ago, I once rode along on what was expected to be a major marijuana bust in Southern Maryland. When the police swooped down on the farm there was a large quantity of the recreational medicinal weed on hand. But the place was deserted, and no arrests were made at the time. Weeks or months later the case was prosecuted. And I was astonished to hear the lead officer tell a tale that widely diverged from what I recalled actually seeing with my own eyes.

It is also common, I have learned in the years since, for prosecutors to privately ask their witnesses leading questions that help to fashion their accusatory theories for use later in court. And for defense attorneys to conduct similar rehearsals with defendants, leading them step-by-step to a way of telling their story that mostly supports their innocence, or at least lack of criminal intent. So what did anyone really see or do? Jury?

Many people insist that we can’t change the past. But it seems to me that it is very difficult to stop the constant reshaping of memories to more satisfying versions. Nonetheless, I believe truth is important and we ought to strive to drill down to the reality of things, whenever possible.

As both a historian and a journalist I am acutely aware of how inaccurate news accounts of an event may be. Yet I still tend to opt for a contemporary account of a historic incident over an eyewitness recollection recited long after.

Researching Nixon’s student years for my book, “Whittier College: The First Century on the Poet Campus,” for instance, I found many published accounts of a small but illustrative moment told and retold by Paul S. Smith, Nixon’s U.S. constitution professor and a long-time president of the college. About the time Nixon entered the U.S. Senate, Smith began remembering how his star student in the early 1930s had once been too busy with school work or doing chores at the family store to attend a student meeting.

Instead, Smith said, Nixon generously dropped by with a container of ice cream for the group, apologized for not being able to stay, and left. Over the years as Smith retold the story and Nixon became an ever-more-important national figure, the size of the container grew and the flavors strayed ever farther into the land of 31 flavors.

At least that’s the way I remember it. Can I look that up for you?

Finding Clues to the Past Can Be Fun

To me, historical research is a very enjoyable activity that also has the benefit of helping modern residents to recover their own past. The historic business district in Whittier, California, for example had long ago forgotten why it was called “Uptown Whittier.”

But my historical research during the 1990s – while I was director of Publications and Market Research for the Whittier Uptown Association – uncovered the reason for that name, and it stretched all the way back to the city’s founding in 1888. Early that year Whittier’s founders arranged for construction of the Whittier and Los Angeles Railroad, a spur line connecting to the Southern Pacific. In a March 15, 1888 copy of the Whittier Graphic newspaper, I found the first published reference to Uptown:

 …After a run of an hour through vineyards and orange groves, villages      and farms, the train slowed up at Whittier. A crowd of not less than 300 was at the depot to meet the excursionists, and hacks were provided for the trip up town.  

The uphill ride from the train stop to the brand-new Greenleaf Hotel clearly prompted the first local newspaper editor to apply the soon-popular phrase, still in use today.

As fun as it is to me to find something like that, I also enjoy working with historic photographs, looking for clues to locations and dates on pictures that have little information with them. Whittier College’s first building, Founders Hall, erected from 1893-95, stood as the most prominent landmark on Founders Hill at the center of campus until it was destroyed by fire in December 1968. Many campus photos can be dated as pre- or post- December 1968 by the presence or absence of that building in images of other campus facilities.

But the oldest photos of Founders also can be sorted as pre- or post-1916, if you can see the south-facing roof. And the reason may surprise you. Although the U.S. would not enter World War I for another three years, in 1916 Southern Californians worried about the war. They suddenly became energy conscious and equipped many of their homes and other buildings with new-fangled solar water heaters. One of those buildings was Founders Hall. The solar heater apparently remained on the roof until at least until the scrap metal drives of the Second World War. 

Another technique for dating old photos – especially those from the 19th century – is to  inspect them for the names and addresses of professional photography studios. If you find the imprint of a local studio and its address, take that data to the old city directories for that area. In Los Angeles, for example, photographer Charles C. Pierce established a studio in 1886. Over the years that followed he would shoot and otherwise amass a collection of images of Southern California virtually unequalled, now owned by the California Historical Society.

A photo studio Pierce shared with J.B. Blanchard  at 515 N. Main St. can be dated to 1890. In 1893 he was doing business as “Pierce & McConnell” at 517 N. Main. In 1894 he returned to 515 N. Main without a partner. From 1899-1901 and again from 1903-05 he conducted business as “C.C. Pierce & Co.” at 313 S. Spring St. Thus undated photos with his imprint and those addresses on them can be dated fairly accurately.

Barbara Dye Callarman of the Downey Historical Society in Downey, California, painstakingly compiled “Photographers of Nineteenth Century Los Angeles County,” the reference work from which I drew that information about Pierce. I first saw her impressive research – including other biographical information about many early L.A.  photographers – in manuscript in 1993. I was so impressed that I soon published it under the imprint of Hacienda Gateway Press.

If such information is not already at the fingertips of local history researchers in your locale, this kind of research into the historic addresses of local photographers can be well worth the effort. Once compiled, it will become a resource for generations of history buffs  who are trying to determine the dates of historic photographs in your area. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of short-term project I would not mind undertaking myself!

Losing Pieces of the Past?

Gone, But Not Forgotten?

Whittier College (Whittier, California) asked me a few years ago to research and compile a list of that Southern California campus’ structures of greatest historic significance. The effort was part of the Historic Campus Architecture Project (HCAP), the first ever national architecture and landscape inventory compiled for independent college and university campuses. The national Council of Independent Colleges posted the resulting database.

I had previously researched and written “Whittier College: The First Century on the Poet Campus,” a photo-illustrated centennial history. As an alumni and a college employee, I knew the campus and its history. I also had served on the city of Whittier’s Historic Resources Commission during a key period when the city first made available Mills Act property tax reductions to residents who own historic houses. I had walked the streets to take inventory of historic structures, and received a tutorial on historic architectural styles and the characteristics of historic buildings typically eligible for historic preservation.

In the survey for Whittier College and the Council of Independent Colleges, I identified nine buildings – all but two built in a Mediterranean style popular in the 1920s – as historically significant: 1) Diehl Hall, opened as Addison Naylor Hall in 1918 as a science facility. It was renamed in 1997 for Richard and Billie Deihl, donors who made an upgrade possible for the Modern Languages program headquartered there today; 2) The Aubrey Wardman Residence Hall and Scholars Center, opened in 1924 thanks to a successful pioneer of the local oil and telephone industries. Originally a residence hall, it has added offices and classrooms. 3) The Wardman Art Center, opened as the Wardman Gymnasium in 1925, now remodeled inside for the Art Department. 4) The Wardman House, designed by the noted Los Angeles architectural firm Webber, Staunton and Spalding. It was built for the same namesake benefactor in 1927 and donated for use as the President’s House upon the Wardmans’ passing during the 1970s. 5) Platner Hall, built in 1928 with funding from David H. and Jennie M. Platner as a women’s dormitory and renovated in the 1970s for faculty offices.

Also: 6) Campbell Residence Hall, built on campus during the 1920s. Originally, it opened as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Entomological Laboratory, working closely with the Whittier District Fruit Exchange to eradicate menaces to local citrus crops during the decades that Whittier was a agricultural center. Closed in 1961, it was turned over to the college for use as a dormitory. 7) The O.T. Mendenhall Administration Building, built in 1928 by an Elks lodge that went broke during the Great Depression. It was acquired by the college in 1936.  8)  The Broadoaks School Building, one of only two of the facilities not in Mediterranean style. Built in 1948, it includes Streamline Moderne, concrete, glass, steel and stucco elements typical of some post-World War II construction. 9) The Lou Henry Hoover Classroom Building, another building not in the Mediterranean style, was built in 1948 in a more eclectic modern style. It is a tribute to the former First Lady, who attended a 1880s forerunner of the college and returned during the 1930s and 1940s as an active member of the board of trustees.  

But to me, the most interesting structures at Whittier College were not buildings. They were the John Greenleaf Whittier Monument and “The Rock.” The monument was erected in 1911 by community subscription and memorialized the 19th Century Quaker Abolitionist poet for whom the college and the town were named. My research uncovered newspaper accounts that declared a time capsule was sealed inside. But the college’s efforts to confirm that were unsuccessful until 2008, when the modest brick structure once topped by an electric light was summarily demolished to make way for an expansion of the Student Union. Sadly, the “time capsule” was poorly sealed and contained mostly newspapers and other perishable items that had, indeed, perished.

The Campus Inn expansion that prompted that demolition also significantly encroached upon and today overshadows The Rock, a boulder brought to campus in 1912 by students who proudly hauled it from the San Gabriel Mountains by horse and wagon. Embedded in concrete, The Rock has served as a symbol of the permanence and solidity of the college to generations of students and alumni. But in a recent edition of the alumni magazine – also called “The Rock” – the current Whittier president put up a trial balloon for the idea of “modernizing” by moving or removing and replacing that symbolic stone to a more “convenient” location on campus.

The Campus Inn itself also seems to have lost one of its most historic associations in the latest remodel. Once it was the “Walter F. Dexter Student Center.” That name honored the college president of the 1920s and early 1930s who did the most to set the institution on an enduring course. Dexter was President Herbert F. Hoover’s 1932 campaign biographer and recruited Lou Hoover to the college’s board. He also later was himself elected statewide as California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Last time I looked, his name was nowhere to be found on the hulking new student center. Alas!

Digging into the Rural Coops’ Nuclear Meltdown

Propane: the consumers’ choice

I have researched in-depth the history of two business-oriented Southern California cities, and the first one hundred years of a small, liberal arts college of national reputation. In that process for those three projects I became familiar with the resources and collections at many important libraries and museums. But my research experience is not limited to my local area. And one of the most interesting projects turned out to be about nuclear power plants.

As an investigative newspaper reporter early in my career, I frequently gathered information by looking at court records at a courthouse in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. When a clerk behind the counter finally learned that I was a reporter, she exclaimed, “I thought you were an attorney!”

While managing editor of the propane industry’s leading national monthly trade magazine I researched for a multi-part series of articles examining the reasons that non-profit, federally subsidized rural electric utilities suddenly were trying to get into the for-profit propane industry.

My research into the causes of this then-new competitive challenge to existing propane  dealers led me to archives of the newsletters of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and to an annual publication of the Rural Utilities Service detailing the annual budgets of the cooperatives and their status in repaying their large, low-interest federal loans. In the 1960s and 1970s, I learned, the federal government encouraged the coops to take those loans to become partners in the construction of nuclear power plants  to facilitate the proliferation of those plants with taxpayer subsidies. And I carefully examined websites and other materials that were on the public record, too. Some of the government documents I found on a trip to the East Coast, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland.

The reason the propane industry’s competitive environment was suddenly shifting in this way turned out to be that those nuclear power plants had turned out not to be cheap energy as promised, but enormously expensive. And no one had solved the problem of disposing of spent fuel rods that will be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Some coops had already defaulted on their loans, and more soon would, chalking up at least hundreds of millions in losses for the U.S. taxpayer in a little-noticed collapse of those loans that occurred in the 1990s and continued into the new century.

As the burden of operating and maintaining nuclear power plants grew, I found through my research, many rural electric cooperatives had increased their electric rates repeatedly, each time losing some percentage of their electricity demand. Consumers were switching home furnaces, water heaters and cooking stoves to less expensive propane or natural gas (where available). Some of these rural electricity providers, in fact, were caught in a “death spiral” of rate increases that decreased consumer demand, resulting in declining net revenues, I discovered. So of course many rural electric utilities wanted to recapture lost energy demand by selling propane, too.

The Day Lindbergh Barnstormed into Los Angeles

Charles Lindbergh in L.A., 1927

Commerce, California has nearly a century-long tradition as a industry-friendly city with a strong commitment to quality services to its small residential population. Its past stretches to Spanish ranchos, and ownership by a Yankee, businessman, smuggler and spy and his child bride, who become the wealthiest woman of her era in Southern California.

During the early 20th century the area saw the rise of a large brickyard that served the rapid growth of the region – manned by a predominately Mexican work force, with its own housing, restaurant, pool hall, Catholic church, and even a band that marched in Pasadena’s 1925 Rose Parade.

In the 1920s a major manufacturing district developed, with a vast rail freight yard and more than 100 factories, including auto assembly plants. Among automobile tire manufacturers, one erected an especially lavish plant, styled like an ancient Assyrian palace (remodeled for reuse today as Citadel Outlets, a center of outlet stores).

Commerce’s city staff called me in 1989. They said they had seen and liked my other books, “Historic Torrance” and “Whittier College: The First Century on the Poet Campus.” Would I consider researching and writing “City of Commerce: An Enterprising Heritage” (Hacienda Gateway Press, 1991)? Of course, I said. But first I had to find Commerce on a map.

Research, research! The bulk of the photographs, clippings, historical documents and other materials for the project already had been gathered by the Commerce Public Library. Other city departments also offered material of interest.

I was by then familiar with the collections at many other libraries and museums through my work on the two earlier photo-illustrated books. At the Southwest Museum in South Pasadena I found maps and Native American artifacts of interest. Also helpful were the Los Angeles Public Library’s outstanding photography collection, the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s research library, UCLA Research Library’s special collections, the Los Angeles Times, the Whittier Public Library, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, UCLA’s Map Library, and Whittier College’s Fairchild Aerial Photography Collection.

On this project, I worked closely with an Advisory Committee composed of nine long-time local residents and three business leaders. They helpfully read the early proofs. In the course of the research, I interviewed more two dozen people, including not only committee members but city officials and council members. All added significant dimensions to the project. Audio tapes of those sessions were added to the Commerce Library’s archives. Ray Ramirez, a Commerce staffer born and raised in the city and a local history buff, generously shared a considerable collection of his own and was a key person keeping me on track and connecting me with much that was important.

Much about this city and its people – especially Simons Brick Co. and the families there in the early days – remains among my enduring memories. But one surprising and enjoyable item I found in published material centered on an early airport in the Commerce area from which the first air mail in the U.S. began to be flown East in 1924.   

Charles Lindbergh, the famed flyer who piloted “The Spirit of St. Louis” airplane solo across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris in 1927, set down at Vail Field on Sept. 20, 1927. Greeted by the mayor of Los Angeles, hailed by thousands of people as he was driven in an open car in a downtown parade, he was even welcomed by movie queens Mary Pickford and Marion Davies and honored by a Chamber of Commerce dinner.

Pete Ramirez, told me he was then 16 and – after picking walnuts in Santa Ana – returned home to the brickyard to find the airfield surrounded by a crowd. When Lindbergh’s plane flew into view at 1:40 p.m., “I couldn’t believe that someone could have flown so far in such a small plane.”

Flying in from Reno, the Los Angeles Times reported, Lindbergh’s legendary plane “came from the northeast, flashed in a wide, majestic arc over the northern foothills, clipping in friendly salute over Hollywood, then zoomed up and away toward Los Angeles. At a lower level, roaring its song of speed and victory, the Spirit of St. Louis flashed and dipped and banked in four vast circles over the downtown section and then roared away to the east – to Vail Field.

“Straight across the field from east to west, he flashed, and then back again, banking sharply to the north and then zooming up toward the north to a tremendous height. As a final treat to the patient and thrilled crowd, he hurtled down to earth at blinding speed, straightened out when about 50 feet from the ground, banked again and came down with a slight bounce at the southeast end of the field.”

The Times headlined: “Los Angeles Thunders Greeting to Lindbergh: Million Persons Cheer as He Swoops to Earth in His Silver Bird.” And it observed breathessly: “For seven mad, memorable hours yesterday, Los Angeles and her adjacent sister cities put on their greatest show. A slim, modest, blue-eyed youngster – the stamp of illimitable distances and horizons on his face – was the cause.”


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Charles Elliott