Thursday, December 15, 2022

A Depression Era Christmas


“Someday” is what most of us say when it comes to going through mementos left behind by parents.  Well, that “someday” came to me when I went through the boxes of items left behind by my husband’s parents. Among the “treasures” I found was a story/letter written to Paul and Hilda Burnett by Paul’s Aunt Ellen in 1987. Paul is the 8-year-old mentioned. Vera and Jim are his parents. Buel his uncle, Vera’s brother.


Red Handlebars – A Depression Era Christmas
By Ellen Payne
          In looking back through the years, I remember that lack of money didn’t stop the enthusiasm for making the best of things. Times were hard during the Great Depression but we weren’t willing to give up and our sense of humor always stayed with us.
         During the Christmas season of 1932, I was living with my future sister-in-law, Vera and her husband Jim, in Long Beach. My fiancĂ© Buel and I were both professional dancers and were getting a dance act together at the time when the bottom was falling out of show business. Theaters and night clubs were closing by the dozen and backers were no longer around. 
Buel and Ellen

     As Christmas neared, we were all very broke. The only one who could count on a gift was Paul, Vera and Jim’s eight-year-old son, who was still pretending he believed in Santa Claus. In the spirit of the season, the rest of us facetiously made out a fantasy list of our desires. My Buel concluded his by specifying that it had to have “RED HANDLEBARS.”
      By Christmas Eve we had managed to find money to buy a little Christmas tree, but there were no gifts to place underneath, except those that Santa would later bring Paul. There was a promise, however, of a good meal for Christmas day for which we were all grateful, knowing that Grandma and Grandpa would be able to join us.
       Young Paul was getting very excited about the night to come. With Jim distracting Paul, Buel sneaked around the house, rang the doorbell, and in a disguised voice, loud enough for Paul to hear, indicated that Santa was in the neighborhood and would come later when all the children were asleep. I never saw a little boy, who usually was reluctant to go to bed, jump into bed so fast as he heard the New England sleigh bells, which Buel jingled as he went down the street.
Things looked bleak,
for Buel and Ellen
when the club failed to open.
Hollywood Citizen
 News 10/5/1932

          With the young one in bed, the adults got busy. Out came a train and a few other toys. The men became so involved in setting up the train, like little boys themselves, they had to be reminded they could ‘play train’ with Paul in the morning.
          The Christmas spirit overwhelmed us, and we four decided to look around the house for things to wrap for each other, to put under the tree for laughs.   
        While the others were busy, I took a flashlight and went to the garage to see if I could find something useful there. It was like most garages filled with boxes, tools and cast offs. Along one of the walls, behind a carton, I saw an old well-used, outgrown scooter, handles still on it. A search through paint cans revealed a partial can of red, quick dry enamel. I was in luck! Before I went into the house, I spotted an old golf bag and some golf shoes which Jim hadn’t used for months because he was putting all his time into starting an appraisal business. In one pocket were some tees, so an idea formed quickly as I returned to the house.
        Vera and Buel were wrapping their treasures and were soon finished, so I said goodnight to Buel, who lived a block away. I reminded him how much earlier than usual Paul would probably get up, and said to expect an early morning phone call to start the beginning of what would most certainly be a long, but enjoyable, day.
      As Vera joined Jim for a much needed rest, I brought my finds into the house, painted the scooter handles, wrapped the golf shoes and tees and put verses on the tags for the finishing touches. I had found a new, forgotten baking pan in a little used cupboard, so that finished my list of gifts.
       At last, everything was quiet but I don’t think we got much sleep before daylight when a little voice said “Momma, can we get up now?”
        A call to Buel, and he was there within minutes. We watched Paul delightedly set the train into motion and look over the other little toys waiting for him, he was a happy little boy.
    Many laughs ensued with the usual things we found to exchange, and our attempts at poetry. I received an embroidery hoop from Vera and Jim with a home-made picture drawn on a piece of white cloth stretched on it and a few strands of varicolored thread. The verse attached read:
Now go ahead and sew while we’re playing Bridge,
You like to be the Dummy
But you too still, seem bound to win
Guess we’d have more luck with Rummy.
       The pan I wrapped for Vera had this one on it:
What do ya know, I found this pan
And with it there’s a plan
Your cakes so delicious please your man
As well as we, who are also your fans.
       For Jim, who was surprised to see his old shoes and tees:
Meet your old shoes and golfing tees,
Tis long since you have used them
Relax for awhile, go on a spree
We’ll cover you ‘till 5 p.m.
     Buel had spied the red handlebars behind a big chair. Hanging on them was this little blurb:
Since I know that you have no car.
And you have big plans to go so far
Use this scooter to get your thar
It has for sure, RED HANDLEBARS
     When I look back at things worth remembering, this was a highlight. More affluent times followed but I still can recall the excitement and hear the belly laughs of that Christmas.        
       Oh yes, Buel’s gift to me was an envelope with money which he said to save for our wedding.

Author’s note: Buel and Ellen Neidel Bremer did save enough money to get married in August 1933.

They had 14 years together before Buel died in 1947, at age 38.  They had made Long Beach their home for 25 years. The Depression forced Buel and Ellen (whose stage name was Eileen Neidell) to give up their entertainment careers.  If they lived today, I am sure they would have been contestants, if not winners, on Dancing With the Stars.  Instead Buel became an insurance salesman and Ellen a stay-at-home mom to their four children: Russell, Judy, Valarie & Steven.


Saturday, September 24, 2022

Quest for Water


     Long Beach owes much of its water to both the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers. Significant amounts of water from these three rivers percolates to the gravel, sand and clay laying underground forming an artesian basin. Before 1868 water was drawn almost entirely from these rivers. Periods of drought meant dry riverbeds and calamity. But though the drought erased surface streams, it had little effect upon the underground reservoirs. These subsurface basins were finally tapped in August 1868, when workers employed by former
John Downey. Wikipedia

Governor John Downey drilled a hole into the ground some two and a half miles west of the village of Compton, and water came gushing out in a fountain four feet high. They had bored Los Angeles’ first free-flowing artesian well. 

     I’ve already written about General Edward Bouton (August 2022) and his big artesian well of 1898 which, when finally capped, had created a lake a half mile long and 500 feet wide. Today, much of the City of Lakewood sits atop an area once occupied by “Bouton Lake.”  But what did the pioneers of Long Beach do for water?

Long Beach Pioneers’ Pursuit of Water

In 1914 Clarence Wheeler Coseboom told a reporter from the Long Beach Press (1/23/1914) about his uncles starting a farm in what is now downtown Long Beach.  Around 1874, Walter and his brother Matt, both fresh from Kansas, arrived with 28 horses and pitched a tent at present day Pine and First. They found a gulley running to the ocean and sunk a 28-foot-deep water well nearby. They were lucky to have found water because many before them hadn’t.  Earlier farmers had given up the idea of raising crops in the area because of the lack of water. 

Pacific Park 1889. Source: Long Beach Public Library

Later, another well was dug at the north end of Lincoln
Park, formerly known as Pacific Park, about sixty feet west of Pacific Avenue. It was used to some extent for watering sheep. 

There was also the Cook family well, located just west of Pine Avenue, between Third and Fourth streets. Other wells were dug west of Locust Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets on the north side of Anaheim Road, fifty to one hundred feet west of Daisy Avenue; and on Frank Butler’s property south of Willow Street and west of California Avenue. These wells belonged to individual property owners and were not used to supply the community at large. They were sunk in the mesa on which the greater part of Long Beach was then located.  Since the mesa area was not a water-bearing formation, the water was brackish and of poor quality.

 In 1882, realizing that water was the paramount consideration, Judge Robert M. Widney, one of the early investors in Long Beach along with city founder William Willmore, concentrated on the water problem and its development and distribution. Widney utilized the services of William Mulholland, who later became nationally known for his development and management of the Los Angeles water system. In the Cienega north of 27th Street and west of Orange Avenue, there were springs which were seldom or never dry (near where Willow Springs Park is today).  A well drilled on this site developed an abundance of artesian water which Judge Widney piped into town replacing the first distribution system---an old white horse, a spring wagon and a few barrels. This six-inch pipe line was the beginning of the Long Beach water system of today.

Robert Widney. Wikipedia

Judge Widney also constructed a small brick reservoir at the southwest corner of American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard) and Anaheim Road, which he never used because it gave almost no pressure in the downtown area. It was enlarged by later water providers and put into service, much to the dissatisfaction of the consumers, many of whom found it necessary to leave their faucets open all night in order to accumulate a sufficient supply of water for the following day.

Running into financial difficulties,  Judge Widney disposed of his holdings in what was then known as Willmore City, as did William Willmore, and water management was taken over by realtors Pomeroy and Mills, who changed the name of the town to Long Beach.

What Happened to Lake Bouton

Much of Lakewood is sitting on top of what was once called Bouton Lake. It’s hard to imagine the arid acres of bean fields that once dotted the area prior to the arrival of Civil War General Edward Bouton.  Cashing in on the railroad wars of the late 1880s when fares dipped greatly and many flocked to Southern California former Civil War General Edward Bouton, like many others, had plans for development.

General Edward Bouton

In 1887 Bouton purchased 7136 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos land to build a town. Though there were already six artesian wells on the property, Bouton discovered more water and he soon abandoned his original plan, forming the Bouton Water Company instead.  

Artesian wells became plentiful throughout the region. So great was the pressure from the centuries of accumulated underground water that in many cases farmers merely stuck a pipe into the ground and got a steady stream. Such wells, known as “artesian” because they were first discovered in the French province of Artois, occur in certain geologic formations such as those found in many sections of Southern California.
     But Bouton’s “Big Bouton” of 1898 (not 1895 as some sources state) was special. It shot out water as if from a fire hose, spouting a cascade 80 feet or so into the air. Long before the well could be capped it had formed a lake, which extended more than a half mile in a northeasterly-southwesterly direction and was 500 feet wide. Carson Street and the westerly extension of Harvey Way pass across the area that was once below the surface of Bouton Lake.

By 1890 local artesian wells were irrigating a land mass as large as the combined areas of San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland and Portland, in a region which only a few years before had been laid barren by drought, and the end was not in sight. But those were the days of free enterprise. Competitors drilled wells in the Lincoln Park and Recreation Park areas of Long Beach. In 1901 rivalry, rate wars, and equipment failures forced Bouton’s company and its major competitor, the Long Beach Development Company to merge. This, and other water company mergers, raised water rates, which infuriated customers. This anger by residents resulted in the City of Long Beach setting up its own city water system in 1911.

Bouton Lake and Golf Course 1935. Pinterest

By 1911, Bouton Lake was drying up and continued to dwindle even though Bouton’s wells continued to produce water for the city. Within a few years the area north of Carson and east of Cherry was more a bog than a lake. In 1929, Long Beach voters decided to trade 113 acres of former Bouton property to the Montana Land Company for land that could be added to a growing city airport.
 Three years later the Montana Land Company turned the acreage surrounding the old lake into a championship golf course. In addition, about four hundred fifty acres around the course were then developed into one to five acre estates. Today there is a .78 acre Bouton Creek Park at Atherton and Litchfield in Long Beach.


At the beginning of the 20th century the US Geologic Survey discovered there were 2500 artesian wells in the Southland flowing at a rate of no less than 7,000,000 gallons an hour. But as the years passed and agricultural use continued, more water was required and many of the artesian wells stopped flowing altogether. Today even the location of most of them is forgotten.  

The good news is that over the years underground water has been replenished and is still flowing; the bad news is that much of it is contaminated by decades of toxins that have seeped into the water table, especially in the San Fernando Valley. Getting rid of contaminants, Steve Lopez pointed out in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times (7/31/2022), and the costs involved in treating and using this water, such as is done at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at UCLA, is expensive.

Let’s end with more good news: Those problems don’t exist in Long Beach. According to Lauren Gold at the Long Beach Water Department, 60% of Long Beach water comes from aquifers. All the water is filtered to rule out contaminants.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Too Much Water


Water has become a valuable California resource, and conservation is the buzz word today when it comes to water usage, but many would be surprised to learn that our area once had too much fresh water. There has been much talk lately of the devastating 1861-1862 winter flood that saturated the western states. In February 1862 the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers merged and a solid expanse of water covered the area from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach, a distance of approximately 18 miles. This was followed by a drought which lasted from 1862-1865. Grasslands dried up, cattle died and landowners were forced to sell their property. The Rancho days, which began in 1784, were over. The land was sold and those such as the Bixbys and Flints purchased properties, raising sheep, who needed less grass than cattle. However, history may have been much different if drought-stricken Rancho owners had known about the vast artesian fresh water wells that lay beneath the earth.

Before 1868 water was drawn almost entirely from rivers. Periods of drought meant dry riverbeds and calamity. But though the drought erased surface streams, it had little effect upon the underground reservoirs. These subsurface basins were finally tapped in August 1868, when workers employed by former Governor John Downey drilled a hole into the ground some two and a half miles west of the village of Compton, and water came gushing out in a fountain four feet high. They had bored Los Angeles’ first free-flowing artesian well.  The results were astounding, as former Civil War General Edward Bouton soon found out.
Bouton well. Source: Long Beach Public Library

In November 1887, Bouton made what the Los Angeles Times described as “one of the largest and most important real estate transactions ever made in Southern California,” when he purchased 7136 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos from the Flint/Bixby consortium (comprised of Jotham and Llewellyn Bixby and Thomas Flint) for $713,600 ($21 million in 2021). The huge transaction included all but the area around the Bixby home. Bouton, with Eastern backers, dreamed of making it one of the largest developed sections of the county. The General (as he liked to be called) planned on making improvements to the arid acres of bean fields on the land before placing it on the market. He made sure the deal was not completed until arrangements were made with the Los Angeles and Ocean Railway, a company he headed, to run a rail line through the development so people living along the line could do business in Los Angeles and go home to the country every night. He planned to sell land in parcels of 10 to 40 acres to also encourage farming.

General Edward Bouton - Source Wikipedia

In July 1888, Bouton plotted a townsite to be known as Bouton for the area north of what is now Carson and east of Cherry. Though there were already six artesian wells on the purchased property (Los Angeles Times 12/5/1887), the General decided he needed to assure buyers of an even more plentiful source of water. He hired Dr. Crandall a “waterwitch” with a divining rod, to locate this valuable resource. Bouton’s first well (with the aid of Dr. Crandall) was discovered in 1891, a second in in 1893, 300 feet from the first. (LA Herald 4/4/1897) Bouton was a fast thinker. He soon abandoned plans for a town, forming the Bouton Water Company instead, incorporated and financed by the sale of bonds.
"Big Bouton" Source: Long Beach Public Library

In July 1898, he drilled again and hit the water well known as “Big Bouton” just north of Carson east of the now Union Pacific Railroad. Folks from miles around flocked to see the well perform. The well “ran wild” and formed what was to be known as Bouton Lake. When the unruly giant was capped, it still spouted a geyser 80 feet into the air from a two-inch pipe. When the sun’s rays hit it right, the geyser-like column could be seen as far east as Whittier. The railroad ran tourist trains from Los Angeles to view the huge water spout which many claimed was probably the greatest artesian well ever drilled anywhere in the world. Long before the well could be capped it had formed a lake, which extended more than a half mile in a northeasterly-southwesterly direction and was 500 feet wide. 

Only one-fourth of the flow was utilized and the remainder ran into Lake Bouton, then into a slough which finally emptied into the ocean through Alamitos Bay. A strange freak of the underground river turned Alamitos Bay into an excellent oyster bed. Fishermen also claimed there were places in the ocean a mile or so off Long Beach where the water was perfectly fresh. Many thought this was above where the underground river tapped by the Bouton wells came to the surface.

In July 1898,  Bouton entered into an agreement with the City of Long Beach to provide water to the town. On August 20, 1899, the water from the Bouton well was turned into the Long Beach supply pipe sufficient to serve 20,000 people. 

However, Long Beach folk received an added bonus.  Bouton’s water had wonderful medical qualities, according to the Los Angeles Herald of June 30, 1901. The water did not reach the air before entering the pipes and was described as being in the “purest possible condition, soft as rain water with an extremely pleasant taste.” This was not all. On Terminal Island the water allegedly cured two people of rheumatism and other diseases. A sample sent to the State University College of Agriculture (now UC Berkeley) for analysis reported the water to be “remarkably pure for all purposes.”

Carson Street and the westerly extension of Harvey Way pass across what once was Bouton Lake. The lake also attracted ducks and hunters who organized the Cerritos Gun Club. Besides the slough which emptied into Alamitos Bay, a creek flowed out of the lake across the site of the former Douglas plant and the Municipal Airport to reach Los Cerritos Channel.

NEXT: What happened to Bouton Lake

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Lincoln Park


Since April 2022, there has been much discussion about changing the name of Long Beach’s Lincoln Park to something less divisive. After the city established the Equity and Human Relations Commission,  talk of renaming Lincoln Park and removing both the Lincoln statue and the 13-foot penny sculpture has been in the news. Native Americans point to three acts against indigenous people carried out during Lincoln’s tenure as President – 38 Dakota men hung in 1862; forcing 8,000 Navajo to march 450 miles to a new reservation in 1863, resulting in more than 2,200 deaths; the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in which approximately 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children were killed by American soldiers. I won’t delve into the politics of the issue, but will give a brief history of how the park got its name.

Pacific Park 1890

In the 1880s, when Long Beach city founder William Willmore established the town that would become the city we know today, he set aside free land to be used as a park. The park, then known as Pacific Park, offered a number of sports activities such as shuffle ball, croquet and horseshoes. It also housed an alligator pit, an aviary and a whale house which eventually was removed to make room for a library.

The city’s biggest draw was the sea, followed by Pacific Park, the Pike amusement zone, the annual Chautauqua, and several Civil War reunions hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In 1906, patriotic citizens decided to erect a soldier’s monument in the southeast corner of the park to pay tribute to those who had fought to keep the United States united. But politics then, like now, got in the way with jealousies among members of the Sons of the Veterans’ Auxiliary over who would get credit for the monument.

In 1914, the local women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic decided to rejuvenate the movement to erect a memorial to those who were involved in the Civil War.  A monument to Lincoln was decided upon.

The statue was the third of its kind in the United States.  It was similar to one located in Lincoln Park, Chicago, designed by Augustus St. Gaudens, and erected there in October 1887.  There was a similar monument on the battle field at Gettysburg.  The Long Beach monument was 22 feet 8 inches high, 7 feet of this was for the Lincoln statue itself.  The weight was 146,100 pounds, cut from granite quarried at Fresno.  The base was of solid cement. The cost was $3,000 ($80,000 today).

Lincoln statue dedication

On July 3, 1915, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, thousands cheered when the two American flags draping the figure of Lincoln fell.  The guns of the U.S.S. Chattanooga boomed a national salute.  The Municipal Band burst into the strains of the Star Spangled Banner. Robert Lincoln had been invited to the unveiling of the Lincoln memorial statue, but he could not come.  Instead, Col. James M. Emery, secretary of the Monument Association, gave a presentation address and James Hair recounted the history of the monument movement. 

Since then, the Lincoln statue has stood surveying the park named for the President best known for freeing African American slaves. It has been moved several times – to the grassy area of the roof of the 1977 Main Library, then back to the entrance of the park itself when locals asked for it to be put back where more could see it. Where will it be removed to if recent politics decide its fate? Perhaps to the public service salvage yard where many of Long Beach’s forgotten items of the past have been relocated, then forgotten.

If you are interested in learning about the first soldier monument commissioned for the park, which was cast but never paid for, and the unsightly base which was erected, just follow this link to my website’s yearly blog of events for1915.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Radio Comes to Long Beach

Ad August 1922. Source Wikipedia

Was radio only a fad? With 2000 radio receivers in use in Long Beach in 1922, most costing around $150 ($2500 in 2021), the answer seemed to be no.  Radio was here to stay.  But how could radio broadcasting be made into a commercial venture when anyone with a receiver could pick up the signal?  Advertising was of course the answer, but it wasn’t an answer considered in the early 1920s. Instead, engineers of the Western Electric Company were perfecting a radio design which would allow only those paying a fee access to certain radio broadcasts.  Intrepid radio enthusiasts, however, set up their own broadcasting stations and established programming, all paid for with commercials. Western Electric dropped their plans for paid subscriptions, giving way to commercial radio.  But it was amateur radio operators who had paved the way.

           In 1908, three 16-year-olds made the news. Percy Palmer (who would become Long Beach High School valedictorian in 1909), established a wireless station in a little building at the rear of his parent’s home on West Second Street. Learning more about the new “science” became an obsession which he shared with neighbor George Nelson, who set up his own wireless a half block from Palmer. Douglas Wallace was another enthusiast and along with Percy soon had their stations fitted out with batteries, receivers, induction coils, and lofty slender poles with connecting wires. Percy proudly showed Daily Telegraph reporters (8/5/1908) the over two hundred messages which his station intercepted while Navy ships visited Long Beach, most of which were messages sent by operators on the different vessels to the officers of the fleet.         

Ship to shore radio, 1904.  Wikipedia
In 1911, Wallace picked up a message from San Francisco, setting a distance record for radio receiving.  Wallace spent years studying electricity and electric currents. Unable to purchase many of the more expensive parts, he manufactured them himself so he could pick up calls from ships and from stations up and down the coast.  In 1912, the city council agreed the Port of Long Beach was of sufficient importance to have a regular station. They agreed to pay the expenses of moving Wallace’s station to the harbor where he could communicate with all ships coming to Long Beach which were equipped with wireless.  
          What of Wallace? He later helped the Radio Research Society set up receiving set amplifiers for musical programs heard over station KSS and opened his own radio repair shop.
Don C. Wallace (no relation to Douglas Wallace) was also a pioneer in radio. In 1912, at the age of twelve, he set up shop in a shed back of his home at 1431 Linden. He made a crystal receiving set, a transmitter, and learned the wireless code. He then built a 40-foot wireless pole. In 1913, he put in a radio phone station and sang songs which were heard seven miles away. At the age of 15 he began spending his summer vacations going to sea as a commercial radio operator on ships traveling up and down the coast. When World War I broke out, he joined the navy, becoming chief radio operator on the S.S. George Washington, President Wilson’s ship, which carried Wilson to the Versailles peace conference.
President Wilson leaving the S.S. George Washington.

Radio broadcasting was still very new, but Wallace coaxed President Wilson to make his Fourth of July speech into a microphone, the first presidential speech ever to go on the air. With the war over, Wallace attended the University of Minnesota, returning to Long Beach in 1927 to become sales manager of Day-Fan Electric Company's radio operations and later merchandising manager of General Motors radios in Southern California.  In his  spare time he built amateur radio station W6AM.  

            Others in Long Beach shared a love for radio and in 1912 formed the Radio Research Club, which met every Friday evening until the outbreak of WWI. In 1920 the amateur radio group, now called the Long Beach Radio Research Association, was revived by local businessmen who furnished space for the group at 244 East Third Street. Here radio publications were available for members, as well as wave meters for calibrating members’ sending sets, and buzzer practice outfits for studying code. Learning how to understand and operate what today would be called amateur or “ham” radio” was popular.  Students at Poly formed the Poly High Radio Club, which discussed the use of honeycomb coils, wavelengths, vacuum tubes, Tungas rectifiers and more.


Long Beach Press 12/9/1922

In 1918, following the war, 35-year-old Ralph S. Prest and 22-year-old Dean Bottorff opened a small electrical shop at 18 Elm. Perhaps life as a married man (he wed May White in 1919) led Bottorff to seek a new career. He later became a vocational education teacher. In October 1920, 22-year-old Fred S. Dean replaced Bottorff in Prest’s establishment.  The following year the two organized the Prest and Dean Radio Research Laboratory.  The 25-member group received its government license on April 10, 1922, filing articles of incorporation in July 1922. The call letters assigned to the station were KSS. Their clubroom and workshop were at the rear of neighbor Louis Rueb’s School for Physical Correction at 26 Elm Avenue. The group had raised $2000 ($27,800 in 2021) to purchase a transmitting set with a radius of 1000 miles.  The purpose of their organization, they stated, was to “make scientific investigation of the technical details of radio” supported by dues and initiation fees. Though they indicated the organization was to be non-profit, the two did profit to the point that in December 1922 Prest and Dean moved their retail establishment to larger quarters at 742 E. Fourth Street.
          Permission to set up an antenna and establish a station came from the Department of Commerce, which also set limits as to what KSS could broadcast.  News and stories had to be suitable for all ages and certain information such as movement of troops during war was taboo. One of the first broadcasts was on May 15, 1922, when Long Beach Fire Chief G. C. Craw spoke about fires and fire prevention. In the broadcast, Craw reported from January 1, 1922, to May 1, 1922, there were 9 fires in Long Beach, with a reported loss of $8366.76 ($138,675 in 2021). Heard throughout Southern California, the Chief asked all who listened to the broadcast to please contact him, so he would know he hadn’t just spoken into thin air.
          In July the station had its first musical presentation, sponsored by Buffums’ Department Store, when Laura Barrett Holley, a well-known dramatic soprano, sang. There was also a flute solo by B. H. Ireland, and bassoon and saxophone pieces by F. C. Greissinger, both members of the municipal band.
            At first there was a one-hour daily program at 7 p.m., later a matinee program was added.  Programs included news, music, lectures, occasional sermons, and bedtime stories for children.  The 50-watt transmitter installed at the society’s offices carried programs 600 miles in daylight and up to 1,500 miles during the evening.  All of the equipment was designed and built by local enthusiasts who met every Wednesday at the station to discuss how to make their broadcast service better.  The KSS license was held until June 1924, Prest and Dean finding running a radio store a more lucrative venture than hosting a radio station. They were right, radio was a booming new industry. By August 1929 there were 480,000 radios in Southern California, 1800 radio dealers, and 53 radios in every 100 homes in the region.
Press Telegram 4/2/1941

Prest and Dean survived the Depression until 1932, when Ralph Prest left the business, securing a job with the state highway department. Fred continued, changing the name of the establishment to Fred S. Dean Co. and in 1950 to Dean’s Electronics, when his son Norbert entered the business.

Hal Nichols. Source: Long Beach
 Public Library

On March 5, 1924, a new Long Beach radio station – KFON – began broadcasting from the Markwell building (which later became part of the Jergins Trust Building) on a 234 wavelength, with Mayor Charles A. Buffum inaugurating the station. A musical program followed. Lawrence McDowell, who later worked for the Long Beach Marine Department, came to Long Beach in 1923 to work for the station, installing the station’s operating equipment. The station, owned by Hal Nichols, changed its call letters to KFOX in 1928. For more check out McDowell’s oral history narrative at Long Beach State  and the 
Long Beach Radio History Blog at


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Rainmaker


In 1889 Ernest Harnett, his wife Julia and seven of their children left England for a life in America.  Long Beach, California, is where they decided to settle.  Polly Harnett Johnson, who passed away in December 2020, had been working with family diaries, letters and a manuscript her Aunt Ivy had been preparing 50 years earlier to publish the family's history. I promised Polly I would help her with her project and am continuing to do so. Today, as the world is experiencing climate change, I thought I would share a little from Ivy's research, and my own, on how weather was so important in the early days of Long Beach and Southern California.

HarPhoto courtesy of the Harnett family. 

When the Harnett family arrived in Southern California in October 1889, they were greeted by heavy rains which flooded the area interrupting railroad service.  Fortunately, their good friends, the Gulvins, who were responsible for them deciding to settle in Long Beach, put them up a little longer than anticipated. The Gulvins, living in Florence, twenty miles from the new town of Long Beach, said if a man had a horse, wagon and cultivating implements, he could, by crop rotation and proper irrigation, produce more on ten acres of Long Beach land than on forty acres east of the Rockies. With this in mind, and the fact Long Beach was anti-liquor, Ernest Harnett bought five acres out of town, on Atlantic near Twenty-fifth Street. 

The winter of 1889-1890 was one of the worst in Southern California history. The flat area between Long Beach and Wilmington was under six feet of water. The water rushing in the rivers was so swift that the 2600-acre Nadeau vineyard, east of Florence, was devastated. Around Christmas the flooding made Long Beach a virtual island. People were stranded in Los Angeles for a week, unable to get home. One man made it back to Long Beach by swimming three stretches of flood water! On January 1, 1890, during a brief interlude when the rail line opened, the Harnetts arrived in Long Beach. Rains recommenced the following week. Long Beach was shut off from all outside communication for three more weeks until the flood waters receded. What a welcome! Ivy wrote that 34 inches of rain fell that season. 

There were times when there was little rain. A period of drought followed the torrents of rain that greeted the Harnett family in 1889-1890. Though they had an artesian well for water and irrigation, Earnest Harnett and other farmers were anxious for rain. In April 1894 they decided to bring in a rainmaker, a Mr. Baker, from Visalia. Baker used dynamite to launch his “special” ingredients into the air. Why explosives? People had noticed that heavy rains usually fell soon after a battle, and surmised the rain was caused by the explosion of cannons and gunfire.

Rainmaking 1890s. Photo: Nebraska Historical Society

Baker launched his chemicals into the air and two or three times the barometer got down low enough for the rainmaker to tell customers rain was coming. However, a week after he made this statement there was still no visible sign of precipitation. Baker claimed if he failed it would be the first time out of 16 trials that he did not produce rain.

The town decided to hire Baker for two more days because it did rain quite hard in Fullerton. Perhaps the prevailing winds from Long Beach had driven the rain clouds inland towards the foothills. Baker, who kept his formula a secret, did make it rain a little. Unfortunately, northerly winds quickly dried up the moisture from the soil.  He collected his money claiming he produced about ¼ of an inch of rain for the town. He left in disgust because he said he couldn’t do more with the winds against him.


Flood damage, 1908-1909
Rain was problematic. There were years of little moisture, others with too much.   In February 1909, the San Gabriel River reached flood proportions, overflowing its banks. The river didn’t flow into Alamitos Bay, like it does today.  It joined the Los Angeles River on Rancho Los Cerritos land, creating a boggy area known as the Willows. A violent cascade of water swept down Pine and Pacific Avenues between State and Willow on February 11, 1909, continuing a headlong course down State Street (now Pacific Coast Hwy.) to Anaheim Street and the inner harbor.  Streets in the northwest part of the city were impassable with water four feet deep.  The San Gabriel River became rampant about noon, when the flood waters in the foothills added to the stream.  Soon the State Street Bridge was under water and unusable.  Old timers could not remember a worst rainfall since 1889-1890, when inhabitants of North Long Beach went around in boats.   The 1908-09 winter continued to be a wet one.  By the end of March, the total rainfall for the season was over 18 inches. The previous year the rainfall  total for the entire season was 10.04 inches. After other devastating flooding in 1914 and 1916 the region decided the issue of flood control needed to be addressed, but more preventative measures were needed as disastrous floods in 1926 and 1938 revealed.

Todays Willow Street Park. Photo: City of Long Beach

The raging waters provided a good underground water level. Just north of Willow Street and west of American Avenue there was a swampy place called the Willows. Farmers along Willow Street raised apples and other fruit. Many also grew grain and Ivy remembered areas of California poppies interspersed among the fields. In times when it flooded farmers had to take row boats to save their farm animals. One enterprising real estate firm, after one or two dry years, when there had been no flood, cleared off land, laid out city lots and built houses. The next year there were floods and water reached the window sills on the houses. Buyer beware! 


Water was valuable commodity in Southern California, and William Penn Watson knew how to use it wisely.  Ivy Harnett wrote of the Watson family and how Mr. Watson attracted the attention of horticulturists all over the country by his successful experiments in dry farming.  He believed that to water soil that could be farmed dry was an unpardonable sin. 1n 1888 Watson and his family moved to Long Beach from Linden, Washington, settling on a ranch at the Willows at the corner of Willow and Perris Road (now Santa Fe Avenue).  Ivy remembered her siblings telling how their father even paid a special visit into town to view the 61 pound, 2-foot-long sugar beet, and the 75-pound squash Mr. Watson had grown and put on display.  


Weather was a challenge in the past, but even more so today. Rainmaking is again being successfully achieved in Dubai and other areas around the globe.  Mr. Watson’s dry farming techniques are being used throughout the world. The weather changes we are now facing are also being addressed by other innovations. However, halting the  extreme problem of today's climate change cannot be achieved without worldwide cooperation. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be lowered and carbon footprints reduced.  We need to realize we are a global family, all sharing Planet Earth.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Auto racing 1904 style

Professional auto racing through the streets of Long Beach has been a yearly tradition since 1975, but did you know the city's first racetrack was established in 1889 at the west end of town south of Anaheim Street? There meets were held and horses trained.  When automobiles entered the picture, Long Beach's famed seven-mile-long beach became a popular spot for car enthusiasts to test the power of this new form of transportation.  As the 2021 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach approaches, let’s take a look at another race in 1904 that had everyone talking.


Barney Oldfield and his Green Dragon -  Source: Wikipedia

In December 1904, Los Angeles/Long Beach auto fans were excited when famed auto racer Barney Oldfield told the Los Angeles Herald he would lower the mile circular track record to fifty seconds or better at Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park), and break a mile in 30 seconds on the sands of Long Beach.

          Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield declared that the beach at Long Beach was better than any place in Florida for attempting to set a new straightaway mark. He knew other automobile enthusiasts raved about driving on the sands of Long Beach. One of them was Carl Hendrickson, an early Long Beach pioneer and the first Ford agent, who owned a specially built racing car, a four-cylinder Oldsmobile with wheels about 34 inches high.  Hendrickson loved to drive his Olds up and down the beach where other automobile owners gathered to race.  Hendrickson’s car was too fast to be allowed to race against other Long Beach autos, but Hendrickson would start the race and then pass the competitors towards "Devil's Gate” (where the Belmont Pier is today) to show the true superiority of his vehicle.  

           Though powerful, Hendrickson knew his auto was no match against Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon but was anxious to see the racing “pro” in action. The record in 1904 for completing a mile on a straight course was 39 seconds, set by W.K. Vanderbilt Jr. on Ormond Beach, Florida, in December 1903, but Oldfield was sure his Green Dragon could drive a mile in 30 seconds.  But before he could attempt his anticipated record-breaking Long Beach run, he set out to please fans by breaking another racing record...this one on a circular track.


Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park)
 - Source: Wikipedia

         On December 17, 1904, several thousand fans lined up at Agricultural Park in Los Angeles to see Oldfield, who held almost all the records in auto racing since entering the sport in 1902. The start of the day didn’t live up to expectations when local racer Frank Garbutt’s Snowball proved no match for Barney Oldfield’s Green Dragon, which beat Garbutt by ¼ of a mile. Though Oldfield’s mile in 53 seconds was impressive, it did not meet Oldfield’s goal of 50 seconds.  But things were soon to change.

          Up until now the Los Angeles Times reported, it was thought automobile races were called “races” by courtesy, when in fact they were nothing more than one car trying to pass another.  But auto racing, the Times continued, indeed became “racing” that day in Agricultural Park when Charlie Burman and Frank Garbutt showed the crowd that an exciting contest could result when two cars of about the same relative ability came together.

Garbutt had hoped his gasoline powered car would do well, but autos back then were little more reliable than a racehorse, so predictions as to what a given automobile would do on a particular day were hard to make.  Garbutt hadn’t beaten Oldfield’s Green Dragon, but he hoped Snowball’s engine was warmed up enough to beat Oldfield’s other car Blue Streak, driven by Charlie Burman.

          Fans rose to their feet after Burman's Blue Streak immediately took the lead. They started to cheer when local entrepreneur Frank Garbutt’s Snowball nosed ahead.  When Burman dashed for the lead in the backstretch the crowd moaned, and then roared with excitement as Garbutt finally jaunted past Burman at the very end, winning by the narrow margin of three feet with a time of 3 minutes 12 seconds. 

          When asked about Garbutt, Barney Oldfield said Garbutt was “a splendid fellow,” who understood his automobile better than most wealthy men (Garbutt made money in the oil industry, boat and airplane building and movie industry) who followed the sport for the fun of it. Barney also went on to say that if he had Garbutt’s money, you would not see him on the track. Instead, he’d hire someone else to do the racing!

Devil's Gate - Source: Long Beach Public Library

           Though Oldfield had been three seconds short of his anticipated time at Agricultural Park, he was sure he would meet his straight course goal in Long Beach. December 18th, between 1 and 3 in the afternoon, when the tide was retreating, was the time chosen for Oldfield to race from Devil's Gate to the Pine Avenue Pier. But the race was not to be. The Los Angeles Auto Club, sponsoring the event, cancelled the demonstration after the Green Dragon blew a tire earlier in the day, plowing through weeds and brush. Disappointed fans were not to see the famed Oldfield, the first man to travel 60 miles an hour in an automobile. Prior commitments, and injuries, prevented him from rescheduling the event.

          Oldfield never made it back to Long Beach to race along the city’s sandy shore. The seven-mile-long beach that made the town famous, is no more. Auto racing, however, has returned, with portions of the track following the course Oldfield hoped to travel.  Though racing fans in 1904 did not see any records broken, perhaps fans in 2021 will.