Monday, December 19, 2016

Creation of a City

An Excerpt from my book Prohibition Madness

         On April 7, 1924, the City of Signal Hill was created when voters in the oil district cast 348 ballots in favor of incorporation and 211 against.  Because of oil discovered on the "hill" in 1921 they were now the richest city in America.
            Forty-eight year-old Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson was elected mayor and won the distinction of becoming the first female mayor in Southern California.  The Jessie Elwin Nelson Academy on Signal Hill is named in her honor. 
         A correspondent for the Long Beach Press Telegram, Jessie Nelson’s story was the first to describe the initial discovery of oil on Signal Hill, the “spudding in” of the Shell oil well on June 23, 1921.  She evocatively captured the scene in the Press Telegram:

            “Gravel, shot from the vortex of the roaring gas spout, stripped the insulation from nearby electric wires.  The resultant sparks ignited the gas and writhing jets of flame set a lurid light over the landscape.” 

            The Tennessee native had lived on Signal Hill for twenty years in an old fashioned yellow frame house set among a ragged cluster of trees with a grand panorama.  Pigeons cooed about the home at Cherry Avenue and Hill Street and a bay mare had the back lot all to herself. When the Nelsons settled on the Hill in 1904 only eight houses could be counted on the plains below. Jessie’s husband, Zechariah T. Nelson, had relentlessly sought to preserve Signal Hill as a residential district, unmarked by industry.  It was he who was instrumental in securing a scenic drive on the hill and other improvements. Perhaps it was the discovery of oil and the altering of the place he loved that caused him to die of a heart attack on July 4th 1922, at the age of seventy-three.  But Jessie accepted the changes fate had brought and explained it was “taxation without representation” that forced the Hill to incorporate:

            “We paid $20,000 to the county for library tax, but we had no library. We paid the county road tax of 35 cents per $100 valuation, making a $140,000 road fund. We paid $500,000 a year to Long Beach for schools, but we had no schools.  We want a good, modern town when the derricks are gone.”          

Signal Hill City Hall after 1933 earthquake

            But it was no longer a place where many people chose to live.  The 1500 people who called the Hill “home” in 1924 resided in three residential areas, apart from the derricks.  However, they had to live with the hissing sound of escaping steam and  a constant whine of noise from the pumping of machines.  Signal Hill was by day an industrial landscape, sown with derricks springing like monsters from the earth.  By night, when accumulations of natural gas burning with a muffled roar illuminated the sky, Signal Hill became a Dantesque landscape of flares and shadows, filled with the drone of still pumping machinery.   Mayor Nelson  resigned in 1925, broken health given as the reason. (Press Telegram  3/17/1925), though others thought it was because of what the city had become (Press Telegram 3/11/1925).  But as an independent city it could cast its own future, and it did---one that went easy on gamblers, bootleggers and crime, until urban development in the later part of the 20th century made it a respectable and desirable place to live once again. 

Walter Case's History of Long Beach and Vicinity (1927), also used as source for this story.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Signal Hill Model T Climb


         Many of you may remember the Model T Hill Climb held every year from “around” 1957-1977 on Signal Hill.  I say “around” because the dates are disputed, though an article from the March 11, 1957 Press-Telegram about the hill climb stated it was the 3rd such event, pushing the start of the annual climb to 1954, the same year the Long Beach Model T Club was formed.  Subsequent news accounts of the climb pinpoint the date at 1956 or 1957.  Also in dispute is the date of the last climb. Some say it was in 1978, but the final article I can find in news sources is 1977.  In any case, Model T enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t a Ford Model T that first made it up the steep grade on Hill Street between Obispo and Temple on Signal Hill.  It was a Maxwell stock car in September 1920.

Mary Pickford owned a Maxwell
           The Maxwell was known as “the car that laughs at hills,” according to a March 1915 ad in the American Motorist:

          “The Maxwell is the car in which “Wild Bill” Turner made the world-record climb up Mt. Hamilton to the famous Mt. Lick Observatory. The Maxwell is the car that Billy Carlson drove 9 miles up Mt. Wilson, California, over snow and ice, around sharp dangerous curves, climbing 6,000 feet in 29 minutes and 1 second, breaking the previous record of 42 minutes.”

            The ad went on to state that “every man that owns a Maxwell is able to laugh at hills.”

From the Los Angeles Herald 9/25/1920
           For four years cars of all sorts had tried to make the difficult and dangerous climb up Signal Hill the Los Angeles Herald of September 25, 1920 reported, but had failed. There was a curving road up Signal Hill from Cherry Avenue which was easily climbable by automobiles, but it had long been termed “impossible” directly from the foot of the hill up its steep side to the top. There was no grade on the road. The only markings on the route were made by autos trying futilely to reach the summit. For years there had been tales of cars that had to be towed back to a garage after attempting such a climb.  In fact the grade off Hill Street between Obispo and Temple had even been described as Southern California’s own Mount Everest (Press-Telegram 5/21/1973). It was E. H. Stenninger and his sturdy Maxwell that first successfully made the grade.  He began at a standing start since there wasn’t room for a running start. He had invited some of the men from the Long Beach Maxwell dealership to ride with him, all refused.  They did, however, agree to come out and watch as Stenninger pushed his machine up a grade of 40 per cent.  Just to prove his car had “taken” the climb with no ill effects, Stenninger went down the hill and repeated his performance.

Model T's ready to climb Signal Hill
            Not many Maxwell stock cars are around anymore, but you will still find the Model T.  One reason might have been the price.  A 1916 Maxwell, for example, sold for $655, while a Model T could be purchased for $360.  This was when the average annual household income was $708.
     Ronald MacWillie, president of the Long Beach Model T Club in 1955, told reporter Dave Emery that there was a reason Henry Ford sold 15 million of the T’s from 1908 until 1927. “They were marvelous cars,” MacWillie said. “They start quick and they’ve got better visibility than modern cars. With the top down, it’s just like sitting in the middle of the street in a bathtub. Model T’s are like little toys, you open the hood and there is nothing there. Anyone could fix anything that went wrong. It’s like a little sewing machine motor – 22 horse power. (Press Telegram 6/30/1955).  MacWillie, who drove a 1914 Model T touring car and a 1914 Model T pie wagon, held Model T Club meetings in the big garage he built to house his classic machines.
                The Signal Hill climb was the only known one of its kind in the United States for Model T Fords, officers of the Long Beach Club told reporter George Robeson in 1961. They also revealed a few things you had to remember about the design of a Model T before you could drive it uphill.  For instance, if the gas tank wasn't full or nearly full, you would run out of gas halfway up the hill. Model T's had no fuel pump - the gas was gravity-fed to the carburetor, and when the car started up hill the tank was lower than the carburetor.  One way to get around this issue was to drive your Model T backwards up the hill, something many participants in the Signal Hill climb did every year!

            Signal Hill was also known for its Soap Box Derby races, though they used Palm Drive instead of Hill Street.  All was to come to an end in 1977.  It seemed skateboarders had gotten in the way.
Skateboarding Hill Street
              In 1975 skateboarding was hugely popular and the producer of ABC's television program, The Guinness Book of World Records wanted to shoot a skateboarding event for the show. The annual Model T climb of Signal Hill and the steep incline was remembered. It seemed the natural place to hold a skateboarding event.   For the next few years the Hill Street incline became the site of some of the most dangerous skateboarding on record. Wild parties, daring stunts and many accidents led the City of Signal Hill to cancel future events on Hill Street, including the Model T hill climb.  Though there was talk in 1981 and 1988 of resurrecting the Model T hill event, nothing happened.  It seemed the Long Beach Grand Prix, with its fast cars and action had upstaged the slower paced Model T’s.
Hill Street today

           If you have comments or memories please feel free to share them with others reading this blog.  I’ve included several links below to take you to others who remember the Signal Hill climb.

ONLY IN LB By Steve Harvey


Friday, September 16, 2016

Early Signal Hill Settlers - The Dillon Family

Henry Clay Dillon 1846-1912

            One of the first to make Signal Hill their home was the Dillon family.  They transformed their 140 acres of sage and mustard into one of the most beautiful and productive farms/orchards in Southern California. Their beautiful home became one of the centers of social life in the area. 
           The patriarch of the family was Henry Clay Dillon. H. C., as he was known, was born November 6, 1846, in Lancaster, Wisconsin, where he received his early schooling. He later graduated from Racine College in 1872, and was admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin two years later. In 1876 he married Florence Hood of Denver, Colorado. Henry and Florence brought their family to what was then known as "Cerritos Hill" in the spring of 1887. They had come from Denver to settle outside the new town of Long Beach.  Here Dillon wore two hats, one as a farmer, the other as an attorney.
View from Signal Hill 1901
        Theirs was the "finest farm in this part of Southern California" according to the Los Angeles Herald of December 4, 1892.  It was "admirably situated on the south slope of Signal Hill, three miles from Long Beach and commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding mesa and the sea." Dillon's 140 acres had been purchased from Rancho Los Cerritos owner Jotham Bixby for $150 an acre in 1887.  The land was covered entirely with sage brush and mustard plants, which had to be cleared. There was much work to be done. They first built a barn, where they lived until the house was finished.  Reservoirs were then built, windmills installed and orchards planted --- oranges and lemons, walnuts, olives and lots of guavas and figs. They called their farm Colorado Orchards.  

            H. C. was elected Long Beach city attorney in 1889, a position he held until October 1891, but the job didn't pay much. By 1890 the Dillons had spent more than $100,000 on improving their land. To support his farm, and family, H. C. resigned as Long Beach city attorney and opened a law office in downtown Los Angeles, spending the week in the city but returning to his farm on weekends.  By 1892 H. C. had made a name for himself in the law circles of Southern California.  He was encouraged to run for District Attorney of Los Angeles County, which he did.  To help finance his campaign, which Dillon won, the family divided their land into five 20 acre lots and one 40 acre tract and sold several to prominent Denver business men.  The Dillons retained, however, the 40 acre tract and one 20 acre lot. On it there were seven orchards, segregated into various fruit varieties.  There were 2000 fig trees, 2000 olive trees, 120 navel orange trees, 300 walnut trees, 200 apple trees, 500 plum, 500 peach and apricot, and 3500 guavas. Their lemon grove, consisting of 1250 Eureka lemons, was between Vine and Cherry Avenues, south of Catalina Street. All in all there were over 30,000 plants fertilized with sewerage from the house and stable.  (Los Angeles Herald 12/4/1892)
Most of the area was farmland

             Josephine Dillon shared her memories of growing up on Signal Hill with reporter Walter Case in March 1934.  She remembered yellow violets, Indian paintbrush, poppies, wild onions and lots of cactus.  There were “robber caves” in the canyons, and a “haunted cave” where there were old horse bones, and an “Indian scout path” down which to run and play.  The other great play place was the basement of the Dillon house.  It ran underneath the entire house and had a big gas machine where light for the house was generated and which the six Dillon children were told must never be approached on pain of spanking.  But the safe end of the basement was perfect for a theater and it was here that many shows were performed.  Josephine recalled a big house, square, with a veranda on all sides, and long, French windows, and a fireplace in each room and the grand times they had sitting around them while her father read Dickens to the children or their mother played Mozart or Beethoven. (Sun 3/22/1934)

            There are numerous references to H.C. Dillon in early newspaper accounts.   Following the April 14, 1890, Long Beach election for trustees, the “wets” in Long Beach gained the upper hand.  This, the Los Angeles Herald reported, was due in large measure to H.C. Dillon, who went to a political meeting at the Methodist Tabernacle the evening before the election and won them over to his cause by reading numerous verses from the Old and New Testaments in which the use of wine was commended.  At the meeting, Dillon talked about strong Biblical grounds in favor of wine and personal freedom.  In fact, drinking wine was commended in the scriptures, Dillon remarked, if one cared to look.  Also pointed out was the belief that if a liberal alcohol policy was adopted in Long Beach thousands of people who previously traveled to competing beach communities such as Santa Monica or Redondo Beach, where they could indulge in intoxicating beverages, would come to Long Beach.  Dillon’s command of the language and knowledge of the Bible knocked his reverend adversaries silly, according to the press.  At the meeting four spoke against the liberal stance contemplated on alcohol, three of them preachers.  Despite the Reverend  Parkhill calling the supporters of the alcohol measure "representatives of Satan," the measure passed.  Dillon's oratory skills had won the day. But this was not to be the end of the battle over alcohol.  As the prohibitionists feared, the way had just been opened to allow a saloon into their midst. This saloon would divide the city, and lead to the City of Long Beach disincorporating in 1896 (more on this in my book Murderous Intent?). 
          Dillon's legal acumen was responsible for clearing the legalities of building the Pine Avenue Pier in 1893---the first municipal pier in California.  He would serve as District Attorney of Los Angeles County from 1892-1894 and was a national delegate to several Democratic conventions.  In 1900 he left the legal field to go into the oil industry, joining the Hartford Oil Company of Los Angeles. But he did not give up the legal profession altogether, becoming a lecturer at the University of Southern California College of Law, which officially opened in 1901.  He was also one of the first members of the Long Beach School Board, served as Long Beach city attorney from 1889-1891, and was a commissioner of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court. 
Josephine Dillon was the first Mrs. Clark Gable

     The family sold their home (located at the corner of Twenty-first and Cherry) in May 1906 to Samuel Brown of Exira, Iowa. The 60 acres were subdivided into half-acre villa lots with a park in the center and “romantic" scenic drives throughout the subdivision.  The lovely old house, according to Josephine Dillon, was turned into a boarding house for oil workers before it burned to the ground. Josephine went on to become an actress, and the first Mrs. Clark Gable.  Sisters Florence and Viva became opera singers, sister Fannie a composer, brother James a lawyer.  Sister Anna married, producing the only grandchild in the family.
Henry Clay Dillon died April 10, 1912 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, along with daughter Florence.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Kid Mexico

Signal Hill has been the home of some interesting individuals, such as "Kid Mexico." But was Kid Mexico, born Tod Faulkner,  a hero or a bum?  

Kid Mexico in 1938

         The bingo baron endeared himself to the town, throwing free parties for the kids on Saturday mornings and for their folks on Saturday nights.  Stars such as Hopalong Cassidy, John Mack Brown and Jack Dempsey came to entertain the youngsters, and the Kid counted as his friends many of the most important people in politics and the entertainment world.  In 1949 he started the "walkathon" craze where young couples would walk in pairs, along a stage 35 by 65 feet, from 7 p.m. to midnight, with a rest period of 15 minutes for every hour. It ran for five weeks.  Every year at Christmas Faulkner held a huge party giving away 10,000 toys to children.  Though he might act like a Santa Claus, there were many who felt he was just a crook trying to look respectable.
Signal Tribune photo
Press Telegram 12/22/1977

     Named Kid Mexico by a fight announcer, young Tod Faulkner launched his boxing career at the age of 10 in Taft, California. During his career he claimed several titles: California State bantam crown (1914), welter (1917) and middle (1925). His last fight was against Bert Colima at Wilmington in 1932. The Kid had fought 387 fights and lost only 11; he owned a bowling alley, restaurant, oil property but he really made his fortune with his Wiz-Quiz bingo games along the Pike and on Signal Hill.  His bingo game had a gimmick which The Kid claimed made it a legal game of skill and not a lottery game of chance.  The gimmick consisted of having the winner of a plain, old bingo game answer a question.  If the winner answered the question he got a payoff.  If he didn't answer the question, no dinero.  The questions were simple and house employees often helped with the answers if the winner was having a hard time.  

        In July 1953, Tod Faulkner pleaded guilty to election fraud charges which involved his trying to rig registrations in the November 1952 Signal Hill election. This was a compromise plea which reduced Faulkner's charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.  He was fined $500 and placed on three years' probation. He had been accused of conspiring with Royce Jay Bushong, deputy registrar of voters, to sign up voters not qualified to participate in the November election.  Faulkner had hoped to get voters to allow bingo-type games on Signal Hill to continue.  The proposition lost by a vote of 1358  to 660. 
Kid Mexico Christmas party 1967. Signal Tribune photo.

      But  Kid Mexico was never the same again; the sixty-year-old decided to retire and move to Laguna Beach. With the help of some Signal Hill policemen who were willing to earn extra money on their own time, a road was built to Faulkner's new abode which they named Faulkner Road.  At the same time, the Kid was also being harassed by tax liens filed by the government against properties he owned.  Uncle Sam charged Faulkner owed $262,024 in extra income taxes for 1948 and 1949.

       By September 1955 Kid Mexico was broke, despite an annual income of $500,000, income from property worth $260,000, a $35,000 home in Palm Springs, a $22,000 home in Signal Hill, and his $600,000 home in Laguna Beach.  The federal government had slapped a $267,000 lien on all his property and income.  To top it off his wife was ill with cancer.  It was then that Kid Mexico found God and became an ordained minister in the nondenominational Full Gospel Holiness Church in Bell.

Post card (front and back) about Kid Mexico. Source Signal Tribune

    The Kid claimed that a 1:15 a.m. on the morning of April 20, 1958, God and Faulkner's dead wife Edna appeared to him, telling him to go out and preach the world of God.  Many were suspicious of his new found religion, but Faulkner insisted he didn't intend to take up collections or have anything to do with setting up a bingo parlor in his church.  Preaching the world of God was his soul purpose.  His congregation would be boxers.  Faulkner planned on opening a boxing training ring in Palm Springs in which he would teach boxers how to punch, and at the same time he'd preach to them. He denied he was building a swimming pool in Palm Springs to use for baptisms.
Signal Tribune photo

    In later life Faulkner returned to his old house on Signal Hill which he turned into a Kid Mexico Museum at 2332 Cerritos Avenue. He advertised that the museum "was better than Knott's Berry and Disneyland combined.  Here you could meet "amazing celebrities in person and obtain free autographed pictures" and see his collection of nostalgia for $2 a head.  He was to die September 5, 1986 at the age of 85. He is buried at Long Beach's Sunnyside Cemetery.

Photo by author

 Sources: Various articles in the Long Beach Collection at Long Beach Public Library (see for a list of these resources.