Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Pioneer Librarian of Signal Hill: Mary Maud Trodd

     Today Signal Hill is building a brand new library scheduled to open in August 2019 and supported by an active group of Friends.  But few realize that it owes its existence to Mrs. Mary Maud Trodd.
Mary Maud Trodd at work (photo: Signal Tribune)
 Mary and three of her four children settled on Signal Hill shortly after her husband Fredrick died in 1913. She had married the 35-year-old widower, who had a 9-year-old son, in 1894. The following year the family, which now included baby daughter Violet, immigrated from England to the United States. Fred was a blacksmith and the family moved around quite a bit before they settled in California.  It was hard for Mary to get to know people since her husband was always looking for a better place to live and work.  Books and reading became Mary’s friends.   Wherever they moved Mary found a library to educate not only herself but her growing family which now included son Victor born in 1897 in Indiana, and son Verner born in Oklahoma in 1904.  
     Her step-son William stepped into his father’s shoes after Fred’s death, convincing his mother to move the family from Compton to Signal Hill.  He found a house for them to live in located at 1919 Hill Street.  The home was close Mary’s daughter Violet, who had married, and not far from William’s job as a machinist.  Their new neighbors included Masaichi Shibata, a fruit and vegetable seller and his family and the Jutoro Kido family who farmed Signal Hill.
Mary's neighbors were Japanese farmers
(photo: free domain)
     Before the city was founded on April 24, 1924, Mrs. Todd used the Burnett Library in Long Beach, but when Signal Hill became a city Mary campaigned for its own public library. The city, surrounded by oil wells and hidden speak-easies needed a little culture, Mary Trodd believed. She went before the City Council and asked that they organize a library. They just laughed and said “Who would read books in Signal Hill? Nobody here is interested in anything but oil.”  Trodd replied telling them “Plenty of people would read books if they had the books and a place to read them.”
     She approached W. E. Hinshaw who had just built a brick building at Twenty-first and Cherry, and asked him to give her a room rent free for a library. He agreed.  With space for a library guaranteed she managed to cajole the City Council into giving her $30 for shelving. She then went from door to door collecting magazines and books. The library, with its few shelves of books, opened in March 1926.

  At the time Mary Trodd’s story was told in the Press Telegram in August 1941, she still had a yellowed record showing that the total book circulation of March, April and May of 1926 was 26 books.  She worked without salary until 1929 when she was given $10 per month. It was eventually raised to $50 a month, and by 1941 it was considerably higher.
Signal Hill's temporary City Hall after the 1933 earthquake (photo: Signal Tribune)
  The library eventually expanded, placed on the top floor of Signal Hill’s new City Hall at 2175 Cherry in 1934. The new building replaced the original City Hall at 2120 Cherry, which didn’t fare well in the March 1933 Long Beach earthquake.  Seventy-two year-old Mrs. Trodd still worked at the library when interviewed by the Press Telegram in 1941. She proudly told reporters the library now had 4000 books, and regularly received 35 magazines and three newspapers.Monthly circulation averaged 625 volumes.  She knew--she kept her own records--she didn’t need a secretary.
   Mary Maud Chandler Trodd continued working as Signal Hill Librarian until shortly before her death on December 6, 1943, at age 74.  The woman who so loved books was living with her widowed stepson William Trodd, still in Signal Hill, at a house at 1287 23rd Street.  Her other sons and daughter lived nearby. There were no Japanese neighbors. What few remained after oil was discovered had been placed in “relocation” camps because of the war.
The old library at 1770 E. Hill Street (photo: author)
   Mary would be very happy to learn the old library at 1770 E. Hill Street, located in the city’s former 1931 fire station, is being replaced. The small steps she had taken to create the Signal Hill Public Library have payed off. Finally Signal Hill will have a library in a brand new building, all its own, thanks in no small part to Mary Maude Chandler Trodd’s dream.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gold and Other Forgotten Facts About Signal Hill

     Though “black gold” would be discovered on Signal Hill in 1921, did you know that the “glittery stuff” was also found there in 1905?  In my research I’ve come across a number of interesting discoveries and “might have beens” about Signal Hill.  Here are a few of them.

Gold was found on Signal Hill in 1905.

Gold found on Signal Hill
     The years following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had been difficult for Signal Hill real estate promoter George W. Hughes.  Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, property sales in Southern California came to a virtual standstill.  Finances once available for development were funneled northward to rebuild the city.
     Hughes, a real estate agent, had purchased 35 acres on the summit of Signal Hill in September 1904 for $20,000.  In October 1904 he formed the Signal Hill Improvement Company, of which he was president, to develop the land and make it “one of the beauty spots of the coast.”   On May 25, 1905, Hughes placed the lots he had subdivided on the market. 
     The May 7, 1905 Los Angeles Herald reported:

“Another recent big thing for the beach is the platting of 150 acres on and around the top of Signal Hill, two miles north and east of the city. Signal Hill is 353 feet above the sea level, and from the summit a view of twenty-seven towns can be had. Much of the development and improvement work has been completed and soon the lots will be on the market. Lots are of uniform size, 60 x 130 feet. The prices will range from $500 to $1800 each. On the crown of the hill a space of four acres has been set apart for a park and the site for a big hotel. President G. V. Hughes, and Secretary F. A. Crowe are at the head of the Signal Hill Improvement Company having the Signal Hill enterprise in charge.”

     Opening day was a rainy one but still, the Los Angeles Herald reported (5/28/1905), over 500 people attended the opening and $60,000 was realized from sales. Hughes had made sure that Signal Hill “happenings” were prominently in the news. Much was going on at Signal Hill, according to the news reports funnel to the press by Hughes.  A vast gravel deposit (of the finest quality, the Evening Tribune reported) was discovered in February 1905 and an artificial stone factory was being planned in August 1905.  A trolley line up the hill was in the works in November 1905, but it later failed to materialize because of the steep grade up the hill.    But by 1910 development had slowed.  There had been growth as 13-year old Mable Anderson of the Burnett school, wrote to the Los Angeles Herald in January 1910.

 On the very top of Signal Hill is a very nice house which has a very nice yard. There are also 2 or 3 other little buildings. In the spring it is pretty and green and here there are a few wild flowers. Here and there in little ravines you will see some cactus growing.

     The “very nice house: Mable Anderson mentions belonged to George Hughes.  The sales brochure. Signal Hill: the most beautiful home site in Southern California, describes the home:

At the apex of the hill is located the palatial home of Mr. George W. Hughes, unquestionably one of the show places of Southern California. Facing the south, the mansion looks out upon the quiet and beauty of the ocean; commands a magnificent view of the city of Long Beach which lies at the very foot of this charming mountain retreat...

     But more than nice flowers and a few buildings were needed to keep the real estate market on Signal Hill alive.
     Coincidently, perhaps, an amazing discovery was unearthed on Signal Hill on September 21, 1910, on property owned by no other than George Hughes.  Hughes, convinced that there was gold in the west slope of Signal Hill, took a Los Angeles assayer to the site to pan for the valuable mineral.  To verify the claim Hughes asked Jonah Jones and James A. Miller to witness assayer Nelson in action.  Nelson proceeded to pan gold out of dirt taken from the side of a hole which had been dug 10 feet into the ground on Hughes’ property near Cherry Avenue.  The witnesses swore it had not been salted. The assayer confirmed gold was present, but went on to add that at this particular point there wasn’t much of it. Considerable excitement followed the announcement of the discovery, according to the Long Beach Daily Telegram. However, nothing more was heard of Hughes’ gold discovery after the initial article appeared in the press, and there are no records to indicate if sales in Signal Hill increased because of the possibility of gold. George Hughes was not one to give up.  If money wasn’t available for housing development why not build a university?

UCLA at Signal Hill?
UCLA being built in 1919. It could have been
on Signal Hill.

     In 1910 a campaign was started to establish a Southern branch of the University of California.  It was pointed out at the time that Los Angeles County alone had more high school students than San Francisco and Alameda Counties and that 25 per cent of the high school students of the State were in Los Angeles County.  Mark Keppel, then County Superintendent of Schools pointed out that the University of California had just made a request for $5 million to increase its facilities at Berkeley. He pointed out that if a Southern California branch were authorized, it would not be necessary to enlarge the institution at Berkeley. 
     George Hughes proposed Signal Hill as an ideal location for such an institution.  Garner Curran, President of the Los Angeles Federated Improvement Association, was asked to look at various locations; he agreed with Hughes that there was no better place than Signal Hill. On May 30, 1911, Hughes offered to sell 30 acres of land at Signal Hill, valued by him at $100,000 at a low figure. He also agreed to make a personal donation of $10,000, if Signal Hill was chosen as the site of the future University of California, Los Angeles.  Despite Mr. Curran reiterating his preference for the Signal Hill location, Westwood was chosen.
     Just think if UCLA had been built on Signal Hill instead of Westwood.  The revenue from oil in the 1920s and later could have paid most of the expenses of the entire UC system!

View of the Gods – The Trackless Trolley
This was the nation's first trackless trolley,
 built by Charles Spencer Mann in 1910 to promote vacation lots in Laurel Canyon.

     The Pacific Electric Company began the construction of a line up the Hill in 1906, but gave it up because the grade was too steep. In December 1910, our friend George Hughes, real estate promoter extraordinaire, convinced Signal Hill property owners that if the Pacific Electric couldn’t run trains up the Hill perhaps a trackless trolley system was needed.
     The plan called for busses equipped with 20-horsepower motors, capable of carrying a load of 3600 pounds. The motors would be heavy enough to take such a load to the summit of the Hill.  Electric lights were to be used throughout the 22-foot long, 6 foot wide cars, which would be able to hold 24 people.  The roof was to extend from the rear door to the dash, with a ladder either at the side or rear for access to the roof. Another detail according to historian Walter Case was that “the driver’s seat would be in a position back of the steering wheel, which would accommodate one person and would be trimmed with split leather or cushion and back trimmed with hair.” (Sun 12/3/1937)
     At this December 12, 1910, meeting George Hughes announced that a Los Angeles resident wanted to establish a telescope on the summit of the hill, also a lunch room, and, just possibly a dance floor. Hughes said he was willing to lease to the prospective developer a space of not more than 100x150 feet at any desirable point.
     But neither the trackless trolley nor the telescope pavilion became a reality.

Aerial Tram
     While the trackless trolley plan was being discussed another more spectacular idea was suggested to Hughes.  Los Angeles resident Fletcher E. Felts decided it was time to construct an aerial tram from Long Beach to Los Angeles and also to Pasadena. 
     His proposal was for what he called a “Suspended Auto Motor Railway,” consisting of a rail track from which would be hung cars that would have a clearance of at least 14 feet from the ground.  Towers which would provide supports for the track would be constructed “at intervals of whatever distance may be required.”
     The cars would be propelled by either electricity or gasoline and hang from wheels clamped to the rail. It would be possible said Mr. Felts, for the cars to climb almost any grade, but he stated that if the grade became as steep as 60 percent the use of cogs to prevent slipping would be advisable.
     On such a road, he maintained, a speed of two miles a minute could be obtained with no danger to the passengers. He estimated the trip from Long Beach to Los Angeles would be made in 15 minutes and that a ride from Long Beach to Pasadena would not take more than 25 minutes. Cars could be provided, he said, to carry from 20 to 100 passengers each, but he advised 50 passenger cars on the Long Beach-Los Angeles line.
     He told interested parties he had contracts by which the delivery of such cars here for the line would be assured. Such cars, he added, were then being operated in Germany. His holdings, he said were covered by 152 patents.
     The fact that the per-mile cost of the undertaking was estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the character of the terrain on which the towers would have to be constructed contributed to the futility of Mr. Felts’ efforts to make Long Beach aerial-railway conscious.

       All of Hughes’ dreams about Signal Hill would have come true if the Hill hadn’t been so steep.  None other than Henry Huntington planned on building a large hotel costing no less than $100,000 on the summit, but he backed out when the Hill proved too steep for his electric railway.  The Los Angeles Herald (10/30/1904) reported that 115 acres of the Signal Hill tract would be open for development, while five acres would be reserved for the hotel. In addition fine gardens and many attractions were planned. But as this blog has shown, Hughes was not one to give up easily.  He lived to see the Hill transformed almost overnight when oil was discovered in 1921.  What would have happened to the hotel, university, and trackless trolley system if they had been built?  We will never know.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Signal Hill Cucumber War

Japanese Settle on Signal Hill
        For many years Signal Hill was part of the vast rancho of Los Cerritos settled by Japanese who established wonderful berry and cucumber farms on its heights.  Like many settling in the Long Beach/Signal Hill area, the Japanese were relatively new arrivals, many came via Hawaii.
         In the latter part of the 19th century, Hawaii began luring Japanese laborers to work on its booming sugar plantations. This was because native Hawaiians, introduced to the diseases of white men, were dying faster than they were being born.  There was a severe labor shortage on the Pacific coast when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was implemented. Wages were substantially higher than in Hawaii.  As a result, many of the Japanese left Hawaii for California when their contracts ran out.
         In all of Southern California there were only 58 Japanese in 1880,  but by 1900 that number had increased to 481.  Among those 481 were twelve men from Wakayama, Japan, who had arrived in the San Pedro area in March of that same year.  One of the men happened to turn over a boulder, near the beach, and, to his astonishment, found an abalone.  From this find sprang a Japanese community that eventually thrived on Terminal Island.
       Japanese farmers came to the area around 1905, many of them tilling the soil in small plots of land around and on Signal Hill.  Not content to remain farm laborers, the Japanese began to buy up agricultural lands, which the Chinese had rented for years, and to organize the industry on a highly efficient basis.  By 1913 the Japanese population of Los Angeles County was listed as 11,500. Farm land owned in California by Japanese, 12,726 acres, assessed in 1912 at $609,605. Farm land leased by Japanese was 1800 acres (LA Herald 4/22/1923).

        Whites, threatened by Japanese success as independent farmers passed the California Alien Land Law of 1913 which banned those born in Japan (known as Issei) from purchasing land in California, but it did allow them to lease acreage for up to three years and keep the land they held if under a corporation.  Subsequent state laws in 1920 and 1923 did away with this corporation loophole, and in 1924 the Federal Immigration Act of 1924 banned all immigration from Japan.

New Method of Raising Winter Crops Originates on Signal Hill
Plasticulture, shown here, originated on Signal Hill

        Many of the Japanese who farmed  Signal Hill lived between Orange and Temple and Orange and Cherry.  Their surnames included Kato, Ujeda, Niito, Yamada, Shimizu, Uyemotto, Shimazu, Nishimurri, Suzuki, Uehero, Horano, Minesake, Tanaka, Yasadeke, Kodayashi, and Ogimatsu, according to the U. S. Census. In 1912 these Signal Hill gardeners decided to implement an idea given them by A. G. O’Brien who had come up with a novel way to make money during winter.  The Los Angeles Times (3/24/1912) described the scene on Signal Hill:

            As fast as long strips of sheer cotton can be stitched together, the sides of Signal Hill are being clothed with white. Already thirty-eight acres are screened from chilling dew and a sometimes too-ardent sun for the growing of tender vegetables and strawberries for the winter market. In the past two weeks 132,920 yards of cloth have been sewn together and tacked to frames over seed and plants in the ground. The areas of whitened gardens present a strange sight. It does not require a very great stretch of the imagination, passing the gardens in the moonlight, to liken them to snow-covered hillsides.

        The cost of covering the ground with the muslin cloth was around $200 an acre. O’Brien, the Times reported, had made a profit of $4000 on two acres of cucumbers and strawberries under cloth within the last two months alone. This new idea required hardly any cultivating. After irrigation, the ground kept in moisture. The process of covering the ground was fairly easy:

  •         A one-inch plank was placed around the area to be enclosed and at intervals of every six feet, cross pieces were placed to support the cloth.
  •        Eyelets were then placed along the edges of the cloth, fitting on hooks in the planking, to help remove the muslin during irrigation, cultivation and picking.

        When O’Brien took his cucumbers to the Los Angeles market in late January, his produce was snapped up at prices four times greater than during the summer, when cucumbers were normally being harvested. He kept his secret for over a month before a Japanese farmer who had leased six acres adjoining O’Brien’s decided to copy him. The idea soon spread.  By March 1912 there were about 25 acres of cucumbers, and over ten acres of strawberries under cloth. (Muslin would later be replaced by plastic, aka plasticulture) 
       In August 1916 the Los Angeles Times reported the Signal Hill Cucumber Association was asking for bids on 20,000 yards of muslin and 300 cucumber crates. This would make Signal Hill the largest agricultural district in the country growing crops under cloth.  The Times went on to reveal that Signal Hill growers had furnished more cucumbers the previous year than any other area of the country with the exception of the Imperial Valley. However, during the coming winter Signal Hill farmers were expected to exceed Imperial Valley’s record when they put seventy additional acres under muslin for the raising of cucumbers.  When this was done the south slope of Signal Hill would be almost completely covered with muslin. This additional covered acreage would allow Signal Hill farmers to increase the previous year’s output of 320 carloads of cucumbers to 500.
         The July 4, 1920 Los Angeles Times pronounced Signal Hill the cucumber capital of the state.  In 1920 alone 60 acres produced 55,000 boxes.
        How was the cucumber crop harvested? It took between 50-70 days from planting to picking. Several crops could be planted on the Hill during the year with the use of muslin.  During the heat of the day they would lift the edges of the cloth to provide ventilation. During harvest Japanese pickers would go through the fields with sacks capable of holding 40 pounds of cucumbers draped across their shoulders. A packing shed was set up at the edge of the field with Japanese women doing most of the packing, in addition to helping in field work.

The Cucumber War
        Like other communities, the Japanese settlement on Signal Hill had disagreements that often resulted in violence.
       In May 1917 ten armed guards were ordered by Sheriff Cline to watch the ranch of Tsuchisaburo Kato, a Japanese Signal Hill farmer, who claimed that $20,000 of damage had been done to his crops by enemies who employ "poison plotters.” Investigators for the district attorney sought evidence against those who allegedly poisoned Kato’s cattle and ruined his crops by spraying the plants with poison and tearing acres of plants up by the roots. Kato charged that other Japanese had formed a blackmail syndicate and that unless he joined their organization the poison war would be continued against him. Kato claimed that efforts were made to have him join the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association and that when he failed to comply he was told that he would be ruined financially. (LA Herald 5/17/1917)
      At issue was the fact that Kato’s cucumbers grew so well on Signal Hill that they were the first ones to make it to market.  As a result his produce commanded top prices.  Other retailers were upset that he would not hold back on selling his produce so all could share equally in the profits. Kato preferred to remain independent, particularly since his soil and location made it possible for him to harvest the earliest cucumbers.

    After a search which lasted for more than two weeks, H. Kanzaki, was arrested in Coachella Valley. S. Fujishimi, president of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association, and J. Inukai, secretary of the body, were called as witnesses before the grand jury. Following a grand jury investigation, Kansaki, director of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers’ Association, was charged with having participated in the $20,000 destruction of the crops and fined.
Farmland 1924

       Life was not easy for the new immigrants.  In January 1917, the body of Nagiach Nishizaun washed ashore in Long Beach.  Nishizaun, a well-educated member of an aristocratic Japanese family, had left notes indicating he was going to commit suicide.  His friends said he brooded over the fact that he could never be anything but “a little brown man” in America.
   The Signal Hill Japanese community suffered another setback in December 1918 when a devastating fire hit the residence of cucumber farmer T. Kiama who resided at Summit and Temple on Signal Hill. The Japanese custom of using direct heat applied under the tub for heating bath water caused the tragedy. The floor of Kiama’s home caught fire. He was nearly caught in the conflagration, but managed to escape from his home scantily clad, arousing neighbors. The flames from the house soon spread to the other buildings, consuming three small cottages and a barn before they burned out. In addition to the houses and furnishings a quantity of hay and $l500 worth of new cloth, to be used to protect cucumbers from frost, was burned. Situated outside the city limits, the local fire department could not get to the fire very quickly.  Fortunately no one was injured.    (LA Herald 12/28/1918)
     However, there were frequent joyous moments in the Japanese community.  In July 1918, for example, 30-year-old H. Imamura, who had lived at Pine and Nevada for 16 years, left for San Francisco to claim his bride.  They had grown up together in Japan, and vowed when 14-year-old Imamura left Japan, that they would wait for the other.  Imamura arrived in California penniless.  He worked hard, saving enough money to buy a truck.  He then used the truck to gather fruits and vegetables selling them at a profit. In 1918 he leased 40 acres of land north of Willow Street on Signal Hill to grow potatoes.  He decided he was now settled enough to ask his girl to join him.
Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town
       The July 6, 1924 Los Angeles Times featured this headline: “Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town: Signal Hill, Garden Plot of Three Years Ago, Now Marvel of Petroleum World.” In 1916 sunrise Easter services began to be held on the summit of Signal Hill, worshipers climbing or driving up the winding roads and narrow trails to sing praise to the risen Christ.  But in 1921 things changed.  Black gold was discovered.  Houses, streets and sidewalks were covered with sticky black tar; rocks that came up with the gushers broke through roofs and windows.  The time to leave had come.  Fortunately, many left rich, having leased or sold their Signal Hill real estate.  Yet things remained the same in the adjoining gardening district for a while.  In the shadow of the derricks, farmers in 1921 were still tilling the land and planting their crops.  Celery was the big cash crop of the year, grown along with berries to the east of the hill where the soil was favorable to such produce.  To the west of Signal Hill acres of muslin could be seen covering acres and acres of cucumbers.  The thin material helped diffuse the rays of the sun and accelerated the growth of the vine. Recent rains assured the farmers of a plentiful year and they were wearing smiles just like those of their new neighbors whose oil wells had just “spudded in.”

Discovery well, Signal Hill

     But by 1924 things had changed. In 1921 there were 11,000 square yards of muslin protecting the shoots in the cucumber beds, and Signal Hill was one of the most noted cucumber growing areas in the country.  All this was before the farmers and home owners who loved the beauty of the Hill were aware of the oil that lay beneath them.  Soon the Japanese farmers were displaced, their farm leases not renewed, many moved to Torrance, Downey and Artesia. Within three years of the oil bonanza the farm fields were gone replaced by oil wells and a new city---Signal Hill.
     The 3-square-mile city of Signal Hill was born April 22, 1924. The vote on incorporation was 334 in favor and 211 against. With an assessed valuation of $35,000,000 it was the wealthiest city, per foot, in America. Having only 1500 population, the town’s per capita wealth, based on the assessed valuation, was $23,333.   Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson was the new city’s mayor---the first female mayor of Southern California. Trustees included Dr. Arthur E. Pike, Lloyd Williamson, Vernon W. Vore, Ray J. Miller, George H. Cooper, who was also City Clerk; and Anna Goodyear, Treasurer.
       City Attorney Don C. Bowker explained their goals: “We want a good modern town when the derricks are gone. We contemplate building a city hall, a fire department, a library, schools and a jail, maybe.”
        Oil operators said their wells would be producing for fifteen years or a little longer. When the oil derricks were gone even a small lot which sold for $20,000 or more when the oil boom came would be worth a handsome amount as home sites. Reporter Syl MacDowell described the future city: “Homes in a hilltop city, set apart like an Andes kingdom and overlooking a panorama of harbor and industrial activity such as early settlers never imagined.”