Monday, July 12, 2021

Signal Hill Water Tower

 Do you remember the water tower that used to be the iconic symbol of Signal Hill, visible for miles around?  If so, you must have seen it before 1999, when it was taken down.

One reader asked me to find out more.

Couple in front of water tower on remains of Denni home.
Source: Long Beach Public Library


There might have been a water tower on the Hill as early as 1906. According to the Los Angeles Herald:

“The water tower on top of the hill, tall and shapely, will be crowned with a design for beautiful lights which will illumine the whole hill.”

I am not sure when or if that water tower was built, but most report a water tower of some sort being on the Hill since the 1920s. That 1920s water tower was severely damaged in the March 1933 Long Beach earthquake but plans for a new tower were quickly approved in July of that year. The tower, atop the Hill at about the 350-foot elevation mark at Skyline Drive and Junipero Avenue became one of Signal Hill’s most visible landmarks, especially after nearly all the oil towers were taken down to make room for redevelopment. The tower was officially named the Denni tank after the Denni family, who had what many described as a “mansion” on the top of Signal Hill before oil was discovered.

            Louis Denni (1859-1933) migrated from Switzerland in the 1880s and worked at the Bixby ranch on Rancho Los Alamitos, eventually becoming foreman. He later set up his own dairy operations in Los Alamitos and in October 1912 sold his dairy herd and other holdings in the area to his nephew, Joe Denni, who continued the business.  The Santa Ana Daily Register described Louis Denni as one of the oldest, as well as one of the wealthiest dairymen in Southern California.  Following the sale of his Los Alamitos property, Louis, wife Elisa (1862-1941) and their family moved to Signal Hill, purchasing the residence of George W. Hughes, one of the developers of Signal Hill, for $24,000 ($624,000 today).  Hughes had purchased 35-acres at the summit of Signal Hill for $20,000 ($687,000) in 1904. 

Denni home, 36 Junipero
 Source: Long Beach Public Library

Already wealthy, Denni was made even richer by the discovery of oil in 1921. The Denni family leased their Signal Hill property*, moving to Wilmington in 1923, investing in real estate. At the time of his death in 1933 from injuries incurred in a traffic accident, Louis Denni was said to be the largest single property owner in Wilmington with an estimated worth of $1 million ($21 million today). He and wife Lizzie had several children including - Frank (1889-?), Elizabeth (1893-?), Mary (1894-1959), Anna (1895-1896), Nicholas (1896-1898) Louis (1899-1920), Joseph (1902-1990).  Anna, Louis, and Nicholas are buried at Sunnyside cemetery, along with their parents. 

   

Denni memorial - Sunnyside
Source: Long Beach Public Library



         In October 1999, the Denni tank was dismantled as were two 300,000 gallon tanks at nearby Temple Avenue and Hill Street. New reservoirs, a $1.2 million ($2 million today) gallon Hilltop Reservoir, beneath Hilltop Park at Dawson Street and Skyline Drive and a $1.3 million ($2.1 million) Temple Reservoir next to the old Temple tanks replaced them.  This was good news for developers who would now be able to supply ample water to the Hill’s new residents, and also good news for those already there who would no longer be troubled by poor water pressure.  

           

* As of 1999 the city still leased the property from the Denni Family Trust. Attempts to find if they still do were not successful.



Sources:

“A big buy; G. W. Hughes purchases summit of Signal Hill. Evening Tribune, 01 September, 1904.

Lowe, Joshua. “Signal Hill’s landmark tank coming down.” Press Telegram, 12 October 1999.

“Louis Denni succumbs to auto injury.” San Pedro News Pilot, 12 May 1933.

“Quits dairying after thirty years’ experience.” Santa Ana Daily Register, 10, October 1912.


Monday, May 17, 2021

WHY THE JAPANESE LEFT SIGNAL HILL

 ANTI-ASIAN HATE 


     
At one time Japanese farmers thrived on Signal Hill, growing cucumbers which made Signal Hill the cucumber growing capital of California.  Many believe the Japanese were forced off their Signal Hill land because of the discovery of oil in 1921.  That is not the case. They were required to leave when the Alien Land Law was passed by California voters in 1920. Since owning land was one of the qualifiers for U.S. citizenship, this law prevented them from becoming true Americans.
     Today we are again facing anti-Asian hate, thrust at all who happen to have a face that looks different from white and black Americans.  Perhaps the anti-Japanese movement which started in California in 1905 is best forgotten.  It's not something we're proud of, but I bring it up here because it was part of our history and it helps to understand patterns and events that were to influence life in later years. It’s a story with a long history, as this blog points out.

     Looking back, the anti-Japanese movement was in many ways merely a continuation of the long-standing agitation against the Chinese which began in the early 1850s.  At first the Asian immigrants had been welcome, but later when the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad threw most of these Chinese workers into an already depressed labor market, there was an outcry against them.  In 1920 the same thing began to happen to the Japanese, but it had earlier roots.
    In May 1905 the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in California.  The League's immigrant leaders felt Europeans such as themselves could be assimilated into the American melting pot, but were convinced that assimilation could not cross the color line.  From 1905 on the League continued to introduce legislation excluding Japanese immigration to America.  In 1920 they were successful in getting the matter of land ownership to a public vote in California. There was much debate surrounding the issue, including the following from Samuel M. Shortridge, candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. senator from California.  He spoke at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium in August 1920 before an audience of more than 350 persons:

               “Let the bona fide Japanese travelers pass through our territory, let their students attend our universities, if they desire, and return to their own land to enlighten their own countrymen, but let them not make their permanent home among us.  We do not need them; we do not want them; they are in no sense industrially, morally or politically, a benefit to us; they will but irritate and breed discontent and add to our domestic and international problems.  Let them remain at home, cultivate their own soil, develop their own resources or migrate to other lands whose people will welcome them.  We do not want cheap labor. We want well-paid labor. We want intelligent, patriotic, contented labor. We want homes and schools, libraries and churches.  We want boys and girls with hope in their hearts and smiles on their faces.  We want men and women erect, proud, self-sustaining, happy, and ready to die for their country, glad to give their first-born to the defense of the flag. We want no antagonistic races, we want no hostile classes, we want no castes, we want no aliens incapable of republican government.  We want an intelligent, self-respecting, prosperous and loyal American citizenship which shall guide this nation upward and onward and make of this republic the greatest, grandest brotherhood the world has ever seen. We want no alien people in our midst.” LB Press 8/23/1920.


      In September 1920 the Long Beach Press indicated there was a real possibility of a general exodus of Japanese from Long Beach if the general public voted for what was called Proposition 1.  Many farmers had already left their farms on Signal Hill to investigate living conditions in Mexico and Texas.  On October 21st the Japanese issue was again debated at the Municipal Auditorium.  James D. Phelan, U.S. senator for California took on the Reverend U.G. Murphy in an interesting contest.  Phelan was angry that there was an effort to create a “pro-Jap” sentiment in Los Angeles to try and defeat Proposition 1.  He felt this was being spearheaded by the Japanese, “persons who are on our shores simply by sufferance, guests of the nation, organizing a movement to obtain defeat of a measure initiated by the rightful citizens of the state."
     Phelan went on to point out that in Japan foreigners could not own land so why should Japanese here own American soil?  Phelan remarked that of the 3,856,000 acres of tillable land in California, 456,000 were in control of the Japanese.  This was one of every nine acres.  The money made from the land did not go into the usual trade channels, but went into the shops of Japanese, for they only traded with their own people.  Phelan claimed they were setting up a colony for Japan in the United States, destined to create a commercial rivalry with America.  They had already doubled prices by their monopolistic control of certain crops and they could dictate prices of food.   
     The Reverend Murphy defended the Japanese, claiming they were peaceable immigrants and their American born children loyal to the teaching of American idealism.  He asserted the Land Exclusion Act was one of "hysterical race prejudice."  He pointed out that Californians refused to tolerate the Japanese because it could not assimilate them but permitted the Jews, who for 4,000 years had refused to permit marriages outside their own race, to have every privilege.
     Frequently Murphy had to stop speaking because of the cat-calls, hisses and heckling from the audience. 

     On November 2, 1920, California voters went to the polls to decide on passage of an act which excluded native born Japanese, the Issei, from owning land, a qualifying factor in becoming a citizen.  Their children, the Nisei, born in the United States were exempt from the legislation. Despite ads in the Long Beach Press asking Californians to vote NO on election day, and attempts of women like University of Iowa educated Mrs. Tatsu Kondo to Americanize the 1024 Japanese residing in Long Beach, the Alien Land Law passed.

Fish Harbor


     Stories about the Japanese and their clannish ways continued to appear.  In November 1920, following the passage of the Alien Land Law, Japanese fishermen at the Long Beach harbor were subject to several harassing allegations.   White fishermen asserted the Japanese fishermen monopolized the wharves and docks at Fish Harbor to the absolute exclusion of the white men.  Another accusation was that the Japanese agreed to pricing among themselves, driving up the cost of fish.  As a result, a bill was introduced in the California Senate making it unlawful for Japanese to engage in the fishing industry in California waters. 
    In January 1921, Long Beach contractor W. Jay Burgin suggested restrictions against Japanese merchants in Long Beach.  He reported that in Brawley the entire business district of the city was in the hands of Asians.  The anti-alien land law had driven Japanese farmers into the city, and the same thing might happen in Long Beach, Burgin stated, if action was not taken now.  Burgin suggested a charter revision refusing business licenses to aliens not eligible for citizenship.  

    The Japanese were being forced out of their livelihoods.  Many Japanese farmers on Signal Hill were unable to renew their leases and forced to move out of California. There were rumors of a Japanese plot to control the coast of Lower California by purchasing land holdings worth $5,000,000 from the Mexican government.  Local landowner W. L. Porterfield, who had never supported the Alien Land Law, attempted to lease eighty acres of land to Y. Mazino, the foreman at the Bixby ranch.  The matter was taken to United States District Court which ruled that any land contract with a Japanese alien was illegal. 
    What was left for the Japanese was garbage. Literally.  They contracted with the city to collect Long Beach's waste, paying the city for the privilege.  Mr. Sakomoto paid the city $1.05 a ton for the garbage which he fed to hogs on land he got to use free from the city .  But there were complaints from Japanese workers that homeowners were not obeying the rules about sorting garbage.  When the men found refuse mixed with broken glass, or liquids dumped into the garbage cans, making the garbage unsuitable for hog feed, they refused to take it.  This brought verbal insults from residents.  Public Service Director A.L. Ferver looked into a number of complaints and found the Japanese completely justified in not taking the garbage because of broken glass and other injurious substances deposited in the cans.  He advised that rules be followed or the garbage would not be picked up .     

     In November 1922, the United States Supreme Court simplified matters for the exclusionists by validating their long-standing contention that Japanese were "aliens ineligible to citizenship."  They based their decision on statutes limiting naturalization to "free white persons and aliens of African nativity."  In 1924, the quota system limiting immigration was extended and the California congressional contingent was successful in getting Japanese exclusion included in the legislation.
     The Japanese government was seriously upset at this exclusion legislation.  When two Japanese were found murdered near Point Firmin on June 20, 1924, the Japanese Consul requested an official inquiry into the deaths. The bodies of M. Yoshioka and Kachema Igarashi were found lying in a pool of blood on the Point Firmin road leading to White’s Point with a 32-caliber pistol lying nearby.  Several bullet holes punctured Yoshioka’s body, while Igarashi appeared to have been shot once, through the right side of the face just above the mouth.  The third finger of his left hand was nearly severed. Detectives disclosed both men were well known gamblers, with a reputation of being crooked, who preyed on the Chinese community.  They were last seen alive with four other Japanese, who could not be found. Police surmised the slaying was solely the result of a gamblers’ feud and had no bearing whatever upon them being Japanese.

    What must be realized in looking at the treatment of Japanese during this time is that it wasn’t merely the work of a minority of Americans.  If the matter had been put to a national vote in the 1920s there is little doubt that it would have been approved by the vast majority of United States citizens.  The discriminations against the Japanese which I’ve mentioned here are clearly blots on the democratic ideals which we so highly prize today.  But the consequences of the anti-Japanese movement were more than moral.  The existence of this prejudice helped to poison relations between the United States and Japan and create the foundations of World War II.  


Sources:

"Bar Japanese is urged by Shortridge speech." LB Press 8/23/1920, 111: 3
"Bids open for removal of garbage." L B Press 10/15/1921, 1:3
"California facing ultimate Japanese control, says Phelan." LB Press 10/22/1920, 21:7
"Japanese farmers on Signal Hill in movement to Texas." LB Press 4/6/1921, 13:4)
"Japanese tell of trouble." LB Press 8/12/1921, 25:1

Monday, November 2, 2020

Newspaper Wars Part 4: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past

 

   This is the final chapter of "Signal Hill's Checkered Past."  As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the alleged “political boss” of Signal Hill in the 1960s and 1970s was Thomas W. Denham, Sr.  To some Denham was a trusted public servant, revered by many. Others saw beyond his Southern charm, claiming he was looking out for his own interests, using the press, as well as his police chief son, to achieve his own aims.
Signal Hill City Hall
Signal Hill City Hall

            In 1962, Denham secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher H. Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of the city told the Los Angeles Times in 1981“The city was subsidizing the newspaper.” As a result, the paper printed what Denham and his supporters wanted them to, ignoring stories of police brutality, and launching scathing stories about their opponents.
 

The 1968 Election
            Thomas W. Denham Sr.’s reign was not without challenge. In 1968, 23-year-old, USC graduate, Sandra Miller decided to run against him. She and her husband Don Bazemore owned the Long Beach Argus, a weekly newspaper in Long Beach and started a Signal Hill edition called the Beacon and later the Green Sheet, in opposition to the Denham-controlled Tribune.  The election became one of the most vicious newspaper fights in Signal Hill history.
            Denham survived, but Miller and her supporter Gertrude Beebe defeated two members of the Denham slate.  The other city council members, not up for re-election that year, were Denham supporters.  The next four years Miller described as the most bitter four years of her life. 
            Her first legislative act was to remove Fred Baxter, city administrator. Members in the audience supported her, citing corrupt civil service matters and alleged harassment of city employees prior to the election. Only Gertrude Beebe, also new to the council, supported Miller’s move.  But public opposition to Baxter continued and in July 1968 he resigned to accept a similar position in Victorville. 
 
The 1970 Election
        The 1968 election was a seeming “victory” for Miller, but Denham was not one to lose easily. He shifted his supporters into high gear. “It was a fight for survival,” his son Tom Denham told the Times in 1981. If the women were able to oust one more member of the council in the 1970 election, their anti-corruption platform would have taken over the old-boys’ rule.  Mayor Denham would not let that happen.  He called in the press, and the police force headed by his son to help in the battle.
            Soon the newspapers entered the fray. The Tribune began by calling the Green Sheet “the Green Thing.” It accused Miller and her associates of fronting for gambling interests. It ridiculed her as “our cute little 23-year-old miniskirted council lady.” It implied she and Bazemore were not married, since she had kept her maiden name.
            The Green Sheet, in return, accused Mayor Denham of rail roading street improvements in front of Denham family property. It described him as “King of the Hill.” As police chief, it said, his son “wouldn’t qualify as a dog catcher.”
            The war intensified with Denham calling in the police. They arrested Bazemore on suspicion of being drunk. The Green Sheet reported the incident:
 
            Two policemen jerked both of Bazemore’s feet out from under him while he was spread-eagled over the trunk of the police car. He fell with his head hitting the police car bumper. Three officers then picked him up and threw him into the back of the car. One braced against the next car in the parking lot and with both feet kicked him to the floor of the police car.”(LA Times 10/11/1981 from an earlier article in the Green Sheet)
 
Long Beach Municipal Court Judge Charlie T. Smith dismissed the charge of drunkenness, saying it was purely a setup. Not deterred by the decision, the Signal Hill police continued to harass Bazemore. In another instance they followed Bazemore into Long Beach and arrested him on suspicion of bouncing a check. He was again taken to jail and beaten. He was acquitted of the charge. He was arrested at least four more times on minor charges such as disturbing the peace.  
            In another instance, Miller had her car ticketed for double-parking while she and Bazemore loaded their newspaper racks and for obscuring their license plate with a bumper hitch.  Police said it wasn’t harassment, it was done to stop them interfering with police work by following officers with microphones and cameras and listening to the police radio – as part of a “power play” to take control of the community. Miller told the Times “There was an atmosphere of total corruption in the city. There was a constant feeling of oppression.”
            Bazemore, who had attended the University of Tennessee for one year before completing his marketing major at the University of Virginia, cast himself directly into the battle by running for city council in 1970 on a platform against nepotism in city government. Bazemore pointed out that one of Mayor Thomas Denham’s sons was police chief, the other a sergeant, and the son-in-law of former police chief William Stovall (now councilman) was also a police sergeant.           Less than half of the city’s 2,276 registered voters turned out for the election. Bazemore secured 239 votes of 1,026 votes cast.  He lost to George Papadakis (724 votes), and former police chief William F. Stovall, running for re-election (693 votes), all Denham supporters.
 
The 1972 Election
            In 1972, three of the five seats on the city council were at stake. Thomas Denham had decided not to seek re-election, but incumbents Miller and Beebe were in the running. It seemed certain that Miller and Beebe, would be elected.  Miller’s husband Don Bazemore decided to once again cast his hat into the election.  But Bazemore was not able to secure nomination papers for the April election. Every time he went into City Hall, City Clerk Merle Hunt was “out of the office” and had not appointed anyone else to hand out the papers. It was an act which Denham knew would trigger Bazemore’s temper…and it did.
            When it came time for public business at the next council meeting Bazemore accused City Clerk Hunt of purposely trying to deny him the proper paperwork to run for office. Hunt denied the charges and Bazemore called him a liar. His temper flaring, Hunt charged Bazemore from his desk, as members of the audience restrained Hunt. Bazemore said they could settle their difference outside, but Mayor Stovall ordered Bazemore arrested and charged with “offering to duel.” As Councilwoman Miller started to speak into her council microphone, Hunt lashed out at her telling her to “shut up your big mouth.” An angry Bazemore demanded to know why he was being arrested. Stovall told him he would find out when he got to jail.  Police officer Malcolm Guleserian and Mayor Stovall wrestled Bazemore to the ground. Guleserian applied a restraining hold across Bazemore. When Bazemore said he couldn’t breathe Gulesorian eased the pressure. In March 1972, Bazemore was convicted in Long Beach Municipal Court of disturbing the peace, put on two years’ probation and fined $625.
The Easter sunrise service had been a tradition on Signal Hill since 1916



            Perhaps it was this act of her husband, who ran the Beacon with Miller, or Miller’s questioning of paying city workers to erect the platform for the Easter sunrise service at Rotary Park which led to her defeat.
             In March 1972, Miller wondered why taxpayers should pay for setting up for a religious service. She thought the idea of using volunteers should be explored.
            She had been set up by the Denton contingent, just weeks before the election.  Mayor Stovall responded that he was sorry that she was against Easter. Miller said she wasn’t against Easter and doubted if the council would do the same thing for Passover. She pointed out the Supreme Court had ruled against using taxpayers’ funds for religious purposes.  At this point Councilman Papadakis joined the spat by suggesting the same objection might be raised against authorizing use of the city park by the Girl Scouts because they referred to God in their oath. Papadakis went on to add that if anyone chose to sue the city, for them to go ahead.  Miller closed the discussion by commenting that a taxpayer’s suit would be terribly expensive and she did not think a taxpayers’ suit would win. Her statements may have cost her the vote of city employees, who had always been the ones who built the platform for Easter services in the park, and the vote of those who thought her anti-Christian. 
 
            In the April 1972 election, Gertrude Beebe led with the most votes (404), followed by Keaton King (504) and William Mendenhall (502). Sandra Miller with 365 votes came in 4th.  Under the new regime, Fred Baxter was asked to return to his old job as city administrator, with a $4,500 ($28,000) raise. It was a position the former Air Force colonel would hold for three years, resigning as Signal Hill city administrator following a stroke in June 1975. His assistant, John W. Jameson, was selected to replace him.
            The Green Sheet and Beacon died. Miller said the Denham machine went after every advertiser they had, destroying the paper.
 
The 1980 Election
            As the 1980 election neared, Thomas W. Denham Sr. was dead. Richard Denham was no longer the police chief, and Sgt. Tom Denham was a year away from retirement. Two Denham men on the Council were under attack. One of them, Reginald Balchin, had been accused by Councilman David Bellis of concealing some of his property holdings and voting on issues that would increase their value. The other Denham man, Marion (Buzz) McCallen was accused of violating several city ordinances at his used-car lots, and at his massage parlor.
            But for this fight, the Denhams no longer could count on the Tribune. Published Fred Harris had sold the newspaper to Ken Mills, 42, a former editor of the Contra Costa Times. The Denhams approached Mills with offers to help with financing. However, Mills, who wanted to establish the Tribune’s independence, resisted. The Tribune’s total advertising dropped to half a page.  Mills’ problems compounded because he refused to block subscription purchases his predecessor had accepted from power groups, such as the Denham machine and oil companies. Mills said they were unethical – and could cost him his second-class mailing privileges.  Mills was going broke.
            Tom and Richard Denham tried to buy the paper outright. At the last minute, a group of politicians aligned with the Silent American Majority (SAM) a group opposed to the Denhams, offered to contribute money to keep Mills alive. They solicited other contributions at meetings, the $5 and $10 bills kept the paper going. The Denhams started a newspaper of their own – the Signal Hill Star (1980-84). Finally, the financial strain was too much. Mills sold the Tribune back to its former publisher, who sold it to the Denhams the same day. But it was too late. The voters threw Balchin and McCallen out of office in a recall election. Meanwhile brutality claims against the police continued to mount, culminating in the 1981 death of African American Ron Settles, found hanged in his jail cell two hours after his arrest.
            In October 1981, maverick city councilman David J. Bellis, who led the successful recall of fellow councilmen Balchin and McCallen survived a recall of his own. However, Bellis, an author and political science professor, lost in the absentee ballot vote. He was suspicious City Clerk Merle Hunt who hand-delivered about half the absentee ballots in the recall did some campaigning while voters filled out the ballot. 
            Bellis began feuding with council members soon after he was elected in April 1980. Then mayor McCallen asked Bellis to resign after Bellis admitted he once was a heroin addict. Another citizen asked Bellis to submit to a physical examination and lie detector test to prove he no longer took drugs. Bellis agreed to the physical but refused the lie detector. In the notice of intent to recall, Bellis was accused of concealing his former heroin addiction from voters, making false statements on his candidate and office-holder’s campaign statements, of disregarding the interests of voters and of “conduct reprehensible, intolerable and deleterious to the operation of city government.”  As the drive to recall Bellis gathered momentum, the councilman financed the printing and distribution of The Signal, a 12-page tabloid which he called a “public information bulletin” that criticized local politics. That, and the nationwide media attention over Ron Settle’s death in a Signal Hill jail, rallied support for Bellis. Councilman Papadakis said: “the media did a job on our city. Bellis used (the media) very effectively. He does anything to gain people’s sympathy.” (LA Times 10/29/1981)
            Bellis won reelection in 1984 and remained on the council until September 1986. He resigned after accepting a position as associate professor of public administration at California State University, San Bernardino and moved to Lake Arrowhead.  During his term in office he oversaw a change in administration in the Police Department following the death of Ron Settles in 1981. He also oversaw the city’s redevelopment efforts, which brought the Price Club (now Costco) to the city.
 


Sources:

Andrew, Bob. “Hill election wide open – no incumbents on ballot.” Press Telegram, 1 April 1970.

Andrew, Bob. “Mayor applies the handcuffs in council’s uproar.” Press Telegram, 2 February 1972.

Barber, Mary. After Signal Hill recall 3 councilmen left, 1 will be mayor. Los Angeles Times, 16 November 1980.

Beebe refuses to be bullied.” Independent Press Telegram, 2 April 1972.

 Goodman, Mike & Meyer, Richard. “Brutality Charges. Signal Hill: Power to the Police.” Los Angeles Times. 11 October 1981.

 LaRiviere, Anne. Bellis survives Signal Hill recall. Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1981.

 Lowe, Hal. “City Chief quits, blasts Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 19 June 1968.

 Mader, Vint. “Incumbents Win, lose in Signal Hill Election.” Press Telegram, 10 April 1968.

“Signal Hill Councilman Bellis resigns.” Los Angeles Times, 18 September 1986.

 “Signal Hill reporter guilty in ruckus.” Press Telegram, 9 March 1972.

 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Interesting Elections: Part 3 - Signal Hill's Checkered Past

 

            In October 1959, Long Beach Independent reporter Bob Wells described how the 4500 residents of Signal Hill liked their politics loud, partisan and frequent. At the drop of a hat, it would take up recall petitions and remove what it considers to be the “boil on the body politic.” The recall weapon was first brought into use in 1926, a short time after the city was established in 1923. The populace swept from office a council it blamed for a street paving job it felt was not up to standards. Recalls followed in 1935, 1948, 1953, 1958 and 1959.

            On April 7, 1959, Signal Hill traded in its 17-man police force for officers almost outnumbered by the population of the “island” city. The change gave the 4000 residents of the city the full law-enforcement services of the 3800 member Sheriff’s Department. Along with the 20 or so men who worked out of the Signal Hill substation (Signal Hill police officers would be absorbed into the Sheriff’s department) , the city would be covered by narcotics, vice and other special details from other sheriff’s offices. Under the contract, the city paid $113,000 ($1 million today) a year for services. The council felt that for the $113,000 they would be getting more protection than under the $168,000 ($1.5 million) police budget. The change, the council stated, was the end result of months of morale-shattering unrest during which officers were fired, rehired and then fired again. On June 24, 1959, county fire and ambulance service for Signal Hill also went into effect.

            Cities contracting out for services was a relatively new thing at the time.  Citizens believed they should have been consulted on what would in later years become a basic municipal action. However, other issues were such as a $90,000 ($800,000 today) police building – just completed in 1959 – sitting virtually unused because the county sheriff’s office worked through a Lakewood station, and five police cars and a city fire ambulance being placed “in storage” were also decisive factors in the recall. In October 1959 75% of the city’s registered voters turned out to give the recall a 2.5 to 1 majority.  Recalled were four of the five city council members – Harold V. Clark, Frank B. Vaughn, Emil B. Haughty and Benjamin A. Moyle (who also served as mayor).  Only Councilwoman Nellie Combellack, who had not voted for the contract move, remained in office.  The contract for police and fire service with Los Angeles County ended July 1, 1960.

            A reader told me an interesting story about moving into Nellie Combellack’s former home at Orange and 33rd Street in the summer of 1959. Shortly after the Smith’s moved in and had gone to bed the family heard two loud blasts. Not wanting to disturb his wife, who had just returned from the hospital, Mr. Smith got up without turning on a light, looked around and didn’t find anything wrong. However, the next morning the Smiths’ found lots of glass, shredded drapes, the back of a new chair shredded with stuffing covering the floor, holes in the living room and kitchen windows and the hallway door leading to bedrooms full of shotgun holes. The debris ended just a foot from where the recently hospitalized Mrs. Smith was sleeping.

            Sheriff's  officers were called and seemed VERY surprised that the house did not belong to Mrs. Combellack. They started questioning family members as to who they knew who could have done it. They asked the Smith daughter if she had a jealous boyfriend, etc. In between questions, they kept asking about Mrs. Combellack. Mr. Smith said after they left he thought the sheriff's did it. His parting words to them, his daughter recalled, were “make sure you tell people Mrs. Combellack doesn’t live here anymore.” When the sheriff's were contacted asking about the status of the investigation the Smith’s got the feeling no one wanted to talk about it. No leads. However, the family did feel fortunate that the door onto the hallway and Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s bedroom door was closed, or someone could have been seriously injured or killed. The Smith daughter, who told me this story, said the family would talk about it over the years and remark that not everyone got their house shot gunned in the wee hours of the night…especially in 1959.

            Nothing was reported in the press about the incident and no suspect was ever found.

                                                                      -----

Kid Mexico
            Drama surrounded many Signal Hill elections such as the one in April 1952, which had Bingo King Kid Mexico (Tod Faulkner) afraid that his gambling interests would come to an end. On election day Faulkner said he needed guys with cars to drive certain Signal Hill citizens to the polls.  An undercover reporter for the Long Beach Independent signed up to be a driver.

            There was no mention then of what drivers were to be paid, but word had circulated beforehand that they would get $15 ($146) each – plus a big fat $30 ($292) bonus if the gambler’s slate won. Faulkner’s campaign manager, Cliff Waters told drivers he had a list of 1200 registered voters whom they believed would vote the “right” ticket. Waters then explained who the “right” candidates were – Mayor Lloyd J. Tomlin, Loring R. Jones and James F. Walsh. Drivers went out at 7 a.m., knocking on doors, ringing bells, and making pitches for Faulkner’s slate of candidates. Each driver was given a pack of cards, more or less sample ballots, on which crosses had been marked opposite the names of Tomlin, Jones and Walsh. Drivers were told to hand a card to each passenger to guide him or her in choosing the “right” candidate.

            The undercover reporter was surprised to find most people already up, and they weren’t surprised to see someone at their door so early. Perhaps they had been told beforehand that drivers would be around. However no one, except one sickly lady, accepted the reporter’s invitation to ride to the polls. This wasn’t so hard to take when one realized that the polling place was only two blocks away from the street were the reporter had been assigned. Despite Faulkner’s actions only Mayor Lloyd Tomlin, who had been in office since December 1946, was reelected.  In July 1953, Faulkner pleaded guilty to election fraud charges which involved his trying to rig registrations in the November 1952 Signal Hill election.  An anti-gambling ordinance passed by a vote of 1358 to 660. But Faulkner was not one to give up.

            Faulkner found religion. He claimed that in April 1958, God and Faulkner’s dead wife Edna appeared to him, telling him to go out and preach the word of God. One person he found “ungodly” was Signal Hill City Administrator-Engineer Charles Trygg. In 1962, Faulkner, admitted he helped finance a four-page smear sheet against Trygg distributed in Signal Hill just before the April 10 municipal election. The paper referred to the city administrator as “Big Wig Trygg,” “Boss Trygg” and “Mr. Big Trygg” and cast innuendo on Trygg’s competence, although no specific charges were made.  Faulkner was successful. A new city council asked for Trygg’s resignation. Trygg resigned, though the charges brought against him were not revealed.

  


         
A persistent  Faulkner decided to run for council himself in 1964. His platform included: effective zoning to provide for high-rise developments without sacrificing single-family residential areas; working to create a modern “downtown” area with top-quality retailers; creating a municipal auditorium for conventions and other meetings; attracting  modern businesses in order to keep the tax rate low and get Signal Hill moving ahead. He also pledged to keep away politics and gambling. Faulkner ended up running sixth among nine candidates.

(For more about Faulkner see my 2016 blog “Kid Mexico.”)

                                                                            -----

             In the April 1968 Signal Hill election another “interesting” campaign began when City Council candidate George Papadakis offered to pay 5 cents for each election poster of Floyd Jones which was removed from any power pole, school or public property.  It seemed zealous supporters of Jones had stuck campaign posters on illegal places such as power poles, schools or other public property. But Jones posters had also appeared on private property and youngsters who wanted to collect a nickel for every poster they could find snapped up all the Jones posters all over town, including ones Jones had tacked to his own home and garage. In retaliation, the Jones contingent planned to put 6000 Jones posters throughout Signal Hill and invite the kids to tear them down and redeem them from Papadakis at 5 cents apiece. The thing was 100 or 200 posters would be attached to a single nail, so everybody would get a shot at the bounty money.

Papadakas

            George E. Papadakis, a Torrance school teacher, Floyd Jones and Gertrude Beebe were running to fill the vacancy of Morris L. Shoup, who decided not to run for reelection.  Floyd and Beebe both lived in the 7-year-old Flintstone Apartments at 2165 E. 21st Street, known for its two-story high mosaic dinosaur with red mazda eyes, which adorned the front of the apartments (see my Flintstone Apartments article). Papadakis was their neighbor who owned a small apartment house outflanked by the Flintstone.

            Earlier I wrote about Papadakis’ fight with Flintstone owner Miles Shook over partying at the apartment building and how, as a city planning commissioner, he was able to convince the city council to pass a city-wide anti-noise ordinance in 1962.  Ironically, he was now running against two residents of the Flintstone.        

            Both Jones and Beebe agreed that Signal Hill needed to be straightened out. Here’s where the gut fighting and nit picking came in: Floyd Jones said he wanted to know why the curbs in front of the apartment house owned by the mayor were not painted, allowing parking, when in front of other apartment houses they were painted red.  Jones called the Signal Hill Police Department “worse than a Mack Sennett comedy,” and he deplored the nepotism in the department, epitomized by the fact that the police chief, Richard Denham, was the mayor’s son.

            A native of Wheatland, Wyoming, Mrs. Beebe taught elementary school in that state for six years after graduation from the University of Wyoming before moving to Signal Hill in 1935. She served as city treasurer from 1942 to 1966.  Mrs. Beebe, held the distinction (and possibly the state record) of being reelected as city treasurer and as city clerk, all on the same ballot in 1966. She said this about the City Council and the Police Department: “The city councilmen are no more than puppets for the city administrative officer (Fred Baxter) and the police operate in pathetic fashion. Many of our patrolmen are the finest law enforcement officers one could find, but politics prevents them from doing their duty as they see fit.” (Press Telegram, 3/15/1968)  She also mentioned remedying the city hiring policy, which barred blacks from being employed by the city.         

            Gertrude Beebe won a seat on the council and continued to serve as councilwoman until March 1976 and as mayor from March 1974-March 1975. Papadakis bounced back in April 1970, continuing an on and off career as council person until March 1984, also serving as Mayor from April 1973-March 1974 and from March 1981-July 1981. Floyd Jones also made another run for a council seat in 1970, charging misuse of city funds “so the politicos can make a killing in real estate.” He also favored a break up of “family control of Signal Hill.” He lost.

            Another candidate who won in the 1968 election was Sandra L. Miller who served on the council until April 1972. More about her and her fight against the political bosses of the city in my final chapter of Signal Hill's Checkered Past.

 

Sources:

“Hill elects councilmen Tuesday.” Independent Press Telegram, 12 April 1964.

 “Kid Mexico handed $500 fine, no jail in vote fraud.” Long Beach Independent, 7 August, 1953.

 “The ‘Kid’ shows ‘em how to vote up on the hill.” Long Beach Independent, 9 April 1952.

 Robeson, George. “Politics gets sticky up on Signal Hill.” Independent Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.

 Robeson, George. “Signal Hill is the West’s Tammany Hall.” Press Telegram, 5 April 1968.

Wells, Bob. “Signal Hill recalls 4 council members.” Long Beach Independent, 28 October 1959.

 Williams, Sherm. “Signal Hill vote 3-to-2 against keeping Trygg.” Long Beach Independent, 20 June, 1962.

 Whearley, Bob. “Signal Hill trades in its police force.” Press Telegram, 7 April 1959.

 “Signal Hill’s fire, service pact OKd.” Press Telegram, 1 July 1959.

 


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Flintstone



            In June 1962 an excited, pretty incoherent woman, called Long Beach Independent reporter Bob Wells about a red-eyed dinosaur that had been keeping Signal Hill residents awake in the wee morning hours by diving for olives in a black swimming pool filled with Martinis. Intrigued by her story he decided to visit the indicated area – 21st Street and St. Louis Avenue. There he found Miles Shook, and his new 28-unit apartment house, the Flintstone. Some elements in the woman’s story were explained when Wells gazed upon a two-story high mosaic dinosaur with red mazda eyes that adorned the front of the apartments. In the patio he found a black-bottomed swimming pool that Shook fondly referred to as “The tarpit.”
            The Flintstones animated sitcom was one of the most popular programs on television in the 1960s. It entered the ABC broadcast schedule on September 30, 1960 and continued until April 1, 1966.  Though set in the Stone Age it added features and technologies found in mid-20th-centruy America. Shook decided to take up the theme.  
            The one-and two-bedroom apartments were part of Signal Hill’s plan to turn oil land into productive real estate. But they hadn’t planned on Shook’s sense of style and way of doing business. The apartments had the bedrooms on the first floor, from there a cantilevered iron stairway led to the combination kitchen, bar and hi-fi lounge upstairs. Every apartment had a built-in electrically cooled beer keg. The apartments were furnished like a Playboy penthouse, despite Shook’s decorator’s advice   silk screened drapes (black flint stones on white), Chinese birdcage chairs that swung on chains from the ceilings, Scandinavian sofas, Danish glass bottles and early American rugs.
Iron stairway in the Flintstone
            Shook also had 200 apartment units scattered around the southern part of the county. He had recently opened another apartment house called the Pink Pussy Cat in Paramount, with a pink pussy cat on the front wall. Local officials sent a sheriff’s car around to protest the mosaic, but there wasn’t a law on the books to stop him.
            Reporter Wells asked him about a rumor that Shook had lured six tenants away to the Flintstone from an apartment house on Redondo Avenue after the landlord at the latter location had imposed a curfew on night swimming in the pool. “Six?” Shook said. “I got 14 of them.” As Wells turned through the plastic bird-of paradise plants back to reality, Shook shoved a flat stone into his hand. It was an invitation to the grand opening of the Flintstone, featuring a five-piece band. 

            The Flintstone loomed high beside George Papadakis’ apartments, and Papadakis claimed the noise and partying from the Flintstone pool was unbearable. At every meeting of the Signal Hill City Council he would come armed with his “diary” he and his wife kept since the Flintstone opened in August 1961. The noise was bad enough but it became unbearable after the grand opening celebration in June 1962. Attempts to get Shook to regulate pool hours was ignored.  Shook’s manager said no one else in the apartment complex had complained, in fact they liked the idea of being able to take a swim whatever the time of day.
George Papadakis
            In his diary, Papadakis documented the throbbing of bongo drums and exuberant shouts of “Hey, bring down another beer.” All this centered around the heated Flintstone swimming pool – dubbed the “Tar Pit” by its owner Miles Shook in keeping with the Flintstone motif.  The heated pool, near Papadakis’ bedroom, was open 24 hours, which made sleep impossible. Frustrated, he decided he needed to get into politics.
            In 1962 Papadakis became a member of the city planning commission and after a large party at the Flintstone on November 10, 1962, he decided to cash in on his new found power. He convinced police to arrest Gerald Kling, Wallace Blaylock Jr., and Gerald Nicholas guests at the party.
            Kling was arrested as he sat in a chair in the patio and was charged with using profane language. Nicholson was arrested on a drunk charge in front of the apartment house.  Blaylock, arrested as he stepped from his car in front of the address, was charged with having a loud muffler on his car and not having his driver’s license in his possession. They claimed they were victims of city harassment against the tenants of the Flintstone and its owner, Miles Shook. During the trial officers admitted to a city policy of “selective enforcement” in the neighborhood. In January 1963, the three were acquitted of misdemeanor charges after a two-day jury trial. 
            Later the three young men sued Paul S. Kemner, the town’s former mayor, Police Chief W.S. Stovall, George Papadakis and three police officers for false imprisonment, assault and battery, malicious prosecution and conspiracy. The suit was for $906,000, however the matter was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
            Out of all of this Papadakis was able to finally get a good night’s sleep. In December 1962 he convinced the City Council to pass a strict anti-noise ordinance.  In 1968, he decided to run for city council…but that’s another story I will be writing about later.
           
The Flintstone today - Hillside Manor
The "Tarpit" is no more
What of the Flintstone Apartments? Today you will find it under a different name – Hillside Manor – at 2165 E. 21st Street, Signal Hill.  There is no dinosaur out front, the pool is no longer black.  In any case, I doubt residents know the history of the apartment building which Long Beach reporter George Robeson once described as “the closest thing to a Playboy Club that Signal Hill ever had.”

If any of you remember "The Flintstone" and would like to share memories or pictures, please contact me through my website claudineburnettbooks.com or leave comments below.

Sources:
“$906,000 in damages sought for arrests.” Press Telegram, 21 November, 1963.

Robeson, George. “3 file claims of false arrest. " Press Telegram, 9 February 1963.

Robeson, George. “Politics get sticky up on Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.

Wells, Bob. “This man’s real Shook.” Press Telegram, 8 June, 1962.

Williams, Sherm. “Splashes in night irk neighbor in Signal Hill.” Press Telegram, 18 July, 1962.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

The “boss” of Signal Hil - Part 1: Signal Hill’s Checkered Past



 
Congressman Craig Hosmer, Signal Hill Mayor Tom Denham,
Councilmember Bill Mendenhall, Gertrude Beebe,
Councilmember Paul Kemner and Kathleen Brady 
           Up until the mid 1980s, Signal Hill was described by many as the last frontier in this part of the Old West.  The 2.2 square mile town was an oil town whose inhabitants included roughnecks, gamblers, prostitutes and those ready for a fight. The city was a gun-toting town, where police handed out pistol permits regularly. It was a place where some made it quite clear that blacks and Jews were not entirely welcome.  It sat on the edge of what many called the “Black Ghetto,” an area to its south where Long Beach African American were allowed to live.  It had its own form of politics, where recall elections were frequent, and where drifters were brought in for municipal elections. They lived in tents for the 45-day residency period and then voted and moved on. Both sides in a hot issue hired these tent voters, and the outcome of a city election in Signal Hill often depended on which faction had the most tents. 
            In 1981, Los Angeles Times reporters Mike Goodman and Richard E. Meyer wrote that up until his death in March 1979 the city was controlled by Thomas Webster Denham, Sr., a Southerner with a gracious, soft-spoken accent. He sold his land and dairy in Florida in 1945 and headed west to Signal Hill with his wife Carribelle, and three sons. By 1962 oil production revenue had dropped off to a point where the surface property for the first time in the city’s history was more valuable than the subsurface wealth. The city sought other avenues of revenue in order to compensate for the loss and encourage further improvement. By 1967, 96 substandard houses had been demolished, of 1300 old oil derricks only 50 were left and 50 open oil sumps cleaned up. Real estate was now becoming the “black gold” of the city. One of the major players in the real estate marker was Thomas Denham, who developed an interest in politics.
            Denham was a trusted, even revered by man in Signal Hill. They called him Mr. Tom. He secured a seat on the Signal Hill City Council, a position he held from 1962-1974. He was also mayor from 1964-1965 and again in 1967-79. He took steps to secure his influence. He and other businessmen began subsidizing the Signal Hill Tribune, the town’s only newspaper by purchasing block subscriptions from publisher H. Fred Harris. Signal Hill began publishing its ordinances in the Tribune in type so large it cost the city extra newspaper space. David Caretto, future city manager of Signal Hill told the Times “The city was subsidizing the newspaper.”
            With his father’s backing, Richard Denham was promoted to police captain. Richard Denham was a graduate of Hamilton Junior High, attended Poly and graduated from high school in Georgia. On his return to Signal Hill, he attended LBCC where he took special classes in law enforcement including USC and California State College, Long Beach where he secured his teaching credential. He was the first member of the Signal Hill Police Department to graduate from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s training academy. He joined the department as a patrol officer in 1954, but resigned after 6 months to enter the contracting business. In July 1957, he rejoined as a patrol officer, promoted to sergeant in October 1960 and captain September 1, 1966. When Chief William F. Stovall Sr. retired January 1, 1968, Captain Denham succeeded Chief Stovall in the job.  
            Richard Denham hired a number of new officers, most with no police experience. At least four had been fired or forced to resign from other departments, according to the Times. “They were losers or men he could control,” said John Jameson, city manager at the time. “Denham would give them one more chance. That’s what he’d tell him.” Among those hired was his brother Tom Denham Jr. Richard Denham said he wanted his officers to be tough. Businessmen applauded the toughness. They saw themselves as a special target, surrounded by the larger urban area of Long Beach and abutting the Long Beach ghetto. Toughness meant security for their property. At the same time, it meant security for Denham property.
            Since 1968, when Richard Denham became police chief, forty-two of those arrested by Signal Hill police formally accused them of beatings without justification.  Several suffered broken ribs, another a punctured lung, several were crippled and one was partially blinded. Two died.  Most accusations of police beatings were hardly noticed. Few, if any, were reported in the Tribune. When anyone filed a claim for damages, the City Council routinely rejected it and turned it over to the insurance carrier.
            Most of those arrested and brutalized by police were transients, some black, some white. Nobody even knew them, but in August 1976, local resident Clifford Holzhauer got into an argument with his wife Susan and asked her to leave the house. She had – and Holzhauer took their 7-month old baby to family members in Sacramento. Susan wanted to see the baby, but Clifford would not tell her where the youngster was.  Susan called police and they arrived along with Susan. Signal Hill officers, with their guns drawn, told Holzhauer to produce the baby. He told them the baby was OK but was not in the house. Police then pushed Susan out the front door, stepped in, and began beating Holzhauer 30 to 50 times. He pleaded with his wife, locked out of the house, to help him because they were “killing me.” She couldn’t do a thing. He lost consciousness and was taken to USC Medical Center where he had neck and groin injuries, three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Police charged Holzhauer with battery. A jury acquitted him.  He sued Signal Hill and agreed to an $8,500 ($39,000 today) settlement.
            When Holzhauer complained to his neighbor who was on the city council he was told not to get involved and to let the insurance company take care of matters. What did attract the attention of others on the council, however, was absenteeism. The Denham brothers were mixing work on family enterprises with police work, and police work was getting short ended. Several on the council staged a small revolt, denying Richard Denham a raise. The Denham’s fought back, also targeting city manager John Jameson who had supported the council’s action. But Jameson was in trouble for another reason – he was interested in putting some blacks on the police force. But Richard Denham told him “no.” Something Denham denied. Jameson said the city’s attitude toward blacks was best demonstrated by an industrial buffer zone it created between its residential area and the city limits, which touched the Long Beach ghetto. Others said Signal Hill racism was typified by its American Legion post, which had its charter revoked in 1964 for calling Jews “a mongrel race” and preaching “niggers don’t want integration and the Jews are pushing integration.”Those that had opposed the Denham’s were voted off the council and Jameson fired.
            On March 22, 1979, Thomas W. Denham, Sr. died leaving an estate worth approximately $1 million ($3.5 million today) and a smoothly running political machine. Before the year was out Police Chief Richard Denham decided to quit. There was a hitch. He was only 47 – three years away from early retirement. He threatened the city with a very substantial stress related disability claim that he would drop in return for a three-year leave of absence, which would keep his city insurance in force. He agreed to pick up the premiums during the leave. Denham claimed the stress was caused by the loss of his raise and criticism of absenteeism. His doctor confirmed the stress and Denham was granted a deferred retirement.
            The Council needed to find a successor. Ten years before, Denham had granted Gaylord (Red) Wert, a police dispatcher, an unusually dramatic promotion. Wert had no other police experience and Denham made him the department’s only lieutenant – his second in command. Now the City Council, without seeking any other candidate, appointed Wert chief of police. He had never been a patrol officer and had never taken a chief’s exam.
           
            In 1981, Signal Hill gained national notoriety because of the jailhouse death of African American football player Ron Settles.  As mentioned in my earlier article on Settles' death,  Settles was stopped for speeding on June 2, 1981, taken to jail and repeatedly struck with fists and billy clubs. The police said he resisted arrest.  Two hours after his arrest, he was found hanged from his cell bars. A coroner’s jury said the death was a homicide. Police and a grand jury said he committed suicide. Following Settles death, Douglas Miller, who lived in the black area of Long Beach at the bottom of Signal Hill said he stayed out of the town and so did his neighbors. “Things always were rough up there. But now it’s worse. They’ve got killers up there.”
            In May 1982, Signal Hill Police Chief, Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired after a new city council took over the governing of the city. A new city was born. Some believe it was Settles’ death and the attendant publicity and looking into past history that changed the city so radically. 
           
Councilmember Wilson
In 1997, a city that once closed its eyes to racial injustice and allowed certain officials to display their disdain for people of African descent elected one of these persons to head their government – Edward H. J. Wilson.  A native of Ventura, California, Wilson was reared across the United States and Europe. His father was a career military man. Wilson graduated from high school in Holland and came back to the US to attend college.  He served five terms as Mayor and in 2013 ran unsuccessfully for the 70th State Assembly seat. He still serves on the Signal Hill City Council.

Sources:
Cheatham, Charles, “T.R. Philosophy is good enough for Denham” Independent Press Telegram, 23 June 1968.

Goodman, Mike & Meyer, Richard. “Brutality Charges. Signal Hill: Power to the Police.” Los Angeles Times. 11 October 1981.

Robeson, George. “Politics gets sticky up on Signal Hill.” Independent Press Telegram, 15 March 1968.