On This Day: A Letter Sent to the Army Balloon School, Arcadia, 18 July 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Unfortunately, but predictably, the centennial of World War I has been scantly commemorated the last two years.  The Homestead has hosted a lecture series, put together an exhibit in our gallery, and touched upon the war in posts on this blog, but there has been very little locally and nationally by museums about this critical part of our history.

Godfrey Santa Monica reverse_20180718_0001

Today’s post highlights an artifact from the Homestead collection that comes from the war and has a connection to our local history.  It is a letter, written on this day a century ago, by Florence L. Thompson of Monrovia to her beau Ezra Ziebell, of the same city, but who was stationed with a medical corps group at the newly opened Army Balloon School in Arcadia.

The facility was launched (!) just a few months prior when the United States Army reached an agreement to lease 200 acres of the former Rancho Santa Anita from Anita Baldwin, the heiress of its longtime owner, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.  The deal was made in spring 1918 and the school, which trained men to fly in balloons for observation in the theater of war in western Europe, gradually added buildings, personnel and elements through the next few months.  Construction started in earnest by mid-June and most work in the original plan was completed by the end of September, though additions were made through the end of the war in mid-November.

Godfrey Santa Monica reverse_20180718_0002

The location was on Santa Anita Avenue, just a short distance from the rural town’s little downtown, situated on Huntington Drive, but included the original Santa Anita track for horse racing that Baldwin, a breeder and enthusiast, operated for a number of years before it was shuttered.  The site is now Arcadia County Park and a public golf course, which lie on the west side of Santa Anita.

Renamed Camp Ross, after a member of the corps who died in action in France just before the cessation of hostilities in November, the facility remained open for a short time after the conclusion of the war before closing.  As for the use of balloons, that also declined as airplanes became more sophisticated and supplanted the former in terms of use by the army.  Balloons continued to be employed by the Navy for patrolling coasts by the Great Depression era.

Los Angeles Times, 13 March 1918.  The announcement of plans to build the balloon school at the Baldwin Ranch in Arcadia.

With respect to the love birds who were involved in the correspondence, Florence Thompson, who was nearing forty when she wrote the letter, was a longtime teacher at Wild Rose Elementary in Monrovia.  The school opened in 1912 and was rebuilt after building codes were toughened following the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  The school remains in operation today after over a century.

Ziebell, who was born in 1874 and was raised on a farm and worked in that profession, later worked for an awning shop in Monrovia.  The couple was married in the early 1920s (Ziebell was previously married and had several children, while Thompson had not been married before) and remained together for over four decades.

Arcadia Tribune, 4 May 1918, published the telegram of congressional representative Henry Z. Osborne announcing the approval of the school and expenditure of $400,000 for its construction.

The content of the missive includes Florence telling Ezra that she was in Los Angeles “with a younger man, ” meaning a mutual friend who drove her by the balloon school, though she noted that she did not see her beau.  She reported that she was the “Robbins Studio,” which appears to have been for photographs, because she added that she would bring “pictures” out to the school when she returned the following weekend.

Meanwhile, the letter accompanied a box of paper, the gift of which “calls for a written acknowledgement,” so she asked for “a nice letter, dearest” and concluded the piece of correspondence.  As was often done in days gone by, Florence folded the letter in severa; squares and used one of them for the address and stamp, cutting the sheet so there was a flap to fold over and paste down to seal everything nice and neat.

Ezra and Florence Ziebell, with his daughter from his prior marriage, as listed in a 1924 Monrovia city directory with her as a teacher at Wild Rose School (which still exists) and him as a clerk in the awning business.  The two remained together until well into the 1960s.

The Homestead has a great framed panoramic photograph of the balloon school, showing a wide swath of the property and a number of balloons and personnel and that will be shared later in the year as we continue to mark the centennial of the First World War.  Meantime, here is a nice photo from the Los Angeles Times on one of the newspaper’s web pages.

Leave a Reply