by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the relentless march of growth and development in greater Los Angeles, especially from the boom of the late 1880s through the 1920s, immigrants came from much of the globe, including from such far-flung locales as Japan, Europe, Mexico, Central America, South America. Naturally, the largest source of migration to the area came from other parts of the United States.
In fact, it has been stated that Los Angeles was, by 1930, a city that was “more Midwestern than Western,” given the large numbers of new arrivals from the central portion of the country. One of the more interesting manifestations of that phenomenon were the holding of picnics throughout the area by people coming from a particular state, county or, in a few cases, cities and towns.
These events were naturally a reflection of the fact that, while emigrants made their way to greater Los Angeles for the opportunities the region afforded, the uprooting still made many of them keenly aware of the hometown they left behind. Having a gathering with fellow residents of the area, but recognizing common origins, was a sort of coping mechanism and a turn at some nostalgia to boot.
Today’s post highlights an interesting artifact from the Homestead’s collection: a program for the third annual picnic of the Dixon, Illinois Association of Southern California. The gathering was held at a very popular place for picnics of all kinds, whether they were for families, companies, fraternal orders, clubs and, of course, recent migrants.
What’s notable about this, too, is that Dixon, Illinois was hardly a burgeoning burg a little over a century ago, or at any time. Founded around 1830 and a little over 100 miles west of Chicago, Dixon went through a late 19th century boom, with its population leaping from a little over 2,000 in 1860 to about 4,000 ten years later and to 5,000 by 1890 and roughly 8,000 by the end of that decade. There was a nearly 10% decline between 1900 and 1910, when the first association picnic was held and perhaps some of those folks wound up in greater Los Angeles. Among notable Dixon natives or residents was John Deere, inventor of the famed steel plow for farming and other tools and machinery; powerful Hollywood film industry columnist Louella Parsons; drug store pioneer Charles R. Walgreen; and former California governor and 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
The program lists the five officers, including a woman as treasurer, the three-man executive committee, and chairpersons of the planning committee for the picnic, including a couple of women. The day’s activities including the singing of the Illinois state song and one called “Dixon on the Rock,” [“Rock” meaning the Rock River, though which the town runs]; and address by the association’s treasurer, Mrs. C.H. Sarwine; a recitation by Mrs. D.A.R. King and others; short talks by members of the society; committee reports; the election of officers; and a typical look to the future through “News items from the Progressive Mid-century Aerial Telephone; date, July 27, 1950.”
Lyrics for the Dixon song include these relevant examples:
We used to sit and think and dream
Of broad Pacific’s ceaseless roar,
Of California’s golden shore.
From dear old Dixon we have come,
And settled in our western home,
Where luscious fruit abundant grows
And desserts blossom like the rose
Where many may reap with earnest toil
The richest treasures from the soil;
Then let each heat be glad and gay
And sing of Dixon far away.
No picnic would do justice to the name without a variety of races, including 50 and 100-yard dashes (distinguished for boys and girls under 15, single women, married women, and men); sack races for boys; a three-legged race; a broad jump; a high jump; a tug-of-war and a baseball game. There was also a type of race that would not be found today, a “fat men’s race.” Each had prizes, including pocket knives; a key holder; shaving accessories; a watch; a police whistle; a baseball bat and ball; playing cards and more.
Naturally, there was food (probably provided by the guests on their own, with lemonade and coffee supplied by the association), an official photographer, and a mock officer or detective of the day “authorized to settle all disputes” although if he “doesn’t render the right judgement we will hire another detective (?) in his place.”
To pay for the cost of printing the publication and, perhaps, for some of the event activities, advertisers promoted their work and products. These included the German American Trust and Savings Bank; a sporting good company; a photo company; clothing and accessory businesses; contractors and builders; a plumber; the firm which printed the program; and Ralphs Grocery Company, which then had two stores, one downtown at Spring and 5th streets and the other to the west at Pico and Normandie.
There were at least four of these picnics, three of which (1911, 1913 and 1914) were covered in the hometown newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, in “Dixon far away.” One of the articles listed all those, over 110 persons, who signed in on the guestbook for the event the latter year. Most were from Los Angeles, but there were guests from Riverside, San Bernardino, Pomona, Pasadena and South Pasadena, Long Beach, Huntington Beach and more. One man, R.H. Rowland (whose connection to the Rowlands of the La Puente area has not been explored) was in town from Dixon.
One of the articles, from 1911, mentioned that the first picnic was held at the home of the association treasurer, Mrs. Sarwine, in Duarte, and talked about how much fun was had by the Dixonite expatriates. Then, however, a typical racist device was employed to explain how much enjoyment, as the article continued, “Like the little darky who, when asked how old she was, said, ‘Ef you go by what ma says, I’se six years old, but ef you go by the fun I’se had I’se most a hunderd.”
The program is a notable artifact reflective of the growth of Los Angeles and, yet, of the desire of some of its new arrivals to remember from where they came. The heyday for these gatherings looks to have been in the first three decades of the 20th century, when expansion in the region was significant. Perhaps the Great Depression, followed by World War II, put a halt to these kinds of picnics, though the company picnic and family gatherings are still pretty common today.