by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’d be awfully difficult to find sources of information about the state of affairs in 1920s Los Angeles County that are more detailed than the annual reports of the Board of Supervisors and this third post on the one for the 1926-1927 fiscal year is rife with rich material that helps learn a great deal about life in the burgeoning region.
We pick up our review with the brief statement about flood control, though this was a matter of great concern and energy over the previous decade or so as damage from stormwaters led to the development of an ambitious plan of dams and other measures to stem the occasional floods that hit the area.
It was noted that the previous year was the busiest since the Flood Control District was formed in 1914, with spending totaling $4 million, including about a little more than 40% from taxes along with annual appropriations of a few hundred thousand dollars from the state. Moreover, bond issues were passed in 1917 and 1924 allowing for $40 million in those instruments and of which just shy of 40% were sold to date.
The earlier issue was virtually exhausted with “the amount nearly all for channel protection,” while the second, at $25 million, was “mainly for nine dams, of which San Gabriel was the largest single item.” In the last year, Big Santa Anita and Sawpit Canyon dams were completed, leaving San Gabriel, Big Tujunga, Eaton Canyon and Big Dalton left to hold back the onrush of water from the San Gabriel Mountain range and impound it for downstream uses.
Some details were given of these four, inclding the fact that San Gabriel received some extraordinarily low bids and that the board was taken to court to prevent it from allowing anything less than a 240,000 acre foot dam. As mentioned in the first post, Supervisor Sidney T. Graves, who served a sole term from 1926 to 1930, was later convicted of accepting a bribe regarding this dam and went to San Quentin on a conviction before he was then found guilty of federal tax evasion and serving time in two federal hoosegows. Also noted was the long-time Chief Engineer James W. Reagan was replaced by E.C. Eaton because of concerns over his management of the system and a reorganization of the district was also undertaken.
The Health Department was a major element of the county’s operations and it proudly stated that it “returns annually . . . large dividends in improved sanitary conditions and better health, including the vaccination of 160,000 people during a smallpox epidemic.” It was added that “deaths from contagious diseases materially declined during the year in spite of the increased frequency of certain diseases.” Moreover, while the population of the county rocketed 250% in just three years, “infectious diseases have not, by any means, shown this ratio of increase.” Tuberculosis cases were up, but preventive work was increasing. Still, there were 467 fewer doctors practicing in the county in 1926 than the prior year.
In the vital statistics section, it was stated that there was a birth increase of 186 and a total excess over deaths of 1255, considered “an exceedingly healthy sign.” Reflecting the racial viewpoints of the era, it was decided to report that births among Japanese residents had declined from 34% of all births in 1917 to 5% nine years later, while Mexican births rose from 12 to 30% during that same period. Why nothing was reported about Whites is not stated and, presumably, the Black population was too small to be mentioned. Infant mortality declined significantly in recent years, though the whole rate of 41 per 1,000, “is a record for a large rural district in the United States.”
Sanitary inspections totaled almost a quarter million with nearly 53,000 nuisances abated and the low typhoid fever death rate of 4 per 100,000 was highlighted as showing that conditions “are very excellent.” It was also trumpeted that “purity of milk is guaranteed the entire county for the first time in the history of our health department,” though better legislation was wanted to provide more enforcement of pure food laws.
After reviewing the nursing and public health work, including the cooperation with 135 school districts and 25 cities (most recently Arcadia and Monterey Park) and from the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of California and other entities to improve education, it was stated the greatest need was for improved building and housing conditions, organizing a garbage and refuge disposal division, and a “new Health Center schedule” for Belvedere (now East Los Angeles,) the San Gabriel Valley, and the southwest portion of the county.
The Road Department report was quite brief, as it was noted that there were 87 miles of cement, 67 of oil and rock surfacing, and 24 of asphalt/concrete roads built, along with 93 miles of cement curbing, gutters and sidewalks. Maintenance of over 490 miles of paved highways and 3500 miles of secondary of mountain roads was also under the aegis of the department and the total value of the former was just shy of $5 million. Nearly eighty bridges were finished or under construction and while 94 existing spans were under maintenance and repair. Total spending was above $7.25 million, but the statement ended with the observation that “the heavy winter rains caused considerable damage” but traffic interruptions were for short periods.
The superintendent of charities noted that there were “increasing burdens” because of growing unemployment (note that the Great Depression was a little more than two years away), a decrease in savings among the working class, and increasing illness. Nearly 3,500 people were placed in positions to earn a living at an average monthly wage of $35. The labor camp at Olive View Sanatorium in Sylmar employed well over 500 people; otherwise the indigent poor had to be placed at the County Farm, of which see below.
Another issue was the release of people from the county’s General Hospital even though they still required convalescent care, whch led to placement in homes by the Outdoor Relief Division (also below). But, the County Farm and Olive View were also very over-crowded, though some amelioration was sought through care at home, in private homes or at other hospitals.
A new amendment to the state’s “Pauper Act,” however, mandated “that no one who has not resided in the State for one year will receive County aid.” It was admitted that “this law is bound to cause much suffering at first” but at least “the responsibility of the County for the care of these people is at an end.”
Another legal muddle dealt with issues of the “failure to provide,” usually involving men and their wives and children and it was advocated that such crimes be made felonies and allow for extradition and punishment. The County also needed to get a work camp in operation and the broader goal was to help mothers, children and the deserving poor while keeping in abeyance “those who are unworthy or criminally negligent in their duty toward those who are dependent upon them.”
At the County Farm in Downey, it was noted that there were almost 1,750 patients, while there were fewer than 700 just seven years prior, reflective, of course, of the massive growth in the county. Most of the recent increase were from men and in the psychopathic section, even though there were no additional housing units. What happened instead was the “placing additional beds in porches and corridors” once dormitories were full. There were, though, a half-dozen new buildings for a total of 312 beds anticipated to be completed by Thanksgiving.
Other new structures were for employee housing “a splendid new Administration Building” replacing the original from forty years ago, and smaller auxiliary units. In process was a service building with a modern kitchen and dining rooms to greatly expand the current and woeful capacity of just 300 patiens at a time. The budget for 1927-28 would, it was stated, allowed for an increase in bed capacity to some 2,350.
A future infirmary would boost capacity from just 335 to about 2,500 and eaerly drawings were in prepration. As to the site, it, too, was expanding with two tracts acquired to bring the total to 540 acres and this to be used for growing farm crops, while a new dairy was also in process. Improved streets, sidewalks and curbs, two new wells, and landscape improvements were among other changes highlighted as far as infrastructure. Equipment modifications included a new automatic telephone system with a code-calling element for emergency contact of doctors and staff, power tools to build furniture for the facility, a storage battery lighting system in case of outages, better laundry facilities and more.
A section discussed efforts to maintain “A Real ‘Home’ Atmosphere” through entertainment (like weekly film showings)and recreation, a county branch library, religious services, a Christmas celebration “with at least one good gift” and “the traditional turkey dinner and all that goes with it.” The new Occupational Therapy Department was touted with some 100 residents involved in making baskets, leather goods, rugs, table runners, needlework, chair caning, doormats, mattresses and more. It was hoped to have a dedicated building for the department within a few months and helping those who were disabled through useful work that could be provided to other county entities, was featured.
Medical work included a new X-ray department and over 600 persons were so examined, while more than 700 received dental care and another 450 or so were seen by a eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. The Physiotherapy section administered almost 9,500 electrical, UV ray, massage and other treatments–though how these would measure up to modern medicine is, of course, an obvious question.
More efficient operations in medical care, along with other cost savings in having family members care for the needy or cutting labor turnover among employees, was buttressed, it was stated, by improvements in dairy production, so that overall revenues increased. The report ended by noting that “for several years, this has been the largest County-owned institution in the West.” Even if a penny saved with every meal could involve $20,000, it was averred that “to combine economy of operation with this atmosphere of help, security and confidence in those who have suffered the hard buffets of Fate, is the ideal.”
Olive View Sanatorium was also seeing rapidly growing patient numbers, especially with those suffering from all levels of tuberculosis, this condition making this region a haven for “health-seekers” for decades. In the last year, temporary quarters for women patients were built by male residents, so that the total occupancy was 628, while five dormitories for employees added 155 rooms for them.
Occupational therapy buildings were finished the prior fall and the city’s Board of Education provided two more teachers and it was noted that this valuable element “points a way for the patient to connect himself with the activities of the busy world and as long as he has this contact he also has hope of recovering his health and of regaining his place in society.” Improvements in education, a new fire engine, better laundry equipment, landscaping, and others were featured, while the labor camp, religious services, and medical department were summarized.
While tuberculosis patients who were ambulatory traditionally were the majority of those at Olive View, the facility treated two thirds as consided to be far advanced, with 14% moderately so, and about 20% being in the early stages. For those dischargd, almost a quarter were arrested (meaning the condition was essentially cured), with almost 30% improved, just under 20% remaining the same and about 30% having passed away. This last was considered standard for such institutions nationally, but it was hoped that patients could find meaningful work when released and patients were given tasks involving clerical, social service, nursing, postal, landscaping, barbering and other occupations.
The Outdoor Relief Division stressed the goal “to give relief by case work, emphasizing social and economic rehabilitation rather than the giving of alms” and encouraging families “to use the resources of its own memers for self-support.” The help of service clubs was pointed out, such as in the Latino area of Jimtown near Whittier, where flooding of the San Gabriel River caused tremendous damage.
Meanwhile in Belvedere, now East Los Angeles, there was “a population of approximately 120,000 and about 45,000 of the number are Mexicans” and it was baldly stated that
The greatest problem is, therefore, the Mexican. These people come to the United States in destitute condition. They have no clothing but the few garments that cover them, no furniture with the exception of a bed and perhaps a few dishes, and, worst of all, no resources. Their families are large in number and many of the members syphilitic or tuberculous. The grade of intelligence is low and complicated by language difficulties. Although they have no intention of becoming citizens and cannot be persuaded to return to Mexico, they early learn to demand aid from the public funds. Desertion, jail sentences, illness, illegitimacy and unemployment are the sources of poor citizenship among these immigrants.
This description is a world away from that of the County Farm or Olive View, where, presumably, the clients were completely, or at least overwhelmingly, White and small wonder that forced deportations took place once the Depression hit, given this heinous view of Latinos, particularly those in need. By contrast, it was reported that Long Beach was where many unskilled workers with children came because it had excellent schools and fine coastal weather, though there was an over-supply of laborers. Still, 80% of those in need were Americans, described completely differently than Latinos.
The Whittier office served a largely agricultural area, usring “a fluctuating population of Mexican laborers” migrating seasonally for work, while there were also unskilled workers in brick and tile manufacturing plants, such as at Simons or Davidson near Montebello. In the San Gabriel Valley, the Foothill District was lauded for its community spirit, though nothing was said of the clientele or labor force.
The county cemetery was “a free burying ground” but, really, because interment spaces were no longer available, was the crematorium at Evergreen Cemetery, a private entity at the eastern edge of Boyle Heights and described as “also a public park for the people living in the neighborhood.” It was adeed that a chapel next to the crematorium, which handled 668 cases during the year, was “occasionally used for funerals” while Lorena Street was to be better graded and paved. With grass and pepper trees on that side and the street improvements, “this will further improve the appearance of the tract and will remove the last traces of a ‘potter’s field.'”
As to the county’s General Hospital and its care for the indigent and needy, it was added that the idea was that a patient was usually expected to pay whatever they could toward their care, with a county Social Service Department financial invetigator determining that an applicant for care was, after all, indigent. Those who could be cared elsewhere were not accepted, with about 40% of applicants falling into this category. Outpaitent care was also encouraged whenever possible, but it was emphasized that everyone treated was afforded the best possible care.
For the fiscal year, more than 23,000 patients, among 64 nationalities with 57% American, 18% Mexican, and 5% Black, were admitted for almost 440,000 hospital days (the average stay was about 20 days) and there were 1,283 beds including 40 bassinets. There were almost 1,300 births and over 2,500 deaths recorded. There were almost 3,800 persons treated in the Psychopathic Department, with 34% released on parole, 40% sent to institutions (like the Coiunty Farm), and the rest dismissed or otherwise released.
Outpatient services were provided to over 17,000 persons, though half were or would become in-patients, and there were above 132,000 visits, with about 25,000 for physiotherapy, 18,000 for internal medicine, 9,000 having minor surgery, 7,500 receiving orthopedic treatment, and almost 7,300 getting ear, nose and throat services.
Almost 25,000 X-rays were taken, more than 42,000 dental examinations handled with over 6,800 teeth extracted, and almost 6,000 surgeries conducted (a third were general, with large numbers of orthopedic, gynecological and genito-urinary procedures also done.) In a list of diseases and psychological conditions, there were 1,718 tuberculosis cases, 1,155 of psychoses, 1,139 of insanity, 657 involving syphilis, and 569 abortions.
For injuries, nearly 2,000 fractures were recorded, along with 460 lacerations, 439 contusions, 355 concussions, and 341 wounds. There were 463 cases of alcoholism and another 150 of alchol poisoning and delirium, with 94 morphine poisoning, and another fifty involving mercury and arsenic. The Communicable Diseases Building treated almost 2,400 patients and there were acute bed shortages in the summer that meant that some cancer patients were housed there.
With the county’s burgeoning population, the struggle to kepe up was palpable and a reconstruction project was being rushed through, while a new acute general building with 1,600 beds was started in April and was expected to be completed in fall 1929. Yet, the report ended, while the total capacity would be almost 3,000 beds, “if the County continues to grow at the present rate, it is estimated that more beds wll be required about 1938.”
Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series with a look at such areas as the Probation Department; Superintendent of Schools; the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art and the affiliated Otis Art Institute; the Library; Big Pines Recreation Camp; Patriotic Hall; and some, but not too much, statistical and financial data. So, once again, please come back and check that out.