“Angels in Overalls”: Working the Land in Sunset Magazine, March 1912, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having discussed in some detail the agricultural production of greater Los Angeles through such examples as citrus and lima beans, with particular focus on the enterprises of Orange County farmers like Daniel E. Smeltzer and William T. Newland (whose names were, however, incorrectly given!), Walter V. Woehlke turned his attention in “Angels in Overalls” from the March 1912 issue of Sunset magazine to other figures and elements of the regional economy—always, however, with a particular emphasis on boosting the area to his reader.

So, George Watts, who owned a small shoe store in San Bernardino, was mentioned as the owner of an 11-acre farm in Rialto, mockingly called “Drialto” by those who thought it would fail and “wither and blow away.” Watts had trouble trying to raise apricots, grapes and prunes and, at one point, accepted a pair of marble hitching posts for horses from a stonecutter (an Armenian, apparently, who adopted the surname “Stone”) for payment of some work on his shoes.

The Los Angeles Oil Field just west of downtown.

The lesson, evidently, was that diligence, determination and perseverance paid off for both men, as Woehlke added that each successfully moved into citrus—Watts by planting the trees on his tract and Stone by speculating on orchards, along with other real estate. The latter, in fact, was said to be worth near a million dollars “with holdings scattered throughout Los Angeles, the orange belt [along the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges] and the Imperial Valley [east of San Diego, where irrigation allowed for semi-arid desert lands to be converted to intensive farming.]” As for Rialto, the author indicated that it was thriving.

Beyond the varied crops mentioned in the article, Woehlke also observed that “smaller by-products, such as squabs [pigeons], ostriches, alligators and alligator pears [that is, avocados] have all proved their worth.” There were still opportunities for newcomers to get their share of the action, though, and an example was given of a truck farmer at Vernon, now entirely industrial, who raised 57 crops on his ranch after he gave up driving a laundry wagon. Taking $300 from his savings earned from that work, he rented ten acres and, it is related, became well-known for his chili peppers, corn, eggplant and, a decade after starting, was purportedly had a land value of $30,000.

The Ontario plant of the Pacific Electric Heating Company, maker of Hotpoint irons and other appliances.

Next, the writer turned to Sylmar, in the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley, and the Los Angeles Olive Growers’ Association and its 1,600 acres planted in 1893 to olive trees. Nine years later, he wrote, the first crop “was a whopper” and the mill pressing the fruit “worked overtime,” but jobbers and wholesalers demurred from buying the product under the impression that the local oil could not be anywhere near the quality of imported oil, such as from Italy.

The Association, the story continued, went directly to retailers and consumers, who “broke away from the ‘imported’ fetish and realized the superior quality of the domestic oil.” The result was that, despite the cooperative making “no attempt to compete with the foreigners on prices,” the demand for its product “increased by leaps and bounds.” Woehlke added that readers should “taste the two kinds and note the mellowness of the California product as compared with the sting in the imported oil” and also noted that the imported oil turned bad sooner.

The Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, Cawston’s Ostrich Farm, and the Los Angeles Alligator Farm highlighted in the article.

After discussing at length the difference between green and black olives, the author told of a grower who had 120 acres, but was informed by a state horticultural commissioner that his grove would need to be fumigated to fight the scourge of scale insects. Instead, the farmer chose to clear his land of all the trees, but Woehlke followed by stating that “thanks to the efforts of the pioneer firms whose persistent propaganda acquainted the consumer with the superior qualities of the California olive and its oil, that owner is bewailing the littleness of his faith.” Prices rose dramatically and, with California providing just 10% of the consumption of olives and oil, there was much potential ahead.

The writer then observed that

In the mind of the average Way Down Easterner the City of the Angels is populated largely by bellboys, millionaires peripatetic and permanent, real estate men, hotel clerks, cow punchers and visiting orange growers. His imagination pictures Los Angeles life as an uninterrupted revel of orange blossoms and sweet bird music, as a twelve-months’ siesta in shirt-sleeves upon the bungalow’s sunny porch, as a continuous round of sightseeing and pleasure for those who have the price and the strength to enjoy the multitude of diversions.

Woehlke allowed that this view “is substantially correct, but is only one side of the idyllic picture.” There wasn’t only olive oil to highlight, but crude oil and the onset of heavy industry in the Angel City. He noted that figures for 1908 showed that there were 1,800 manufacturers in the metropolis, but that number ballooned to 2,400 in three years, and that there were some 35,000 person employed in such industries, half of them working in unions—though Los Angeles was widely known for its “open shop,” or non-union, philosophy.

Added to this were bookkeepers, office workers and others in commerce, wholesale and jobbing firms, commission houses, hotels and stores so that “these figures supply the reason for the tremendous growth of the overall factories in Los Angeles.” Consequently, it was noted that no section of the country has grown faster in population and wealth during the past ten years than the Far West and the Southwest.” The Angel City became a major supplier of steel and building materials, formerly generated largely in the Eastern steel belt, with large plants becoming so common “that far-sighted men are now making wise provision for the future.”

With the older industrial core of Los Angeles, east of Alameda Street and west of the river, over congested, Woehlke wrote, “an industrial district of 3,500 acres has been established three miles from the harbor” with the Union Tool Works and the repair shops of the greatly expanding Pacific Electric Railway readying to move to that section. The community being discussed was Torrance, established by its namesake founder, Jared S. Torrance, in 1911 and with the renowned Olmsted Brothers hired to draw up plans, and it was added that

It is to be a model community in which the efficiency of the individual worker will be increased not only by ideal working conditions but also by broad streets, numerous parks, playgrounds and places of recreation, by the erection of sunny, airy homes planned for the comfort and convenience of the owners to such an extent that even the design of the kitchen sinks is discussed by the men behind the enterprise.

Nearby was another new project launched in 1911, as the author recorded that “still another industrial center is now growing up at El Segundo, a new settlement on the coast . . . where the Standard Oil Company is erecting a refinery,” it second following the one in Richmond, north of Berkeley, hence the new town’s Spanish moniker.

Another example of recent industrial enterprise was featured, this being a manufacturer of surgical and dental instruments who moved to an Angel City suburb, where, even with higher wages and transportation costs, profits were more because overhead, energy and other costs were lower than would be elsewhere in the country. The unidentified owner was quoted as saying that winter cold meant lost time and productivity, but this didn’t obviously happen in Los Angeles and “the brilliant light” from the sunshine, “enables [employees] to work faster and with less strain, so I can afford to pay higher wages and still make a better profit.”

Back in San Bernardino County, Woehlke gave another example of local manufacturing prowess at Ontario. A mechanical engineer came out from Detroit to visit his brother in that city and, after enjoying the oranges and snow-capped mountains, was not interested in the suggestion that they visit a local electric appliances plant, the Pacific Electric Heating Company facility manufacturing Hotpoint irons and others. When he was finally prevailed upon to do so, it was reported that the visitor “opened his eyes wide in astonishment” at seeing, amid the groves, “a thoroughly modern, splendidly equipped factory turning out goods with a national reputation.”

After spending a half-day at the facility, the engineer reportedly then took home new ideas in management of factories. Ontario now has a very large industrial/warehousing presence today, along with other areas east of Los Angeles, such as City of Industry, Chino, Moreno Valley and others. The account continued that the campus, comprised of steel and concrete structures, with light, ventilation and heating from electricity, had green lawns, roses trained to grow on the buildings, shrubs and bushes along gravel walkways and other features.

Featured in this discussion was “the mainspring of the enterprise,” Willis H. Booth, said to be “a thorough believer in scientific management” with an emphasis not just on attractive and hygienic environments at the factory, but good housing conditions for employees. Booth was quoted as saying that careful consideration was undertaken about what components to make in Ontario as opposed to Chicago, but locals earned 25% more than their Windy City counterparts, while “all our women employees work but eight hours.”

Echoing the aforementioned factory owner, Booth related that, while wages were higher, labor costs were lower overall and more productivity in Ontario justified the higher pay. He continued, “we are striving to keep up this efficiency” and added “we operate on a profit-sharing plan,” these becoming more common at the time, and “at noon we close down for a full hours.” He claimed that some workers wanted to get back to their jobs after a half-hour, but were forbidden from doing so as “we chase them out to play ball, to get their minds off their work.” The result, it was asserted, was “they are fresher and the results are better by the break in the working period.” Booth concluded, “plenty of fresh air, sunshine, pleasant surroundings, [and] decent wages make for efficiency; and efficiency pays.”

As he came to his conclusion, Woehlke observed that, “if the Los Angeles industries only keep pace with the expansion of the home market, the industrial growth of the Angel City will be startling.” Recent developments with agriculture in the Imperial Valley, burgeoning oil production, and the growth of industry were reemphasized and experts “pointed to cheap oil, cheap water power [the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its hydroelectric facilities were to be completed in about a year-and-a-half], to the idea climactic conditions, to the vast market beyond the Pacific as the basis of industries of international scope.”

Allowing for the supply of iron ore and the increase of hydroelectric power, it was clear that “every year the number of Angels in Overalls will increase” and “many more pairs of overalls will be needed in the Angel City to help supply the demands of the rapidly growing Southwest.” In fact, within another decade, another massive boom did bring about much of what Woehlke’s article emphasized, both with continuing high agricultural productivity, even as suburban development chipped away at available farm land, and the growth of industry, the latter fueled by ample water supply and an enormous increase in oil production.

The onset of the Great Depression at the end of our interpretive period was a sobering reminder that untrammeled growth could not last indefinitely, but, of course, there were more booms and widespread grow to come. Nearly a century later, the future of our region’s economic development will certainly be interesting to see, with climate change and environmental impacts, high housing and other living costs, available land for new development or redevelopment, and many other factors to bear on what transpires.

Woehlke, meanwhile, continued writing for Sunset through the Roaring Twenties, including his very colorful and interesting reporting on the Julian Petroleum scandal covered previously in this blog. During the Depression, however, he transitioned to work for the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he spent the remainder of his career. While visiting his only child, a daughter, in Vienna, Woehlke died in 1954 at age 73 and it was his government work that was mentioned in brief obituaries, with nothing said about his long journalistic career.

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