by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He rose from a small Ohio border town to become a multi-millionaire metal alloy manufacturer whose Whittier-area family firm helped revolutionize oil drilling, construction of automobiles and aircraft and many other industrial applications, but whose life abruptly ended in a plane crash on his Chino Hills ranch.
Shelley M. Stoody (1899-1961) was also an aviation enthusiast, amateur astronomer and a raiser of purebred cattle among his many interests during his four decades in greater Los Angeles and his remarkable story was the subject of a presentation this evening for the Chino Hills Historical Society.
Stoody’s rise to success was rapidly achieved during the Roaring Twenties when the region experienced another of its many fabled booms in population and development, though his background was hardly one in which such a tremendous transformation in his fortunes could have been predicted.
He was born in Ripley, Ohio, about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati along the Ohio River bordering Kentucky, to Rhoda Bell Wallace and Charles A. Stoody, a blacksmith and machinist who operated a small business there and in Huntington, West Virginia (named for California railroad tycoon, Collis P. Huntington, uncle of Henry the founder of the Huntington Library.) Stoody and his brother Winston worked alongside their father in the modest enterprise before migrating to California in the very early 1920s.
Why they landed in Whittier is unclear, but, after a short-lived partnership, starting in February 1921, with a man named Rice, the siblings formed the Stoody Welding Company with their father, who soon left West Virginia to join them in the Quaker City. Though the firm initially advertised for the repair of automobiles, tractors and other vehicles and farm equipment, they hit upon a remarkable and revolutionary concept.
This seems to have emanated from their contact with the oil industry, which was very active in the Whittier area, including nearby Montebello, where Walter P. Temple experienced stunning success with oil produced through wells on a lease he had with Standard Oil Company (California.) When Temple embarked on his own prospecting business, one of his first endeavors was in Whittier and he likely benefitted from the Stoody’s innovations.
Specifically, this was “hard-facing,” in which incredibly durable alloys were made for rotary and other oil drilling apparatuses and which not only allowed for longer life for drills and other tools but made deeper drilling in fields possible, so that oil pools further below previous levels were achievable. The Stoodys owned their own mines so that they could extract the materials needed for the development of tungsten carbide particles for the hard-facing process.
From about the mid-Twenties onward, the firm, incorporated as the Stoody Company, took out a series of patents and established brands like Borium, Stoodite and others as it quickly expanded its product line for a myriad of industrial applications and built up a national market and reputation.
An early example of expansion was in May 1924, when the company received a $260,000 contract from the Rotary Bit Company of Los Angeles to make up to 5,000 rotary drilling discs for oil wells per month. While the Angel City firm made its own discs, it learned that the Stoodys, the prior year, developed a version that was stronger, easier to repair and which could also be readily broken and removed from a well if lost in the hole.
As the Whittier News of the 2nd put it, “the improved disc took the oil drillers by storm and they were demanding it.” Not only that, the Rotary Bit company tried suing the Stoodys, claiming copyright infringement, but the former “was not able to make much headway” through the courts, so it learned the time-honored adage of “if you can’t beat them, join them” and averted financial bloodletting by making the deal with the Stoody firm.
At the end of 1925, the company not only incorporated, but also received approval from the state corporations commissioner to issue $134,000 in stock, though the three men retained ownership of all of it. Still, the move allowed the trio to expand their business and it was noted that they had three production innovations that allowed for substantial growth.
On the last day of February 1926, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Stoodys purchased seven acres on Slauson Avenue outside Whittier (now in Santa Fe Springs) for a markedly larger factory to meet the burgeoning demand for their products. It was added that the firm had a quarter million dollars in stock and planned to spend $150,000 for its new all-steel factory.
The paper also observed that among the most popular items sold in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere was “a super-hard facing metal for facing the cutting edges of oil-well tools, drawing and trimming dies, machine-cutting tools, and the like.” About a year later, the News elaborated that the factory included a research laboratory for perfecting the alloys used in hard-facing, a pattern and drafting department and a foundry, with thirty employees on the payroll.
As the company grew, so, naturally, did the wealth of its owners. Charles retired early and died in the early 1930s, but Winston, who was company president, owned a substantial ranch at the west end of the Puente Hills, off Workman Mill Road next to Rose Hills Memorial Park, and was an avid sailor and aviator to boot.
Shelley, who was vice-president and plant manager, including after it left its modest quarters in downtown Whittier and acquired land in what became Santa Fe Springs, moved from the first shop and was an early builder in the prestigious College Heights, next to Whittier College, building a substantial Spanish Colonial Revival residence that still stands and which he sold to Frank and Hannah Nixon, parents of the future president.
His house featured a round tower at the top of which he placed a high-powered telescope to pursue his interest in astronomy. In fact, he later had the scope mounted on a vehicle so that it could be taken on a barnstorming tour and the instrument was, after twenty years in his possession, sold to the Griffith Observatory, where it remains today.
Like his brother, Shelley was a relatively early exponent of flying aircraft in our region, learning to pilot planes in the mid-1920s. The interest was both personal and professional, as the Stoody Company developed relationships in the aircraft industry for uses of their hard-faced tools in construction of planes, but also used craft for business trips and delivering company products to customers.
The News of 30 June 1928 highlighted the landing at the Stoody plant of a Union Oil Company plane for a courtesy visit and inspection of the factory. Shelley greeted the craft and its occupants and was said to be “director of aviation” for his family’s business. Under two months later, the paper reported that the Stoody company owned its own plane and ferried a couple of Whittier Chamber of Commerce officials to Glendale from Vail Field in Montebello to meet with a firm looking for an aircraft manufacturing plant, with Whittier one possible site, thanks to Winston and Shelley’s lobbying.
On 1 September, the paper went into detail about the company’s purchase of a Fokker eight-passenger monoplane for both business and pleasure, adding that since the first of August, trips were taken to San Diego and Bakersfield, among other California locales. With the Pacific Southwest Exposition underway at Long Beach (it ended on 3 September), the Stoodys used that city’s airport (still in operation today) as its base.
The factory field was also to soon include a hangar to store the plane, though it was added that Shelley recently purchased, purely for private flights, a two-passenger Monocoupe, which was used locally as well as for trips as far north as San Francisco. There was also talk of establishing the Stoody plant field for paid service, including aircraft for rent, as well as a flight school.
The Los Angeles Express of 4 June 1929 delved deeper into the Stoody’s embrace of aviation including its “rapid transit” possibilities, “not only in the hurried transportation of its executives to important conferences, but in the upbuilding of an already established business.” Recognizing the potential for aviation expansion, Winston and Shelley added to their holdings at the factory site in 1927 to install the airfield and started with a Lincoln-Paige biplane.
After a little more than a year, but encouraged by the role flying could play with their firm, the brothers purchased the Fokker in June 1928 and, in August, it was reported that the two logged some 8,000 miles in just under 80 hours of flight time for “hurried personal consultations . . . held with key distributors scattered widely over the nation.” One example concerned an order for the Stoodite product, used increasingly in the manufacture of planes, that required a flight to Kansas and the account ended with the observation,
The experience of this manufacturing company seems to conclusively prove that California, and particularly Southern California, is destined to shortly become the outstanding flying center of the world.
In addition to featuring a portrait of Winston, the account also included a rendering of the Stoody factory, with an aircraft shown flying above the adjacent landing field. The explosive growth of the firm during the 1920s is indicative of the general expansion of the regional economy and is a rather remarkable story given the humble origins of the Stoodys.
While the Homestead’s interpretive period ends at 1930, Shelley Stoody’s story arc continued with more substantial success, including during World War II and the manufacturing of aircraft, ships, submarines and more materiel for the war effort, as well as the postwar boom that took place as America was the dominant industrial power in the world for years after the conflict ended in 1945.
He owned hilltop houses in North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights and Palos Verdes Estates, even taking to commuting daily to work from the latter by his own helicopter (which he dubbed an “egg beater,”) though his battles with the city about his plans for a helipad led him to move to Balboa Island in Newport Beach.
In the early 1950s, having raised cattle in Nevada and San Jacinto, near Hemet, Stoody acquired nearly 500 acres in Carbon Canyon in what is now Chino Hills and established his Double S Ranch to raise purebred Polled Hereford cattle, spending large sums on animals and the facilities to house them, as well as his own ranch house (which still stands) on a hill overlooking his spread.
He began having large-scale field meets and sales on the Double S in 1960 and 1961 and, having made a name nationally for his efforts, which were increasing as he became semi-retired, obviously looked to substantially build his profile and enterprise in the cattle industry, when tragedy struck at the end of June 1961.
Stoody took a business associate and two employees on a flight from the dirt landing strip below his house, but, when approaching for landing, the craft suddenly took a hard turn and plowed into a hill opposite the residence. The crash killed Stoody and his employees, while the associate lingered for a week before succumbing to his injuries.
Civil lawsuits were filed by the survivors of the three passengers, with one asserting that Stoody was intoxicated and performing dangerous stunts at the time of the crash. While there was no information located about the results of the cases, there may well have been out-of-court settlements. Within eight months, the ranch, house, equipment, animals and other material were sold and a syndicate of Orange County investors bought the ranch, on part of which the Western Hills Country Club, still in operation, was established. All that remains today are two steel hangars, one storing golf carts and the other used as a maintenance shed.
The Stoody Company was led by Shelley’s son Charles for about a decade after his father’s death and, in the mid-1970s, the firm relocated to the City of Industry, not far from the Homestead. It is now one of many subsidiaries of a European firm, which, notably, got its start as an early modern exemplar of industrial welding.
The story of Shelley M. Stoody is an interesting one in our regional history, including in the Roaring Twenties when it made astounding advances in hard-facing tools for the oil, aviation, automobile and many other industries. The accompanying photograph from the Homestead’s collection of a Stoody roadside advertising statue/sign was taken in 1925 and was likely near the newly built Santa Fe Springs factory.