The History of El Segundo
The year was 1911. President William H. Taft was in the White House. Congress was considering a proposal to impose taxes on personal income. Air conditioning and the Kleig lamp had just been invented. And the demand for crude was increasing to fuel the nation’s industrial growth. And right here in this location, we were standing in the middle of Rancho Sausal Redondo, a rancho with a land mass of nearly 25,000 acres which consisted of wheat and barley fields on which cattle and sheep grazed.
The Bennett Brothers farmed this land producing grain, lima beans and vegetables. As one Bennett son said “They started in the earlier days naturally with a good many mules and horses, walking plows and combine harvesters”.
In May of that year, five men representing the Standard Oil Company arrived here: Richard J. Hanna and J.E. Howell of the Eclipse refinery of Franklin, Pennsylvania and John Black, Henry Foster and William Rheem from the Standard Oil Refinery in Point Richmond, a city 18 miles east of San Francisco.
At that time, the Pacific Electric Railway ran its red cars from Los Angeles through Playa del Rey and south along the sand dunes, dotted with melon patches, to Redondo Beach. According to the El Segundo, Seventy Five Years book, on a warm spring day in 1911, five Standard Oil employees asked the Pacific Railway’s conductor to let them off at this sunny stretch of wilderness. “But there’s nothing here,” protested the conductor. “No, but there will be,” prophesied one of the men.
They were surveying the area as a potential site for their next oil refinery. What was required was an area adjacent to the seashore so their tankers could have appropriate access. The undeveloped nature of the site appealed to them because land costs had to be kept to a minimum. Also, the site had to be close to populated areas so it could attract enough employees. This clump of willows was just what Mr. Hanna’s team was looking for. Mr. and Mrs. Gunn sold their beachfront property to Standard Oil of California in 1911.
This new site needed a name. Richard Hanna’s wife, Virginia, deemed this expanse as “La Segunda”, Spanish for “the second one”. The name was eventually changed to El Segundo as the site was to be Standard Oil’s second oil refinery in California.
Standard Oil bought 840 acres of this land on June 11. The refinery opened just five and a half months later on November, 27 and a community of residents and businesses sprang up around it.
Word went out in California that there was work to be had down South and itinerant workers poured in to help the mule skinners and their 400 mules tug Fresno scrapers across the dunes, mauling, hauling and taming them into a road bed. H. D. Forster, retired Chief Engineer for Standard later recalls… “One hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt had to be moved, and there were no large tractors or automatic loaders in commercial use…Whistles were not needed to announce dinner time or quitting time with 400 mules around. About 11:30 or 11:45 the air would be filled with hee-haws and when they were turned loose and headed for the corral, you could not see them for the dust.”
Lumber was ordered for temporary buildings and a small city of tents was erected along the area now known as “smoky hollow” for the workers with families, many of whom transferred here from Richmond, California and Franklin, Pennsylvania, thus the origin of Richmond and Franklin Streets which is right outside the doors of this beautiful theater.
The first whistle blew at the refinery on August 15, a whistle that has sounded the passage of time for generations of Standard - and now Chevron- employees during the past one hundred years!
In July of 1911, the El Segundo Land and Improvement Company purchased 1470 acres of townsite property and set to work grading, surveying, laying out streets and subdividing the property into business and residential lots.
The El Segundo Hotel was erected in the fall of 1911 on what was called Ballona Avenue and is now El Segundo Boulevard directly across the street from Standard’s main office building. The hotel would play a proud role in the city’s beginnings providing space for the first city hall offices in 1917 and housing the first library in town.
Those early settlers lived in tents of canvas draped over wood frames until houses could be built. And build they did! The Standard “payroll city” was attracting more people and more businesses daily. From 1910 to 1912 the town’s assessed valuation nearly quadrupled from $328,000 to $1,168.000.
Richmond Street became the first downtown of El Segundo as businesses opened to support the ever growing workers and their families at Standard Oil. The first store built in El Segundo in 1911, Martin & Ellis was a grocery and a post office. Restaurants such as Deal’s Restaurants, a bootery, a pharmacy, provisions store and more joined in the emerging commerce of the El Segundo community.
In the fall of 1911, Mr. & Mrs. Bert M. Knutson established a newspaper office on Richmond Street, and on October 12, the first issue of the El Segundo Herald was published with this editorial: “El Segundo is not a city of the distant future, or of speculative growth, but one that must be built and built quickly, to provide for the army of well-paid and highly-skilled workmen that will pour out daily from the $3,000,000 refining plant of the Standard Oil Company and from other large industrial establishments to be located in the El Segundo Industrial section”.
In that same issue, “Fifteen business buildings have also been erected and four more are now under construction…El Segundo now has a meat market, two cigar stores, two barber shops, three rooming houses, a newspaper, two restaurants, one hotel, a plumbing shop, two laundry offices, two lumber yards, a building and construction company, a sign painter, a grocery store and a general merchandise store.” Business was booming as we were on our way…
In February 1912, the first elementary school opened, much to the children’s delight, next door to a candy store, with 13 pupils enrolled. The following September, a four room school house, built on the present site of Richmond Street School opened it’s doors as the older children were bused to Inglewood High School.
And such was the life in the early days of El Segundo, the Standard Oil Company town. By 1914, refinery productions reached 30,000 barrels daily and the company acquired more acreage. Property was valued at 6 million dollars and Standard’s monthly payroll was $60,000. Today, Chevron produces 280,000 barrels each day.
The October 1915 issue of Out West Magazine reports: “The residents and businessmen of EL Segundo have the benefit of practically all modern conveniences including electric lights, telephones, etc. The soil of El Segundo is a rich, sandy loam very easily worked, and so rich that everything grows most luxuriantly.” The article further reported that other industries wishing to locate in El Segundo – “drawn by Standard’s magnet of cheap fuel and transportation must be of a most stable and creditable character,” as determined by the El Segundo Land and Improvement Company.
In September 1916, a group of citizens representing El Segundo’s 1,000 residents met to discuss the benefits of having the town incorporated. The City of El Segundo incorporated on January 18, 1917 with a population of 1,000. There were 50 business license issued. The City received $2000 from the County as its pro rate share of taxes for the 1916-1917 fiscal year and operated on a $33,500 budget.
On May 10, 1917, a fire ignited those first wood frame business structures along Richmond Street. The fire department was not yet established so the townspeople stood sadly by watching the downtown go up in flames. The timber structures were quickly reduced to ashes. When the downtown was later rebuilt, brick replaced wood as the primary building material which we see in many of our Richmond Street buildings today. W. Gilberts Department Store, Piggly Wiggly, Automobile Maintenance services, additional restaurants, Douglas Mortuary, Nuttings Sparton Grocery Store, the State Theater (which was in the building in which you are now sitting), City Hall and more opened up to serve the ever growing population of El Segundo.
And in June 1917, 18 community minded men stepped forward and formed a Volunteer Fire Department which protected the refinery and the city until a paid fire department was organized in 1947.
The West was still rather wild in 1911 when construction on the refinery began and families who had ridden west in hopes of making their fortunes often landed for a brief stint in El Segundo. Workers learned new skills, met new friends in a promising industry and got a free lunch every day. For many young Westerners, this was a dream come true.
Peter Binder was working on the first Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1910 when he first heard about El Segundo. “We had quite a camp there and a lot of labor working. In the evening we would gather and talk about coming down to the coast for the winter and who was a good outfit to work for down there. Quite a number were mentioned when finally some little Irishman popped up and said ‘Well the best place that I know of is the Standard Oil Company’. He worked for Standard Oil up in Richmond and he said all the men working up there seemed to be well satisfied. And he said, ‘You know, they’re so damned good that they made me wash the horses feet every night before I could put them away’. So it was some two years later when I was out of work in 1912, I remembered what this man said and I came down to El Segundo”, said Binder.
Mechanics were paid 50 cents an hour and the clean-up workers were paid 25 cents an hour. The men who worked shifts made about the equivalent to the mechanics at the end of the month, but they had to work a 12-hour day shift to make that much money. They worked seven days a week, 30 days a month, 363 days a year. They got two days off – the fourth of July and Christmas.
Hap Wince, the Standard Oil announcer was much loved throughout the company. In addition to the Standard School broadcast first created in 1926, Socal developed another public service program called the Standard Oil announcements. Hap Wince was the personality chosen to drive from community to community reading current events, factoids, company trivia, weather and general news announements over his loud speaker.
In the El Segundo Refinery administration offices, three woman managed all the in-coming and out-going calls fielded by the refinery. At this time, circa 1920, it was the most extensive switchboard of any private company in Southern California. Employees of the El Segundo Refinery received shares of stock in the company as party of their salary.
These are the faces of the first workers and residences of El Segundo. There are many stories from those early days. Arthur Tuck said “Might be hard for you to believe but I worked 50 different jobs at Standard. It wasn’t hard. All you had to say was, ‘I’d like to work for you,’ and they’d say okay.”
Clyde Walker was seven years old when his father moved to El Segundo to work for Standard. He said “The Standard Oil barbeque and picnic is the event that stands out in my memory. They used to have a ball park and the Richmond and Standard Refineries would play ball. Standard put on quite a spectacular event.”
Henry Foster, the Chief Engineer at the refinery during its construction recalled that the first employee to build a home in El Segundo was J.R. Coward, the machine shop foreman. He said “When we went to select our lots in town, the corn stalks were so thick that it was rather difficult to find them. “
Work hard and play hard was the maxim of the day, a standard the refinery families brought with them from the Midwest. They were a people who came together with similar interests – with a desire to work together to build a wholesome community in which to raise their families. Baseball, boxing and turkey shoots were favorite pastimes in the community long before there was access to organized recreation activities. Fred Fitzgerald was born in El Segundo after his father went to work for Standard Oil in 1915. Fred recalls “El Segundo was quite a ball town in those days. Standard Oil Company had several semi-pro ball players. Some of them had been in the pros and they had a real good team. They played various other California sport teams.
Service Clubs and other civic organizations were established let by the Kiwanis Club in 1929. As soon as the club was chartered, every single member joined the Chamber of Commerce. The Woman’s Club was established in 1922 followed by the Rotary Club in 1952. And as ever, the people from Standard Oil were deeply involved with each of these organizations as well as others that helped to create the El Segundo community.
1956 was a year of change for El Segundo. The post-war boom brought numerous major aeronautics and aerospace companies to the community. The refinery had been eclipsed by aviation, and the community was known as “Aerospace Capital of the World”. Now home to major organizations such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Aerospace Corporation, the Los Angeles Air Force Base, Mattel, DirecTV, BT American, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings and Karl Storz just to name a few. In fact, 5 El Segundo firms made the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2009 list of the 100 fastest growing private companies in Los Angeles! While Aerospace, technology and manufacturing continue to maintain a major presence in El Segundo, our community is now home to a large creative media sector as well as numerous international companies. We’ve come a long way and owe it to those 400 mules who started it all!