At Age 25, Commerce Puts Past on Parade

Times Staff Writer

Pedro Ramirez remembers the day Charles Lindbergh flew into the city, Sept. 20, 1927.

Ramirez had returned home from picking walnuts in Santa Ana to find a crowd gathered at Vail Field, the local airstrip. Many spectators had pitched tents, camping out to await Lindy's landing.

Ramirez, then 16, climbed on a railroad bridge and watched Lindbergh's stopover, one of 82 in a nationwide tour after his New York-to-Paris flight.

"I couldn't believe that someone could have flown so far in such a small plane," said Ramirez, now 74.

Lindbergh's flight, the city's leap from rancho to industrial area and other events in Commerce history are documented in a photographic exhibit that is part of a yearlong, $130,000 celebration the city is sponsoring for the 25th anniversary of its incorporation.

The formal celebration begins Saturday with a dinner for the members of the first City Council. During the year, other events will include art shows, a country Western fair, a community fair, a Mexican fiesta and a genealogy workshop.

The photographic exhibit opens Sunday with a reception featuring a 75-pound birthday cake.

The 90-photo exhibit, designed by Ernesto Collosi of Exhibit Installations in Santa Fe Springs, is perhaps the key historical feature of the commemoration. The photographs, accompanied by historical text, reach back in history to the area's Spanish founders and include events as recent as the completion in 1982 of a development of senior citizen housing.

Commerce, which has 11,000 residents, originally was included in Rancho San Antonio owned by Don Antonio Maria Lugo, mayor of Los Angeles between 1815 and 1820, according to Bill Mason, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

The ranch, acquired through a Spanish land grant and the purchase of other parcels, is believed to have covered more than 30,000 acres in what is now Commerce, Cudahy, Bell, Bell Gardens, Vernon, Maywood and parts of Lynwood and East Los Angeles, Mason said, adding that the land included the Los Angeles River and many lagunas (lakes). The ranch remained intact until Arcadia Bandini de Baker, a descendant of Don Lugo and reputedly once the wealthiest woman in Los Angeles, sold some portions of it in August, 1900.

De Baker, who is featured in the exhibit, kept the rest of the land until she died in 1912. Her heirs, title companies and the Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads then sold and subdivided the remaining acres, Mason said.

The exhibit records the technological evolution of Commerce during the 1920s from ranch and farm land to a 20th-Century urban landscape. There are photos of the railroad station and airplanes that flew from Vail Field, carrying the mail and passengers from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island.

Industrialization came, and with it, the factories that provided employment. Photos of blue-collar workers include those who made their living at the Simons brickyard in what is now Commerce and Montebello, and at the B.F. Goodrich, Firestone and Uniroyal (formerly Samson) rubber and tire factories.

The brickyard and factories have since closed and been demolished. Only the Uniroyal plant's facade, with its elaborately carved Assyrian figures, is still intact.

Early aerial photos show a mostly vacant area surrounding the Uniroyal plant.

During the 1950s, though industrialized, the city remained unincorporated. The exhibit's historical account highlights problems faced by the residents who wanted county services. Those difficulties led to the campaign that culminated in the 1960 incorporation.

Carmen Perez, one of the city's pioneers who has lived in the same house since 1940, remembered that early residents "had to do things on our own because the county didn't listen to us. We had to struggle for everything--to get the streets cleaned, to get lights."

The exhibit also depicts the everyday lives of a peaceful community, with pictures of family outings, graduations, children playing and people working.

Perez said the groundwork for the incorporation was laid in 1948, when residents formed the Bandini Improvement Assn., named after the Bandini family. The association campaigned for county services and provided recreation programs for the children. Members fought fly-by-night oil companies that junked derricks on streets or school grounds during the 1950s.

Incorporation came in 1960, and the benefits that came with it are shown in photos of police officers and firefighters at work. There are also pictures of the city's first buses and senior citizen housing, as well as the city's extensive recreation programs.

"Incorporation was the best thing that could have happened to Commerce," said Kathryn Pahl, a member of the first City Council whose picture is in the exhibit.

But if incorporation brought conveniences, it also bred corruption. Scandals began in 1973, when some city officials were caught soliciting bribes, and in 1984, when another group of officials pleaded guilty to selling their office in exchange for hidden profits in the local poker club.

Former Mayor Maurice H. Quigley, who pleaded guilty to soliciting a bribe in 1973, is included in an exhibit photograph. Those who resigned during the poker club scandal--former mayors Robert Eula and Ricardo Vasquez and former councilman Arthur Loya--are not mentioned.

Although proud of their city's accomplishments, some residents say they feel betrayed by official corruption.

"It was disappointing for people who put their faith in them," said Jim Duron, who is head of parks and recreation and in charge of the 25th anniversary observance. "But the growth of the city has been very good. This last incident will not slow it down. It will go better now, and the community will be more involved."

Honored at Saturday's kickoff dinner will be Pahl, James W. Bristow and Leone Thornburg, who were among the five people elected to the first Commerce City Council in 1960.

The public is invited to the Sunday reception and photographic exhibit opening, which is from 2 to 5 p.m. at the city swim center, 2515 Commerce Way. After that, the photo exhibit will be available for viewing in the city library at 5655 Jillson St.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World