Townsfolk Package a Snack of Potato Chip Lore
Nobody ate potato chips Sunday when Monterey Park commemorated the woman who was once called the Potato Chip Queen of the West.
The fare was strictly coffee and cake at the celebration of Laura Scudder Day. Louise Davis, the city treasurer and president of the local historical society, never got a response, she said, to the request she wrote to Laura Scudder Foods in Orange to contribute potato chips to the gathering.
No matter. The snack food company today has little connection with its founder. And, as of this year, the firm’s potato chips aren’t even made in California.
But decades ago, Scudder parlayed her home-grown potato chip business in Monterey Park into a multimillion-dollar empire spanning California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. And so, in a suburban city whose historical roots don’t go much deeper than the trees planted in the housing tracts there after World War I, Monterey Park laid claim Sunday to its foremost local hero.
Never has such a day been celebrated for any other native of the San Gabriel Valley community. More than 100 former employees, city officials, children and grandchildren of Laura C. Scudder gathered at the Garvey Ranch Park historical museum to praise the no-nonsense entrepreneur.
“She was a woman in business, ahead of her time,” said City Treasurer Davis. “I can just imagine what she had to go through.”
Several factors prompted the Monterey Park Historical Society to honor Scudder. Eighteen months ago, John Scudder of Hermosa Beach decided to make a film about his grandmother. He recently completed a 53-minute color video entitled “Laura.”
A studio photographer by trade, he said he began the “Laura” project “to preserve the story before it blew away.” Age 12 when his grandmother died, he said: “I thought I knew her story pretty well. But I didn’t.”
The film was the centerpiece of the celebration. The historical society also presented plaques to the Scudder family members, who last year gave $15,000 to the historical society to fund scholarships for graduates of Alhambra High School, which Scudder’s children attended.
The video, with interviews of family and former employees, detailed the story John Scudder discovered.
Working from a dusty parcel that she and her husband bought on the corner of Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard, Laura Scudder started her business in 1926 at the suggestion of a friend. She based her operations in a brick building next to her home and the gas station she and her husband ran.
Previously they had rented the building to a barber who, in those Prohibition days, turned out to be a bootlegger. Scudder, a Republican and an Episcopalian, kicked out the bootlegger.
A Reason to Succeed
She had another motivation to sell potato chips: to support her family. She had four children, and her husband’s health failed after a car fell on him at the station.
“She was an instigator and doer,” says Joseph R. Blackstock, a former president of the Monterey Park Historical Society.
Laura Scudder was a big woman whose trademark was wide, flat-brimmed hats. Advertisements showed photographs of her in hat and gloves, a purse under her arm. Her signature followed ad copy with recipes.
Scudder was born in Philadelphia in 1881. Her mother died when she was 2 and she was raised by her father, a baker and butcher. As a young adult, she went to nursing school because she could not afford medical school. Eventually she married one of her patients, who was a farmer and inventor, and moved in with in-laws. But she grew tired of this situation. With her trunk packed, she told her husband one day in 1910: “I’m going West.” He decided to go with her.
First in Seattle and later in Northern California, they struggled to escape poverty that was so bad, as Laura once wrote, “we didn’t have a nickel even to buy a little doll” for their children.
Venture Into Law
In Ukiah, she and her husband ran a restaurant across from the courthouse. She asked her courthouse customers how she could become a lawyer.
After reading from borrowed law books, she traveled by train to Sacramento to take the Bar exam when she was four months pregnant. She easily passed, becoming the first woman lawyer in Ukiah history.
In 1920, a time when many people were coming to the developing Los Angeles area, the Scudders decided to try their luck in Monterey Park, which was a 20-minute trolley ride from downtown.
When Scudder first went into business, she could not get insurance for the firm’s one delivery truck. She was told that as a woman she couldn’t be relied upon to pay premiums. So she found a woman insurance agent in Los Angeles who eventually got the business of insuring hundreds of Scudder trucks.
In 1928, Scudder went ahead with plans to build another plant in Oakland, even though her first husband had died that year.
During the Depression she gave work to those no one else would help--housewives. In their homes, they fashioned waxed-paper bags for the potato chips, ironing three sides of the bags before they were taken back to the plant to be filled and sealed. Previously, when chips were sold in markets in the early 20th Century, they were dispensed from glass cases into paper bags and quickly became stale.
Figured Every Angle
To ensure the freshness of the dairy products in her Scudder’s mayonnaise, she bought a ranch on Workman Mill Road, near today’s intersection of the San Gabriel River and Pomona freeways, where she raised chickens and cows. “It was a little unfair to say she did it all,” Blackstock said, noting that her children and relatives also helped. “But it was her business, period.”
By 1953, when she opened a plant in Fresno, the company had 1,000 employees and about 50% of the California potato chip market. For decades, it was the only large business in Monterey Park. The firm moved to Anaheim in 1960.
Scudder sold the business in 1957, two years before she died. Since then, the company has changed hands three times, including its most recent sale in 1987 to Borden Inc. for $100 million.
After her death, Laura Scudder faded from public memory. There is little evidence today that she even existed beyond the name on potato chip bags and peanut butter jars.
Some of those who paused Sunday to remember Scudder said they wished there was something left to honor her. Said Blackstock: “She lacked what most humans have: those gremlins that say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I just regret there are no statues, no streets, no schools named in her honor in Monterey Park.”