Friday, February 21, 2014

Fullerton Oral Histories: Wilson Phelps

As part of my ongoing research on Fullerton history, I have been reading various Oral Histories conducted by The Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton.  Most recently, I read an interview with local resident Wilson Phelps, who was a banker/rancher/property owner in Fullerton.  The interview was conducted in 1998 at Morningside Retirement community.  Here's what I learned from the interview.

Wilson Phelps was born in 1909 in Los Angeles.  His father, John Phelps, was a tireless businessman.  He owned several banks, a wholesale grocery, a paint factory, lots of land…and an orange ranch in Fullerton.  The WIlson ranch was located at the corner of Orangethrope and Spadra (now Harbor Blvd)--where the Target shopping center is today.  The ranch stretched for several acres between Fullerton and Anaheim.

Though they lived in Los Angeles, Phelps remembers taking the train to Fullerton to visit the ranch during the summers: "We had turkeys and chickens and rabbits and all the rest of it.  It was great for kids.  We had an old pump house with a windmill, and we had to pump our own water at the ranch.  There was no city water."  Wilson's father was also president of the Orangethorpe Packinghouse, located near the railroad tracks, where oranges were packed and loaded onto freight cars for shipment east.

Conspicuously absent from Wilson's descriptions and recollections of the ranch were the farm laborers who actually picked and packed the oranges--all of which had to be done by hand.  He mentions two foremen, named Elliot and Wilmson, and he mentions "a hired man who lived in a little house…and took care of the animals on the ranch."  But to have a profitable and fully operational orange ranch, one needed workers, and that meant Mexicans.  Wilson makes no mention whatsoever of the Mexican laborers, their housing conditions, or pay.  All he says on this topic is, "My father never paid his employees very much."  For more on the neglected history of farm labor in Orange County, I recommend Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County 1900-1950 by Gilbert Gonzalez.

After high school, Phelps got his undergraduate degree at Stanford, then moved to Boston and got a law degree from Harvard.  During summer breaks, he would work in one of his father's banks, or as a bookkeeper at the Orangethorpe Packinghouse.

He practiced law for two years in Los Angeles, but didn't like it much, and ended up moving to Anaheim to run his father's Southern County Bank.  He recalls the difficulty of the Great Depression years on the banking industry: "That was tough going because the banks had all closed during a holiday, and some reopened and some didn't.  The Southern County was able to reopen.  Originally, before the break in 1929, there had been four banks in Anaheim, but it ended up that there were only two, the Bank of America and the Southern County Bank."  One effect of the Great Depression, it seems, was the loss of small community banks, and the emergence of large banking conglomerates, like Bank of America.

Phelps remembers the devastating flood of 1938, which hit Anaheim and Fullerton: "The water broke through the dam, I guess, and roared down through the center of Anaheim and came in all the buildings.  And a lot of these old buildings had basements which were flooded, merchandise of course all ruined.  It came into the bank vault.  We had about three inches of muddy water in the bank vault and over the whole floor.  It was a horrible, smelly mess to clean up."

During World War II, Phelps was not drafted, nor did he volunteer because, he says, "My father said I was essential to his bank, and that was an essential business."  It seems that back then, as now, wars were generally not fought by the wealthy.  If your father was a banker, you didn't have to fight.  Instead, Phelps joined the National Guard.

Phelps' father died in 1947 and he took over many of his fathers banks and other businesses.  After World War II, Los Angeles and Orange County entered a period of rapid transformation from agriculture to urban/suburbanization.  The task fell to Wilson to begin subdividing his family's vast land holdings, and this caused him to have a nervous breakdown.  This was, according to Phelps, "the time that Orange County started to explode in population.  Form then on, it just went gangbusters."

In the early 1950s, Phelps and his family bought a house in the affluent hills of Fullerton, and he became sort of a recluse: "That was a period that I was sort of in a rundown physical condition and just didn't want to see people.  I had so many people at me at various times that I wanted to be more or less secluded.  And I suppose that was part of my problem of a breakdown."  He began to accumulate properties in less developed areas, to get away from the rapidly-changing landscape of Fullerton.  He bought property on the Colorado River, a beach house in Balboa, and a large property in Temecula, on land that was formerly inhabited by Native Americans, and had been taken from them by previous waves of settlement/land grabs.  He recalls: "I bought a place in Temecula, about a hundred acres there, with a lot of nice big oak trees, a year-round spring, Indian artifacts, and all this sort of thing.  This last retreat was an Indian campground [village], and we used to find these pestles and mortars and Indian arrowheads.  That was good relaxation."

In 1964, Phelps entered into a deal with Montgomery Ward's department stores, and turned his family ranch into a massive shopping center.  This is now the Target shopping center at the corner of Euclid and Orangethorpe.  Phelps called this deal a "bonanza".

After his retirement, Phelps traveled a lot, and went on to establish a scholarship foundation through Fullerton College: The Wilson Phelps Foundation.  At the time of the interview, he (and a lot of other Fullerton 'old timers') was living at Morningside, and skeptical about the future of the area.  "I don't think I'd really enjoy being here fifty years from now," he said, "Too many people."

Wilson and his wife Jackie.

To read more about Fullerton notables from the Center for Oral and Public History, click HERE.

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