Residents Once Outnumbered by Oil Wells Create a Special City
In the old days.... before there was a city called Santa Fe Springs......there was a place called Santa Fe Springs, but it was not a real city. It had no City Hall, no City Council elections and not a single municipal program. Long after World War II had ended, Santa Fe Springs was being operated as a part of Los Angeles County. Less than 500 scattered residents, outnumbered by the 600 oil derricks, called Santa Fe Springs home in 1949.
These residents were roughing it in many ways. There was no local shopping center or gas station. The mail they received was addressed to “Four Corners,” not Santa Fe Springs. Farmland, rather than freeways dominated the scene, and cows grazed where Los Nietos Park is today. After decades of booms and busts, Santa Fe Springs was still just another town out in the country.
But the place would not be out in the country very much longer. Los Angeles was growing with post war industries, and people moving in needed affordable housing. So rural areas like this one suddenly looked attractive. The first housing tract, Imperial Crest, built in 1949, was at King’s Camp, a eucalyptus grove that had shaded the shabby buildings and tents of a long-gone house of ill repute that thrived during the 1920s oil boom. It was followed by the developments of Allied Gardens, Pioneer Gardens, South Whittier Village, North Downey Manor, Bartley Grove, Floraday Park and Hollyhock Park.
Built before the days of the federal fair housing laws, many of these new housing tracts were “restricted;” meaning that non-whites were not allowed to buy homes in certain neighborhoods. According to long-time resident Sylvia Takata, she and her late husband Tom, were in the market for one of the new homes, but were directed to another tract for non-whites. The Takatas almost moved to another city, but Tom held his ground and successfully purchased their home on Orr and Day Road. While this discriminatory practice was deplorable, it was not just restricted to this city, but was common throughout the nation.
By 1952, the population of the town ballooned to 8000, and homes sold for around $13,000. But a new set of problems arose. Schools filled quickly, traffic was getting bad, and dirt roads needed to be paved faster than the County government was capable of paving them. On the other hand, the homeowners were thrilled when a major grocery store called Market Basket opened at Telegraph and Orr and Day Roads; followed by a pharmacy (Vincent’s), a post office and a five and ten cents store, (Grants). In addition to retail, 293 businesses had located in areas of the town that had been productive oilfields. The lay out of the town was starting to take shape by accident -- housing at the west end and industry at the east. Although the residents of the 1880s had built homes at the Telegraph Rd. and Norwalk Blvd. intersection, this particular area of the town was so now so negatively impacted by the oil boom, it was not considered as a potential housing tract. The one property intact, Margaret Slusher’s estate (formerly owned by the Hawkins and Nimocks families), lay in a state of decay. It would be reborn as Heritage Park in 1987.
A homeowners association was formed in 1952, and because of the obscurity of their location, it was originally called the Little Lake Homeowners Association. Later it would be renamed the Santa Fe Springs Homeowners Association. The association had the noble goals of developing community spirit through the sponsorship of parades, festivals and recreational activities. In an early sign of organization, the association started publishing a newsletter in 1953. By 1955, there was a Junior Chamber of Commerce which became the Santa Fe Springs Area Industrial League. According to some reports, the idea for turning the town into a real city came from the League. League member William Emmens was unhappy about his ability to get the County of Los Angeles to make a zoning change for his property. During a discussion about the issue, another League member, Claude Eib, suggested that the key to resolving the problem might be to become a real city with home rule. With the newly organized residents pushing for community improvements that the County wouldn’t provide, the timing of this suggestion was perfect. The Industrial League funded a feasibility study. The study showed that there would be enough revenue raised from local taxes to transform Santa Fe Springs into a real municipality; free from County rule. The process of transforming a town into a city entity is known as incorporation.
Though it seems very odd now, the League did not originally want the residential areas included in the new city. Outraged by this, the homeowners issued the League an ultimatum. “If you want to make a city out of Santa Fe Springs which takes in residents, we’ll help; but if you take our tax base away, we’ll fight it.” The Industrial League saw the value of this argument, and the two groups joined forces.
To incorporate as a City, an election must be held, and a majority of the voters must agree to the formation of a municipal government. The debate over incorporation was fierce at times. Opponents of incorporation claimed that taxes would be raised to fund the new government. When the election was held on May 15, 1957, Santa Fe Springs became a city by only a 5% margin of victory. The first City election was held. At that time the city was divided into voting districts; three districts were residential and two represented the industrial areas. The first City Council was made up of Betty Wilson, Bill McCann and John Moreno from the residential districts and William Emmons and Foy Lee Peak from industry.
The first City budget, a very modest $280,000, paid for a City Manager and safety services. City Hall was located in an old house on Telegraph Road. The first City building constructed was the Library in 1961. A new City Hall followed the next year. Today, there are twenty eight municipal buildings providing services that range from child care to public works. The oil wells no longer outnumber the residents.