Watts, California, was a city of the sixth class that existed in Los Angeles County, California, between 1907 and 1926, when it was consolidated with the City of Los Angeles and became one of the neighborhoods in the southern part of that city.
The area now known as Watts is situated on the 1843 Rancho La Tajauta Mexican land grant. As on all ranchos, the principal vocation was at that time grazing and beef production. There were household settlers in the area as early as 1882, and in 1904 the population was counted as 65 people; a year later it was 1,651. C.V. Bartow of Long Beach was noted as one of the founders of Watts. Watts was said to have got its name from a widow who lived on ten acres that was later occupied by a Pacific Electric power house and for whom the train stop was named. She later moved to Arlington, California.
A subdivision with the name Watts was platted, possibly by the Golden State Realty Company, between 1903 and 1905, when the settlement had a population of about 150 people. In 1905 lots were being sold by the Golden State Realty Company for prices ranging from $100 to $200: The terms were advertised at a dollar as down payment and a dollar a month thereafter, with the company claiming there would be "no interest and no taxes." The Watts Lumber Company had a plan of "easy payments" which "enabled those desiring houses in the little settlement to secure their material and to build and occupy their houses at once."
Watts became a city in 1907, after three petitions objecting to the proposed borders were presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Seven ranchers said that they had no intention of subdividing and that all unimproved land should be omitted from the proposed city. Another petition declared that most of the property owners in Watts did not pay taxes inasmuch as they were buying the 25-foot lots for speculation, that the residents were "migratory" and that most of them were transitory "Mexican railroad laborers." A third petition for exemption was submitted by residents of the Palomar stop, who dressed up their plea with quotations ranging from Greek philosophers to Hamlet. Those petitioners announced that they had recently changed the name of their settlement from "Watts Park" because they did not want any affiliation with Watts.
The City of Watts was approved by voters of the district, and it became a municipality in May 1907, with J.F. Donahue, who was a driver for the Blue Ribbon beer company, as mayor and Frederick J. Rorke as city clerk. There was, however, no money to run the city because it had become incorporated too late to levy and collect any taxes. A proposed business license fee raised so much objection that the Board of Trustees, or the city council, submitted to the people a straw vote (nonbinding) question about allowing liquor to be sold in the city. A majority of the 250 votes did agree that Watts should allow saloons, or bars, and that the municipality should raise money by taxing them. Rorke said:
We have two retail saloons and one wholesale as a result, and an income that more than pays our running expenses. In fact, we have several hundred in the treasury. The voters, who admitted the saloons, looked upon it as a business proposition. While many of them are not really in favor of having them in our midst, the experience was adopted for giving us a working fund. Some of the surplus funds are being used to employ engineers to establish street grades, looking forward to improvements in our thoroughfares in the near future. As an instance of prosperity, there is not a vacant house in Watts, and it is impossible to find one to rent.
By January 1910 Watts had a population of about 2,500, "well improved streets, a fire department, a weekly newspaper" (the Watts Advertiser, owned by W.F. Schubert), and it was completing a $12,000 city hall. It had "the best of public schools, churches of the leading denominations, the principal fraternal orders, a chamber of commerce and a good government league," of which J.H. Hurley was the president and W.C. Street the secretary. In 1910 J.B. Traughber was the city marshal and tax collector, and A.B. Waddingham was the city engineer. In 1910, C.H. Dodd was the mayor.
Water for the community came from Artesian wells, which were said to provide a supply at 10 feet depth and a "big flow" at sixty feet, but in 1912 it was noted that "the present source of water supply is very unsatisfactory, and in many cases people are unable to get service at all." In 1913, voters were asked to approve $85,000 in bonds for a water system and $15,000 for new fire department equipment, but both measures were defeated. In 1916, things got better with the installation of more and larger water mains, and a worker was kept on duty at the water plant all night in case a conflagration required additional water pressure.
Education and library
There was a school in Watts from an early date. In 1905 it was reported that "Steps have already been taken to enlarge the present school building", and a new building was erected in 1911 at a cost of $30,000. By 1914, however, that structure had become overcrowded, and additional desks were "installed everywhere, in the library, in the halls and in the auditorium." There were 630 pupils and 18 teachers. While work was under way on a new school, the contractor absconded with some of the money and his bondsman was compelled to finish the job. Older students attended Redondo Union High School. Later Watts was a part of the Compton School District, but in January 1914, a mass meeting was held in Watts to make plans to secede from Compton and build a new high school in Watts, at a cost of about $100,000. Later the same month, Watts boosters made the same statement at a meeting with Compton backers in that city.
A Watts public library was established in 1913, with Maud Walton as the first librarian and Bessie Hunt as the second. In the same year the city received word that its application for construction of a new Carnegie Library had been approved. The cornerstone of the library was laid in January 1914.
Watts was situated at a point on a rail line that ran south from Los Angeles (eight miles to the north) to Long Beach and, according to real estate advertisements and publicity releases, was about 6-1/2 minutes from the terminal at Sixth and Main Streets. In 1910 it was a transfer point for the Santa Ana, Long Beach and San Pedro lines of the Pacific Electric system. The Watts Station, which is now a National Historic Landmark, included Wells Fargo Express and Western Union telegraph facilities. Pioneer settler A.E. Ruoff recalled that the electric line was installed about 1902. The point known as Latin Station, just a mile north of Watts station, was called North Watts, and Abila station, 1.5 miles south of Watts, was South Watts (later "Palomar").
Around 1905 a junction was installed for a line that ran to Santa Ana. In February 1909 the railroad changed its schedule so that Watts travelers would have to take local trains rather than expresses, thereby increasing the length of the ride to Los Angeles from 15 minutes to one hour. In 1912 Watts passengers could get a car into Los Angeles about every three minutes, and those returning from the city "have the choice of riding five different lines of cars, not to mention the Watts locals, namely the Long Beach, Santa Ana, San Pedro, Redondo and Newport lines."
Business and industry
After 1903, Watts saw the establishment of a newspaper, a general merchandise store, a lumber yard, a grocery store, a millinery, dry goods and confectionery stores, a blacksmithery and bakeries. The Pacific Coast Laundry Company opened in August 1907, with a payroll promised to be between $750 to $1,000 a month. The officers were P.L. Howland, J. Flautt and H.E. Munger, all of Los Angeles. Laundry deliveries were to be made via the electric railway. By 1910, business enterprises included the California Gold Recovery Company, which manufactured a machine used in mining districts to capture "flour gold," which is fine gold floating on a liquid surface. In 1925, Watts had a pump-manufacturing plant, a machine shop, two sash-and-door plants, and a pickle works. Banks were Farmers & Merchants and Hellman. In that year there was a steel plant, McClintic Marshal Company, which covered fifteen acres and employed 180 men. A new California Thorn Cordage factory was set to hire five hundred men. A new 34-room hotel was going up on West Main Street.
A newspaper, the Watts Advertiser, was operating by 1913, and in 1914 it was renamed the Daily Advertiser, with P.F. Adelsbach as editor. His editorial stand favored the "dry," or prohibitionist side.
Between 1912 and 1916 Watts was rivened by a pitched battle between the wet forces (those who favored the legal sale of alcoholic beverages) and the drys (those who favored outlawing alcohol from the city). Municipal elections were fought over the issue, people were beaten and put into jail, and court cases were legion. A public speaker was threatened by a mob because he used a cuss word. Arson was suspected at a church. As a headline writer put it in 1912, "Watts Citizens Cannot Get Along in Amity Because They Do Not Agree on Liquor Question."
Kolb and Dill
Watts was brought to nationwide attention with the New York production of a musical comedy called "Lonesome Town," which was set in an imaginary place called Watts, California, in the year 1902. The endeavor, with music by J.A. Rayne and book by Judson D. Brusie, ran for 88 performances at the Circle Theatre, 1825 Broadway, from January 20 through April 24, 1908. It was produced by the vaudeville team of Kolb and Dill — Clarence Kolb and Max Dill. A New York Times reviewer said of the show's out-of-town performance:
ALBANY, Dec. 6 – Kolb and Dill, a team of German dialect comedians, who have for years been playing in musical farce on the Pacific Coast, appeared at Harmanus Bleecker Hall to-night in a new two-act comedy with music called "Lonesome Town." The story is said to be based on an actual occurrence in California, when the little settlement of Watts was deserted by its inhabitants in a rush on Goldfields, and was promptly pre-empted by three nervy tramps who happened to arrive at the psychological moment. Among the principals are Maude Lambert, Lillian Spencer, Ben T. Dillen, George Wright and Robert Pitkin.
Kolb and Dill brought their play to Los Angeles in August 1908, and a Los Angeles Herald reviewer wrote:
It is a very amusing Watts, this "Lonesome Town" which the elongated Mr. Dill brought us last night via New York; all of which goes to prove that distance really does lend enchantment to the view. The commuter who lives in Watts could never have imagined a "Lonesome Town." The thing isn't possible.
Two years later, a Los Angeles Times writer opined that
Watts was first known as the place where you could buy town lots on the hitherto unheard of terms of $1 down and $1 a week, The public made fun of that proposition at first, [but when the lots were all sold], those clever comedians, Kolb and Dill, rendered the name "Watts" again famous by introducing it into one of their most popular and successful stage productions. It was not pleasant to our people of Watts to be thus ridiculed, but it caused people to talk about Watts; it advertised Watts; and it aroused the spirit of the residents of Watts.
"Lonesome Town" was released as a motion picture by American Film Company in December 1916.
In response to the raillery occasioned by the play, a "big advertising excursion" took place on Thursday, May 30, 1912, via a special train of three chartered electric railway cars. The route was scheduled over the Balloon Route by way of Los Angeles, Hollywood, the Soldiers' Home, Ocean Park, Venice, Redondo, Gardena and back to Watts. The object of the excursion was to call attention "to the fact that Watts has been 'born again,' and the name 'Lucky Watts' will be used as much as possible, the idea being to get new ideas into people's heads, so they will get away from the notion that there is any joke about what the people here believe is the most promising suburban community in the county." Some 25,000 pieces of advertising material were distributed. The excursion was repeated in 1913.
Proposed name change
In 1912 and 1913, a movement was afoot to change the name of Watts because, as one headline writer put it, the residents were tired of the "quips and jests" at the town's expense. One real-estate agent said that prospective clients backed out of a property inspection tour when they found out their streetcar ride would end up in Watts. The name "South Angeles" was proposed. Another plan for a city name change surfaced in 1919, when the city trustees asked for suggestions. Mayor Towne said: "Watts has got a bad reputation in Southern California, somehow or other . . . a good many of us felt that the liquor element left a black mark upon the community's name. . . . Towns are something like people. They can live up to a good name easier than they can live down a bad name."
First woman jury
Watts had the distinction of being the site of the first all-woman jury impaneled in Los Angeles County, and perhaps the state, when A.A. King, editor of the Watts News, was tried on a charge that he printed obscene and indecent language in his newspaper. Justice of the Peace Cassidy ordered 36 women who lived in San Antonio Township to report for service. At trial, the testimony was that one of the Watts city council members had vociferously used indecent and obscene language against King while visiting the Watts News office and that King had repeated the language in a story he wrote about the incident, not naming the councilman. The crowd that gathered in the courtroom for the trial was so large – about 100 people – that it had to be moved to the City Council chambers.
The jurywomen were "Mmes. Nancy Steiner, Nellie Moomau, Mary Bower, A.H. Trimble, B.G. Wallace, Mary J. Hill, Essie Finnecy, A.D. Leavitt, Carrie A. Ray ["forewoman"], Florence Brainard, Eva F. Carolus and Bertha Scherner." They were allowed to wear their headgear during the first half of the trial, but when they returned from lunch, they were asked to remove their hats so that everybody could see they were the same women who were there in the morning. The jury was out for just twenty minutes and returned a verdict of "not guilty," to the cheers of the spectators.
Joining Los Angeles
In a special election on April 2, 1926, Watts residents decided to enter Los Angeles by a vote of 1,338 to 535. It was the heaviest vote ever in the city, with 1,933 voters at the polls of the 2,513 registered. Thus 23,000 more people were added to the city when the decision was put into effect on June 1 of that year. Mayor L.A. Edwards of Watts led the fight for consolidation with Los Angeles. Opposed were the Watts Chamber of Commerce, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Taxpayers League, the Ku Klux Klan and the Watts Welfare League. Edwards was re-elected to the outgoing Watts Board of Trustees, the other winners being William Booth, Robert Rhoads and James West.
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- Internet Broadway Database
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