Elwin Mussell was born in 1905 in North Dakota, but he grew up in South Dakota. Although I couldn’t find any information about his father, his mother was a dressmaker and was the sole supporter of her five children. She put them all to work to prevent them from getting into trouble, she said.
To Elwin, each day was filled with work, work and more work.
He sold milk from his mother’s cow for 5 cents a bucket, raised flowers and sold bunches of pansies for 5 cents a bunch. One winter he made $900 by trapping muskrats. When school let out for the summer, his mother hired him out for $90 to anyone who’d have him.
Before reaching the age of 16, Elwin won the state of South Dakota’s magazine sales championship award by selling the most copies of the Saturday Evening Post and the Country Gentleman. As he later said, this was accomplished by ”selling them to drunks in the saloons.” With a bar on every corner and 12 on one of the streets, he had a ready-made market. As a reward for his efforts, he won a gold watch that never worked.
The boy was an avid reader and wasn’t above playing hooky to go down to the library to check out books. Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, books about mechanics ... anything. He wasn’t fussy.
Elwin was 16 years old when the Mussells left South Dakota and headed for California in a Dodge touring car, driving 2100 miles in 21 days on the mostly dirt covered pavement of the old Lincoln Highway. When the tires went flat, which they frequently did, they were patched. The only serious problem they had was a broken axle, but in those days, with people helping people, they only had to sit in the car and wait for the next car to come along. In a few hours, they were back on the road heading west.
The Mussells first went to Ventura but must not have been impressed because it wasn’t long before they loaded up the car and came to Santa Maria.
When the family arrived in Santa Maria (population 3,750 at the time), Elwin went to work for the old Santa Maria Graphic Print Shop and after a year of training, he ran the place, earning $12 per week.
Although he was only 16, he never bothered to register for school feeling that it was his duty to help his mother to raise the family. But the real reason might have been that he liked being his own boss. He did, however, take various night school classes.
Elwin once sent away for a correspondence course, and when the package arrived, included was a book about psychology. He wound up tossing the course class papers out and keeping the book on psychology.
In 1925, he began publishing his own newspaper, The Santa Maria Advertiser, a free newspaper “Independent as a hog on ice” and published it every Thursday from the print shop at the corner of South Curryer and Orange. The publication, supported by advertising, also contained editorials. Mussell published the Advertiser for 33 years before selling to the Santa Maria Times in 1958.
In 1928, Elwin married Barbara Higgins.
In his later years, when many of the old-timers in Santa Maria would stop by to reminisce with him about his little free weekly newspaper. Some them were his 25 former carriers who never failed to pull from their pockets the silver dollar that he’d given them when they grew “too old” to work.
Through his little newspaper, Elwin Mussell can be credited with having a law passed regarding hospital care. In 1930, a man was seriously injured in an auto accident near the Wye, south of Santa Maria. He was taken to the county hospital in Santa Maria and was refused entrance until the nurse could determine who was going to pay the bill. In the meantime, the man died. It was later determined that he was a very wealthy man.
The nurse at the hospital sued the Advertiser two times for $50,000 and after a week in court, the newspaper won. The end result was that patients would first be admitted to the hospital and questioned about the bill later. And so it is today.
Mussell’s newspaper experience brought him to City Council meetings for more than 25 years as a reporter where he obtained first-hand the city government’s news. Later on, when he ran for office, he could say that he was the only candidate who had taken an active part in the city’s government over a long period of years by attending the meetings and helping (through his newspaper) to guide the city’s progress according to the wishes of the majority of the people.
Mussell was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce for 36 years, serving as chairman of publicity and public relations for 20 of those years. In addition to welcoming the many clubs and lodges and groups to the city, he and Bob Seavers, the secretary-manager of the chamber, went out to Vandenberg Air Force Base every month for more than ten years, to tell the new airmen about the wonders of Santa Maria.
Noting that the Planning Commission was the best training ground for the City Council and eventually the mayor’s job, Elwin Mussell, an avid Democrat, served on the commission from 1960 to 1966, the City Council from 1966 to 1974 and served as mayor 1974 to 1980.
A few of the accomplishments as mayor included building a 232-unit high-rise at East Main and Broadway on land that had been vacant for almost three years. In addition, the nine-block area south of Main Street was cleared and the new Santa Maria Town Center was built with two large department stores and an air-conditioned mall of almost 80 specialized stores.
The police and central fire stations were remodeled at a cost of over $1 million. A third fire station was built at the north end of the city.
Preisker Park, Adam Park and the Minami Community Center were also built.
There were many more accomplishments made by Mussell during his terms in office, all of them to the benefit of the city.
Around 1944, he purchased 10 acres of land in Ruiz Canyon from attorney Fred Gobel. Additional land purchases adjoining this property increased Mussell’s total ownership to 574 acres. It was on this property that he created Mussell Fort.
Mussell began building his “fort” in the early 1950s and it became his own personal showcase. Although he traveled to 47 states, picking up such items as branding irons, brass knuckles, hand cuffs, a six-sided poker table, many of treasures came from Santa Maria, items like the city’s first street lights.
On May 11, 1980, on his way home from his “fort,” Mussell died in a car accident. His wife, Barbara, who suffered from an extended illness, died 11 days later. Both are buried in Mussell Fort.