Editor's note: This is the first of two parts about G. Allan Hancock. Next Sunday’s column will focus on his interest in aviation and the opening of the Hancock School Aeronautics.
Even though he died in 1965, the hand of George Allan Hancock, one of the most influential figures in the city's history, can still be seen in almost every facet of Santa Maria Valley life today.
The history of G. Allan Hancock goes back to 1860 when his father, lawyer-surveyor Henry Hancock, and his brother, John, purchased more than 4,439 acres of the Rancho La Brea property near Los Angeles for $2.50 an acre.
In 1863, Henry married the cultured and well-educated Ida Haraszthy, daughter of Col. Agostin Haraszthy, an pioneer immigrant of Hungarian nobility, and moved into a house located on the Rancho La Brea property.
George Allan and his twin brother, Harry, were born on July 26, 1875, at Ida's brother's house in the San Francisco area. Harry died in infancy. Another son, Bertram, was born two years later.
Henry died in 1883, leaving Ida with the formidable task of running the ranch and raising the two boys alone. Life was not easy at the Rancho La Brea. The amenities were few and the rancho was located far from the more civilized part of L.A. In short, the Hancocks were land poor.
Blue gums and pepper trees surrounded the frame house, while fields of mustard grew 6 feet high. The two boys walked three 3 miles to a one-room schoolhouse on a lane connecting their homestead to the dirt road, now known as Wilshire Boulevard. The boys were later sent to school in San Francisco.
When not in school, Allan and Bertram helped with truck farming on 125 acres of the land and dug roofing tar, which sold for $10 a ton. Ida managed her ranch from a buckboard while holding onto a rifle that she didn’t hesitate to use in routing squatters.
In 1893, tragedy again struck the family when Bertram died of typhoid fever. In spite of the tragedy, Ida and Allan continued to farm and sell tar while hoping for a better life
After Ida had granted a 20-year lease to the Salt Lake Oil Company on 1,000 La Brea acres, located north of her home in 1900, the first oil well blew. The millions of barrels of oil produced annually brought untold wealth to the Hancocks. Seven years later, Allan, along with the noted geologist William Orcutt, drilled 71 wells near the family ranch house and never hit a dry hole.
With her newly acquired riches, in 1900, Ida built and furnished a mansion on property located on the western edge of anything that could be classified as a city. Many years later, this property became the corner of Wilshire and Vermont Avenue.
The hard days of tough management, riding the buckboard and making a living selling tar were history.
The famed discovery of Pleistocene skeletal specimens on Rancho La Brea property dates back to 1875, when Henry Hancock donated specimens of prehistoric mammal bones that he’d found on his property to the Boston Society of Natural History. However, 30 years would pass before scientists became interested enough to probe further in the Rancho La Brea property, which resulted in creating the world’s greatest collection of Pleistocene fossils. Who has never heard of the La Brea Tar Pits?
Meanwhile, Hancock’s many oil wells continued to produce and property continued to be sold or leased.
During this time, Hancock was making a name for himself as a banker.
In 1909, he founded the Los Angeles Hibernian Saving Bank and the California Bank (later the United California Bank) and its trust company in 1920. He was also involved in other businesses and financial institutes. The Roaring '20s brought unsurpassed growth in L.A., and G. Allan Hancock was in the middle of it.
In 1900, Hancock was one of the nine men who created the Automobile Club of Southern California. He served as director in 1905 and president from January of 1907 through May of 1909 when the first Tour Book guide was issued.
Ida had encouraged her son's lifelong love for music by first starting him off with a harmonica, then a cornet, and some years later, his first cello.
His musical ability served him well during his college years when he played in dance bands. Later, after mastering the cello, he played in the first stand of cellos in the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. He also played with the Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl orchestras. Later, in Santa Maria, he was instrumental in the formation of the Community Orchestra.
During the years ahead, Hancock, always interested in scientific endeavors, became fully qualified to operate any kind of vessel. His buying four marine biology floating laboratories (The Valero I, II, III and IV) and spending much of his time on the sea, qualified him as an early-day Jacques Cousteau. He later learned to fly planes as well as to operate trains.
After passing an exam for master mariner's license, the resulting document authorized Hancock to "captain" a vehicle of any size.
When Ida Hancock died in March of 1913, Hancock, his wife Genevieve and their two children, Bertram and Rosemary, moved into the mansion at Wilshire and Vermont.
Even though the G. Allan Hancock lived in L.A., he dearly loved Santa Maria, a town that he first became acquainted with when he purchased the Santa Maria Valley Railroad in 1925, which was in receivership. He wound up developing the 29 miles of railroad tracks and eight diesel locomotives into the busiest short-line railroad in the country. When Hancock qualified as a locomotive engineer, he often served at the throttle while his crew just went along for the ride -- at full pay.
He also developed an old ice plant into the La Brea Ice Company.
It was through his urging that local farmers shifted their emphasis from sugar beets to refrigerated green vegetables, thus transforming the Santa Maria Valley into one of the country's most important centers in the cultivation of vegetables.
The Hancock built the first radio station in town, boosted aircraft industries, built Rosemary Farms and helped develop the Community Orchestra, which first began at social get-togethers at the home of Robert Easton on South Broadway.
When George Tunnell flagged down one of the railroad trains with the Hancock at the throttle, and shared a piece of watermelon with him, their conversation about farming led to Hancock’s purchase of 80 acres of Tunnell’s Ranch.
Hancock built an airfield on the property and later the property became the home of the Hancock College of Aeronautics. It now serves as the campus of Hancock College.
According to those who knew him, Hancock had a lifelong fear of being kidnapped and deliberately made his mansion on Wilshire Boulevard look unkempt by never cutting the grass, keeping the blinds drawn and never using the front entrance. Even the name on the mailbox was that of Albert Albertson, his butler. His house at Rosemary Farms was also secluded and difficult to find.
Hancock’s 6,000-acre Rosemary Farms, named in honor of his only daughter, produced lettuce, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and potatoes.
However, in 1927, when his farming operations began, there was very little in the way of row crop production in the valley. Farmers generally did dry-crop farming, which meant mainly barley and beans.
Union Sugar bought their sugar beets from local farmers but since the farmers planted the same crops in the same ground year after year, many of the farmers were literally wearing out the soil. It was through Hancock that they learned about the rotation of crops, soil analysis and fertilizing.
In June of 1925, Hancock experienced one of his life's greatest tragedies. Finally convincing his 24-year-old son, Bertram, to give up the theater and take part in the family's business interests, the two headed north to Santa Maria, making their usual stopover at the Arlington Hotel in Santa Barbara.
During the early morrning hours, a devastating earthquake struck the area, wrecking the part of the hotel where the Hancocks were staying, leaving the captain seriously injured and his son dead.
In describing the tragedy Hancock wrote, "In the split fraction of a second later, I was falling with a great tangle of timbers, plaster and steel beams. The smashing, crashing sounds of destruction were deafening. I fell two stories to the street level. Looking back at the wreckage, with great clouds of white dust still rising from it, I knew I had lost my son."
After Bertram's death, Hancock closed the mansion until the mid-1930s, when he returned with a staff and several friends, who were both musicians and scientific companions from his ships.
Hancock died May 31, 1965, just a few months short of his 90th birthday.
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at email@example.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.
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