ORAL HISTORY: Florence Tyler – Life on Hellman Ranch

interviewed by Libby Appelgate. July 14, 1993

July 14, 1993    

Oral History told by Florence Tyler, wife of Hubert Tyler who worked as a head foreman on the Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach.  She has suffered a stroke and resides at Catered Manor, a pleasant nursing home in Long Beach.  She is 82 years old and the report from the nurses is that she is improving.  In 1932 she married Mr. Tyler and was immediately put to work cooking for the ranch hands as well as Mr. Tyler and sometimes Mr. Hellman.  I was told that I wouldn’t be successful with the interview because she couldn’t talk.  The photos I showed her opened up a floodgate of memories.  She is a delightful and vivacious woman even in her state.

I have never met Florence Tyler so to break the ice and judge on whether she will be able to respond to my questions, I began by showing her old photos of the Hellman Ranch from the Seal Beach Historical Society’s archives.

LIBBY:  I am showing you some old photos of the Hellman Ranch taken around 1940.

FLORENCE:  A lot of the old buildings on the ranch came from Huntington Beach after the oil strike [in 1923].  They just grabbed everything they could get their hands on and put it on the property.

LIBBY:  Is this the main house?

FLORENCE:  No, this is the bunkhouse.  See, there is an old-fashioned gas tank.  We lived up the hill from the bunkhouse.

LIBBY:  Here is a photo of a fire burning at the ranch.

FLORENCE:  Oh, the day we had that fire, it was a grass fire.  We didn’t have a fire wagon.  All we had was a hose.  This fire wagon came from Sunset Beach or Huntington Beach.  I don’t know which way it came.  Maybe Seal Beach had one too.  But the water tower burned down all to pieces.  You see my son [in the photo], Ernest Tyler held onto the bandy rooster so it wouldn’t get hurt.  He lives in College Park East.  My husband was a foreman for a long time.

LIBBY:  What crops did you raise?

FLORENCE:  Sugar beets and barley.  The alfalfa they would cut and haul away to the dairy farmer.  There were lots of dairies in Los Alamitos.  You are showing me a picture of the horse barn where we would put them when it was raining and stormy.  We kept the baled hay in there too.

LIBBY:  What was the town in Seal Beach like in those days?

FLORENCE:  It was very small.  Our first home at the ranch was in 1933.  Hugh was born and there was nine years difference between Hugh and Ernest.  Ernest was the youngest one. 

LIBBY:  Was this during the period the Jewel City Café was on the pier?

FLORENCE:  Yes, the Jewel Café.  I wasn’t allowed to go there at all.  My husband refused to allow me to go there.

LIBBY:  Why was that?

FLORENCE:  It was such a rough place.  They had drinking and gambling.

LIBBY:  Did they gamble in the Jewel Cafe?

FLORENCE:  Sure.  During the 1933 earthquake some of it fell down and then they built it up.  Then the law came down and boarded it up.

LIBBY:  We are looking at the photo of the barn on the Hellman Ranch.

FLORENCE:  They stacked the barn to the rafters with hay.  It was an old red barn.  People would go [come] by to tell us if the barn light was on or not.

LIBBY:  How many workmen did you have on the ranch?

FLORENCE:  First, there was forty or fifty.  They came in from Mexico and helped clear out the sugar beets and grind it up to make winter food for the cattle.  Later they got to raising the alfalfa.  They hauled it out green and put it in the dairy farms in Los Alamitos.

LIBBY:  Showing her the photo of the house where she lived.  Is this the house?

FLORENCE:  Yes, that’s the house.  It had a screened in porch all across the front where the men would wash and clean up before they came in for their meals.

LIBBY:  Did you cook?

FLORENCE:  Oh, yes.  I did all the cooking.  I had help from one Mexican lady.  That’s all the help I had.

LIBBY:  Did you ever have any Japanese on the property?

FLORENCE:  Yes, where the Navy base is now.  The Japanese had beautiful flowers that they raised.  They went to Long Beach with most of it.  You remember the open-air market?  They took flowers and vegetables to market.

LIBBY:  Was the land leased from Mr. Hellman?

F:  Yes.  The I. W. Hellman Co.  The fence in front of the house is where the men would come and rest if they got done with their work a little early and waited on their food.  Then they went in another screen door where they sat at a long table with benches.  The fence was a horseshoe shape with palm trees all over.  And berry vines.

LIBBY:  A newer photo is shown with the door off of the old red barn.

FLORENCE:  The barn door blew off during a storm and they didn’t bother to put it back.

LIBBY:  Your husband and his brother helped run the Hellman Ranch.  What was your brother- in- law’s name?

FLORENCE:  Milton.  Everybody called him Dick but his name was Milton.

LIBBY:  You couldn’t go into town because it was too rough.  Did you go to the grocery store?

FLORENCE:  Oh, yes.  The Navy base was part of our green alfalfa field.  The Japanese family had green vegetables and they were always there for me as well as the beautiful flowers.

LIBBY:  What kind of food did you cook? 

FLORENCE:  Any thing I could get my hands on. (Chuckle) No, I’ll tell you.  Just regular farm food.  Chicken, baked potatoes and the Japanese furnished me with all the vegetables.  We didn’t have any fruit that I didn’t go out to buy.  We used to go all the way to Corona for peaches in season.  There was an apple orchard up in Crestline.

LIBBY:  How did you travel?

FLORENCE:  I had my own car and Dad had his.  His was a pickup because he had to go all over the ranch seeing that things were done.  I had my own car and I belonged to the Seal Beach Woman’s Club.

LIBBY:  What schools did your children attend?

FLORENCE:  They went to Seal Beach Elementary.  The school bus came to pick them up.  The bus couldn’t come onto the property but they came into the driveway.  Just one school, kindergarten through eighth grade.

LIBBY:  Your husband was the foreman; did he hire the ranch hands?

FLORENCE:  Yes, he hired the Mexicans who were swarming at our door every year.  The Hellmans ran Bixby Ranch for years and they hired Mr. Crowley who was a gentleman’s farmer.  He was the most wonderful person who ever lived.  Elmer Huston used to be the Mayor of Seal Beach.  He would wake us up at 6:00 A. M. and yell, “Get up, it’s time for coffee!”  You could hear him a block away.   He just about raised his son on the ranch.  One of the Hellmans that was in charge of our section of the ranch would call and tell me, “I’m coming your way, what are we going to eat!”  He loved that homemade food.

LIBBY:  What would you have to eat?

FLORENCE:  Well, I would cook up a big pot of beans.  Navy, I think, and I would bake cornbread to go with them.  Then there were the vegetables that I would pick up.  I always had pie for dessert.  He wanted beans, pie and cornbread.  That was his standing order.

LIBBY:  Let’s get back to the Jewel Café.  That always fascinated me because I saw some photos of a very elegant dance hall.  People dressed up very nicely.

FLORENCE:  That was before it fell.  Probably in 1925 – 1930.  That was its heyday.

At this point of the interview, she seemed a little tired.  But she didn’t want to talk about the Jewel Café, I could tell you.  So I wished her a good recovery, packed up my tape recorder and quietly left.  They were taking good care of her.  I returned for a visit about three months later and showed her the transcript and she signed the Legal Agreement but couldn’t move her hand very well.  I returned about six or so months later and she was unable to communicate.

Interviewed & Transcribed by Libby Appelgate

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