Metropolitan News-Enterprise

 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

 

Page 11

 

REMINISCING (Column)

H.C. Brown’s Views Rejected as Auto Club Changes Approach

 

By ROGER M. GRACE

 

The view came to prevail in 1905 within the Automobile Club of Southern California that the project in progress, that of constructing a road from Palms to Playa Del Rey, did not represent the way the organization should be spending its funds. Attorney Herbert C. Brown, a 1904-05 board member, and others who had championed the project came to into disrepute.

As recounted in the last column, club historian Matthew Roth says the partially-completed street construction project “precipitated an internal debate over the nature of the organization.”

The motto of the group was “For better streets and good roads.” Members pressed the view that resources should be devoted to improving highways, not building them.

Too, there was being voiced “a charge of needless and rather lavish expenditure of the club’s funds” other than on the Playa Del Rey road, according to a July 30, 1905, article in the Los Angeles Times. It says:

“Last year about $1800 was chalked up to the maintenance of the club’s offices in the Johnson Building, and for care of the secretary’s automobile, trips to Sacramento” for lobbying “and similar expenses which many of the members say did them little good, if any.”

There was more than oneJohnson Building” in Los Angeles at the time. The 1905 city directory shows that the Auto Club was headquartered in the “O.T. Johnson Building,” a new structure (no longer existing) at the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Broadway.

A bit of trivia is that the owner of that structure, and other buildings in the city, was Orson Thomas Johnson, who had made his money from running a general store he founded in 1860 in the small town of Galesburg, Ill. (birthplace of Carl Sandburg in 1878). The Galesburg store continued to bear Johnson’s name even after he moved to California in 1880, and in fact, until it was razed by a fire in 2006.

In 1913, a salesman named Jack became a shoe clerk at “O.T.’s” in Galesburg. Surely no one there could have imagined that Jack’s toddler son, born Feb. 6, 1911, would someday have a prominent presence just two blocks from Johnson’s building in Los Angeles. At the southeast corner of Third and Spring Streets, there now stands a structure named after the shoe clerk’s son, Ronald Reagan.

It was at the Westminster Hotel, at the northeast corner of Fourth and Main Streets, that the Auto Club on Jan. 17, 1906, held a meeting that was, to its history, pivotal.

It was ironic that it was at that hotel, owned by Johnson, that the decision was made by the 24 members present to vacate their costly space in Johnson’s office building. (The hotel, said to have then been the grandest in the city, was opened by Johnson in 1887 and owned by his company until 1952, long after his death in 1916.)

The issue of the Times the morning after the Auto Club’s meeting reports:

“Making the club more truly democratic, and securing a larger membership so as to render the organization a real power for good to the motoring game was the keynote of last night’s meeting….To this end the membership was opened and reductions in cost made.

“Herbert C. Brown introduced the resolution calling for abolition of the expensive headquarters, secretary’s automobile and secretary [A.P. Fleming]. There was no opposition to the measure.”

When founded in late 1900, the Auto Club was a small association of men who owned automobiles. Roth terms them “wealthy hobbyists.”

A June 2, 1903, article in the Times—telling of a meeting at the Westminster at which the club, existing by then “in name only,” was resuscitated—sets the number of members at 32.

By 1905-06, Roth says, cheaper automobiles were being produced and “cars became far more ubiquitous” than at the turn of the century. So, there were more potential members.

Yet, joining the club, which cost $25—added to annual dues in the same amount—rendered membership too expensive for many of those who were newly becoming “automobilists.” Based on the Consumer Price Index, $25 back then amounted to $629 today.

A vote was taken at that 1906 meeting at the Westminster to lower the induction fee to $5—equivalent to $126 in terms of today’s dollar, and dues were dropped to a monthly assessment of $1, $25.20 nowadays.

The cut in fees, Roth says, rendered membership “accessible to the broad middle class.”

At a meeting on March 31, 1906, also at the Westminster Hotel, the club was reorganized, with new officers chosen.

The July 27, 1906, issue of the Herald says:

“The growth of this organization has been phenomenal. In February the membership numbered scarcely 100. Now its roll embraces 250….The membership is not restricted to autoists. Everyone favoring the improvement of the roads of Southern California is eligible.”

There are now around 6 million members.

 

 

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