San Bernardino Oral History Project

Edward Thomann
January 9, 2003

Hanson: This is an interview with Mr. Edward Thomann at his home in San Bernardino, and it's January 9, 2003. This is Joyce Hanson for the San Bernardino Oral History Project. Good morning, Mr. Thomann. Thank you very much for the interview.

THOMANN: I don't know really what you want to know, but if it's just all 'I.'

Hanson: It's all you.

THOMANN: I was born here in San Bernardino in 1921, May 9, '21 at the old Sequoia Hospital, which is on the corner of D and 5th; I think that's correct. Anyway, there's a Jack in the Box there now. Used to be the old Sequoia Hospital. They tore it down in '25 and used it as fill in Warm Creek and the put Hanford Iron Works over it and they were there for the next sixty, seventy years. They have abandoned it now, and so I don't what's there. But graduated in '40 with a bunch of the people that San Bernardino knows, and most prominent would be Bob Holcomb, ex mayor. We were in the same class. He was an old fishing partner of mine.

Anyway, at the close of graduation, I went to work for Santa Fe Railroad, that would be July first of '40, and everything was going along fine until World War II and I had a heck of a time getting loose from the Santa Fe because I was declared, what do you call it, a valuable worker of some sort. I've forgotten the correct words. Anyway, I finally had to quit so I could join the navy. Got sent out in the South Pacific. Was out there on these little islands for two years and I had gotten hurt and they sent me back to Hoknell Naval Hospital, that's Oakland, and I got discharged June of '45. And, at the time, I was 60 percent disabled, so I went back to work for the Santa Fe. At that time everything was still steam and everything was heavy, heavy, heavy. I couldn't do the work, so I quit again and moved to the coast. Spent the next twenty years at San Clemente and Oceanside running a fishing boat. Managed to get great gobs of skin cancer.

Well, the working for the railroad was much too heavy so I quit and moved to San Clemente. Got a job on a fishing boat and I stayed there ten years and my family was right close to the sand, so they could play in the sand each day. After ten years, I had a chance to move south into Oceanside, and there we lived right at the sand. The Strand is a little street that goes between the house and the waves and we were right there. The kids spent their summers wearing out their swimsuits playing volleyball, (laughing) but I never had to spend even one minute worrying about them putting, needles in their arms or anything, so I felt real fortunate for that.

And today is my daughter's birthday, the youngest daughter. 56. So, that's been a long time ago.

Hanson: How many children do you have?

THOMANN: Well, I have two children by a previous marriage and that broke up after 16 years. Then, I remarried and she had two children, a boy and a girl, and for the next 42 years, before she passed away, I just told everybody, "We had four kids." Which is no lie. And I just didn't elaborate on how we managed to get four kids. So, I still tell everybody I still got four. But two are actually blood and the other two are from my second wife and they treat me with all the admiration, love and respect that you could hope for. They will always be mine, and although I don't have a lot, what I have left is divided four ways. It's been good and so far none of the children have had their name on a police roster, and I'm happy for that.

Hanson: That's a great accomplishment.

THOMANN: Yes, I feel pretty good about it. I got the four kids, fourteen grandchildren and twenty-two great grandchildren, and of the twenty-two, there are 8 girls that are 18 or older, so before too long, why, I'm sure I'll be a great-great-grandfather.

But back to San Bernardino. In 1935 my dad bought lots, well he bought them in '33 but we built in '35, on at 2878 Serrano Road, and at that time there was nothing between us and Cajon Pass except the grape vineyard and a little bit of an airport on the corner of 27th and Mount Vernon, and I think the freeway would have taken it out had it still been there. That is all sub divided now, but the vacant property belonged to a guy named Johnny Ralphs, John Ralphs. I think he was a banker and I know he lived on the corner of Highland Avenue and G. I'm sure he's long gone. But there were no other people around; a lot of vacant grape vineyards, so I had to make all my own enjoyment.

I went to school at Arrowview for week, and that's where I met Holcolmb, and Bill Leonard and a bunch of them, but I didn't enjoy the school, so they let me transfer back down to Sturgess on the condition that I'd be there on time. Boy, that's a real trick, to go from almost 30th and Serrano down to 8th and E. I wore out a lot of skates and couldn't afford a bike. Anyway, I made it. Graduated in '40, but, there's really not all that much to tell. We had our class reunion at the Arrowhead Hot Springs Hotel, at the Mission Inn, at the Arrowhead Country Club. They've had several since. But they had the sixty-year class reunion a couple years ago, but I couldn't go. The last twenty years that my wife was alive, she was in a wheelchair and a lot of these places are just not compatible to a wheelchair and so we kind of drifted away from the local people.

But we spent a lot of time up playing in Lytle Creek as a Boy Scout, until it got washed out in '38, and we used to spend a lot of time up in Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory. When they built Lake Gregory, it filled up so fast it trapped a lot of the mechanics down in the deeper water, the boat hoses and such. A lot of times, I'd play all morning in the snow up on the mountain, come home and have lunch, and spend the rest of the day at Balboa surfing, (laughing) which made it kind of nice. You had the best of two worlds and they weren't that far apart.

Hanson: You went to school in the 1930's here. Those were Depression years.

THOMANN: Yes. And it was tough.

Hanson: Tell me about family life. Tell me about your family life and what it was like to grow up during the Depression. What, what did you have to do? Did you work while you were a kid? Or did you try to find work?

THOMANN: Well, if it paid any money, they wouldn't hire you because they'd hire a man. So as a kid, I used to mow lawns, but I would mow a lawn, edge it, sweep up, and haul away the trash for a dime, and tickled to death to get it, and it proved to be kind of a bad deal in a sense. I grew big enough that at nine they wouldn't let me in theater for a dime because they said I was twelve or more, and I had no way of proving it. There's no driver's license or anything so I just quit going to the show. They charged me a quarter as an adult and I didn't have the quarter, I had the dime, so I quit going to the show. So now, in eighty years, I've probably been to the show twenty times, thirty times. I just don't go. I didn't try to break them out of business or anything, it's just that I lost interest in it. And the last thing I can think of that I like to do is go to the show. If I got time enough to go to the show, I go fishing. (laughing)

But, no, it was tough, but I never missed a meal. My dad sold Prudential Insurance and he had a route. Downtown was his area and so I got acquainted with a lot of the business people through him. They [parents] never had any money that they could give me in the form of an allowance or spending money, but they made sure I was fed and clothed and that sort of stuff. And I always had clothes that were adequate to play marbles in and some that was good enough to go to school in and the best to go to church in. And I belonged to the First Christian Church when it was on the corner, it would be the northeast corner of 7th and E and then it moved in '37. It moved over to 10th and Arrowhead.

This is my class annual. What I did when they had their class reunions, I would take my annual and have everyone who graduated at the time I graduated sign it, but then a lot of them they signed it again in '80, and here's a 1960. So I took this to the different class reunions. But no, let's see, are we in 'H's yet?

Hanson: No, we're in 'B', 'D' oh, here are some 'H's.

THOMANN: Okay, where's Bob Holcomb?

Hanson: Holcomb, here we go.

THOMANN: No, that's Bill Leonard there, no it isn't, no, that's Bob Holcomb, yes. That was the guy that was the mayor of town.

THOMANN: Were you here when he was mayor? He wasn't liked by everybody. I never was a special friend of his after the school time. We met and talked and that but he outgrew me. Politicians have a way of doing that. I just read in the paper, this, this guy Johnny Killion died down at Carlsbad. Isn't that Bill Leonard?

Hanson: Yes, that's Bill Leonard.

THOMANN: You know, he's a fat cat with somebody now, I don't remember who. And his, and his son is a politician, too. You read of him every once and a while. Is of this interesting to you?

Hanson: Oh yes, of course!

THOMANN: And then of course, there'll be pictures in here of like automobile agencies and that sort of stuff, if that's of any interest to you. You're welcome to take these if you want to copy any of it.

Hanson: So you were a young man when the flood came through in '38. Tell me do you remember anything about that?

THOMANN: I would have been about 17. (Going back to the school annual) The one's I get a kick out of is when they got a group shot and there'll be some guy who points an arrow. Signs his name. And we had some awfully nice teachers, too. We really did. But you can tell by the hairstyle that it's old time. This guy was a great principal, McMillan. But the bulk of all these people are gone now.

Hanson: Who was your favorite teacher?

THOMANN: My favorite? Oh boy, I'm not real sure.

Hanson: Did you have a favorite subject, something you enjoyed more than others?

THOMANN: I had kind of a funny thing. My mother had two brothers that were doctors down in the Los Angeles area, and they specialized in venereal diseases, so they were very, very well off, and they didn't have the sulfa drugs and the things that they have today. Uncle John said that if I would study and become a doctor, by the time I got through with my education and my internship, he would be ready to retire and that he'd turn over his practice to me. Beautiful, boy. I dived right into that. So I took a lot of Latin and chemistry in preparation and then I met a young lady and part of her way of picking up extra money was to babysit and we babysat several evenings with a young girl while her dad and mom went out for a while. And we got to liking the little girl very, very much; eight years old. And one of her school friends put his arm around her neck and squeezed her and he broke something in her neck and she died of cancer, and I told myself, 'No, no. I can't do it.' I can't sit and watch them die. So, I just gave it up completely, and all I got out of my uncle was a gold watch when I graduated. I'm in one of these. I was treasurer of my class.

Hanson: Well let's find you (pause).

THOMANN: Maybe it was the year before? Well, I don't find it (pause). But I lost contact with all of the different ones by being gone (pause). I can't even find me! (laughing) Well, there's a bunch of little pictures here that you probably would get a kick out of that shows the dress and around the school. Anyway, if you think you'd like them, you're welcome to them.

Hanson: Here you are; class treasurer.

THOMANN: Quite a few of the fellows that dated the girls had been married fifty, sixty years.

Hanson: Yes, a lot of long-term marriages back then.

THOMANN: But, like I said, I got away from it. San Bernardino for years was notorious for it's motto- the friendly city- the town's motto, 'the friendly city', then they changed it to 'city on the move' so I moved. (laughing) It's that simple, yes.

Hanson: Why did you decide to come back to San Bernardino?

THOMANN: Well, I came back because my father had passed away and left my mother all alone. And, she asked me if I would come back and take care of her and so we moved back into town. Then when she passed away, my wife had become crippled. She slipped on an icy pavement- that black ice- one winter when it was real cold here. And she fell and broke her pelvis bone, Well, the pelvis healed but then arthritis set in and she never could walk again, and she was stuck in a wheelchair. And that was one reason we picked a spot like this. I could have a ramp and the doors were wide enough for her to get her to get her wheelchair through. It was open all the way around and everything was down low. She had a chance to do her thing. She loved to crochet; loved to write and she loved to play the violin and it was very, very pleasant. We had some wonderful years together.

And we loved to travel and we've already gone through eight motor homes, and we spent something like forty years, I say, chasing Indians, because we collected Indian artifacts; baskets and pottery, Navajo rugs, stone tools. Fabulous collection, and we've lived in Redlands then and some clown broke in the house and stole it all. Well, it's probably my fault. I blame myself anyway. A guy knocks on the door. Said, "I hear you got a nice collection of Indian artifacts." "I do." "You want to sell them?" "No, I don't want to sell them." "Well, I'm here, will you show me some of your pieces?" So, I thought to myself real quick- real dumb me- maybe I can get a free appraisal on some of this stuff. So I showed him a Navajo rug, blanket really. "Oh geez, that's a beauty. A rug like that's worth two thousand dollars. You want to sell it?" "No, I don't want to sell it!" "That's a mission basket. They're real rare. They're worth a thousand dollars. Do you want to sell it?" "No, I don't want to sell it!" So, I take him one by one back down the hall, and in my driveway, I was a double drive- room for a motor home and room for a car, and apparently I told him we was going to be gone for a few days, or he put two and two together- when the motor home is gone, we're gone. So anyway, we were gone. I used to like to fish out of Morro Bay a lot, and we used to go up there frequently, six, eight, ten day trip and when we came back the front door was standing wide open and there's not a thing left.

We had told ourselves that we would sell it when it came time to retire. Put the money in the bank and use it as a retirement fund, and we had it estimated at over fifty thousand dollars, and it hurt because we needed it but at the same time it's too late to cry. Once it's gone, it's done. But the children and the grandchildren, when they had show and tell, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scout groups and that sort of stuff and Christian church groups, and they'd be talking about the covered wagons and the Indians and the cowboys and discovering the west and the gold rush and that sort of stuff and they would have occasion to have show and tell, why they always had some baskets to show and some arrowheads to show and they all got good grades. So there was a reward in that regard, but I hated to lose the nickel value.

Anyway, that was a part of our life. There was a lot of stuff here locally. We found a lot of stuff at the Cajon Pass and Summit Valley. There's a lot of stuff up there. And then out on our desert, Barstow and that area, was all the dry lakes, Harper, Mojave and of course the Mojave River, that was a happy hunting ground for Indians for thousands of years, and then we spent a lot time up in Owen's Valley which is, which is rich in Indian history.

Hanson: Why were you so interested in Indian history?

THOMANN: I don't know, it just hit a nerve. Why is it that everybody that lives at Lake Arrowhead saves their money all year long to spend their vacation at Laguna Beach, and everybody that lives at Newport, they save their money and get a few days off and they run to Mammoth? A change of environment, and living on the coast, we got a lot of the coast, so we choose the desert as a play area. In the last ten years of my life, I spent making furniture for the University of Redlands in Redlands and they furnished me a house right there on the campus and that made it nice because it was concrete slab floor and she [wife] could get in and out with her wheelchair, but then, they changed. My house was going to become a sorority for the girls and they gave me another house a block away that was even nicer, but it was so nice the carpet was an inch and a half thick and you can't roll a wheelchair on it. So we decided, rather than complain, which you can't do in such a case, we just went ahead and bought our place here, which is nice. We've enjoyed it very much here. But then, she passed away, it will be three years in September, I miss her. I'm not a good loner. But of course, you're not recording this are you?

Hanson: Yes.

THOMANN: Oh, I'll be darn. Yes, well, I don't know of anything to tell you in regards to San Bernardino history other than that it was a beautiful place and it used to be you knew everybody in town; either knew them as an individual, or they were uncle or aunt or cousin to somebody that you did know. And you could almost wear your arm off waving. So nearly all of the people that worked for the Santa Fe lived within a mile or two. And at a quarter of seven and at seven, and at twelve and at four, they blew the whistle and you could hear it all over the Valley.

Oh, and I knew this guy, Leland Norton, that they named Norton after; the Norton Air Base, but prior to that a guy named Bob Sheddon and his family lived at the end of Victoria. At that time it was called Plum. And that was Sheddon's wash which is out there, and the Santa Ana River bed and we used to spend a lot of time hunting rabbits out there, and dove and quail, but you can't do that sort of thing anymore. It's all grown up. And East Highland was loaded with orange groves. Orange groves were everywhere. If it wasn't an orange grove, it was a grape vineyard. It made a whole different kind of environment than we have now. And you don't have the one finger salute and the honking horns and the disrespect for one another that we have today, which is a crime.

And, probably shouldn't record this, but I'm not at all happy about thinking of going to war again. It's scary. Then they try to make war into an adventure and into a romance and into and into something that isn't there. It's blood and guts and hate and that's no good. The part that I saw, I didn't like and I couldn't get out quick enough. I was glad when they said, "You could go home." I never looked back. The boy, he spent twenty years in the service and he's retired and he will retire from a second job now on the twentieth of this month, of January. He'll be footloose pretty quick. His wife retired on the twentieth of last December. Their family is married and gone, and I don't know what you want to know.

Hanson: Tell me about working for the railroad. What did you do for the railroad?

THOMANN: Well, I was a machinist for the railroad. And most of my work involved what they call, motion work, valve work. They had these big logs that connected to the driving wheels, monster big driving wheels, and then they in turn made what they call a guide work the valve and the pistons, and my work primarily involved the valves and the pistons. But the lightest piece that I handled was 42 pounds. Everything was big and heavy and they tried hard to keep things clean but there was just no way you could keep that grease and dirt off of you. After being hurt, I just couldn't handle that stuff any more. But as far as the railroad, I thought they were very, very fair. Started out at 37 and a-half cents an hour. When you got a raise of two and a half cents you thought you'd died and gone to heaven. Yes, but, finally got up to where I was making 96 cents and I thought I had the world by the tail. But, that was a long time ago. By working for the railroad I could get a pass on a foreign line and a foreign line at that time was anything other than Santa Fe; Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, these were all a foreign line. Not necessarily China Express, I was trying to think of Orient. Anyway, the Rigley Steamer to Catalina was a foreign line so my friend and I used to Catalina frequently. The ratio was nine girls to one guy (laughing), so that made it a horrible world, I'll tell you. So we could catch the Catalina ferry and stay in a hotel overnight and we got to dance to the Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller and Arty Shaw and all the big bands at the casino, beautiful. Boy, it was fun. It was fun. What a way to live.

Hanson: Tough life for a young man.

THOMANN: Yes, yes. I think if I remember correctly, and that's a long time ago, the fare over at that time, with a pass was a dollar and a quarter, so eighty, ninety cents an hour was still enough to buy a ticket. Thirty, forty dollars each way now. Yes, it was a nice spot. But as a kid, that was really a fun spot and we went often enough that we met a lot of people two and three times that had been there before and we'd meet them again, which made it awfully nice. Of course, there was no drinking or drugs and stuff at that time, so there was no problem that way. And of course, the mountains were different then than they are today in that they've been burned off probably four or five times that I can remember. And we had a cabin at Blue Jay and I could walk from the cabin down to the west end of the lake, to the Blue Jay end, and fish for crappie and blue gill and the different small perches and that's where I got a case of fishing, was up there. Used to play in the snow. Got my fingers all frostbitten one time, and even today, when it gets real, real cold, they just feel like their full of needles. Oh boy, they hurt like crazy. But, here again now we're talking about '35, '36, '37, a whole lifetime back.

Hanson: Yes, but it's important to remember.

THOMANN: Well, I know I don't have all that much time left, but I don't endeavor to fight it at all, because I'm leaning against all those nice memories from yesterday. And I'm not going to do anything to hurt it, but at the same time, I'm not going to fight it. I've already filled out a form for if there's anything left that's usable, use it, and then I want to be cremated and buried at sea. And I have two long time friends that commercial fish out of Oceanside. We've been friends since back in the forties and they agreed that they would take my ashes out and dump them, and I told them that I'm sure that they'll probably chum up a bunch of sharks and then dump me in. (laughing) And they promised, no. But I don't believe them. That's all right. I might just as well [inaudible] sharks as any other time. They'll probably choke. I don't really know what you want to hear. I had some pictures that I wanted to show you, but I can't find them so, I'll get in touch with you. I got your card now and I'll locate them. But, I live here but I don't wander around too much anymore. We got stuff that hasn't been turned over in years and years and I don't know where these things are.

Hanson: It sounds like you've had a lot of great experiences and had a lot of good friends.

THOMANN: I did. Lots of good friends and I've no regrets. I didn't make every nickel in the whole world, but I've never missed a meal. No, it's all been pretty good.

Hanson: Well, you've done what you wanted to do and you've done things that make you happy, and that's important.

THOMANN: Well, part of my problem was that I had trouble working under a roof. A lot of people, they could spend 45 years putting a left front fender on a Plymouth and they're just happy as a clam. Boy, if it's got a roof on it, I don't want no part of it. I like out in the open. And, it don't pay as good out there. I was up in Owen's Valley, I was up there 12 years as a park ranger. Yes, my ability to get along with fifty, sixty passengers on a boat for anywhere from six to twelve hours or more, they were looking for somebody that had a temperament that could be congenial, and it worked out very well. And there again, they provided a place to live, so, I didn't buy a house that went from thirty thousand dollars to three hundred thousand dollars. That didn't happen to me. But that's where a lot of people have become well off financially is they made a wise investment in the forties and fifties that has increased in value, and then when they sell it, they got enough money to play for a while. Make thirty thousand, or three or four hundred thousand dollars go quite a little ways there if you ration it out.

Hanson: Well, you've done okay for yourself.

THOMANN: Yes, I've done all right, yes.

Hanson: You have a nice place here.

THOMANN: Yes, well, it's quite comfortable. There's only 65 units here and the bulk of the people are very cordial, and although the park itself does not have a lot of dances or potlucks or that sort of stuff, I make my own entertainment. With this diabetes it affects my legs so the doctor tells me to walk, so three days a week, I go to the swap meet. Not that I want to buy anything but I have to walk, and as long as I'm walking, I might as well be looking. And walking up and down the street just doesn't so it for me, so I go to the swap meet and I buy cookie jars. Then I got a couple here. Got some more over there.

Hanson: Those collector's items.

THOMANN: Some of them are especially like the dough boy.

Hanson: Felix the Cat.

THOMANN: Yes, I think I got fourteen now, but I sold one lady 52 and another lady 28, but it's just fun. It gives me an excuse to walk.

End of tape.

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