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Small Talk Is Helping Small City Retain Past : On Official Business, 'Mr. Artesia' and Teacher Record 111-Year-Old Community's Oral History

August 28, 1986|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

ARTESIA — People here trust Albert Osborne Little. Why else would they put him in charge of a task as colossal as "gathering historical data and preparing an oral history" on this 111-year-old bedroom community?

But they worry about him because Little, who first set foot in Artesia in 1927, is 87 years old.

"Some people believe there is a certain urgency to get this done, due to my antiquity," Little said.

"But if I felt any better I would be in heaven. And I like it here," added Little, who still drives his automobile and regularly sails his 39-foot sailboat.

The City Council has commissioned Little and historian C. Richard Arena to develop an oral history of the city.

'He Saves Everything'

"We had wanted a history of the community for a long time. We knew Mr. Little had a lot of information. He saves everything related to the city. We wanted something done while he was still with us," explained Councilwoman Gretchen A. Whitney.

"Al Little is known as 'Mr. Artesia,' and he has lived a lot of Artesia history. It seemed a shame to let this history go by the boards without recording it," said Councilman James Van Horn.

The City Council has set aside $6,500 in this year's budget for the development of a "historical record."

A portion of the money will be used to purchase needed materials, such as recording tape and typing paper, while $2,500 will be used to pay for the services of history teacher Arena, said City Manager B. Eugene Romig. Little is not being paid out of the historical funds but receives money for duties he performs as the city's official photographer and "community promotion officer."

Dictating Machine Bought

The city has bought a dictating machine, which will be used by Romig's secretary, Angie Roberts, to transcribe tape recordings of interviews conducted by Arena and Little of present and former Artesians.

So far, the two men have conducted 29 interviews, including City Council members who served when the hamlet was incorporated in 1959.

By the end of the summer and before Arena returns to teaching duties at a Catholic high school in San Pedro, more than 35 people are expected to record their oral histories.

Most of the interviews are conducted in Al Little's small home on 187th Street. Amid the clutter of historical facts and pictures that are scattered about his bedroom office, other bits of information are filed neatly in Manila folders, which will some day be a book.

The interviewees have been summoned by Little from as far away as Riverside County and as close as around the corner.

Little has tried to contact as many of the early settlers of the community, which was made up of many people of Dutch and Portuguese ancestry, as possible. Many were dairymen or farmed crops, especially sugar beets. There were also some hog farmers.

Arena and Little will also contact some of the newer arrivals, including Indian merchants who own and operate stores along Pioneer Boulevard, the city's main business district.

Romig said Arena is well-qualified for the job. Arena, 61, who has a doctorate in history from the University of Pennsylvania, was at Whittier College from 1970 to 1974. While there, he was in charge of the Richard Nixon Oral History Project, a two-year effort to collect information from people who knew the college's most famous graduate before he went into politics.

Traveled the Country

Arena said he interviewed and taped 350 people for that project, which took him all across the country. He said the Richard Nixon Foundation raised more than $100,000 for the program.

"It was one of the most enjoyable historical assignments I ever had," said Arena, "to be able to contact people who knew a living President."

During his Artesia assignment, Arena will talk to people who might have known Pat Nixon, the former President's wife. Mrs. Nixon at one time lived in Artesia and taught business courses at Whittier High School, Arena said.

Oral history is a record of a community, gathered from people who have lived a part of that history, Arena said. The records are preserved and can be used by future historians as a source or by anyone who might want to look at the past, he explained.

First Woman on Council

Among those interviewed was Councilwoman Whitney. Elected in 1976, Whitney is the first and only woman to serve on the council. She also served on the ABC Unified School District Board of Education for 20 years. Whitney High School in Cerritos is named after her.

"I'm the one who suggested we call the district ABC," said Whitney, who came to Artesia in 1938 from Laurel, Neb.

The city's first dentist, Earl Albert Hershman, now 83 and living in Long Beach, has also been interviewed. He opened his office on Pioneer Boulevard around 1932.

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