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Laura Scudder Was More Than a Name : Monterey Park Will Honor 'Pioneer, Instigator, Doer' Who Helped Create Snack-Food Industry

April 09, 1989|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

When she died 30 years ago, the newspapers called her the Potato Chip Queen of the West.

But, as the decades have passed, Laura Scudder has faded from public memory, to the point where there is little to suggest that she existed, beyond being a name on a potato chip bag or a peanut butter jar.

So now, in a suburban city whose historical roots don't go much deeper than the trees planted in the first housing tracts developed there after World War I, Monterey Park is laying claim to its local hero.

The life and times of Laura C. Scudder will be the focus of an afternoon celebration at the city's Garvey Ranch Park historical museum on April 23.

"She was a woman in business, ahead of her time," said Louis Davis, Monterey Park's city treasurer and president of its historical society. "I can just imagine what she had to go through."

Working from a dusty two-acre parcel that she and her husband bought in 1920, Scudder parlayed a home-grown potato chip business into a multimillion-dollar food empire that spanned California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

She started the business in 1926, at the suggestion of a friend, in a brick building she and her husband had built next to their home and a gas station they ran. They had previously rented the building to a barber who, in those Prohibition days, turned out to be a bootlegger.

Scudder, a Republican and an Episcopalian, kicked out the bootlegger. Without the rent income, she had another motivation to make and sell potato chips: to support her family. She had four children, and her husband's health had failed since a car fell on him at the station.

"She was a pioneer, an instigator, a doer. . . ." says a pamphlet written by Joseph R. Blackstock, a former president of the Monterey Park Historical Society. "She also helped create the potato chip-snack food industry."

Besides being strong-willed, Scudder was a big, good-looking woman whose trademark was wearing wide, flat-brimmed hats. Advertisements showed photographs of her in hat and gloves, a purse under her arm. Her signature followed ad copy that often included recipes.

Blackstock, who is director of market research for Patrick Media in Los Angeles, once helped Scudder with billboard advertising. He says: "In 1926 there were almost no women in America starting food businesses, although food is considered women's business.

"Even today, if we went out to find a woman running her own food business--I mean a big one, and as the chief executive officer--where would (she) be?"

Beyond that, several factors have prompted the Monterey Park Historical Society to honor Scudder. Eighteen months ago, John Scudder of Hermosa Beach decided to make a film about his grandmother. After extensive research funded by money he inherited from her, Scudder completed a 53-minute color video entitled "Laura." It will be featured in the April 23 celebration of Laura Scudder Day.

Also, the Scudder family last year gave $15,000 to the historical society to fund scholarships for graduates of Alhambra High School, which Laura Scudder's children attended.

To Preserve Story

John Scudder, a studio photographer by trade, previously made a video about humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. He said he began the "Laura" project "to preserve the story before it blew away." Mostly, he wanted to make a film for his family.

Scudder, who was 12 when his grandmother died, said: "I thought I knew her story pretty well. But I really didn't."

The more he researched, the more Scudder realized that it was a story with much wider appeal. "It's a motivational story," he said, "about hard times, and inspiring to both men and women."

He contacted Blackstock, who more than a decade earlier had conducted his own lengthy research.

Blackstock, who got the idea in 1971, said: "A 350-page book had just come out about Sirhan Sirhan, the murderer of Robert Kennedy. I thought, 'Here you got a great big volume about a murderer and not a word about Mrs. Scudder.' "

Visited Plant

As a child growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Blackstock went with school friends to visit the Scudder operation on the northeast corner of Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard. For decades, he said, it was the only large business in Monterey Park. The firm moved to Anaheim in 1960.

Laura Scudder and her family sold the business in 1957. Since then, it has changed hands three other times. The latest transaction occurred in 1987, when the business--which has expanded far beyond its original product line of potato chips, peanut butter, mayonnaise and toasted nuts--was sold for $100 million to Borden Inc.

Both Blackstock and John Scudder discovered that Laura was much more than the founder of a potato chip company. Although she closely guarded her privacy, her grandson said, "she had a lot of heart and a lot of love, and she was real tough businesswoman, too. It was a great combination."

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