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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

Born in Philadelphia in 1881, she was the only child of parents of modest means. Her mother died when Laura was 2. Relations were strained between Laura and her father, a baker and butcher.

Married Patient

She went to nursing school because she couldn't afford to go to medical school. Eventually she married one of her patients, Charles Scudder, a farmer and inventor.

For a while, Blackstock said, they lived with Charles' relatives on the Scudder family farm, where earlier Scudders had welcomed George Washington and his troops the night they made their famous crossing of the Delaware.

But Laura apparently grew tired of this setting. With her trunk packed, she told her husband one day in 1910: "I'm going West." He decided to go with her.

First in Seattle and later in the Northern California community of Ukiah, they struggled to create a life that would take them beyond the days when they ate mush meal for Christmas and when, Laura once wrote, "We didn't have a nickel even to buy a little doll" as a Christmas gift for their children.

In Ukiah, she and her husband ran the Little Davenport restaurant. Lawyers at the courthouse across the street hailed her as a great cook. She asked them how she could become a lawyer.

Reading from borrowed books, she learned enough to take the bar exam. She traveled by train to Sacramento while four months' pregnant and easily passed, becoming the first woman lawyer in Ukiah's history. Although she never practiced law, she used her legal skills in her business.

"Laura could do anything," said Blackstock, who spent three years interviewing hundreds of people around the nation for his pamphlet. "She lacked what most humans have: those gremlins that say, 'I can't do it.' I just regret there are no statues, no streets named, no schools in her honor in Monterey Park."

Both Blackstock and John Scudder had difficulty doing their research. "She was a private person," Blackstock said. "You could be working with her, but that doesn't mean you're going to know Laura Scudder."

This privacy was not the result of anything mysterious, John Scudder said. "There wasn't anything I found that was embarrassing or any dirty laundry."

If anything, they found people ready to praise Scudder for running a hometown family business that employed many of the poorer women of Monterey Park and gave work during the Depression to those no one else would help--the housewives.

Some of these women spoke of being grateful to work, even in their homes. They fashioned waxed-paper bags for the potato chips, ironing three sides of the bags before they were taken back to the plant to be filled and sealed.

Laura Scudder was among the first potato chip companies to use waxed bags to ensure freshness, Blackstock said. When chips were sold in markets in the early 20th Century, they were dispensed from glass cases into paper bags.

As a nurse, Scudder often treated her employees for injuries. Once she heard that a worker was crying on the job because her daughter had run away. "Mrs. Scudder picked up the phone, hired a private detective and, in a day or two, had the kid back," Blackstock said.

Tough on Debtors

Still, she was hard-nosed in business, known for paying her bills the day they arrived and being equally tough on those who owed her. In 1928, the year her husband, Charles, died, she went ahead with plans to build another plant in Oakland. By 1953, when she opened a plant in Fresno, the company had 1,000 employees and about 50% of the California potato chip market.

To ensure freshness for the dairy products in her mayonnaise, she bought a ranch on Workman Mill Road, near today's intersection of the San Gabriel River and Pomona freeways, where she raised her own chickens and cows. "It was a little unfair to say she did it all," Blackstock said, noting that her children and relatives also helped develop the company. "But it was her business, period."

After her husband died, she was increasingly aided by his son from a previous marriage, also named Charles, who had come to live with the Scudders. After his father's death, he and Laura Scudder married when they both were middle-aged. "Monterey Park could never get over that," said Blackstock. "Yet they were in no way related, really, before they married."

Scudder was strong enough to take any criticism. When she first went into business, Blackstock said, she couldn't get any insurance for the firm's one delivery truck. Insurance agents told her that she was a woman and couldn't be relied upon to stay in business long enough to pay the premium.

So she found a woman insurance agent in Los Angeles who eventually got the business of insuring hundreds of Scudder delivery trucks.

And when the men of Monterey Park wouldn't support a parks bond issue, she said at a public meeting that if the men had to stay home and take care of the children for a few days, they would see how important parks were.

In an interview with Eli Isenberg, publisher of the Monterey Park Progress, Scudder once said: "I'm a working girl. We're planted on earth to work, and day by day I do the best I can."

Isenberg noted: "The essence of this woman is not to be found in the money she made."

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