The Los Angeles Audubon Society: The First Thirty Years, Part 1 of 3

By Glenn Cunningham

This article was first published in the Western Tanager, Volume 50 Number 1 September 1983.

In May, 1907, a small circle of bird lovers began to take bird walks in the hills and canyons of Garvanza (now Highland Park).  Interest grew and numbers increased, and on March 2, 1910, the group formed the organization that was to become the Los Angeles Audubon Society.

Mrs. Willis Dixon was elected its first president.  Soon after, however, she passed away, and the first vice-president, Mrs. Myers, finished out the first term.  Mrs. E.H. Hunter was then elected to serve the second term of two years.

For the first four years the Society was affiliated with the State organization, but separated in a 1914 meeting at the Hotel Clark to elect officers and selected Mrs. Robert Fargo as president.  The first records surviving in the Society files date from that time, and the first entry reports a June 4, 1914, Audubon Field Day held in Laughlin Park.  Regular reports of board meetings, general public meetings and field trips, that are still intact date from September, 1918, although newspaper clippings in the scrapbook record events as early as December, 1916.  By then the Society was affiliated with both the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Association of Audubon Societies.

Over the succeeding years many changes have taken place in the organization, its size, character and functions. Even the name has changed. The first Recording Secretary (of the surviving minutes) consistently referred to the Los Angeles Audubon Club, although newspaper reports correctly referred to the Audubon Society. In the minutes of board meetings "Society" was first used in 1919.  By 1922 the spelling 'Audibon' was introduced, persisting for a time, but since 1922 the spelling of Audubon has been monotonously consistent.

From the beginning, the Society annually elected officers, often re-electing some for two or more terms.  Following Mrs. Fargo, Mrs. F.T. Bicknell served as president for eight years and at the conclusion of her last term was named President Emeritus.  In addition to the usual slate, other officers, some elected, some appointed, included Official Speaker, Editor, Librarian, Custodian, Trail Leader, Auditor, District Federation Secretary, and Chairman of the following committees: Program, Press, Education, Birds and Wildlife, Wild Flowers, Trees, Butterflies, Extension, Publicity, Hospitality, Membership, and Western Tanager.  Meeting places both for Board meetings and public programs, frequently changed with the evolvement of the Society.

Following its initial meeting at the Hotel Clark, the Board members met at various other downtown locations including: the Grosse Building, the old LA. Public Library, the 8th floor waiting room of the Broadway Department Store, and the LA District Federated Clubs Board Room in the new Jr. Orpheum Building, as well as in private homes of board members and on one occasion, the Edgewater Club in Santa Monica.  Public program meetings were held at Exposition Park, for the first few years in the Art Museum, but from 1919 on in the State Building, from April, 1927, until 1934 meetings of the board were held in the "new and beautiful library" at Flower and Fifth Streets. When room there was no longer available, they moved to the branch library in Lafayette Park.  Plummer House, in Plummer Park, first entered the picture in 1937. The park occupied parts of the former Plummer Ranch, originally, in turn, a small portion of the vast Rancho La Brea granted by the Mexican Government in 1826.  Plummer Ranch had extended from Santa Monica Boulevard north to Sunset and from La Brea Avenue west to Gardner Street. With its orchards and vegetable gardens, dairy herd and vineyards of wine grapes it was considered typical of the times. The Plummer family house, known in later years as Pioneer Fiesta Center, attracted many visitors who enjoyed the famed hospitality.

Although Señor Eugene Plummer, last of the family to occupy the home, lived until 1943, he had over the years lost most of the land. When, in 1937, the last three acres were about to be foreclosed, they were bought by the County of Los Angeles and became Plummer Park which was soon expanded with additional acreage and the planned construction of several new buildings.  The old house and garden, however, remained intact, and the house, reported to be the oldest in Hollywood, was designated a Historic Landmark by the California State Park Commission.  Soon after acquiring the property, the County, through a letter from J.K. Reed, County Park Superintendent, to Mrs. Salmon, President of Los Angeles Audubon, offered the Society a room in the old house to be used as its headquarters.

On June 10, 1937, the Board held a special meeting in the park to consider the offer.  Mrs. Scott of the Park staff showed the Board members through the home and the grounds and outlined future building plans and the possibility of Society participation. After luncheon "under the old pepper tree in the arbor" they retired to the president's home to discuss the proposal and to inspect the Society's collection of books, maps, charts and mounted birds, butterflies and wildflowers, assembled together for the first time. 
The offered room was considered ideal for Society headquarters and for housing these possessions and it was voted to write a letter of acceptance to Mr. Reed asking that he set forth in writing any obligations to be incurred.  It was understood that there were none beyond furnishing and caring for the room.  Immediately a House Committee was formed and a date set for members to visit and inspect the room.  On July 1, 1937 thirty members "found all in beautiful order —maps, books and collections displayed in bookcases and showcases on the wall."  On that occasion, Captain Plummer himself appeared, giving a talk on the original estate and its plantings. Mrs. Florence Lewis Clark, representing Superintendent Reed spoke for the Recreation Department "expressing the desire to cooperate in every way stating they would gladly see that the Society was moved into larger quarters as they found themselves outgrowing the present one, which seemed soon inevitable."

The first regular meeting was held in the new home on September 16, 1937.  In preparation for its use, a new elective office of Curator was established, and contents of the room were insured for $200 at a cost of $3-86.  With members taking turns as hostesses, the room was opened to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.  Contents of the room were enriched when Mrs. Fargo presented a framed picture of Captain Plummer and the Los Angeles County Museum donated over 50 specimens of mounted birds, largely those most familiar locally.  When the predicted need for expansion arose, a second room was made available, and for a time, the Society offices and Nature Museum occupied the two front rooms of the house.  But, with Park-sponsored ceramic classes meeting in the back or north half, the situation was far from ideal.  In addition, museum exhibits were in open-fronted bookcases thus exposed to damage, and for each entry to the house a key had to be obtained from the Park office. Because of this inconvenience and lack of security the officers of the Society chose to keep their records at home.

However, due to the efforts of Marion Wilson, Curator and Headquarters Chairman, a gradual improvement followed as she succeeded in acquiring keys and eventually even a telephone. Various members of the Society donated their labor building proper shelves and bookcases.  The Park building program continued, and on March 10, 1938, it was reported that the first load of lumber had arrived for the new Club House. "We were definitely to be included in the plans and were to have a room in the $60,000 home," the notes concluded.  A year later, the new building was completed; dedication occurring on December 5, 1938.  The Society then had to make the choice of accepting space in it or remaining in the old Ranch House.  But since the latter had become immeasurably more attractive with the addition of certain provisions, namely that the entire building and the surrounding garden would be turned over to the Society, and that a new roof and heating would be installed, it was accepted with little hesitation.  Immediate improvements followed although the general appearance of the house and the floor plan remained much as they had been in Plummer's day. The Park Department repaired and painted the two north rooms, removed unneeded plumbing, papered the walls and built a fence with a locked gate around the yard.

One improvement has still not materialized.  In December 1938 the County Supervisors were asked for a cat-proof fence surrounding the garden, to which they agreed in September, 1939.  We still wait.

Occupation of the entire house allowed separate rooms for the Sales Office and the Library, and contents were rearranged accordingly.  Members continued to donate their services. The large exhibit cases were built by Howard Capwell and their backgrounds painted by another member and, artist, Vernon Mangold.  Mrs. Brennan agreed to donate and install an air tight heater if fire ordinances allowed, and Mrs. Shearer arranged to have the chimney inspected. Mrs. Scott of the Park staff donated furniture for the house.

Finally, came full utilization of Plummer House, or Audubon House, as it came to be known.  Officers and committee chairmen brought their files and records from home, and regular Board meetings, Western Tanager mailings and soon most Society activities were centered in this, the now official headquarters of the Los Angeles Audubon Society.

At the time Plummer House was accepted in preference to space in the new Park Building, it was decided to make reservations in the latter only for special gatherings such as the monthly program meetings which had been held in the State Building in Exposition Park since 1919.  The first was held in the new Park Administration Building on November 29, 1939.

Monthly public programs covered a variety of topics, even as today, but with much heavier emphasis on trees, wildflowers, and butterflies.  Recognized authorities on nature topics, non-authority travelers reporting on distant areas, and authors of new books in the field of nature entertained the audiences, which according to an entry in 1923 averaged sixty in number of attendants.  Among the programs in the early years were the following that suggest the variety and the quality of the presentations, many by authors whose names are still familiar.

One of the earliest programs was that of J.C. Alpas speaking on the Birds of New Zealand.  In May 1920, Theodore Payne pleaded for conservation of wild flowers.  In November 1920, Mr. Leon Dawson of Santa Barbara read from the manuscript of his new book, Birds of California.  In April 1921, Dr. William A. Bryan, Director of the Museum of Science and Art, spoke on Birds of the Laysan Islands which he succeeded in having made a Bird Reservation.  He was followed in May by Miss Kennedy from the library speaking on the need for a new library for Los Angeles.  Mrs. Myers in October, 1921, gave a preview of her new book, Western Song Birds.

The March 1922, speaker was Mr. Edward C. Jaeger, author of the Mountain Trees of Southern California, whose topic was "Four Thousand Miles on a Donkey over Desert Trails."  He closed with pleas to get away from the conventionalities of life and out into the desert and mountains to study the wonders of nature.  Francis Fultz, author of “The Elfin Forest”, spoke at the May, 1927, meeting on the work of reforestation in the schools.  The marvels of modern technology were apparent when Mr. Alfred Cookman, speaker for the February, 1928 meeting "illustrated his talk with 75 lantern slides . . . especially remarkable as to detail due to his use of a lens which brought the image close to the camera from 200-400 yards distance thus enabling him to photograph them as if only a few feet away."  Dr. Bull, Curator of the Junior Museum chose for his January 1930 subject, "Birds on Postage Stamps and Coins." In April 1935, Theodore Payne again appeared speaking on "The Preservation of Wild Flowers and the Native Landscape of California."