B. J. Ricker—Reinvented
When B. J. Ricker left Grinnell in 1925, California must have seemed like a logical destination. After all, it was in California where Ricker had had his first business successes after he graduated from Grinnell College. California had also welcomed several of his relatives who had prospered, making the move more alluring. In addition, long after the gold rush, California still promised the good life in a way that most other parts of the country could not. So, with his Grinnell successes ruined, the 57-year-old B. J. Ricker decided to start over in California, without ever returning to Iowa.
For the previous thirty years, Ricker had been associated with the glove-making industry, learning both the technical as well as financial side, in the process expanding a modest small-town business into an enterprise whose advertisements and products reached all across the country. When this business failed him, and Ricker left for California, he had to decide what to do next. How could he repackage his skills and experience so as to give him new opportunities?
The California portion of Ricker’s life had three unequal chapters, and in each of them Ricker tried out a new solution to this question. The first and briefest experience took the Rickers to Los Angeles, where Ben tried his hand at finance within the insurance industry, concentrating on what he described as “community plan financing.” The second and most successful chapter saw the Rickers move to Chico, 175 miles north of San Francisco, where from 1928 to 1939 B. J. became involved with the milk business, first as a hired administrator and then later as a co-partner, just as he had been in the Grinnell glove factory. The third and final chapter brought the Rickers to the Bay area, where both B. J. and Mabel ended their lives, and where for a time B. J. worked as a salesman for a securities firm. None of these remakes brought B. J. Ricker back to the successes he had earlier enjoyed, but, in a period when so many Americans fell into desperate poverty, these career recastings did allow him and his family to survive the difficult years that followed their abandonment of Grinnell.
When Ben Ricker reached Los Angeles in the summer of 1925, the city’s population had only recently passed the one-million mark, providing a sharp contrast with tiny Grinnell that he had left behind. The difference, however, extended well beyond the size of the city; Los Angeles was home to large communities of Mexicans, Chinese and African-Americans, whereas Grinnell knew few persons from any of these categories.
Furthermore, the vast array of businesses that found homes in Los Angeles attracted people from all over the country–and the world. Oil was big business in California in these years, as was water, delivered to the city through an immense pipeline network that extended over 200 miles. In the ‘twenties Los Angeles became home to the cinema industry, drawing still more men and women from all over, each nourishing dreams of fame and success. Walt Disney, for instance, had arrived from the midwest only a year before Ricker, and there were many others who pursued their dreams in southern California.
As B. J. reported in his 1925 letter to the Grinnell Herald, his new work was rather less exotic; he took a position with Lincoln National Life Insurance Company. The job may have come his way through Charles Ricker, who also worked for Lincoln, a midwestern company that had only been founded in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1905, and since World War I had expanded aggressively. The company’s own history explains its association with the name of Abraham Lincoln, a marker, company literature asserted, of the company’s commitment to dependability and honesty. Whether Ben Ricker, who left behind in Iowa evidence of undependability and prevarication, saw the irony in his working at Lincoln is unknown. Given the brevity of his stay in Los Angeles, however, it seems clear that the work was not what he hoped.
Arriving in Chico mid-way through 1928, the Rickers must have felt themselves more at home than they had felt in Los Angeles. Somewhat larger than Grinnell, Chico was nevertheless a small town in the middle of an agricultural economy: almonds, peaches, prunes and rice were all important crops. As in Grinnell, only some of the roads were paved, and city fathers worked at improving the roads in residential areas. A few industries dominated the local economy—the Diamond Match Company was king—and a small college helped broaden cultural entertainment. Chico even had its own airplane pioneer (Thaddeus Kerns) who, like Billy Robinson, died tragically in a very public crash (1914). Also familiar to the Rickers, but perhaps less welcome as a reminder of their last years in Grinnell, was the economic collapse that followed the 1929 stock market crash. With the arrival of the Great Depression, the Rickers witnessed the closing of local businesses and the failure of at least one local bank. All the same, Chico proved much more hospitable to all the Rickers, and, despite the hard times, everyone in the family seems to have done well in these years.
Exactly what brought B. J. to Chico is unknown; he first appears in the record as vice-president of Atlas Dry Milk Products. Very soon thereafter Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corporation (the ancestor of Kraft Foods) bought out the Atlas plant, retaining Ricker as manager. But as soon as the Depression took hold, Kraft sold its Chico business, and in 1932 Ricker (with his partner, James Mason) purchased the business at 7th and Orange Streets, rechristening it Chico Milk Products. According to the news item that reported the sale, Ricker continued to direct the business side of operations while Mason, who had decades of experience with milk product manufacturing, provided the technical know-how. This cooperation lasted until late 1938 when Ricker sold his share, Mason taking full control of the company, by then known for its most famous products, Land O’ Gold buttermilk and butter.
The timing of the purchase was convenient for Ricker. The stock market crash had depressed prices, and presumably made the acquisition cheaper than it might have been otherwise. More than that, it was just at this time that Ricker finally cleared the last obligations on his Grinnell home. Perhaps this allowed him to collect from his friend, Harold Beyer, who had purchased Ricker House in 1926, and which Beyer now sold to Leila York. In any event, when the Rickers came to Chico they once again chose to rent, which means that whatever capital they had could be invested in the business rather than in a house.
The house on Normal Street was large enough that they could share it with a boarder, which they did. The 1930 census reveals that a 27-year-old Goldie Hulen, social editor for a Chico newspaper, lived with the Rickers. With Mabel’s father and then her mother spending their last years with the Rickers while they still lived in Grinnell, the entire family was accustomed to having additional faces around the house. But the twins, teenagers in 1930, might have found the presence of someone else at home more intrusive than they had previously.
In Grinnell, the Rickers had been active and influential members of the UCC-Congregational church, one of more than a dozen churches in town. Chico, too, had thirteen churches, including one of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Four-Square congregations. But there was no Congregational church, so the Rickers promptly joined First Presbyterian Church. Session minutes report that on October 7, 1928, Mr. and Mrs. Ricker were received into membership by letter of transfer and Elizabeth and Edward Ricker on confession of faith.
B. J. and Mabel proved themselves active members of their church community. Almost immediately B. J. was elected a trustee, a position he held for ten years, the last two of which saw him chair the board of trustees. B. J. also sang in the choir (tenor) and provided leadership for the men’s fellowship organization. Mabel, for her part, was a visible presence in the Mite society, a women’s missionary group; she also took part in the activities of the regional presbytery, traveling to Yuma and other cities as representative of the Chico church.
Despite all this energy, the Rickers evidently were not among the church’s biggest financial supporters. For example, when a devastating 1931 fire destroyed the church building, neither B. J. nor Mabel belonged to the committee charged with raising the $60,000 with which the church was promptly rebuilt, reopening in February 1932 as Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church. Were B. J. as rich as he had been in the ‘teens when he was a Grinnell College trustee and regularly helped headline capital campaigns, he would surely have been at the heart of the church’s fund-raising effort.
Chico State Teachers College, as it was called when the Rickers arrived in Chico, was a small institution—in 1920 it had only about 200 students. In the early ‘twenties the college added the nearby Bidwell Mansion, using it as a dormitory and later a classroom as enrollment increased. A 1927 fire destroyed the main college building, and it was not fully rebuilt until 1930, after the Rickers came to town. A new auditorium and library soon followed, and in 1935, thanks to recent state legislation, Chico State dropped the “teachers” from its name, and inaugurated courses in the liberal arts. By this time more than 600 students were enrolled at Chico. In none of these changes did the Rickers play any direct role, but it beggars belief to think that B. J., who as a trustee had labored so long and intimately over Grinnell College business, did not pay attention to these developments.
After selling their share of the Chico milk products company in late 1938, the Rickers remained in Chico for some months, B. J. having begun work (perhaps sales) with Investors Syndicate. But this work did not require that the Rickers remain in Chico, and by late 1939 they moved to Berkeley, taking an apartment at 2644 Dwight Way. The 1940 Berkeley directory reported that B. J. remained attached to Investors Syndicate, working as a salesman, a position confirmed by the 1943 directory. But in 1943 B. J. was 75 years old, and, to judge by the words of a 1943 visitor, hard of hearing, even if he continued to drive an automobile throughout the Bay Area. Full retirement, however, was evidently not in the plans, at least not yet.
Why had the Rickers decided to move to Berkeley? No firm answer to this question is possible, since neither B. J. nor Mabel left any record that explains their decision. Nevertheless, the appeal of a university town seems easy to presume for people like the Rickers who had been a close part of Grinnell College all the years that they lived in Grinnell.
Perhaps just as importantly, Berkeley was home to several of B. J.’s relatives. Frank H. Ricker (a nephew) and Lora lived in a beautiful house at 1554 Le Roy, high atop the Berkeley hills. Frank had become very successful in a series of firms, and his children, educated at Berkeley, were also close at hand and prospering.
One more factor seems to have helped the Rickers settle on Berkeley. Unlike Chico, which had no Congregational church, Berkeley boasted a large and prosperous First Congregational Church. More than that, the pastor, Rev. Vere V. Loper, was a Grinnell College graduate (1915) who had had some business with the trustees when Ricker was still on the board. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Rickers came to be very close to both First Congregational and its senior pastor.
Vere Loper was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and entered Grinnell College in 1911. A big man, Loper was attracted to varsity sports; he captained the basketball team his senior year, and also played football and ran track. This visibility might have made Loper familiar to the Rickers in any case, but College trustee minutes report that in 1913 Loper applied for, and received, permission to use some college facilities for a summer playground day camp that Loper ran. Rickers may also have heard that in 1929 Rev. Loper received from Grinnell College an honorary doctorate (D. Div.), and Loper evidently returned to Grinnell from time to time. For instance, he traveled to Iowa in May, 1940 to preach at the vesper service at the college, part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of his class. It may be, therefore, that when the Rickers landed in Berkeley they immediately recognized the name of Vere Loper, who in October, 1939 assumed the senior pastorate of First Congregational Church, Berkeley.
However, Vere Loper’s own memoir, Remembering Our Yesterdays, makes no mention of the Rickers. Furthermore, memorial notices for B. J. and Mabel, published in the church newsletter, The Carillons (many thanks to Boyard Rowe for providing me with material from Loper’s memoir and from the church newsletters), report that the Rickers joined First Congregational only in 1941, almost two years after Loper and they arrived in Berkeley. Nevertheless, it is clear that, if not immediately then surely over time, both Mabel and B. J. valued Vere Loper and First Congregational. Loper conducted the funerals of both Rickers, and obituaries of both Mabel and B. J. specifically commented on their affection for Vere Loper and First Congregational Church. Furthermore, B. J.’s will, which never entered probate since he and Mabel held all their property in common, provided that, should Mabel pre-decease him, one-third of his estate should go to First Congregational Church, Berkeley.
B. J. Ricker’s second California sojourn lasted twenty-five years, much longer than his post-graduation residence in the Fresno area. On balance, in these years Ricker seems to have righted his financial ship, and the success of Land O’ Gold Milk Products company, though modest by comparison with his ownership of the Grinnell glove company, must have been satisfying, especially when viewed against the context of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Ricker never recovered the prominence and importance he had earlier enjoyed in Grinnell. Striking evidence of this difference comes from the dwellings that the Rickers called home over these twenty-five years—the people who in 1911 had commissioned Walter Burley Griffin to design their spacious and gracious Grinnell home, spent the rest of their years in rented properties of no significance. And when the Rickers died, they left behind little. B. J., called a “millionaire” in the 1918 Chicago Tribune story about the adoption of the twins, conveyed all his property to Mabel, but when Mabel died five years later, she left no will, her property too small to merit the effort.