*Updated March 8, 2016. International Women's Day.*
Two weeks before she passed away in 1988, Kamea "Kay" Okamoto Omata wrote to Clarence Nishizu that she wanted to write about Fanny Weston Bixby Spencer, her adopted mother.
"I am writing her story,"Omata told Nishizu, "and I think that I would like to call it 'A Hippie Before Her Time.' "
LEFT: Fanny Bixby Spencer. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine, March 12 , 2103)
At her passing in 1930, Fanny Bixby had touched the lives of many Japanese immigrants, including those leasing land from the Bixby family and those in Wintersburg. In oral histories for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, Bixby is remembered with affection.
Nevertheless, Fanny Bixby scared people.
A socialite's life
Fanny was the daughter of one of California's richest men, Jotham Bixby, and his wife, Margaret Hathaway Bixby. Jotham Bixby and his cousins acquired the 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos, 17,000 acres in Rancho Palos Verdes and a third interest in Rancho Los Alamitos of 29,000 acres. As an individual, he purchased 7,000 acres in the Ranchos Santiago de Santa Ana.
Jotham Bixby was president of the Bixby Land Company, the Palos Verdes Company, the Jotham Bixby Company, vice president of the Alamitos Land Company, the Alamitos Water Company, president of the Chino Valley Cattle Company of Arizona, president of the National Bank of Long Beach and vice president of the Long Beach Savings Bank & Trust Company. He was money.
In the 1932 California and Californians (Vol. IV, The Lewis Publishing Company), it was noted "today in Southern California are hundreds of thousands of home and property owners whose chain of title runs through holdings once owned by Jotham Bixby."
Fanny Bixby showed an early tendency to compete, as noted in this 1898 society page blurb about activities at the shore. (Herald, Aug. 14, 1898)
An ideal childhood
Born in 1879 in Rancho Los Cerritos (the present-day Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach, California), Fanny Bixby attended the prestigious Marlborough School in Los Angeles, the Pomona Preparatory School and Wellesley College.
There is evidence the extended Bixby family made a visit from their Rancho Los Cerritos home to Gospel Swamp (the willows-covered peatland of Wintersburg, Huntington Beach, and Talbert).
Sheep dipping at the Bixby Ranch, the childhood home of Fanny Bixby, circa 1901. The man at the center is reportedly Jotham Bixby. (Photo, University of Southern California Libraries)
In her 1926 book, Adobe Days, A Book of California Memories, Fanny's cousin Sarah Bixby-Smith, describes a late 1800s Sunday afternoon, "We had all been over to camp-meeting at Gospel Swamp, not that we were much addicted to camp-meeting, but it was the only available service within reach, and of course we had to go to church on Sunday. We sat on wooden benches in the dust under the willows, not an altogether unpleasant change from the usual pew, at least for the children..."
"But Uncle Jotham had a more exciting aftermath," writes Bixby-Smith. "He and Papa and I were reading in the parlor after dinner when suddenly he gave a tremendous jump and ran upstairs three steps at a time, where we soon heard a great noise of tramping. In a minute or two he came down with a dead lizard almost a foot long spread on his New York Tri-weekly Tribune. Evidently it had mounted his bootleg over at camp-meeting and lain dormant for a couple of hours before attempting further explorations. The first jump came when the little feet struck my uncle's knee, harmless, but uncanny."
Fanny Bixby gave her father, Jotham, a bigger scare by devoting the majority of her inheritance to social efforts. He put her on an allowance.
Fanny Bixby worked with the juvenile court and was known for helping young newsboys, many of them Russian immigrants. The young man charged with robbing Bixby in 1907 did not "keep out of trouble" and later violated his probation. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 7, 1907)
Fanny get your gun
In January 1908, Long Beach's first appointed police chief, Thomas W. Williams, "did something which resulted in the Chief being 'swamped' with inquires about what was then considered a “shaky experiment," reported the Long Beach Police Officers Association, Rap Sheet (2008).
"Chief Williams appointed Fanny Bixby daughter of Jotham and Margaret Bixby, a 'Special Police Officer' for the City of Long Beach. The young woman who had been born on the Los Cerritos sheep ranch in 1879 had become a Long Beach Police Officer."
The daily newspapers regularly had articles about Fanny Bixby being called to the scene to help with a destitute woman, a suicide attempt, or an orphaned child.
"The idea of having a woman on the force was a new one.” Williams is reported as explaining, “It occurred to me that such a plan would be feasible and Mrs. Spencer, then Miss Bixby, was willing to serve in that capacity. The idea was soon taken up by metropolitan cities all over the country.”
The Los Angeles Herald wrote in 1909, "California, which gives an example to the rest of the country and to the world in many respects, is now demonstrating that when necessary a woman can become a policeman, or should we say policewoman? Miss Fanny Bixby, deputy of a Long Beach constable, has been sworn into office and is wearing her special policeman's star."
The Herald continued, "Deputy Constable Fannie Bixby is wealthy, but...does not see in the possession of money merely an incentive to lead a useless or society butterfly life. She believes the possessors of the world's wealth should be the doers of the world's work."
"It is believed several young men of a set which is called fashionable are shivering in their shoes since Miss Bixby came to Los Angeles for her star..." waxed the Herald. "With a few fearless missionaries like Miss Bixby actively at work, society would soon be reformed."
The Egan Theater--today the Musart Theater--on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, where Fanny Bixby's play, The Jazz of Patiotism, debuted in 1928. (Photo, Historic Los Angeles Theaters, circa 1949)
Becoming an activist
By 1921, the tide had turned and Fanny Bixby was called unpatiotic, a socialist, and a radical. Having spent time in social and suffragette work in the East Coast and San Francisco, Bixby built the Settlement House in Los Angeles, was aiding Russian newsboys, and financially supported the Walt Whitman School, providing aid and education to immigrants.
She had written an anti-war play the previous year in 1920, The Jazz of Patriotism, in which the protagonist refused to pledge allegiance. Not exactly a popular theme for a country recovering from World War I.
In 1921, Bixby is listed as being on the national board of The League for Industrial Democracy--the successor for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society--which stated its object as being: "education for a new social order based on production for use and not for profit."
Left: A flyer for the opening of the Walt Whitman School in Los Angeles, "the first proletarian day school in the West," for which Fanny Bixby was a benefactress. (Image, Southern California Architectural History, Feb. 29, 1920)
To quote author Laurel Ulrich, "well behaved women seldom make history."
"When the Alien Land Law was passed, she thought that it was a bad law because it affected the East Indians, Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese," Omata wrote. "Mr. and Mrs. Spencer did not have any children. They raised and educated thirteen different children of many nationalities. I was the last."
Bixby sent Omata to church--even though she herself did not attend--and insisted the children learn about their cultural heritage.
"She left properties to all. Since I had very little connection with the Japanese language, she left in her will that I spend some time in Japan to learn the language and culture of the land of my ancestors," explained Omata. "I could not truthfully say that she aided only the Japanese people because she helped all nationalities. She was an unusual lady in that she was a wealthy woman but gave all her money for causes that she believed in."
Two years before her death in 1930, she wrote to her cousin, Sarah Bixby Smith, "Since I have been a social outcast, clubs, like churches, are not in my sphere. I have three lines of work, bringing up my foster children, helping my neighbors (mostly Japanese farmers) and banging my head against the stone wall of militarism and conservatism that hems me in."