Friday, September 14, 2012

Fanny Bixby Spencer: Living outside of the lines

ABOVE: Suffragettes march in Washington, D.C. circa 1910.  California women gained the right to vote in 1911, nine years before the 19th Amendment granted the vote to all American women.  (Photo, Library of Congress)

~Updated October 2017

   Two weeks before she passed away in 1988, Kamea "Kay" Okamoto Omata wrote to Clarence Nishizu that she wanted to write about Fanny Bixby Spencer, her adopted mother and a member of one of Southern California's most prominent families.  

   "I am writing her story,"Omata told Nishizu, who carefully noted the exchange in his 1982 oral history with Arthur A. Hansen, for California State University Fullerton's Japanese American Oral History Project, "and I think that I would like to call it 'A Hippie Before Her Time.' "  Nishizu recalled an obituary in the Long Beach Press Telegram about Fanny Bixby, describing her as "a woman who, though she could have enjoyed the luxuries of life, chose to devote her energies to the betterment of mankind."

LEFT: Fanny Bixby Spencer, circa 1909-1910. (Photograph, 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.    
      She was too outspoken, too radical in her beliefs, too much of a coloring-outside-of-the-lines kind of woman.  A wealthy philanthropist, suffragette, socialist, playwright, poet and pacifist, she reportedly was threatened with tar and feathers, blacklisted during World War I, and shunned from the high society she in which she was raised.
The seaside residence of Fanny Bixby's father, Jotham Bixby, in Long Beach.  (Photo, University of Southern California, California Historical Society, circa 1910)  
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."

LEFT: 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 Village, the future Huntington Beach Township, and Talbert).  

ABOVE: 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.  

LEFT: Fanny Bixby worked with the juvenile court and was known for helping young newsboys, many of them Russian immigrants.  Willis Rhodes, the young man charged with robbing Bixby in 1907 after she had befriended him, 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."

ABOVE: Fanny Bixby was the first woman to serve with the Long Beach police department, circa 1909.  Eight years later, the Long Beach police opposed the community hosting a conference for the Christian Pacifists, of which Fanny Bixby was a member.  (What was Fanny Bixby Really Like?, Independent Press Telegram, August 22, 1965)

   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."

RIGHT: Fanny Bixby receives "Policeman's Star" as a deputy constable in 1909, which the Los Angeles Times captioned as a "rich girl's office". (Policeman's Star for Fannie Bixby, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1909)

   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."

ABOVE: 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 in 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 recite the Pledge of 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)  

    The Southern California Architectural History blog notes:  "Fanny maintained a lifelong opposition to any aspect of militarism evidenced by her threat to sue over the City of Long Beach granting a permit for a ROTC training camp in a city park for which the Bixby family's Alamitos Land Company had donated the land. She also filed a protest with the State Superintendent of Schools against the practice of saluting the flag on the grounds that 'it was an act of applied war" and on religious grounds' as a form of idol worship." 

    Bixby had gotten the ire of some in Long Beach when she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in an earlier incident. She and the Reverend Francis Watry were investigated by a Long Beach Chamber of Commerce "committee of three on patriotism to reason with persons guilty of disloyal attitude and try to induce them to change their views or keep still..."  

RIGHT: Fanny Bixby had served as Long Beach's first female police officer by the time she was "criticized" for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance in 1917. In typical Fanny Bixby fashion, she was blunt about her anti-war position. (Rev. F. Watry is pivot of gale in church at Long Beach, Santa Ana Register, June 15, 1917)

   Long Beach Unitarian Church officers ended up voting on whether or not to retain Reverend Watry.  He was reported by the Santa Ana Register as having been retained by a vote of 17 to 15 "followed by a stormy scene".

   Fanny Bixby never changed her position regarding the Pledge of Allegiance.  She doubled down.  By 1925, she had taken on the state superintendent of public instruction about the requirement that children sing the Star Spangled Banner. The Santa Ana Register described Bixby as "well known social worker" that has "been associated with Upton Sinclair in many of his activities".   To quote author Laurel Ulrich, "well behaved women seldom make history."

ABOVE: Fanny Bixby with her husband, Carl Spencer, on a trip to San Quentin to "visit a socialist friend" in 1923.  They camped along the way.  She is described as being free with her money to help others, but not extravagant with herself, preferring plain clothing and a simple lifestyle. (Miss Fanny, Tolstoy, 31 Goats, and Me, Martin Volkoff, Independent Press Telegram, January 24, 1971)

Touching lives  
    After marrying W. Carl Spencer in 1918--a dock worker she met at a union meeting--Bixby moved to Costa Mesa (then known as Harper).  She took in Japanese, Mexican, Russian immigrant children at her Marina Vista Ranch home, the farm she and Carl Spencer owned in the area of Whittier Avenue.  

ABOVE:  Bixby was a prolific letter writer to the Santa Ana Register, sharing her opinions on County and world issues.  In the above letter, she is chastizing the school board for considering a prohibition on theological discussion in the philosophy department of the Santa Ana Junior College.  (Santa Ana Register, January 23, 1925)

   Bixby is reported as being generous to the community, donating land for the Costa Mesa Apple Growers clubhouse, Costa Mesa Women's Club, and other community projects.  To establish a library, she procured a building, donated her father, Jotham's Bixby's extensive book collection, arranged for utilities and paid for a librarian.

   In his 1982 oral history interview with Arthur A. Hansen (updated in 1988), Clarence Nishizu recalls Tosh Ikeda telling him about Fanny Bixby Spencer.

   Ikeda said, "I vaguely remember that I was only four years old when Mr. and Mrs. Spencer used to walk around the Japanese neighborhood and talk to the people there. Then one day they came into our house and talked to my mother. They wanted to meet and help people, especially the Japanese poor people." 

ABOVE: Fanny Bixby's post World War I play, The Jazz of Patiotism, was still showing in 1928, eight years after she had written it and two years before her death. (Los  Angeles Times, November 12, 1928)

   Ikeda's family was invited to live in one of the Fanny Bixby Spencer houses for free. 

   "One year there was excessive rain," Ikeda told Nishizu, "and the house we lived in was built on a low ground and the house was flooded. As a result of this, my younger brother died from pneumonia. Immediately Mrs. Spencer built another house on a higher ground where we were allowed to move into.” 

   Nishizu recalled, "...the Spencers became active in civic affairs, donating their time and money to help poor children pay for their school lunches. Fanny donated land for a woman's club building and helped finance the cost of maintaining the city library by buying thousands of dollars worth of books and even paying for the librarian's salary."

   "She was an activist who helped extremely poor people," explained Nishizu,  "On one occasion she even paid for the cost of sending a woman to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi."

    Fanny Bixby and Carl Spencer took in over a dozen children of various nationalities, helped numerous local families, and paid for college educations.  When she died in 1930, she reportedly left small token amounts to her relatives, leaving land and the remainder of her $2.5-million-plus fortune to her adopted children, local families, and charities, including land for a park in Newport Beach and a library in Costa Mesa.

ABOVE: The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission at the time of Fanny Bixby's death in 1930.  A parcel of land she left to Tosh Ikdeda was used for a language school supported by the Mission. (Photo circa 1930, courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Wintersburg Village
   Tosh Ikeda was notified Bixby left him three acres off Whittier Avenue in Costa Mesa.  He offered part of it for a Japanese language school organized, supported and attended by elders and congregants of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission.  

   One of the teachers was Shuji Kanno, an elder with the Wintersburg Japanese Mission and father of James Kanno, Fountain Valley's first mayor and the first Nisei mayor in the continental United States (who also attended the school).  Wintersburg Japanese Mission's Reverend Kenji Kikuchi remembers "we taught the children (at the Costa Mesa school) without any payment because their parents couldn't raise money for the tuition fee."  The Japanese language schools in Harper (Costa Mesa) and Talbert (Fountain Valley) were supported as an outreach effort by the Mission.

   After World War II, Ikeda's property--once again, the legacy of Fanny Bixby--was used as temporary housing for Japanese Americans returning from incarceration.  One of the returning Japanese Americans who stayed there was Kimio Tamura, brother of future California Supreme Court Justice Stephen K. Tamura, both congregants of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission.

   Kamea "Kay" Okamoto Omata received an education and property from Fanny Bixby Spencer, as well as a childhood.  She wrote about Bixby in her 1988 letter to Clarence Nishizu, a Wintersburg Japanese Mission congregant.

    "Since I was eight years old I lived with Mr. and Mrs. Carl Spencer," remembered Omata.  "Mrs. Fanny Bixby Spencer was a great philanthropist and helped many ethnic people. She was an internationalist, a conscientious objector of World War I. She was the first policewoman of L.A. County. She helped the White Russian newsboys and even rented a place for the boys on cold nights to come in to get warm. She helped a Black school in Mississippi called the Piney Woods School."

LEFT: The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988 that Bixby had been "almost tarred and feathered" for her stance regarding the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem during World War I and following years. She wore it like a badge for the rest of her life. (The Eccentric One, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1988)

   "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." 

RIGHT: A poem published in the Santa Ana Register the same year Fanny Bixby is listed as a contributing author and artist for The Messenger, The World's Greatest Negro Monthly, with the poet Langston Hughes.  As much as she stirred up people with her opinions, Bixby was clear in her love of the diversity of humanity and adopted over a dozen children from different regions of the world, permanently changing the course of their lives. Her generosity to those around her was often noted when Bixby was criticized, including the fact she shared flowers she received during her last days alive in a Los Angeles hospital. (My Native Land, a poem by Fanny Bixby Spencer, Santa Ana Register, March 17, 1924)
 Three lines of work
    At the end, Fanny Bixby Spencer appears to have made peace with her self-proclaimed banishment from society, while remaining steadfast to her beliefs.  

   The Santa Ana Register reported at the time of her death on March 31, 1930 at age 50, that Bixby had received "both commendation and condemnation" for her social work and political opinions. She requested no flowers at her funeral, "except simple wildflowers and garden blossoms, such as little children may pick for me."

   Two years before her death, Fanny Bixby wrote to her cousin, Sarah Bixby Smith, about how her early activism changed her life, "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."

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  1. I grew up in Fountain Valley and never knew any of this. This is a great story about a unique person who was very admirable. The story and the historic buildings should be preserved and restored for the benefit of the people in the community. I think that the community would be enhanced and inspired by this.

  2. What a great story. She was definitely before her time. We definitely have to preserve these buildings.

  3. I have been portraying Fanny Bixby Spencer as a Living History Character for over ten years and just recently published a book about her life called FANNY BIXBY SPENCER - Long Beach's Inspirational Firebrand. I felt her story should be shared. Glad this blog showed up. -Marcia Lee Harris

  4. I usually don't publish book promos, but need to make an exception in this case! Marcia Lee Harris' book was just published in January 2013 (the Historic Wintersburg feature was published in September 2012)and is the story of a truly unique woman in Southern California history. I'm looking forward to reading it. Check out the book by fellow author and Fanny Bixby Spencer fan at

  5. She drawn a picture of my gear great grandmother who was a Apache Indian great artist


The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.