Saturday, February 4, 2012

Emma A. Summers -- Oil Queen
603 Westmoreland

In 1892, "Miss" Emma Summers (1858-1941) was listed in the directory as "Piano Teacher", giving lessons at her residence at 517 Sand Street (soon to become California), where she and carpenter husband A.C. rented a small place. With her 1879 degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, she was in strong demand to teach many children the black and white of pianos, and in fact had multiple pianos in the house. But in April 1893 all that was about to change, as two down-on-their-luck miners (Doheny and Canfield), using a 60 foot Eucalyptus tree trunk as a drill bit, struck oil a few blocks away at Court and Patton. It was the first oil well in Los Angeles.

Emma had the business head in the family--she had saved $700 from her child tutelage, and she used the money to go in half on a new well in the neighborhood. She ended up following the initial amount with an additional $1800, and the well hit. In fact it was still producing after 10 years. Wells popped up everywhere in the area. The neighborhood by the late 1890's looked like the below, with houses interspersed between well derricks.

Court Street in 1901
 (courtesy of USC Digital Collections)

San Francisco Call, 1901
Emma continued to invest in oil wells, still teaching piano at night, followed by then balancing the books of the business. In the beginning she was in debt up to $10,000 and thought that she might quit when the debt was paid off, But she continued and by 1901 she was being called the "Oil Queen" (see image at left), with her many dealings in oil, she controlled the Los Angeles market.

By 1904 she dealt in 50,000 barrels per month, having moved her office from her home on California St. to the Mason Opera House building downtown. (Note the window lettering, second floor on the right for the linked photo, from lapl.org).

She had contracts with companies such as the Los Angeles Railway Company, the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, the Redondo Railway Company, the Pacific Light and Power company besides a number of oil refineries and practically every large hotel, laundry and machine shop in the city.

By 1909 she had expanded into paint, opening a paint company with her brother T A McCutcheon as manager. On the home front she and Alpha moved to the new "suburbs" out Wilshire Boulevard, where she first lived at 603 Miami Avenue (now Westmoreland). A photo of the house below as it appeared in 1909:

603 S. Westmoreland in 1909.

She did not stay long however, as she soon moved a block south to 655 Wilshire Place (on the southwest corner with Wilshire Blvd.) In 1910 her niece Virginia Parker married in the house to George Sisson, both recent graduates of U.C. Berkeley. It appears that Virginia's mother, Callie McCutcheon Parker was also involved in the oil business with Emma, as her name shows up on contracts during the 1910's.The Wilshire Place home is shown as it appeared in 1911:

Emma Summers' mansion on Wilshire Place
(courtesy of Sunset Magazine, July 1911)
The house on Wilshire Place was demolished and replaced by the new art-deco Bullocks Wilshire Department Store in 1929.

But the old street was not left undone.  Down the block from her early California Street residence Emma had already built the Queen Apartments, which by 1940 had been "downgraded" to the Princess Apartment-Hotel, according to lapl.org. At that time Ansel Adams came by to take a shot of the apartment building as part of an article for the L.A. Examiner.  It is said that Emma lived in the apartment building for awhile. The building survived until the early 1950's when the downtown freeway destroyed the whole block. Here's one of three images that Ansel Adams took:

529 California
(from lapl.org)
By 1930 Emma had moved to the Alexandria Hotel downtown. The 1939 L.A. directory shows "Ella G" widow of A.C. living at 519 California.  By 1940 she moved to a home in Glendale, passing away November 27, 1941.

From piano teaching to controlling the L.A. Oil market.  Not bad.


Additional info:

1911 Sunset Magazine Article
Photo of Emma Summers used in 1910 Book

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