The Downey Patriot Article – Things you didn’t know about Downey: Downey Grammar School

August 20th, 2020 by

The following story was first published in the Downey Historical Society newsletter in January 1984.

Downey Grammar School was erected during the summer of 1916 by Willard Brent Company, Inc., with Downey resident Harriet W. Hansen supervising construction.

The architect, who received a total fee of $1,468.85, was the noted John C. Austin. Austin lived in Pasadena and by 1919 maintained a vacation home in Downey, the “Mulberry Tree Ranch” — now the northwest corner of Gardendale and Clark.

Already prestigious enough to be listed in the 1913 “Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast,” Austin went on to design the Shrine Auditorium, Griffith Observatory, and collaborate on Los Angeles’ City Hall, to name a few of his many credits.

In 1920, an old wooden auditorium was removed and the west wing was added to the school. The building was used as a grammar school until purchased in 1957 by the newly incorporated City of Downey and converted to its first city hall, police station and library. It will be razed for a parking lot later this year when the new Downey Civic Center is completed.

This red-tiled Mediterranean structure has echoed with many voices over the past 68 years. Former students, faculty and the general public were invited to a program that relives the old building’s history where they shared their memories of attending this school. They were asked to bring mementos, photos and other memorabilia to be donated to the Downey Historical Society. The Downey History Center has commemorative plates featuring the building still available for a $20 donation.

Two birth certificates

The following story was submitted by Marilyn Madru and is republished with permission.

Downey has over a hundred thousand people living in the city and this is a story worth sharing.

Have you ever known anyone with two birth certificates? Think about that. I have one dated April and another August of the same year. How could that be, you ask?

It was during the Great Depression and my birth mother had just died, giving birth to me. It was April.

There was an older sister in this family but times were hard. The decision to adopt me out of the family was a difficult one. Being a linotype operator for the local newspaper, my father placed a classified ad saying: “WANTED: LOVING COUPLE TO ADOPT INFANT GIRL.”

Many couples responded but the couple which was chosen had just lost their baby. He was a fireman and she was a homemaker. He was from Pennsylvania and she was from Holland.

August arrived for me with new parents, a new name, a new birth certificate, and a new home. One of the stipulations of the adoption was that I would keep in contact with my natural or birth family.

At least every other month we would visit my birth grandparents. They had a chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley and he was a silversmith. At their home I learned to love my birth mother’s twin sister, my real sister, aunts, uncles and cousins.

School days in Los Angeles at 74th Street Elementary School, Horace Mann Junior High and George Washington High School were mostly uneventful. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died at 11 in the morning and at 11 that night, the father who raised me, who helped me with homework, who at this time was a captain in the fire department, died.

The flags were raised at half mast. The funeral procession was long. This was the saddest day of my life.

Steck’s Hardware

In talking with Jim Stecklein about his parents’ hardware store, he told me the background story as to how his parents arrived in Downey and how the hardware store started.

Both his parents grew up on farms and each parent wanted a different life. Jim’s father was born in Denver in 1894, a family of eight; his mother, Ethel Dinger, was born in 1901 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, also of a large family. Ethel went to Chicago in her teens and got a job working for the telephone company. Ethel’s dream was to move to Hawaii.

She worked briefly for Montgomery Ward and saw a newspaper ad by Southern Pacific Railroad that they were looking for Harvey Girls to work in a hotel/depot at the Needles, Calif., location. The Harvey Girls were well-trained waitresses and they were housed on the top floor dormitory of the hotel — no men allowed.

Jim’s dad, John, wanted a change as he was working for his family’s business in Englewood, Colorado operating a beer and grocery store. John served in World War I in the artillery division and when he came back to the States, his family’s business was in trouble and he stayed long enough to help the business get going again.

John decided to leave after seeing an ad from Santa Fe Railroad for a job looking for a cook for a crew that laid tracks near Needles, Calif. Later, he got a job as a machinist for the railroad.

John met Ethel while working in a bowling alley/theatre in Needles. Ethel and John made several trips to Los Angeles in John’s Model T Ford to visit John’s brother Joe, who was living in San Pedro.

Ethel and John were married in 1922 in San Pedro. They moved to Denver for a short period of time but Joe persuaded the couple to leave Colorado and move to California. Ethel was not happy with the home Joe picked out for them as she was giving up a six-room house for what she thought was a two-bedroom house — she called it a shack.

Jim stated that his mother had an adventurous nature and had taken rides in bi-planes and rode with daredevil pilots. John had gotten a job as a traveling salesman selling a soft drink called Angel. Jim stated that his parents both had eighth grade educations.

John was looking for a business to own in the late 1920’s and saw an opportunity to buy a used furniture store in Downey. He found out he could buy the business but not the property; John being very good with machinery and handy with tools, made repairing furniture a good business and was well known for having screws and other items that would be needed for home repair. He opened his hardware business in 1931 as Steck’s Hardware.

The hardware store started a bicycle club in 1936 and had numerous young people as members. The members were taught how to take care of their bikes and got discounts on parts needed to maintain the bikes. Steck’s had a picnic for the club on the grounds by the Rio Hondo River off of Firestone and the sheriff would stop traffic at Paramount Boulevard for the bikers. Preston Pharmacy furnished the tub of ice cream, also hot dogs were served.

Jim also remembers in the early 40s seeing many Army servicemen around town as they were stationed in Downey to handle the anti-aircraft guns. The soldiers were furnished bunks located in the basketball court and had showers available for them at Downey High School.

Jim sold war bonds at school for $18.75 for a $25 war bond. Classes at his school made patriotic posters, one saying “Save our grease.”

Thank you, Jim, for sharing your memories of Steck’s Hardware and of your parents’ journey to California.

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