Southland Parks — Los Angeles’s State Society Picnics

From the 1900s through the 1970s, large numbers of migrants to Los Angeles gathered in themed picnics organized around their states of origin known as State Society Picnics or just State Picnics (although that sounds confusingly to me like an outdoor state banquet). They were known as “State Society Picnics.” The phenomenon was huge. One Iowa State Society Picnic in Long Beach attracted as many as 150,000 attendees — more people than the population of any city in Iowa at that time. As popular as they once were, they seem to be all but forgotten today. I am surprised, too, because they seem like exactly the sort of quaint thing so many of our Southern California historians love. Furthermore, their heyday corresponds closely to the “good ol’ days” with which many a local nostalgic is obsessed; namely, that period that begins with an influx of rural whites drawn to “America’s Great White Spot” and that ends with the wider opening of doors to immigrants from Latin America and Asia. State Society Picnics are interesting to me for different reasons, I suppose. For one, I think the fashionable disdain for “transplants” is as xenophobic and repulsive as any other kind of prejudice. I , too, like a good mystery. I also am interested in Los Angeles culture and these picnics were intrinsically Los Angeles. And finally, now that the insufferable heatwave seems to have finally passed, my thoughts inevitably turn once again to parks as I resume the Silver Lake Passeggiata.

There were related situations elsewhere. Florida — especially St. Petersburg –had so-called “tourist societies” that were formed mostly by retirees for similar reasons. Picnics were not their main purpose, though, and state societies seem to have only begun picnicking in the 1920s. Washington, Oregon, and Arizona began throwing State Society Picnics in the 1940s. Florida, it should be noted, continued to host State Society Picnics at least up until 11 September 1990, when the Pennsylvania State Society there had a picnic at Tampa‘s War Veterans Memorial Park. By then, they were all but forgotten in the state where they’d been born. A few years later, on 19 July 1998, an event at the Cabrillo Marina was billed as a “re-creation” of a State Society Picnic, suggesting that they’ve moved into the arena of Renaissance Faires and Civil War Reenactments. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see anything like them again.

There is an oft-repeated but erroneous view that no one is actually from Los Angeles — or that Los Angeles natives are as rare as rain. I like to disabuse people of this silliness with facts; namely, that Los Angeles today is almost evenly split between immigrants and refugees from other countries, domestic migrants from other US states, and native-born Angelenos. None, in other words, is especially uncommon — nor does any group thoroughly dominate. The term, “native” is somewhat misleading, though. The ancestors of the Chumash were the first humans to live in what’s now Los Angeles, and they migrated here. Chumash culture arose by about 8000 BCE. Only the Chumash can be accurately described as native or indigenous. In 1990, only 408 Angelenos self-identified as being part-Chumash. If you are reading this and you are an Angeleno, you have ancestors that migrated here from somewhere else.

Migrants often organize societies and establish organizations that help them navigate their new homes and maintain ties to their old ones. This is especially true for migrants from other countries, who often establish ethnic enclaves, benevolent associations, mutual aid societies, and fraternal orders; open specialized grocery stores, restaurants, and music stores; and congregate at houses of worship, cultural centers, shopping malls, &c. Internal migrants, in the past, were often apparently not that different. Long Beach, for example, was so popular with migrants from Iowa that by the 1920s, it was widely recognized by its nickname, “Iowa by the Sea.” There is no evidence, though, that Iowans tried to open a Hy-Vee, Happy Joe;s, or Made-Rite.

Iowa By the Sea in 1925

That Iowans would be drawn to the ocean doesn’t especially surprise me, as someone who attended college in that state. For starters, it’s the only incontestably Midwestern state that is entirely landlocked. There are rivers, of course, but most things that could be described as “bodies of water” are either reservoirs or farm ponds. It is separated from the Great Lakes (i.e. the Midwest Coast) by a not inconsiderable distance. What’s more, its famed “temperate” climate is often surprisingly inhospitable. On unbearably hot summer days, I often used to sit on the porch watching heat lightning dance over the horizon as I put off climbing into a bed with sheets that were wet from the humidity. On one winter day, I stared at a bank’s time and temperature display and learned something that rather not have firsthand — that -40 degrees is where Celsius and Fahrenheit cross one another’s frostbitten paths. I didn’t know where I wanted to live but on that day, I resolved not to spend another year in Iowa.

As someone who came to Los Angeles as much to get away from the unpleasantries of the states in which I grew up as to appreciate the pleasures of Southern California, the notion of getting together with a bunch of people who also happened to live in Iowa, Florida, Missouri, or Kentucky holds little if any obvious appeal. When I meet people from those states, more often than not I, like Peter, keep it to myself. The last thing I want to do is have someone try to bond with me over assumed sports rivalries. Obviously, that’s not every domestic migrant’s experience, though. Diversity also includes the diversity of views and interests. By some accounts, state. societies were formed by those hoping to ameliorate their sense of dislocation. I, on the other hand, want to embrace and savor my dislocation. So while looking at old class photos and local newspapers might not be my idea of fun, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with those who are thrilled. And maybe the whole State Society was a bit of a pretense to just get together — which is something I could get behind. So while staple State Society Picnic activities like grape eating contests, hog calling, clothes pinning, sack races, cornhole, and listening to lectures delivered by retired governors sound almost as boring as watching baseball — there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in parks.

I suppose State Society Picnics had some demonstrably practical purposes. I’ve heard of people offering jobs to other people based on where they went to school and there are records of spouses having met their spouses at them. There were less tangible benefits, too. During the 1910s, the US became a primarily urban country. These State Society Picnics were, by most accounts, mostly popular with domestic migrants from the rural Midwest — not the thoroughly urban Midwestern cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, or St. Louis. For people from those cities, moving to Los Angles meant moving to a smaller town. State Society Picnics seemed to owe a lot to rural, communal traditions like corn detasseling, high school football, county fairs, and that sort of thing. These communally minded customs were vanishing around them even as the population grew at a speed that might’ve been even more alienating. From 1900-1976 (the lifespan, more or less, of the State Society Picnic), Los Angeles grew from the 36th most populous city in the US to its third (it would take the number two spot in 1982). Even in 2019, eleven percent of Americans admitted to having never left their home state. I assume that percentage was greater in the past. In the pre-internet, pre-television age, Americans from one particular state were probably less familiar with the exotic customs of Americans from others. I suppose it’s possible, that someone transplanted from the rural Midwest might really and truly have felt , befuddled, alienated, and confounded by stack interchanges, smog, and French dip sandwiches.

State Park Picnic locations and historic rail transit lines

Before they organized State Society Picnics, these newly-settled Angelenos formed State Societies. Domestic migrants began flocking to Los Angeles in the 1880s. Between 1887 and 1889, sixty communities sprang up in Los Angeles County and, in one decade, the county’s population expanded more than three-fold. In 1890, 94% of Angelenos self-identified as white, although that figure included most Latinos as the only other categories were black, Chinese, Indian (presumably American Indian, not Indian American), and Japanese. The first state society was formed by Pennsylvanians in the summer of 1882, with Civil War veteran Colonel C. H. Haskins in command. They had their inaugural picnic, it seems, on 20 June 1903. Before someone had the bright idea for a picnic, state society members hosted socials, went on excursions, hosted lecturers, and made parade floats. One can only assume that the members of the Pennsylvania State Society indulged in cheesesteaks, hoagies, and complaining about “jagoffs.”

The locations where the State Society Picnics were held were surprisingly spread out. Advertisements in newspapers often include directions on which trains to take and some mention that rail service was temporarily increased to accommodate the throngs of attendees. With 49 state societies all hosting picnics — and some hosting three picnics per year — and only 52 weeks in a year, picnics had to be held in more than one location — or, often, with multiple states together.

On 13 August 1910, Indiana and Iowa made picnicking a competition, counting attendees to see who could attract more, Indiana at Redondo Beach or Iowa at Bixby Park. It doesn’t seem that the result made the papers but it was probably Iowa, which by the 1930s was attracting more people than even lived in that state’s most populous city, Des Moines. In the 1940s, there was even the “Great Iowa Picnic Schism,” which arose between competing factions of Iowans over whether Long Beach or Los Angeles should have the honor of hosting their state society. The schism was healed, without bloodshed, in 1950, when an obvious compromise was reached. Hold them in both. The popularity had a downside, though, namely the depopulation of Iowa. In 1956, the Iowa State Picnic speaker was governor Leonard A. Hoegh who begged Iowans to return from California before his wife belted out a spirited rendition of “The Corn Song.” In 1963, a sign was erected along a highway in Iowa that stated, “There is no California!” Iowans, whilst not as skeptical as their Show-Me State neighbors to the south, rightly suspected that this was untrue and continued to move west.

Lincoln Park, which formerly hosted numerous State Society Picnics

Iowa was the champion of the State Society Picnic and were probably the first. The first Iowa picnic took place in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, 1887. They had their first society meeting in 1904. By 1909, they were having a picnic at Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park). In 1970, The Long Beach Independent‘s Bob Shumay reported that attendance was down to 3,000 — which still seems like a lot post-be-in, love-in, and gay-in. That year, Harry Ruffridge was president, the MC was “Des Moines native” Wayne B. Sharp, and the Elks Lodge 888 Band performed a stage presentation called “That’s Where the Tall Corn Grows.” Ruffridge did note that few children were present. Iowa hosted the last real State Society Picnic that I could find, in 1984, at Recreation Park. A mere 27 people showed up. After that, the annual Iowa By the Sea Picnic moved to the Battleship USS Iowa, which is permanently moored nearby in San Pedro.

Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park

State Society Picnics took place seemingly every month of the year — although George Washington’s Birthday was especially popular. State Society Picnics took place in the Eastside‘s Eastlake Park (now Lincoln Park) and the Westside‘s Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park). They were held in Agricultural Park, Banning Park, Brookside Park, Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Ganesha Park, Hermosa Beach, Point Fermin, Recreation Park, Redondo Beach, and Washington Park. They were held at Santa Monica‘s Pleasure Pier and Venice‘s Amusement Pier. Two parks loom especially large in the history of State Society Picnics, though, Sycamore Grove Park and Bixby Park.

Sycamore Grove Park

Sycamore Grove Park began as the beer garden for a roadhouse in the 19th century. The Sycamore Grove community, along with neighboring Highland Park, were the first two towns annexed by Los Angeles, which they were in 1895. They were annexed, in large part because the joyless teetotalers of dry Highland Park didn’t like having to pass through lawless Sycamore Grove to get to and from Los Angeles — and hoped that by joining the city, the LAPD would bring some law and order to Sycamore Grove. After annexation, the Sycamore Grove saloon was fined repeatedly for selling alcohol on Sundays and for violating nuisance laws. The roadhouse was demolished and the beer garden officially became a park in 1905. John Philip Sousa stayed across the street at his friend Dr. Edward M. Hiner’s home, where his detached guest quarters were nicknamed “Sousa’s Nook.” Sousa frequently performed his bombastic and then-popular marches in the park’s bandshell. Before the film industry moved to Hollywood, many films were shot in the park as well.

Sycamore Grove was the place for state picnics into at least the early 1970s. By the 1910s, the state societies of Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas had all held picnics there. By the 1920s, the same was true for Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New England, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia had all met there by the 1930s. And by the 1940s, Arizona, Michigan, and Minnesota were added to that roster.

The other main park in which State Society Picnics were held was Bixby Park. Bixby Park began in 1903 as Alamitos Park. It was annexed by Long Beach in 1905 and renamed Jotham Bixby Park in 1907. It was improved with the addition of a concession stand, a pond, an aviary, and a cage full of monkeys. The bandshell was constructed in 1928. One of Bixby Park’s first state picnics was thrown by Alabama in 1904. By the 1910s, the State Societies of Iowa and Nebraska were picnicking there. By the 1920s, they’d been joined by Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Montana. By the 1930s, Arizona and Kanas had all gathered there.

Ultimately, every US state but Hawaii (which only became a state in 1959) would have at least one State Society to represent it in Los Angeles — even California. By the early 1930s, State Society picnics were so popular that there were even county and town picnics. Several groups were formed to organize them. The Federated State Societies of Los Angeles was founded in 1919 under the leadership of society president Colonel Frank H. True. The All States Picnic. of Ontario was incorporated in 1939. The All States Society of Long Beach was incorporated in 1940.

Although advertisements appeared for State Society Picnics in the newspapers, nothing particularly newsworthy seems to have taken place at most — not that the commercial media let a little thing like that get in the way of some newsprint. In 1931, The Lynwood Tribune reported that Lynwood resident Mrs. H.E. Whitaker had attended the Alabama State Society Picnic, that the crowd had been large, and that it had been a “fine day.” At the Kansas State Society Picnic of 1932, a group called The Hayseeds performed. The featured speaker was none other than Galen Welch, an IRS employee. On 8 August 1936, on what surely must’ve been the most exciting state picnic, lightning struck a tree at Bixby Park and burned attendee Mrs. Charles B. Cleveland. In 1934, 11-year-old Jimmy Lynch identified George Bates and Leonard H. Harris as pickpockets to the crowd of Nebraskans who apprehended them until the police arrived.

The popularity of State Society Picnics peaked in the 1930s and afterward seems to have experienced a marked decline in the post-World War II years. By the 1950s, many picnics had shrunk to smaller, indoor parties. In 1952, the Alabama State Society met at Alan P. Ripley‘s home in Ontario. In 1961, the Arizona State Society partied at Long Beach’s Linden Hall. As the city grew, so did the number and quality of entertainment options. Not that the late-19th century Angeleno was starved for entertainment options. Back then there were beaches, brothels, citrus orchards, lecture halls, mountain resorts, nickelodeons, opium dens, ostrich farms, parades, pleasure piers, saloons, and vaudeville theaters. The fact, though, that a pigeon farm was a popular attraction, nevertheless suggests to me that people’s entertainment thresholds were perhaps somewhat lower then than they were at the dawn of the jet age, when amusement options practically exploded. The Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles in 1947. Marineland of the Pacific opened in 1954. Disneyland opened in 1955. The Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles in 1957. Pacific Ocean Park opened in 1958. The Los Angeles Chargers formed in 1959. The Minneapolis Lakers relocated to Los Angeles in 1960.

Suburbanization and car dependency, too, played a role in shifting entertainment from the public to the private sphere. Los Angeles’s Arroyo Seco Parkway opened in 1940 and opened the floodgates of nominally interstate freeways that carved through urban neighborhoods out to newly-built suburbs. The G.I. Bill passed in 1944 and made it easy for white military veterans to buy cookie cutter uniplexes outside of the city. Grilling in the park was replaced, at least in theory, by grilling in the backyard. Wet bars replaced neighborhood dives. Televisions replaced the cinema. Who needed a social life when there was TV? Who wants to play sports when you can sit, glued to your couch, and watch better athletes than you play on television? In 1948, only 1% of American households owned televisions. By 1955, that figure had increased to 75%.

Los Angeles, originally built around the streetcar, was redesigned around the private automobile — or at least its outer suburbs were. The greet streetcar networks were decommissioned. Sidewalks were ripped up and streets were widened to accommodate more cars. Downtown buildings were demolished and replaced with surface parking lots. Why would anyone go downtown, the suburbanite wondered, when you could do your banking, shopping, dining, and movie watching without so much as lifting your ass even once from your driver’s seat? In 1925, H.L. Mencken described Los Angeles as “Nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.” By the 1950s, it was on its way to becoming what it is today — 19 million metropolitans in search of suburbia.

Somehow State Society Picnics still existed in the 1970s — although attendees at picnics must’ve noticed that they were on an irreversibly moribund course. The president of the Iowa State Society bemoaned how old most of the attendees — including himself –were by then. The possibility of “renewing old acquaintances and discussing old times in the home state” apparently appealed little to youth who could go to an arcade, a dance club, attend a rock show, shoot hoops, join a gang, surf, gobble some ‘ludes, skate in an empty pool, or literally do anything else. The last mentions of any state society picnics that I can find are from 1976 — the year of the country’s Bicentennial. At their peak, State Societies often had to band together because so many took place on the same day that they were forced to share public parks. By the 1970s, they banded together because their membership was shrinking so fast that, on their own, they’d no doubt vanish even more quickly.

In tumultuous 1967, a Kansas State Picnic was filmed for CBS. The explanation provided was that it was bumped by a more important national news item, which, presumably, could’ve included a weather forecast. Kansas, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin still picnicked in 1970. The last mention of the Federation of State Societies of Los Angeles I could find was from 1971. Arizona and Wyoming still picnicked in 1973. Guests were encouraged to bring old photos, local newspapers, and school pictures. Illinois, New Jersey, and New York still picnicked in 1974. Washington and West Virginia still picnicked in 1975. Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio were still at it in 1976. As mentioned earlier, Iowa’s picnic moved on board a retired battleship in 1985.

Surviving State Societies, for the most part, outlived their picnics. In 1977, there were still sixteen chapters of the All States Society of Long Beach that were active. California, Colorado, Illinois-Kansas, Iowa, Michigan-Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, New England, New York-New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon-Washington, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and “Texhoma.” The Iowa State Society, California, Michigan-Wisconsin, Missouri, and Colorado State Societies met at Hubert’s Cafeteria. The New York-New Jersey State Society, Minnesota, and Oregon-Washington State Societies met at 507 Pacific Street. Nebraska State Society met at a Presbyterian Church. Illinois-Kansas State Societies met at Machinists Hall. The last mention in print I found of the All States Society was from November 1977, when they placed an ad stating “If you’ve ever longed to hear the particular accents of your home state, or wished there was someone with whom you could reminisce about Saturday nights at the old corner drug store, perhaps it’s time you learned about the All States Society of Long Beach.” Readers, by all indications, responded with a collective hard pass. Against all odds, the last All States Picnic, Inc. meeting (probably not a picnic) took place in Ontario in 1987. The All States Society last filed for non-profit status in 1991. It’s hard for me to believe that it even lasted that long — although I suppose we still have county fairs and A Prairie Home Companion remained enormously popular with public radio listeners until it (and its host were canceled) in 2016.

Does anyone who comes from the country to Los Angeles still want to maintain a connection to country life? Isn’t country life, these days, defined by drug abuse, factory farms, gun violence, right-wing religious extremism, and truly bizarre conspiracy theories? Do people in the country still get together to raise barns and walk beans? Do they even know what “walking beans, “means? And do rural people still want city life? After all, weren’t all Democrat-run cities reduced to smoldering ruins by Antifa, BLM, and the Wokes during the Pronoun Riots of 2020? And what of “kids these days?” Why would anyone attend a picnic that almost certainly won’t contribute in the slightest to increasing one’s clout? Isn’t it better to socialize via Zoom and Tik Tok than to hang out “IRL”? And is there good enough wifi at any local park to guarantee that it could support all attendees simultaneously doom scrolling on their phones?

State Society Picnics will likely never return — but they do live on, in a way, albeit organized around Angelenos with roots outside of the US. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which went into effect on 1 July 1968, must’ve drastically changed Angelenos’ notions of cultural diversity. No longer would a joint-picnic thrown by new arrivals from Idaho, Ohio, and Iowa be characterized as diverse. Today, Metro Los Angeles is even more diverse — home to the largest populations of Armenians, Cambodians, Belizeans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Iranians, Guatemalans, Koreans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Samoans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese outside of their respective homelands — not to mention the countries largest populations of Australians, Canadians, Indonesians, and Samoans. In other words, no longer would a gathering of white people from Idaho, Ohio, and Iowa count as diverse, and a picnic with migrants from both Dakotas is no one’s idea of a melting pot.

Today, the spiritual successors of State Society Picnics take form in holiday celebrations, independence day parades, film festivals, and international cultural festivals. Instead of State Society Picnics, we have the Annual African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, the Big Irish Fair and Music Festival, Brazilian Day, the Bangladesh Day Parade and Festival, Nisei Week, multiple Oktoberfests, the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, the Lotus Festival, the Tafesilafa’i Pacific Islander Festival, the Little Ethiopia Cultural Street Festival, the Belize Caye Festival, the L.A. Greek Fest, Ho’olaule’a, the Italian Festival, the Los Angeles Korean Festival, the Los Angeles Lithuanian Fair, the Mediterranean Festival, the Peruvian Fest Chim Pum Callao LA, the Russian Arts and Culture Festival, the Queen Mary Scots Festival, the Cambodia Town Parade & Culture Festival, and Southeast Asia Day.

That said, if you plan on throwing an Iowa, Kentucky, or Missouri picnic; do let me know and I’ll try my best to come.


FURTHER READING

“Associations and Picnics as Stabilizing Forces in Southern California” by Joseph Boskin (California Historical Society Quarterly, 1965)

“Picnic Past Perfect” by Lisa Messinger (The Daily Breeze, 1998)

“Iowa Picnics – Long Beach and elsewhere” by Vickey Kall (History, Los Angeles County 2010)

“Hometown Picnics: How Newcomers Kept Memory of Home Alive in Los Angeles” by Victoria Bernal (Lost L.A., 2016)

“Long Beach’s Iowa Picnic once drew 125,000. This year 160 attended but legacy lives on” by Gustavo Arellano (Los Angeles Times, 2019)

“‘World’s Longest Picnic Table’ empty again this July 4th” by Joe Blackstock (Daily Bulletin, 2022)


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsiNaturalistInstagramMastodonMediumMubithe StoryGraph, and Twitter.

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