The Legend of Ole Hanson – Tragedy & Triumph
by Don Kindred
In 1902, a ragged band of curious campers gathered on Beacon Hill, overlooking the city of Seattle, Washington became the first to hear one of Ole Hanson’s famed political speeches. As on-lookers walked around his prairie schooner, he explained the purpose of the second harness that hung from the back. Earlier that year, a Texas train wreck had claimed the life of his baby daughter and left him partially paralyzed. The doctors had told him that he might never walk again. He would have none of that. His hero was Teddy Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt had cured himself of debilitating asthma through strenuous exercise, and by God, Ole Hanson would too. He rigged up this combination harness and sling and tied it to the top of his covered wagon. With his wife and three children at the helm, he walked most of the 2,800 miles from his home in the Lake Michigan area to that very spot. He had reached the Sound country physically fit and from where he stood, he looked out on the lights of the city’s business district and proclaimed that one day, he would be Mayor of that fine city. If they had known Ole better, none would have doubted it.
The Early Years
Ole Hanson was born in a log cabin outside Racine, Wisconsin, on January 6, 1874, the fifth of six children but the first-born on American soil. His parents had emigrated from Norway with barely enough money to make it to Wisconsin, where they were able to take advantage of the Homestead Act.
By all accounts Ole was a bright kid. He was teaching school at 13, at 17 he worked as a tailor at night so he could study law by day. At 19 he even passed the bar, despite the unfortunate fact that he was two years too young to practice. Restless for adventure, he started a business selling druggist supplies, where he traveled much of the south and Midwest.
On the 12th of March, 1903 he bought tickets for his wife, Nellie, his son Ollie and his daughters Nell, Dorothy and Doris. The tickets were for Seattle Washington, but they never got there, not by train.
Three miles out of Laredo Texas, tragedy struck. The train derailed, Ole and Nellie lost their daughter Dorothy in the deadly crash, which left Hanson partially paralyzed.
After surviving his first personal tragedy, the family headed west. Now that he was healthy again and had made it to Seattle, he had to see about earning a living.
He bought a grocery store up on Beacon Hill, then sold it after seven months “after learning that the grocer is the king of philanthropists.” Next he went into the insurance business, but left that after hearing from a real estate man that no insurance agent in Seattle ever owned his own home.
Thus, Ole became a real estate agent.
Selling and developing real estate became his lifelong passion, but he used his initial success to finance his run at politics. Hanson was a reformer and he found his first issue in race track gambling. In 1916 he was elected to the state legislature on an anti-gambling and anti-vice platform, winning by the largest margin in Northwest history, receiving all but ten of the votes cast.
Hanson first ran as a Republican. He worshiped Teddy Roosevelt and even named his second son after him. (It was once a Seattle joke that Ole Hanson named his six boys after the six men he most admired, in declining order: Ole Hanson Jr., Theodore Roosevelt Hanson, William Taft Hanson, Eugene Field Hanson after the poet and columnist Bob LaFollette Hanson and Lloyd George Hanson.) He had “moosed it” (his expression), with Teddy, then swung to Wilson in 1916 because “he kept us out of war.”
In 1918, the United States declared war on the Central Powers and Ole, too old to go to the front, told the voters with a straight face that he was running for Mayor as a patriotic duty. The voters did their duty too, 15 years after his impromptu speech on Beacon Hill, Ole Hanson was the elected the Honorable Mayor of Seattle, Washington.
The Courageous Mayor
It wasn’t an easy term even, though he served only 18 months of it. He survived the controversies surrounding a $15,000,000 cable car system for the city, as well as the city’s investment in a major hydro-electric plant. Then came the event that shocked Seattle and the nation and thrust Ole into the national spotlight.
Thursday, February 6, 1919, the first General Strike in the history of the United States was called in Seattle. Sixty-five thousand workers walked off their jobs and virtually brought the town of 300,000 to a halt. If the unions had been successful in uniting across the country, every seaport in the United States was threatened.
Ole Hanson became the ‘Man of the Hour’. He smashed the strike. He smashed it every day for a week with headlines in every national newspaper. He denounced it as a ‘treasonable Bolshevik uprising.’
On the second day of the strike he issued a "Proclamation to the People of Seattle" and an "Ultimatum to the Executive Strike Committee":
“By virtue of the authority vested in me as mayor, I hereby guarantee to all the people of Seattle absolute and complete protection. They should go about their daily work and business in perfect security. We have fifteen hundred policemen, fifteen hundred regular soldiers from Camp Lewis, and can and will secure, if necessary, every soldier in the Northwest to protect life, and property.
The time has come for every person in Seattle to show his Americanism. Go about your daily duties without fear. We will see to it that you have food, transportation, water, light, gas and all necessities. The anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs. All persons violating the laws will be dealt with summarily.”
- Ole Hanson, Mayor
No one knew if the gun was loaded. But the strike died a non-violent death five days later and Hanson was hailed as the Savior of Seattle, the Suppressor of the Red Rebellion. Four national magazines wrote him up and his name was being tossed around the Republican Party as a possible presidential nomination. The nation called. Ole resigned as Mayor and accepted a lucrative speaking tour. Hanson’s theme ‘The Bolshevik Threat to American Institutions,’ was expanded into a book “Americanism vs. Bolshevism.” He also toured Europe and wrote a series of articles for the Hearst Newspaper syndicate about the home-life in the old world. The series was published in 75 dailies and eight-thousand weeklies. But at the Republican convention Hanson’s name was forgotten in the rush for Coolidge. Hanson returned to Seattle, sold his property and moved to California.
After a few successful real estate ventures in Los Angeles, Hanson was thinking big again.
“I bought a tract of land at the edge of a city,” Ole once told of his first real estate deal, "On the morning of opening day, I couldn’t buy gas for my automobile. When night came I deposited $116,000 in the bank. The next day I bought two new automobiles and a gas station.”
If a subdivision was that easy, how about a whole city?
The Spanish Village
San Clemente was officially named on November 23, 1925. It was officially founded on December 6, 1925 and incorporated on February 28, 1928. But the plans for this dream city, the Spanish Village, had begun long before. Hanson had first seen this romantic strip of ocean front property on his first trip between Los Angeles and San Diego just after the turn of the century. He had even made an earlier attempt to buy it. In 1925 the property became the possession of a Los Angeles friend and associate by the name of Hamilton Cotton. Hanson had been working on a sub-division around the Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara until the earthquake brought those plans to a halt. He came down to share with Cotton and his syndicate his dream for a village-like community, done in the fashion of Old Spain.
On November 8, 1925 the Los Angeles Herald Examiner carried the story."Ole Hanson, subdivider and builder, yesterday announced the founding of a new city."
Thomas Murphine, an old friend from the Washington state legislature, who had followed Hanson to LA and Santa Barbara, ‘joined up’. C.C.C. Tatum, president of the California Real Estate Association came to see Hanson about the new venture in his office in Los Angeles. An hour later he had agreed to go 50/50 with Hanson to build the finest restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The vision was catching on for a completely planned community, the first one in California. His son, Ole Hanson Jr., who became the director of sales, could see that every person his father talked to was converted, men who had originally come down to discourage the endeavor, stayed, eventually investing. He instinctively knew that the secret to selling San Clemente would be to get his father in front of thousands of people instead of just a few.
The Tent Plan was born
Prior to opening day, a giant circus-like tent was erected off what was to become the intersection of El Camino Real and Avenida Del Mar. Advertisements were secured in every newspaper between L.A. and San Diego, there was little do but wait. Salesmen and investors waited anxiously as an unexpected rain drenched the area.
Historian Homer Banks describes the first day of sales in his book The History of San Clemente;
“December 6, 1925, started as a day of torture. The big tent was opened. It had rained and the salesmen's cars were parked in ankle deep mud along Avenida Del Mar. In the Easley tent house, Hanson waited for the crowd to come.
“If they came the tent idea would win, if not, San Clemente would win but in another way. Eleven o'clock came. No cars. No people. More waiting. At eleven-ten, one car; at eleven-thirty, twenty five cars. By high noon 600 people, who had driven an average of 60 miles, down a dirt road, filled the tent.
“The lunch, then the speech”
“Hanson climbed on the platform, a somewhat wrinkled, white haired man. Erect as an Indian and with the same profile face he began. Many expected an oratory - flub-dub gymnastics - but instead Ole Hanson, who can orate with the best, did not.
“Coldly as an accountant he stated the facts of San Clemente, what it cost, why it was chosen for development, the danger of failure, the hope of success, more - the reason for success. The old time salesmen shivered.
“They had expected noise and declamation, but here was a man talking figures and facts and sense. His speech was a backing up of his dream with statistics. Who had ever heard of a statistical dream?
“He told them what he was making on each lot. Let them into the inner secrets of the project - let them read his bank statement. It was not a real estate pow-wow! It was a directors’ meeting, addressed by its chairman. He stressed building, building, building. Speculation was attacked, he insisted investors want to live here. Without a sign of applause he closed. His salesmen silently agreed that the real estate whoopee was a flop.
“But the amazed salesmen found that the people understood Hanson better than they, and by nightfall $125,000 worth of property had been purchased by people who knew all about what they were doing. It was amazing, unheard of, unbelievable!
Horace Taylor, aided by William Ayer, who would become the city’s first engineer, had the difficult task of putting Hanson’s dream into reality. From the start, it was clear they did not share his vision. Hanson saw San Clemente as a town of 50,000 before the first road was graded, the engineers saw only vacant land. He called for streets up to eighty feet, Avenida Del Mar was wider than the state highway. “Let the state catch up,” he said.
When he first presented his plan to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, they turned it down. The concept of a planned community was too new and they could not understand dedicating public streets when the state highway wasn’t even paved through this section of California.
They would go on to sell property worth $3,100,000 in fifteen months and more than $4,600,000 in less than two years. By the time of our incorporation, San Clemente was generally considered the richest city per capita in the United States. The citizens, many of whom Hanson had walked the lots with to help choose the home site, owned free and clear, 3,000 feet of California's finest beach, a public Olympic-sized pool, a beautiful community center, 17 miles of bridle trails, a 1200' fishing pier, golf course, tennis courts, plaza park, the water system, an elementary school, Riding stables and a hospital. Not to mention the trees, shrubbery and building development that left the community aesthetically unchallenged.
1929, Timing is Everything
Like all real estate developers Hanson rode out the good and the bad. Neither San Clemente nor Hanson fared well when the country spiraled into the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Many lost homes or simply abandoned them and had to move to bigger cities to find work, the city’s population dropped 70% to about 250. Ole Hanson lost all of his holdings including his beloved mansion, now known as Casa Romantica.
Of course, even bankruptcy couldn’t stop Ole Hanson. In 1935 he began development of what he envisioned as an ideal desert community in Twenty-nine Palms. He sold his interest two years later to his son-in-law Trafford Huteson. When he died, after suffering a heart attack in Los Angeles on July 6, 1940, he had been president of All-Year Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks. His final dream, of building a skating rink in New York’s Central Park, was yet unrealized. Two-hundred-fifty friends and relatives, many from San Clemente, went to his Los Angeles home to pay their last respects. As one remarked at the service, “Ole Hanson was more than a man, he was an institution.”