The Lesser Known Side of Ole Hanson
Feb 26, 2019 11:10AM
By Tom Marshall
A younger Ole Hanson with his book
by Tom Marshall, San Clemente Historical Society
Most people who live in San Clemente know that the city’s founder, Ole Hanson, was a land developer and a politician. He had hits and misses in both fields. He spearheaded development projects in Washington State as well as Southern California; then lost most of them during the Great Depression. He was elected Mayor of Seattle; but lost a bid for the U. S. Senate. However, you may be surprised to hear that before all of this, Hanson was a journalist.
By 1910, at least 15 years before launching his vision of a Spanish Village by the Sea, Ole had become friends with perhaps the most powerful media tycoon of his day, William Randolph Hearst. William’s father, George, supposedly won the chain of newspapers in a poker game and gave them to his son. Under Hearst, the newspaper chain took off; known for its flamboyant journalistic crusades. He employed the best writers of the era including Mark Twain and Jack London.
Hanson had gained a reputation as a great orator. Hearst heard a speech given by Ole about progressive politician Robert La Folette and was impressed. William Randolph Hearst personally asked Hanson to do in-depth interviews for his papers with many of the most powerful luminaries of the day. The list included Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.
Among the tidbits from Ole’s day-long interview with Ford included the facts that Ford had gone bankrupt twice, was slow at learning to read or write.
“I couldn’t write a paragraph until I was 18,” admitted the car maker. At the time of the interview, Ford’s cars sold for $700 at nearly 7,000 dealerships. Ford went on to admit, “I raised everyone’s pay to $5 a day, (but) my workers won’t be able to buy a car for years.”
When Ford announced he was making a car for everyone, he really meant the shop owners and professionals of the day.
Ford’s closing advice to Hanson was not to get too far in front of the public. Earlier Ford had made a statement that the government would have to build thousands of miles of roads on which people could drive automobiles.
“The public panicked. All they thought about was higher taxes. They couldn’t understand gasoline taxes or any kind of progress,” Ford commented.
Ford’s advice seems to have stuck with Hanson. While a flamboyant salesman, Ole never proposed developments too far afield from already existing projects. He didn’t bring the Spanish Colonial Village idea to California. He just romanticized it for local consumption.
Ford believed you had to sell people more than a product. You had to sell them the dream. In his case, the product was the car. The dream was the freedom of travel. Ole sold you a plot of land and the dream of an idyllic lifestyle.
Like Ford, who regularly walked the assembly line, attending to every detail, Ole was deeply involved in details for his new dream city. He personally walked and laid out the horse trails that would become our streets. He picked the designs for the pier and the buildings that would bear his name in San Clemente.
While obviously in sync with the business tycoons of the day, Ole had another, almost opposite persona, as exemplified by another interview William R. Hearst assigned him. In 1910, Hearst sent Ole this cable: “Go spend week with Poncho Villa. (Find out) Is he Robin Hood or Killer?” Considered by many in Mexico as a freedom fighter, Villa had been largely portrayed in the U. S. as a murdering bandit.
When Ole caught up with Villa, 300 miles south of the U.S. border, through an interpreter Villa demanded to know what Hanson wanted. “I would like to ask you some truthful questions,” Ole responded. According to a later account by one of Hanson’s sons, “Villa took off his gun belt and relaxed.”
Asking Villa why he had raided several stores and farms in New Mexico, Villa responded, “My men were starving…I gave the corn and potatoes to my soldiers.” “Why did you steal from the churches?” Ole followed up. “My people were starving. The churches were lined with gold and taxed our people more. I took their gold and fed the Mexicans,” replied Villa. Ole concluded in his summary to Hearst, “Villa was indeed a Robin Hood.”
Ole’s less than conservative view of the Villa story is an often repeated theme in Hanson’s public life. For instance, when gaining national fame as the Seattle mayor who bloodlessly busted a massive union strike against the city, he also is the mayor who personally handed a Deed of Trust to Seattle Native Americans protecting the Tribe’s land and other property from forced sales by the government. He also reinforced laws protecting the Tribes fishing rights for Salmon.
In the state legislature Hanson also supported labor issues such as eight-hour work days for women and a minimum wage bill.
After resigning as Seattle Mayor in 1919, Ole added one more journalism credential. Ole wrote his only book, “Americanism Versus Bolshevism.” It likens leftists such as communists to robbers, murderers and scum. Surprisingly, the tome is still available today in hardback and paperback. It’s a complicated read, but so was Ole Hanson, the man. sanclementehistoricalsociety.org