1919 to 1940: Boom and Bust

Settled and prosperous, maybe John and Nellie could start a family. Sure enough, on July 9, 1919, they had a baby girl, Helen. She was like a doll, so John would call her Dolly. I would always call John, Grandpa, and Nellie, Grandma, the only grandparents I really knew.

Baby Helen was the joy of their lives. They couldn't get enough pictures of her that first year.

A professional photographer put together a beautiful collage of Helen as a one year old:

Candid pictures continued as Helen grew older.

Grandpa always wanted something better for his family so they moved to nearby Signal Hill to have a little ranch. Then they moved to San Gabriel where he opened another store to make more money for the family. Soon after the move, oil was discovered on Signal Hill.


Signal Hill 1921                                                                                     Signal Hill 2009


They were so close to striking it rich; but they found plenty of wealth in opening new stores. Soon they owned several homes, a ranch, and lots of investments in the stock market. In 1925 Grandpa celebrated by buying a new Hupmobile and traveling back to the Midwest to visit relatives.

Mom recalls: ‘In 1925 we drove to Missouri, Iowa, and Oklahoma City in a new Hupmobile, our first enclosed car. My dad had a hard time getting used to the windows. He always drove with the windows open, rain or shine. It had vases for flowers, leather seats and was maroon. It didn’t have a heater, so you still used quilts and blankets to keep warm. Kids would lie down on the floor to stay warm and comfortable.’



Later that summer, they returned to enjoy their home in Alhambra, their ranch in Arcadia, and their summer home in Sierra Madre. Everything was going great. Grandpa would be one of the first supermarket chain owners in Los Angeles. Then he could buy more homes, ranches, and stock.


In 1928 the prosperous Scherer family moved to Van Nuys. Their home was next door to the Catholic Church where Mom played with a neighborhood family. The oldest boy would pretend to be a priest. The other children would receive a cracker piece on their tongues as if they were receiving the Eucharist. Mom didn't understand until later that they were playing Mass.



But soon the fun and games and prosperous time would end. Grandpa's  dreams of more riches blew up with the stock market crash in 1929. He had bought stock on margin. Now his stock market losses would be devastating. The Van Nuys home lost to the Great Depression, the Scherer family moved back to Long Beach. Then the gloom was temporarily dispelled on September 24, 1930, when Grandma and Grandpa had a bouncing, blonde, baby boy, James.



Mom was excited about having a baby brother. She could hold him and play with him. And now that they had moved back to Long Beach, she could go to Lindbergh Junior High.



But the Depression was only getting worse. Mom could hear the strain in Grandma and Grandpa's voices as they tried to make ends meet. The last straw came on March 10, 1933, when a massive earthquake hit Long Beach.



Somehow they struggled in Long Beach until 1935 when Grandpa found a great deal on some land in Temple City where they could live off the land like they had done in the Midwest. Mom, a very talented student, was going to Jordan High School.



She hoped to finish her high school classes and to enter the pre-med program at Long Beach City College.


Long Beach City College


Grandpa and Grandma decided to take James to Temple City and agreed to let Helen stay with friends in Long Beach. The roller coaster had just hit bottom.


For several years Mom lived with friends and on the streets of Long Beach with other victims of the Depression. Like her Mom and Dad she was an adventure seeker who always saw the bright side of things. She learned to fly an airplane, took the ferry out to Catalina to dance to the music of the Big Bands, and sometimes had breakfast with the Marx Brothers at the Brown Derby.


Jobs were hard to find so she modeled and rode the roller coaster at the Pike to lure sailors onboard. She got paid by the ride. The sailors could look but were too busy holding on to touch. Shortly after Mom found a better job with the Los Angeles County Health Department her life took a turn for the better.


Next: 1941-1951

Helen Collins