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Little Hollywood Era In Olympia Recalled / by Dean Shacklett
[The following article was originally published in the Sunday Olympian, Mar. 23, 1958. Mr. Shacklett’s tenure as a reporter and editor for the paper included a lot of community service. I first met him when he gave me a personal tour of the Daily Olympian facilities at their old location (SE corner of State and Cap) in the 1960s. I was earning my Boy Scout merit badge in journalism, and in hindsight I realize what a chunk of valuable time he sacrificed for little insignificant me. I later talked with him in their then brand spanking new building about the business of comic strips. Just walked in off the street and he answered all my questions in a friendly and direct way. Also, he visited my OHS journalism class and was a very informative and entertaining reality check in an amusing cynical smartass way (“People always enjoy reading who is getting divorced or getting thrown in the clink”), a quality demonstrated in the article below. Although I seldom agreed with his editorials at the time (and still don’t), I can recognize and salute his devotion to building Olympia’s community as he saw fit, and appreciate his willingness to hear the story of anyone who walked in. A note of interest is that Shacklett was one of the few mainstream newspaper editors respected by the singular John Patric. It was especially nice as a young person at the time to have a community authority figure like Mr. Shacklett treat me seriously without being cutesy or condescending– and that was unusual. Dean, if you’re still out there (you must be in your 80s now), thank you for that. It made an impression.
Anyway, I stumbled across his engaging report on Little Hollywood and thought I would share it here for my fellow OlyBloggers. This makes me want to start tracking down Shacklett’s other feature pieces. Warning, his coverage would never wash in the 21st century, not only in allusions but also in journalistic focus– this not only reveals to us what Oly accepted as normal in 1958 but also demonstrates how far we’ve come in the last half-century. Bonus: catch the artesian reference, and the view of Little Hollywood as an entity totally apart from the Olympia community]
Little Hollywood Era In Olympia Recalled / by Dean Shacklett
Office workers in the Temple of Justice strained their eyes and peered down into the pall of smoke that hung over the tideflats below the Capitol buildings. It was the bleak Winter of 1938 and city officials were putting the torch to the shanty town section affectionally known as Little Hollywood. It took two years to finish the task, and, with the cooling of the ashes, the pages were closed on one of the more colorful chapters of Olympia’s history.
Little Hollywood leaned on the eastern shoreline of the tidal basin that became Capitol Lake in 1951 with the completion of the Fifth Avenue dam. The village started from the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and crowded south along the beach for about four blocks.
Ninety-seven houses there were, some standing on piling, some on dry land and others on float logs mired in the mud at low tide. A handful of the buildings were fairly livable, but most were shacks.
Drab the shanties may have been, but it was the characters living in them that gave the settlement its color, and perhaps its name.
Little Hollywood, like the pickanniny playing in the dust around Uncle Tom’s cabin, just grew. No one remembers the exact date in the 1920s when the first shack appeared on the scene, but the community reached its peak in the depression years.
Architecturally, Little Hollywood reflected that dismal building boom that followed the bursting of the financial bubble in the Roaring Twenties. Some of the dwellings were float houses, polled or towed in at high tide and left to squat on the mud flats when the saltwater ebbed. Others of the shanties were knocked together on piling from odd bits of lumber scrounged by the inhabitants.
Little Hollywood was populated by folks who were on the run– some from the depression, some from the law. All were down on their luck.
The mention of Little Hollywood evokes memories from many Olympia residents. Now, three decades after the village was at its peak, the bizarre events and the colorful and criminal characters are the ones recalled. The folks who tended to their own knitting while they weathered a financial storm have been forgotten. But that’s human nature.
Still recognized as an authority on the sinful and seamy side of Little Hollywood is Ray Hays, a practical lawman of the old school who was an Olympia police captain when he retired some ten years ago. Hays professional interest in the settlement is reflected in his recollection.
“Little Hollywood was a nest of immigrant lumber and forest workers and every type of character and bum,” boomed Hays in a voice that appeared to originate somewhere from his six foot, plus frame. “I’ve taken murderers, robbers, rapists and every type of stinking criminal out of there. There were some bad ones, all right, but as a whole the transients were pretty good old bums.”
It is Cap Hays who is credited with giving Little Hollywood its name. “I just called it that one day,” he said. “It was almost an idle remark. I picked the name because of the contrast between the bums in our settlement and the swells in California’s Hollywood. The name stuck.”
Olympia’s shanty town wasn’t unique in the days of the last depression. Hobo jungles flourished as armies of unemployed took to the highways and railroad rods in search of their next meal. As the jungles sprouted more permanent shelters, they became shanty towns and the name, Little Hollywood, or Hollywood-on-the-Flats, wasn’t uncommon in these parts where many of the settlements were located on rivers and waterfronts.
One explanation on the similarity in names comes from Broward County, Florida, and the days of the rollicking 1920s when land was booming on the Southern Atlantic Coast. A group of California promoters founded Hollywood, Florida, on a swampy, marshy site that was completely platted before the land was drained and filled.
Time passed, Hollywood, Florida, was drained then went on to flourish. Although some of the inhabitants of our Little Hollywood made a noble effort to drink the settlement dry, the fountain they tapped seemed to have a never ending supply.
“Drink? Yes, they drank a bit in Little Hollywood,” boomed Hays. “But they could walk the planks leading from shack to shack no matter how drunk they were. The planks were narrow and, when it rained, they were slippery, but I never saw anyone fall into the bay. In fact, I never heard of anyone taking a header. That’s one thing we never had to do in Little Hollywood– fish ’em out.”
The retired police officer thought for a minute then, with his head tilted back and peering down through gold-rimmed glasses, Cap Hays wondered aloud, “Do you know what some of ’em drank in Little Hollywood; Canned heat, my boy. They drank canned heat.”
Canned heat, for the young and unititiated, consists of a paraffin-like substance laced with alcohol. It is sold in cans that supply a handy source of clean heat when opened and touched off by a match.
“Canned heat,” continued Hays, “They’d heat it enough to loosen the wax which they’d shove into one of their dirty old socks. Then they’d squeeze that sock until they had all the alcohol out of the wax. The squeezings were cut with a little warm water. The fancy ones added sugar. The result was something that’d blow the top off a normal man’s head.”
Water, for cutting canned heat or adding to a batch of beer or moon, was readily available in Little Hollywood. The village had its own system originating at several artesian springs that bubbled up through the mud of the tideflats.
One day, some smart operator collected a piece of pipe that had strayed into Little Hollywood. This was driven down into one of the springs. Other hunks of pipe were connected to it. Before long, many of the shacks were tied together with a zig-zag system of piping that brought with it the luxury of running water.
The arrival of running water had nothing to do with the fact that Little Hollywood’s cup was at its fullest in the thirteen years following January 16, 1920. On that morning, the drys answer to the demon rum, national prohibition, went into effect. Little Hs’ answer to prohibition was to go into business.
It may not have pleased Carrie Nation, the Kansas anti-saloon agitator, had she learned that prohibition enabled a member of her sex to make her mark in Little Hollywood. She is remembered in certain circles as Big Nel, a gal who thumbed her nose at the Volstead Act as she followed the dictates of the age old law of supply and demand.
There still is a boulevardier or two around town who remembers Nel as Little Hollywood’s most famous female bootlegger of booze. A thirsty segment of Olympia’s population constituted the demand that was supplied by Big Nel, who may have had some close associates in the Black Hills, a moonshiner’s paradise in the days of bathtub gin. [stevenl note: the McCleary Museum has an authentic display devoted to celebrating this very fact. The exhibit was built by an expert who knew the craft firsthand. My Father, may he rest where Revenuers can’t reach him.]
Romance there was in Big Nel’s life. She had her man. The story of how she and he chased one another back and forth between here and Aberdeen is something of a legend.
As the story goes, Her Man hired a cab and went to Aberdeen on what might have been a combination business and pleasure trip. Big Nel squeezed this juicy bit of news out of the grapevine, hired a hack of her own and chased after him.
But, Her Man was homeward bound and their cars passed on that snaky stretch of highway connecting the seat of the state’s government and that Gray’s Harbor city that capitalized on vice. Memory grows dim as time passes. It generally is recalled that Big Nel and Her Man made six trips between this capital and that capital before finally getting together.
Says one chap, “Big Nel and that guy of hers ran up a couple of hundred dollar cab bills in days when hardly nobody but a bootlegger had a dime to spare.”
Cap Hays demanded respect for the law in his days on the police force. And he got it. Came then a day when Cap decided some of Little Hollywood’s regulars were falling a bit short in the respect department.
“I pulled a raid that I still get a kick out of whenever I think of it,” recalls Hays.
With the help of other lawmen and all of Olympia’s men in blue, Cap Hays surrounded the settlement of shanties. When the dragnet was closed, some one hundred and fifty of Little Hollywood’s choice characters were on the inside.
“We lined them up and marched them down to a lot, vacant at that time, across from headquarters. By the twos and the threes we took them into the station, shook ’em down to see what they had in their pockets and questioned them.”
Hays said the raid netted him “two or three hotshots” wanted by other departments for various crimes. A change in attitude was also observed around Little Hollywood. Chances are Hays wouldn’t have won any popularity polls in that neighborhood, but he was respected.
Now, on the twentieth anniversary of the city’s clampdown on Little Hollywood and more than thirty years after the settlement was at it’s peak, it’s hard telling how many lived in the shanty town by choice and how many were forced there by necessity. Doubtless, the hard days of the depression contributed to the village’s population.
As an oldtimer recalls, “it really wasn’t too bad a place. There was plenty of fresh air, a marine view and artesian wells– things that folks in many parts of the country still crave.”
Fresh the air may have been but the plumbing was primitive and city officials who barely had tolerated Little Hollywood during the worst depression years decided in 1938 that the shacks had to go. The sizable job of carrying out that order was given to W.R. Turner, building inspector.
Turner enlisted the aid of Beale Messinger, city police lieutenant at the time, and the two set to work. First, the ownership of each of the shanties was determined. This was no small job in itself. Then, each of the owners was served with condemnation papers.
As Little Hollywood’s residents were evicted, their shacks were burned. Two years after Turner and Lieutenant Messinger started their chore, the torch was applied to the last shanty.
As Turner recalls, “Some of Little Hollywood’s residents were pretty nice people, but most of them were bums.”
The condemnation proceedings were carried out with a minimum of fuss and fury, the building inspector remembers. “There was one guy who let me inside his shack and then took a swing at me with a two-by-four,” said Turner, “but that only happened once.”
Little Hollywood is gone, but the memories linger on. For instance, one fellow remembers the bearded resident who looked like a Russian Bolshevist, but wasn’t. His weakness was booze and it was the death of him.
As the story goes, the bearded one bet a crony $20 he could drink eight fifths of a whisky at one sitting. The last drop from the fifth bottle had dribbled down his chin when he groaned once and pitched forward. The winner picked up the stakes. Police collected the body.