Two-decade-old San Bernardino Library Mystery Solved

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by Joe Blackstock, courtesy of Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Sometimes when you’re researching items from the past, there are historical mysteries you just can’t figure out.  And sometimes, the answer is right at your fingertips.

Such was the case for identifying a “thing” that’s been sitting on a shelf in the Arda Haenszel California Room of the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino (CA) for longer than anybody can remember.

One day, Sue Payne, who has volunteered at the local history room for more than 20 years, decided she would try to determine the purpose of this black metal object with a handle and 18 inches of rope. It has the words “Armstrong Power Studios” written on it.

Payne would take photos of the object with her during vacation trips, hoping to find someone who recognized it. She even showed it to officials at a mechanical museum in Weaverville, in far northern California, but with no success.

This break lock, used to secure ropes for theatrical curtains, was the source of a mystery for many years at the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino. (Courtesy photo by Joe Blackstock) At the same time, Payne was attempting to finally complete a personal task for the library. It was the transcription of an oral history she had recorded in 1997 of Haenszel, a long-time beloved San Bernardino teacher and renowned researcher and prolific writer of San Bernardino County history.

Payne worked to complete the transcription to add it to the 36 other oral histories on the library website. Needing to check a fact, she was sent by Google to another oral history in the library collection, that of long-time resident Lyle Jensen. There she solved the mystery of the California Room’s “thing.”

Jensen gave his oral history in February 2003, just three months before his death. In it, he recounted working at the California Theater in San Bernardino as a young teen about 1927. He was assigned to climb about 75 feet above the stage to help pull cables to be fastened to curtains for the new theater. Jensen recalled that while up there, he decided to paint his name on the wall. Years later, while attending an event at the theater, he was recognized by the assistant manager who showed him that his name was still there.

Later the theater presented Jensen with the mysterious “thing” — it’s called a break lock, a key piece of Hollywood stage equipment that secures ropes operating the curtains. The break lock was later mounted on a wooden base by Jensen’s son, presented to the library and put on a shelf where it sat anonymously for more than two decades.

For Payne, the discovery came while completing the Haenszel transcript, which is now available on the library’s website. A printed version with photos is available in the California Room in a special display that, appropriately enough, also includes Lyle Jensen’s newly identified break lock.

Ironically, on the day that Payne told me she had discovered the purpose of the break lock, library volunteer Charlie Fox came by, looked it over and guessed — rather accurately, but unfortunately, a bit late — that it was something to secure theatrical curtain ropes.

Timing, especially in researching history, is everything.  To read the Haenszel oral history or any of the library’s histories of important people of the past, go to www.sbpl.org and navigate to Services, Local History, Historical Treasures, then Oral History Project. Or visit the California Room where printed copies of the oral histories are available.

Dixie Woodside of Lordsburg (today’s La Verne) apparently just couldn’t wait to be married, as she remarkably managed to elope twice in one week, each with a different beau. She and her first love, only identified as M. Cowert of Chino, prepared to catch a train in Ontario on June 25, 1917, and run off to San Bernardino to be wed. But her mother ambushed the pair at the depot, and her daughter was sent straight home, according to the San Bernardino Sun of June 28.

But Dixie showed the true love couldn’t be stopped, sneaking off four days later to meet up with James Admire in Ontario, where they were married by Judge James R. Pollock.  The mother, when told she had a new son-in-law, expressed “general satisfaction” with this one, noted the article. “She would not comment on her objections to Cowert except to say that there were ‘plenty of reasons.’”

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at joe.blackstock@gmail.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.