Wednesday, January 6, 2010

History of The Thomson-Diggs Company

The search for details of this wholesale hardware company has led me in a research sprawl that has taken a number of interesting directions.  However, before I start digressing let me go over the basics of Thomson-Diggs.

The Thomson-Diggs Company came about from the merger of two hardware firms. In 1900 Frederick and Herbert Thomson bought out the other partner of Stanton-Thomson Company. Frederick had been the junior partner with them since 1884.  At the same time they combined forces with Marshall Diggs, former mayor of Woodland, who had moved his "Diggs Vehicle and Implement Company" to Sacramento just two years prior.   Incorporated January 4th 1900, Thomson-Diggs was the first chartered California corporation in the 20th century.

In 1932 Thomson-Diggs bought out competitor Schaw-Batcher which could trace its company lineage back to the Huntington & Hopkins Hardware store of early Central Pacific fame. 

In the August 1950 time frame of my layout, Thomson-Diggs was celebrating their golden anniversary and business was booming.  They were being led by their sixth president, Charles L. Mason, a grandson of founder Frederick Thomson. Their headquarters consisted of two big buildings which housed their warehouse and office space.  These were on the south side of R Street straddling either side of 3rd Street.  This site was their second location, having moved here in 1911 from J Street.  It also happened to be the birth place of the Sacramento Valley Railroad completed in 1856. 

Thomson-Diggs' "Main Plant" on the west side of 3rd and the subject of my illustration in the last post (as well as the three modern pictures here), boasted 220,000 square feet of air conditioned floor space.  It was built up in stages over a number of years.  The oldest section was designed by the architectural firm of Cuff and Diggs.  It had a square foot print 160 feet on a side and was 48' tall on the north (R Street) elevation. On the south elevation, where there was a pronounced dip in ground level, the building was 54' tall.  That dip, I think, is an artifact from when R Street ran on top of a levee, the city's southern defense against flooding until about 1900.  The Main Plant building expanded in 1937 with a low basement and ground level warehouse addition that more than doubled the footprint and filled up the block west to 2nd Street. Two additional stories were built on top of the warehouse addition ten years later.  This last section was designed by noted Sacramento architect Harry Devine. 

Across 3rd Street to the east was their heavy warehouse, Plant No. 2.  This corrugated metal structure was equipped with six 5-ton capacity electric hoists which facilitated the unloading of five rail cars an hour.  Plant No. 2 stored "iron, steel and wire products." Both buildings were rail served with a total of 650 feet of railroad spur. 

On a recent visit to the Center for Sacramento History I was able to view three different Thomson-Diggs Company catalogs - one dated from 1922 one from 1936 and one from 1950.  Each of these is a massive leather bound book. In addition to the illustrations of the Thomson-Diggs' buildings, the sheer breadth and depth of the product offerings is of great interest - nuts and bolts, of course, but also, electrical, plumbing, household items (like my sister's roasting pan), agricultural supplies, tires, toys (including magic sets), knives, latches, and on and on.   Thomson-Diggs' customers were retail hardware businesses in California, Nevada and Oregon and the catalog admonished them not to let their retail customers paw through the tome unsupervised. The catalogs appear to have been expensive to produce.

Thomson-Diggs remained on R Street until 1986 when they moved to a new warehouse in Natomas.  The 'Main Plant'  building was then refurbished as office space. Plant No. 2 is gone the space currently occupied by a parking lot. They were the second to last independent wholesale hardware company in California in 1991 - the recession and changing market forces cleared out all businesses of its type in California by 1997.   The Thomson-Diggs Co left the wholesale hardware business in the early 1990s and entered the commercial real estate market.  By 1997 even this venture wound down and Thomson-Diggs ceased to exist three years shy of their 100th anniversary. 

Bob Clark took this picture in the mid 1970s - we're looking west. Thomson-Diggs Plant  No. 2 can be seen in the middle background. The main warehouse is in the middle background a little further back.
Another Bob Clark photo taken the same day as the other.  This time a detail shot of Thomson-Diggs Plant no. 2
Ready for some digression?

The oldest section of the Main Plant building, as I noted earlier, was designed by the architectural firm of Cuff and Diggs in 1911, probably one of their first projects as a team.  Note the second partner's name, "Diggs". This was no coincidence; Maury I. Diggs was co-founder Marshall Diggs' nephew.  The firm of Cuff and Diggs was perhaps best known in Sacramento as the designers of the Traveler's Hotel.  Traveler's was completed in 1914; however, Cuff and Diggs were released from their contract in 1913.  As reported in the Bee and picked up in the trade journal Architect and Engineer, Maury Diggs was unable to supply some of the plans for the ornamental specifications.  What was keeping Maury Diggs from completing work on such a high profile project?

In March of 1913 Maury, along with his friend Drew Caminetti, became embroiled in a bona-fide sex scandal.   Both were 27 years old and married.   Both had children.  They started having affairs with two young women they met via a saloon keeper.  The ladies were 19 and 20 years old which at the time made them minors.  As adulterers, they weren't terribly discreet and the background scandal radiation of the town was getting quite warm.  Warm enough that Maury Diggs decided to skip town until things cooled off.  Drew and the girls decided to go with him.  They met down at the Southern Pacific station and were going catch a train to Los Angeles.  As fate would have it they missed that train and took the next available which happened to be the east bound China Mail.  They went as far as Reno where they rented a cottage under assumed names.  

Their departure from Sacramento didn't cool things off as hoped.  Far from it, things became unhinged.  The papers had a field day with the story and a massive man hunt was on for the delinquent husbands.  After three days they were found and the authorities hauled them back to Sacramento.  Three days after that U.S. District Attorney John McNab announced that he would prosecute the pair as being in violation of the Mann Act. 

Signed into law nearly three years earlier by President Taft and known officially as the White Slave Traffic Act, the Mann Act was promoted as an attempt to stop the spread of prostitution especially among recently arriving eastern European immigrants.  However, the key section of the act made it a crime merely to transport a woman across state lines for 'any immoral act'.  Buying your under-aged mistress a train ticket to run away from your wife and children across state lines seemed to fit the bill.  

Both Diggs and Caminetti were from prominent, wealthy, politically well-connected families.  Marshall Diggs, Maury's uncle, had been a California State senator from 1902 to 1906. Drew Caminetti was even more politically charged than Maury.  Drew's father, Anthony Caminetti  also a former California State senator, had just been appointed to be U.S Commissioner of Immigration by Woodrow Wilson. Politically, it didn't help that Anthony Camenetti asked the Attorney General for a delay in the trial so he could settle in his new job and attend his son's trail. McNab, a hold over Republican appointment, very loudly and very publicly resigned in protest when he was so ordered by the Attorney General from the  Democratic administration.  Even President Wilson himself became involved to quiet the firestorm in Congress that erupted.  

Ultimately they lost the federal case and, when appealed, the Supreme Court case in early 1917.   Maury Diggs ended up doing eight months in prison of a two year sentence before being paroled.  He divorced his first wife, married his mistress, Marsha Warrington, who stayed with him until he died in 1953.  They had one daughter together.  After prison Maury continued as an architect in the Bay Area.  He designed several buildings including the Fox Theater in Oakland (also recently refurbished) and a number of horse racing tracks.   

President Wilson came to Sacramento on a hot September day in 1919.  He was beginning the return leg of his national train tour to advocate U.S. entry into the League of Nations.  The Presidential Special traveled west down R Street before turning north on Front Street on its way to the S.P. passenger depot.  In spite of the heat, the reception was enthusiastic.  Wilson chatted with the crowd, many of them children, from the rear platform of the train as it slowly made its way across town.   I wonder, when his train passed by 3rd Street, if he noticed the prominent Thomson-Diggs signs on our two buildings.  Much had occurred, including World War I, since the Diggs-Caminetti case, but I wonder if he made the connection.