Stockton in the 1950’s

A decade of returning home and rebuilding
characterized by McCarthyism fear &
keeping up with the Joneses…

Photos courtesy of the Bank of Stockton

As the 1940s came to a close, the world was in the process of rebuilding and returning to prewar lifestyles. Men came back war heroes and many women left their wartime industries and went back to the home. Also finding their services no longer necessary, many minorities who through the war and war effort had developed a new niche found their trade no longer fit in post-war society. As life seemed to readjust, the post-war tension became even more apparent. From the fallout of World War II, two very different nations that fought side by side as allies soon emerged as the world’s superpowers.

Stockton1950sOn one side of the spectrum was the United States, the home of freedom and promoter of the democratic political system through the Marshall Plan. This program provided war-torn nations with the necessary monetary funds to rebuild. While it may seem like a solely humanitarian gift from the Americans, it carried many strategic benefits. By providing this money, the U.S. was essentially preventing a desperate nation from turning to extreme politics or beliefs like what occurred in Germany with the Nazis and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power after World War I.

However, it was not the Nazis the Americans were attempting to stop—it was the communist political system. The communist regime was on the opposite end of the 4spectrum and was utilized by the other superpower, the Soviet Union or U.S.S.R. At this time, communist ideology was spreading across the globe with many nations facing large factions. A large section of Eastern Europe fell under communism as the Soviet Union claimed these lands as theirs after the war. The Iron Curtain had been drawn. Just as the U.S. was supporting democratic beliefs, the USSR was supporting communist ideology. These conflicting goals created a very real tension.  Each nation feared the strength of the other, but the horrors of World War II prevented them from attacking each other head on; the Cold War had begun.

3The first battle field of the Cold War emerged quite quickly in 1950 over a country most Americans had never heard of–Korea. The Korean War (1950-1953) was between the Soviets and communist China-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the U.S. and United Nations-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea). The conflict ended right where it had begun at the 38th parallel, and to this day Korea remains separated. With the escalation of the Cold War, tension was felt throughout North America. The tension was made more dangerous due to the nuclear capability of these two nations. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War II, the U.S. nuclear program developed increasingly powerful bombs, including the hydrogen bomb developed in 1952. However, to North America’s growing dismay, the Soviet Union became capable of launching nuclear weapons.

It quickly became apparent that this sudden capability was achieved with the assistance of American-born science. It was determined that the U.S. had spies in its midst—a fear that was championed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Senator McCarthy practiced what is now called “McCarthyism” and investigated thousands of Americans due to suspicion of communism or communist sympathies. Through the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) numerous individuals were targeted, including those belonging to unions and even government employees. Given little to go on besides suspicion, many individuals were investigated without just cause. The entertainment industry was of particular interest to the HUAC, and many movie stars were investigated, in some cases ruining their careers and causing them to be “blacklisted”. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were also engaged in a “Space Race” around this time, with the former eventually securing the advantage with the moon landing of the late 60s.

1Despite the constant fear of communist spies and Soviet invasions, Americans experienced a time of prosperity and abundance. New technology also lead to new inventions and the availability of new luxury items. North America had entered a time of consumerism. The wartime economy of the 40s had transformed into a time of prosperity, which when compounded with the growth in technology and the availability of more products, transformed American culture and lead to the popular saying, “Keeping up the Joneses.” This notion was the idea of the ideal American couple who had the most modern technology, including cars. Through the 50s, the U.S. endured ever-increasing tension with the arms race and the race to space. The tension came home with the McCarthy Trials and HUAC. As North America tried to reach normalcy after the wounds from the war years, it seemed the consumerism of the 50s had succeeded. However, the taste of independence and dream of change went underground and exploded across the country in the 60s.
Korea 1950

2With the call to arms of the Korean War (25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953), Stockton came running. The first group to respond was originally formed in 1947 and was known as the 12th Annpoilious Tractor Battalion.  They fought as marines, and the Korean War was classified as their 2nd call to arms in eight years. The most notable member of the battalion was Private First Class Eddie De Baron. De Baron was a college all-star football player, and at the call to arms was in Chicago practicing for a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The battalion members were interviewed before their departure and were questioned about when they would be back. The troops answered that they hoped they would be back within the year. A year – just one year – seemed to dominate many minds as the United Nations- supported troops went to join the South Korean

Woods has received visitors from all 50 states, as well as numerous international travelers. In addition to the children’s amusement rides, Pixie Woods also houses a historical bell. This bell was utilized in the early days of Stockton to announce the arrival of ships. It was then transferred to the bell tower in the St. Joseph Chapel. Eventually, the bell was donated to Pixie Woods and remains there to this day. It is located next to the Railroad Express Depot. Since its opening, Pixie Woods has been a treasured getaway for millions of families and remains a city treasure. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the park.5

The Christmas of a Century 1955
The 50s was a time of multiple floods for San Joaquin County. Floods occurred at both the beginning of the decade (1950) and the end (1958). However, the most devastating flood occurred in the winter of 1955 and was concentrated at the lower end of the San Joaquin River during the week of Christmas. It was caused when a tropical rainstorm was pushed north by southern winds. The rain poured so fast that the Stockton storm drains could not channel the water fast enough. In addition, the warm rain melted much of the snowpack in the High Sierra, forcing the water down the mountain into the swelling rivers and vulnerable levees. When the water hit Don Pedro, the reservoir rose 20,000 acre-feet overnight and spilled into the rivers, causing extreme pressure on the levees. Preventive measures in place failed, and the water spilled into downtown Stockton. Officials gave an evacuation order, and three thousand people complied, carrying food and Christmas presents. On East Jackson street, they waded through 3 ½ feet; elsewhere the water was waist deep, even rising to 6 feet at Howard Street. The evacuees needed somewhere to go, so the Red Cross put them in hotels, utilizing every room in the city.  The city even opened the Civic Auditorium to house 700 people along with their children and pets in 500 cots. However, this was not enough, and the prisons were included to house overflow. All in all, 125 blocks were affected, including what is now Brookside, which was completely underwater. The devastation was so extensive, President Eisenhower declared the county a disaster area. The 1955 flood remained the largest San Joaquin County flood on record until the 1997 levee break and flooding.

Presidential Patronage 1956
During the 50s, Stockton was a revolving door for politicians, as well as notable persons in general. Numerous past presidents and presidential hopefuls made their way to the Central Valley. In 1954, Depression Era President Herbert Hoover came to Stockton to dedicate the school named in his honor. In 1953, President Harry Truman made a campaign stop here promoting his candidates. Richard Nixon also made repeat visits to San Joaquin County that coincided with his own campaign trail for California Governor and the U.S. Senate. On these occasions, he made typical appearances posing with children and with Stockton celebrity Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. In addition to the presidential visits, San Joaquin County was frequented by Hollywood’s darlings. Many in the movie industry were drawn here for filming due to the proximity to Hollywood and the beautiful diverse landscapes throughout the county.  At that time, College of the Pacific was utilized for filming, as it resembles an East Coast school, and the Delta waterfront mirrors the Mississippi. The notable films in the 50s that were shot here include but are not limited to ‘Big County’ in 1957 and ‘Porgy and Bess’ in 1959.

Stockton Takes to the Water 1957
Stockton, along with all of San Joaquin County, has been a water-based community since the California Gold Rush. With the proximity of the delta and the addition of the inland port in the 30s, Stockton’s love of water has only grown over time. In the 50s, the love affair grew even larger due to the availability of boats. Fisherman were buying motors and used them to power the fishing boats they rented. In addition, yachts became more affordable, and the growing middle class purchased them at an increasing rate. The yachts built at this time were between 24-28 feet long and were powered by a single engine. The Stockton Yacht club was established years before in the 30s. The original building was an older wooden barn that had not been updated. Due to the boost in membership the club received, they decided it was time to grow with the times, so they moved to their present location and developed into the club seen today. Besides the increase of water activities, the city of Stockton also expanded the waterfront with the construction of McLeod Lake.

Stockton’s Growth 1958
Washington School was located on the corner of San Joaquin and Lindsay Streets. It was built as a result of a bond passage in 1867 in response to much need educational expansion. One thousand two hundred and sixty-five children were in need of education, and Stockton only had nine school rooms. By December 1869, Washington School was largely built on land donated by Charles Weber. The remaining grounds were purchased, brining the entire cost of the school to $25,724. The completed school was a two-story, four-room building. Two of the upstairs rooms were utilized for the high school students. As time went on, a third story was added to house additional high school students. Even this could not accommodate the ever-growing number of students, and the high school moved to a different location allowing more room for the younger kids. The third story was eventually removed due to safety concerns, and the building was remolded. In 1958, the building was purchased by the Bank of Stockton and torn down. Cunningham Castle, the second county jail built in 1893, closed a year later in 1959. The jail had long ago reached capacity and was eventually torn down in 1961.

Gorgeous George Comes to Stockton 1959
George Raymond Wagner, born in Nebraska in 1915, was a professional wrestler in the 40-60s. During his career, his popularity and showmanship caused him to be one of the biggest stars of the first golden age of professional wrestling. He was a flamboyant showman whose persona developed into the industry’s first cowardly villain. He was able to perform in front of crowds so well that he quickly became the most famous wrestler in the early days of television. He was so popular that his character is credited with bringing wrestling into the American home, and his persona is also said to have inspired such world-renowned athletes as boxer Muhammad Ali. Some considered him to be just an actor playing the crowd, but as a teenager he was trained as an amateur wrestler. By 1950, his popularity was so large Gorgeous George was the highest paid athlete in professional wrestling. Gorgeous George performed in multiple venues across the country, but in California he regularly stopped in Stockton. For instance, during 1959, he made at least two trips to Stockton. While here, he would entertain all of San Joaquin County at the Stockton Civic Auditorium.


  1. Do you have a picture of a bakery, I think called Grave & Engel Bakery? My mom worked there back in the 1940’s, but I have not been able to find a picture of it?

    • I suggest contacting the Bank of Stockton Photo Archive Department. They have the largest collection of old photos from that era

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