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Meet Lydia Shinkle

Lydia Shinkle - The Cook of the Cook’s Bedroom

Meet Lydia Whelchel Shinkle (1876-1960) – the remarkable woman who lived in the Cook’s Bedroom and cooked three meals a day for both the unmarried ranch hands and the Bixby family (as well as their friends and guests) for more than twenty years.

Lydia Shinkle’s life provides an interesting contrast to her employer, Florence Green Bixby. Both women were born in the same year – 1876. Lydia was born in the “wild west” in what was then called “Indian Territory,” but is now Oklahoma. Her father, Berryman Whelchel, had nineteen children, seven by his first wife and twelve by his second wife, Lydia’s mother. Lydia was the fifth child born to her mother. Lydia grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas.

As a young girl, living in Kansas, Lydia was kidnapped by outlaws and taken to their hideout in the Cookson Hills in Indian Territory. Two of her brothers went after her and snuck up on the hideout in the dark, killing four of the outlaws and retrieving their sister “unharmed.” According to the family, the “law” never became involved in the incident one way or the other.

Lydia was married when she was only 15 years old to a man named George Stevens. However, when the marriage “didn’t work out,” she married Joe Shinkle on 12 May 1897 in Independence, Kansas. She’d just turned 21 the month before. After marrying, the couple moved to Arkansas where Joe went to work as a mining engineer for Lydia’s brother Bill at the Montreal Smokeless Coal Company.

The coal mine closed in 1907, so, at the age of 31, Lydia headed to California with Joe and they made a home in Long Beach. Joe made his living as a lobster fisherman. One of Lydia’s nieces recalled Joe fishing for shellfish at the foot Cherry Avenue and filling the family’s bathtub with shrimp and lobster. Lydia and Joe never had children. Joe died in December of 1919 when Lydia was only 43.

At about the time of Joe’s death, Lydia met Florence Bixby when both women were doing volunteer work for the war effort (World War I). They were of a similar age, and held similar values. The now single Lydia needed employment and Rancho Los Alamitos needed a cook. The two women hit it off and Florence Bixby asked Lydia to come cook at the ranch. Lydia became the ranch’s first female cook. The previous cooks had been Chinese and Japanese men. Lydia began work in October of 1920. She was one of the Ranch’s most valued employees, earning $100 a month – about the same amount as the ranch foreman! (Lydia started at $90/month.  By the time she retired, she was making $100/month. The foreman was making anywhere between $100/month and $120/month at this time. It is interesting to note that Bert Bell, the bookkeeper was making between $45 and $50/month; and Elizabeth “Sister” Bixby was earning between $25 and $50/month.) She worked five days a week, with Sundays and Thursdays being her days off.

Several of Lydia’s numerous siblings moved to Southern California from Oklahoma and Kansas, including four of her sisters and two brothers. Several of these siblings, as well as Lydia’s mother, settled in Long Beach. Two of her sisters, Mary Stanbro and Sadie Thompson, worked on and off in the kitchen with Lydia, but did not live on the ranch, as Lydia did. Although, she lived at the ranch, Lydia owned a house on the west side of Long Beach at 1082 Cherry Avenue.

Lydia was very hard of hearing from a relatively young age and used a hearing trumpet and later a hearing aid. Bixby family oral tradition has it that while “the family shouted at the tops of their voices to make themselves heard by deaf Mrs. Shinkle, somehow, Florence was able to convey her instructions to Mrs. Shinkle without raising her voice.” Despite her hearing challenges, Lydia was able to make her way in the world as a single woman and succeed in a very demanding profession that required a wide variety of skills and commanded respect from her employer, the local merchants, her peers, and her subordinates. Lydia straddled the cultural and social divide between the ranch workers and the ranch owners.

Lydia Shinkle worked for the Bixbys for 22 years, retiring in 1942 at the age of 66. Her sisters took over cooking responsibilities at the ranch for several years after Lydia’s retirement. They were succeeded by subsequent female cooks. Lydia Shinkle died in September 1960 at the age of 83 and is buried with Joe at Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach. Florence Green Bixby died just about a year later in August of 1961.



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