Wrigley & Renton: Pasadenans on Catalina, Part I

This is the fifth article in a six-part series on “five Pasadenans who had a lasting effect on Catalina Island,” as documented by the late PMH researcher Sidney K. Gally in 1992. 

Portrait of William Wrigley. Bain News Service, Publisher. Wm. Wrigley Jr. , ca. 1915. [Between and Ca. 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014710056/.
William Wrigley, Jr. was born in Philadelphia on September 30, 1861. His family came from English Quakers dating all the way back to the time of William Penn. At age nine, Wrigley worked at his father’s business—a soap manufacturer based in Philadelphia. He worked at the manufacturing plant, stirring large vats of soap. At age eleven, Wrigley went to New York City and became a newspaper delivery boy. His formal education ended at age thirteen. Wrigley worked for his father again as a traveling salesman, selling soap from a horse-drawn wagon. He would sell soap for the next seventeen years, briefly spending time in Kansas City to work in a restaurant and sell rubber stamps.

In 1885, Wrigley married Miss Ada Elizabeth Foote of New York. Six years later, the Wrigleys moved to Chicago. With a loan from his uncle, Wrigley established himself as a businessman and again sold soap. As an incentive for customers to buy his products, Wrigley offered additional goods as bonuses. These bonus products included baking powder, cookbooks, and chewing gum. Wrigley’s baking powder started to become more popular than his soap. He soon switched to baking powder as his main commodity. Chewing gum was included with every purchase. Once again, the chewing gum became more popular than the baking powder. In response, Wrigley focused his business on the production and distribution of chewing gum. Wrigley would soon become the largest gum manufacturer in the world, establishing multiple gum companies in several countries. They offered gum in different flavors, such as Juicy Fruit, Spearmint, and Doublemint.

For a few years, the Wrigleys spent their winters in Altadena. They rented out houses in Southern California to escape the biting cold of Illinois. They liked the Pasadena area, and in 1914 the Wrigleys purchased the twenty-two-room Stimson Mansion. The house—an Italian Renaissance-Style mansion—was originally built for real estate tycoon George Stimson. After the house was built, Stimson sold it to the Wrigleys for $170,000. The mansion would later serve as the base of operations for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association®.

The Tournament of Roses Headquarters, formerly the Wrigley Mansion, 1965. (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library. Arthur Krieger Collection, ppl_9232)

In 1916, Wrigley wanted to build a Turkish bath in his mansion. His gardener at the time, Albert Conrad, suggested a Pasadena contractor and lumber-mill owner named David M. Renton. After completing the Turkish bath ahead of schedule, Wrigley continued to employ Renton, who would go on to build several more additions to the Wrigley Mansion.

Portrait of David M. Renton. (Courtesy of Catalina Island Museum)

David M. Renton was born on Prince Edward Island, a province of Canada, on February 8, 1878. His father died when he was fourteen, and two years later Renton went to Massachusetts. He became an apprentice in construction. In 1902, Renton moved to Pasadena and established a building company with two friends. He later practiced construction as a general contractor. Renton quickly built a name for himself as an accomplished builder. In 1904, he built an observation tower and residences for the Mount Wilson Observatory. Since the observatory was located at an elevation of 5700 feet, Renton relied on mules to carry lumber and other building materials up the mountain. As a general housing contractor, he built a number of houses in Pasadena. Renton constructed more than thirty bungalows in the Orange Heights area, as well as larger houses for the city’s elite society.

In 1906, Renton married Elizabeth Ryder of Pasadena. Elizabeth was working as a bookkeeper in her brother’s bicycle shop when Renton walked in. He wanted to buy a bike. They would have two sons, Malcolm and Arthur Renton.

The 1915 Avalon Fire was a massive opportunity for Wrigley. The fire burned down half of the town’s buildings—including six hotels and several clubs—plunging the island’s owners, the Banning Brothers, into massive debt. This, along with a drop in tourism thanks to the outbreak of the First World War, forced the Bannings to sell control of the island in shares. David Blankenhorn and Robert Hunter—the owners of the Blankenhorn-Hunter real estate company—convinced Wrigley to join them in the purchase of Catalina in 1919. At the time of purchase, Wrigley had never stepped foot on the island. However, he had seen postcards depicting Catalina. Wrigley bought out his partners, however, after a difference of opinion in how the island should be developed. The island now belonged to William Wrigley.

William Wrigley first visited Catalina in February of 1919, and he was soon “bubbling over with enthusiasm over the possibilities of making the island one of the world’s most famous and attractive resorts.” He realized that Avalon needed to be rebuilt, and that this would require a massive construction effort. Wrigley turned to David Renton. Within two days of Renton’s arrival in Catalina, he was preparing to build a hundred houses in Avalon. The houses were sold by the summertime. Wrigley made Renton the vice-president and general manager of the Santa Catalina Island Company. Wrigley trusted Renton with the island, later telling him that “I believe you have found your life’s work at Catalina Island. You have my confidence up to 100 percent.”

- Grant Holt