William Abraham Pruett (1894-1984) "Bill's" Story   7/19/2003

Chapter 1:  And so begins this journey…


There is so much to tell about William Abraham Pruett, that it is hard to know where to begin.  By physical description, he was short in stature, probably 5'4" and had a gruff voice and manner, yet, there was something in the way he spoke, perhaps his pride and passion in his own story, that always drew me in.  As his granddaughter and also as a librarian, I would often be tapped to assist with one of his research projects.  Often at Pasadena Public Library, I would hear his voice at the end of the line, asking about a company address or company history.  He was an inventor, an engineer by training and inclination, and once he got an idea, there was no stopping him.  He favorite saying was "When it's finally settled that the thing's impossible, watch some fellow do it!"  And this is the motto he lived by…


For many years, I listened to my grandfather, Bill Pruett (William Abraham Pruett, 1894-1984) tell his stories...his life, his accomplishments, his roots.  He had a strong desire that his stories be told.  Perhaps it was because he knew that there was no male heir to carry on the family name, or perhaps it was just his pride in his life and his family's history that compelled him to tell his tales again and again.  Often, I listened intently; other times, I listened with courtesy.  Yet, his words now echo in my mind.... the sound of his voice echoes here as I begin this journey…


The year was 1947.  Bill Pruett was 53 years old.  He traveled to Chicago to meet with Arroyo? Engine Company regarding a design for a gasoline-powered refrigerator that could be built in sections, then disassembled to ship overseas for the war effort. At that time, he was the chief engineer for Weber Showcase in Los Angeles and was an expert on refrigeration systems.  The meeting was successful...Arroyo could build it. 


The contact in Chicago could not meet with Bill for three days, so Bill checked the railroad book to see how far it was to La Crosse, the place of his birth.  Six hours later, he stepped from the platform and hailed a cab to take him back to his father's farm near Grandad's Gulch in La Crosse.  Three miles away was his grandfather Abraham's family homestead in Mormon Coulee, in the township of Shelby, La Crosse.


Bill remembered that "there were not too many paved roads…it was in the middle of farming county."  He told the taxi driver to go past the first stop, and to go to where the road goes up a hill….[check to see where Spencer's farm was] A creek fed into the Mississippi River was there. The farm, family church, and cemetery were still on the right hand side of the road.[i]


Bill Pruett remembers his early life and the home in La Crosse):


This is the house on my father's farm near La Crosse, Wis.  Can you imagine my mother having 4 kids, way out here with nothing but a midwife, no doctor...    Ethel, Bill, Burt and Babe were born in this house in 1892, 1894, 1896, 1898.  The door opened to a cellar which had a stone cistern with cold water from a spring coming out of the woods; the only refrigeration they had...  There was no power, gas, etc. [just a?] coal oil lamp [and a] wood stove.  They made their own bacon, pork sausage, and bread in a cast iron stove.  Raised their own hogs… Try this on your place...  A hand pump brought up the cold water to the kitchen. When the lightning and thunderstorms happened, my mother would take all of us in the cellar and pray that the lightning wouldn't strike the house.   The timber wolves would come out of the woods at night and howl…and our mother would lock all the doors.  The woods were full of the finest wild flowers, lilies of the valley, tulips, and lady slippers (which is a kind of orchid.)   I am the only one with all this history.  In the back of the house was dad's apple orchard and really "some" apples... Concord grapes grew wild in the woods.  I have grapes from some slips I brought back growing in the back yard.  Those good old days...[ii]


Bill was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin July 27, 1884, the oldest son of a family of four:  Ethel, Bill, Burt and Viola (Babe).   The Spencer Pruett family still lived in La Crosse during the time of the 1900 census.  Around 1902, Spencer moved his family to Chicago to seek a better income.  He worked for the Swift company, (Swift was his second cousin…was this George B. Swift, mayor of Chicago in 1893.)  (5731 Palina Street??).  It is unclear how long they lived in Chicago.  This photo of Bill Pruett was marked 1902 Chicago (he was 6 years old.):




This Christmas picture shows all four children during their last Christmas in Chicago (left to right:  Viola "Babe", Burt, Ethel and Bill.




Bertha and Spencer were very concerned about Burt, their youngest son.  They worried that he would not live out the year…he was sickly and they thought he might be "tubercular" so they sought the dryer climate of California.  (Phonto below:  Burt. Ethel, Babe and Bill, 1902-1904??  Chicago?  Los Angeles??)



   In 1905, they were living at 1343 E. 55th Street. [iii]  They lived there 16 years.  

   This is a photo taken of this address in 2003.





















Bill graduated from grammar school (he is on the top right.  This picture (below, right) was taken at the Slauson Playground Clubhouse.) 


"Two crazy mutts:"  Bill Pruett at top;  Jess Marshall at bottom.



Spencer was a steel worker working for Boyle Manufacturing in Los Angeles.  In 1921, Spencer sold this property on 55th [iv]and had a one room house built at 1828 41st street.  It was finished in 1922. 




















Bill was an inventor even at a young age.   As a boy, his father gave him a wood lathe.  At the age of 13, his teacher encouraged him and he joined the first Aero Club.  He designed a "kite yacht" and marketed it through Pruett Novelty Works. 


He attended Manual Arts School in Los Angeles (4131 Vermont LA. 90037) and was in the first graduating class. He knew other soon to be notable individuals such as Jimmy Doolittle, Buron Fitts, and Lawrence Tibbets along with Fred Kelley, who flew the first airmail plane, a relic Jenny plane of World War I vintage into Salt Lake City.  Note:  interesting that the school motto is "It can be done!" [v]


In 1910, Bill left school and went to work for the Kissel Kar[vi] (for four years before he went into the World War).  Kissel built the first chain drive truck "that to my knowledge ever hit the streets of Los Angeles."[vii]  Purchased by the city of LA to use as a garbage truck.  "Many a time I took the chains off and boiled them in fallow." 


He later wrote:  "In 1910, Harvey Herrick won the Phoenix Arizona auto race by leaving half the air out of the tires and riding the railroad ties for 60 miles.  There was no set road to travel as there were no good roads in those days.  Just so you got to Phoenix.  The car was a Kissel Kar."    He drove the Mercer cars to the old Ascot Park Track at Slauson and Avalon Blvd and traveled with the drivers as a mechanic. [viii]   In 1918, he was the mechanic  for Ruth Wightman who was competing against Nina Vitagilano in a women's 5 mile match race.  This was only the second race held for women and only the first on a dirt track ever staged for women. 




Bill Pruett, mechanic and Ruth Wightman, driver, Stockton races, 1918, Mercer, no. 4, pole position.


Nina Vitagiliano, determined to win, hit the turn at 80 miles an hour and the Stutz blew a front tire and careened into the field, hitting a ditch and somersaulting between two trees.  Nina was killed and the mechanic Her mechanic R. N. "Bud" Curry of San Francisco, was severely injured with a cracked skull and died two days later, March 6, 1918.. 



Nina Vitagiliano, driver, killed at Stockton races March 4, 1918.


Bill was a member of the first Aero Club in Los Angeles, had their first meeting at the long gone Breck Stadium? at Pico and Grand.

He also attended the first auto show in Los Angeles in 1910. 




Bill was always designing things.  In 1913, after watching his mother crochet, he designed a knitting metal finger with an adjustable tension spring which allowed thread or yarn to be fed through the spring at just the right tension.


He and his father marketed their inventions through the "Pruett Novelty Works: company.  This company was located in the garage of the first family home in Los Angeles at 1343 E. 55th Street.  Later,  the company is listed at Gala and Bill Pruett's first home at 451 E. 47th Street (phone: South 3863) Later, it was located in Covina




















Bill's first car was a 1910 Kissel Kar.  He then sold that and bought a 1912 Chalmers[ix] which he sold before entering the first World War. 

In 1925, he and Gala purchased their first new car, a 1925 Chevy. 








Bill served in the U.S. Army during World War I near Vancouver, Oregon.  He never left the states.  When he left for the service, he gave his sister, Babe, and his mother handkerchiefs (which Jane Courtney gave to his granddaughter, Mary Ann.) 


In 1919, the Pruett tonneau shield was marketed through the Pruett Novelty Works.  This was a wind shield that could be folded back when not in use and was adaptable to every car.



Note:  Spencer Pruett is in the driver's seat in this brochure and Babe (Viola) is in the back seat.  Francis Walsh , her husband may also be in the car.


Bill met Gala Seeley in Los Angeles when she was only 16;  he was 22.  They were married when she was only 18 on June 19, 1919.  see Gala's story…

I remember my grandfather telling me that when he proposed to my grandmother, that he took her down to the bank and showed her his gold coins that were safely stored in the safe deposit box.  It seemed that this was an impression that he felt was important to make and that he would take care of her.  In just less than a year, their first born son, Robert Spencer Pruett was born.  (May 16, 1920).  The birth certificate for Bob lists their address (house) as 1001 E. 55th Street in Los Agneles. It was in the 1920s that Bill and Gala purchased a home at 451 E. 47th street in Los Angeles (not far from Bill's parents' home on 41st street.  Bill's ocupation is listed as machinist and manufacturer of auto accessories and Gala's occupation is listed as Housewife.[x] It was also around this time that Spencer built a home in the Sierra Madre Canyon, called Outside Inn.  Bill Pruett carved his and Gala's initials in a tall oak tree there..Outside Inn; cabin built in Sierra Madre. 


Bill also worked (in the 20s and 30s) for Don Lee's Coach and Body Works in Los Angeles where he hand hammered special automobile bodies for movie stars.  Many of the Cadillac special creations seen around Hollywood at the time had been mastered by Bill Pruett.  In the May 22, 1920 Los Angeles Express,  an article indicates the type of work that Bill Pruett was doing:  "Last week easily could have been designated as Motion Picture Week at the Don Lee Coach and Body works.  Not only was Roscoe Arbuckle's $25,000 car completed after many months of work, but special custom-built bodies on Cadillac chassis were delivered to Jack Pickford, Lottie Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Betty Compton and Milton Sills.  Jack Pickford purchased one of the exclusive town cars, of which only one model is in Southern California.  This car was presented to his wife, Olive Thomas, on her return from New York.      Mary Miles Minter took deliver of the first of the season's club roadsters turned out by the local plant and is driving the car herself..."


Don Lee owned Don Lee Cadillac, an exclusive Cadillac dealership in Los Angeles, along with various radio stations and a television station (which he had the foresight to pioneer as early as 1931!). A thriving offshoot of the agency was the Don Lee Coach and Body Works, which specialized in building custom automobiles for Hollywood movie stars. Bill worked in the windshield glass and body fittings department.  Carl Weber had written to Don Lee talking about a glass grinder that he had invented.  Don Lee asked Bill Pruett to respond.  Bill went to Weber to examine it and he found that it was all wood and it worked, but he felt he could improve it.  General Motors eventually gave them the order for 16 machines.  Don Lee died in 1934, his son Tommy iherited the business. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), this is the approximate time that Bill Pruett transitioned to work for the Weber Research Department at Weber Company in Los Angeles. 


In February of 1937, the Weber Way newsletter highlighted Bill Pruett and Mott Haines:

The Weber Research Department can truly pride itself in possessing two of the outstanding men of the industry, and we point with pride to Bill Pruett and Mott Haines.  Although quite Napoleonic in stature, these men pack a terrific wallop above the shoulders.  Bill Pruett was formerly with Don Lee Coach and Body Works and hand hammered special automobile bodies for movie stars.  Many of the Cadillac special built creations seen around Hollywood have been mastered by Bill.  Upon affiliation with the Weber Co., Bill entered into an intensive and exhaustive study of refrigeration and today is an authority on B.T.U.s, temperatures, insulation, humidity, etc.  Many times the leading refrigeration companies have called our Bill into consultation concerning the many intricate problems of the refrigeration field.  Solidarity of character and determination is evidenced by Bill in the fact that he does not jump into new trick refrigerator ideas over-night.  Bill says "our job is fool-proof and works so what the H___?  Anything Bill o.k.s has to be perfect and must not carry any form of doubt attached to it.  At present, he is working on a 2 1/2 ton die, a veritable mechanical masterpiece, to be used to stamp out refrigerator parts.  "They just don't come too big for our Bill!"…


The Weber Company and each employee is fortunate in having such unusual talent in Bill and Mott and because the company has given them unlimited financial support during the last six months, and has placed at their command the very finest and most modern tools, machines, and equipment, which has resulted in our sensational 1937 line of products.   We know that we are 'going to town during 1937' and we again salute our little mighty men of the Research department.  They have given us a line of products that will smash all sales resistance and keep the name of 'Weber products' as a 'synonym of progress, coupled with perfection' before the eyes of the refrigeration world."


During World War II, Weber Showcase and Fixture Company, Inc. was one of the companies granted federal funding to support the wr efforts.  Weber manufactured metal life rafts and leading edge structures for the P-38 planes.  Bill made sure that each life raft had a prayer book called ________________. 


In 1947, Bill rebuilt a 1912 International Harvester truck with the Weber Showcase and Fixture Company logo on the side. 


Bill worked for Weber Showcase for 27 years, retiring in 1965, at the age of 71. 




Agusut 1927 Bill built a boat named Gala…20 gross of brass wood screws in its construction; no nails…431 E. 47th St. LA  Burt's sign


1902 Olds rebuilt

renovation of horse drawn carriage

Pruett ice cracker (article)

Covina land/home

19635 E. Covina Hills road




Old Ironsides: world's largest hydraulic drawing press



three story high hydraulic press engineering and built

to form deck ventilators for the then famous Liberty ships.

stainless steel sink

roll-a-door for showcases and cabinets

three layered glass panels needed for freezer units

devices to prevent glass from shattering in extreme low pressure situations

working model of a miniature refrigeration compressor…world's smallest…Guinness…3 5/8 inch high, 5 3/8 inch long, for the technically minded, the unit has a 5/8 inch compressor bore and stroke, 400 rounds per minute; 3 1/2 inch diameter fly wheel, __ inch diameter crack shaft and 1/8 inch hollow wrist pin, with bronze bushings; unit will make nearly _ pound of ice operating at full speed, suing a Freon 12-direct expansion cooling system

Took 1005 hours to complete the work

1947  rebuilt International Harvester Truck for Weber showcase

Salmon egg holder sold three million in five western states, small, capped jar with a metal attachment permitting it to hand from a fisherman's belt

sand spike used by surf fishermen to hold poles upright while awaiting bites

Fly Boy fly holder



[ii] W. A. Pruett, handwritten notes around a photograph he took of the farm, 1947, 


[iii] November 23, 1905 grant deed recorded 1/2/06 in book 2556, page 40.  Grantor: Jennie B. Halrath

Grantee:  Spence A. Pruett

Description:  Lot 75 of Ascot Avenue tract recorded in book 8, page 93 of map

Acknowledged 11/23/05

Consideration:  $350.


[iv] Grantor:  Spencer A. Pruett, a married man and Bertha Pruett, his wife

Grantee:  Fred Woodall and Annie Woodall, his wife as joint tenants

Description:  Lot 75 of Ascot Avenue tract recorded in book 8, page 93 of map

Acknowledged Spencer Pruett 11/14/21


[v] Manual Arts High School was established in 1910 in the middle of bean fields, one-half mile from the nearest bus stop. It was the third school in Los Angeles, California after Los Angeles High School and L.A. Polytechnic High School, and is the oldest school on the same site in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

After three semesters in an abandoned grammar school building, Manual Arts High School was opened on Vermont Avenue, a school whose name embodied her ideal of head, heart, and hand, combining to offer a creative atmosphere for the full life.       MANUAL ARTS CAMPUS 1910.  Source:  http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Manual_Arts_HS/about_mahs.html 

[vi] Louis Kissel and his two sons, George and William, formed the Kissel Motor Car Company on June 5, 1906 in Hartford, Wisconsin. Cars built by the Kissel family emphasized old world craftsmanship and attained international renown for their advanced design and outstanding performance, which helped the company to prosper. The Kissel Kar Company was part of a group of industries in Hartford owned by the Kissels which included the Hartford Plow Company, the Kissel Manufacturing Company, and the Hartford Electric Company.   During World War I the Kissel firm went into the production of trucks for the Army, and during the later months of the war devoted itself almost entirely to the production of trucks. During the war the Kissel plant employed as many as 1400 workers.

George and William Kissel suffered serious financial losses during the Great Depression, which all but wiped out the Kissel name from the automobile industry. In 1935, they organized Kissel Industries, which primarily made outboard motors for Sears, Roebuck and Co. Upon the death of George Kissel in 1942 the company was sold to the West Bend Aluminum Company.  Source:  http://www.uwm.edu/Libraries/arch/findaids/mssbq.htm


[vii] Letter dated ______

[viii] 19761018 letter to L A Times