The Burning and Destruction of the World’s Largest Aircraft Hanger, The Death Valley 49ers, Soupy Sales, The Commander of the Blimp Squadron Against the Imperial Japanese Navy and a Leader of the Antiquarian Bookmen in California
by Paul Hunt
Hugh Tolford ran the Antiquarian Book Association Fairs in California for some time in the 1980s. He always put up a great show, and we all respected his dedication and hard work. When I joined up with Keith Burns, Sol Grossman and Jack Garvin to put on a “low cost” book fair for non-ABAA members (all ABAA members were of course invited to participate), we met often with Tolford who was very helpful to getting us organized and very generous of his time.
Tolford also was a frequent visitor to the Book Castle when we were just getting it off the ground. I had many conversations with him about Western Americana and helped him get some of the old Touring Topics magazines for his collection. Touring Topics was the name of Westways magazine in the early 20th century, and it is still published today by the Auto Club. Tolford had a great collection, and the early issues are important source material for those researching California and Western Americana. Tolford was a wealth of information.
Just recently on November 8th, 2023, a massive fire destroyed one of the world’s largest aircraft hangars, which was located in Tustin, California. The fire was still burning a week later as this is written.
I was doing some casual reading about it, I stumbled across the name Hugh Tolford, my old friend of bookselling days, and of his secret life that he never spoke of in all the many conversations I had with him.
The big fire at the aircraft hangar was a disaster. The hangar was so big because in World War 2 it housed the U.S. Navy Blimp fleet. The lighter-than Air Craft were gigantic, much larger than today’s Goodyear blimps that also operate out of that area. The hangar was so large that it could house 7 of the huge monsters inside. A great video by the famous Huell Howser is available on line. It was there that I found out that during WW2, Hugh Tolford was Commander of the Blimp fleet patrolling the West Coast looking for submarines and ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
It was a serious and tough job, and the U.S. was on alert after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the famous “Battle of Los Angeles”. Tolford and his Blimp Fleet kept us safe.
Hubert “Hugh” C. Tolford was 24 years old when he enlisted for training in service with lighter-than-air craft in the Naval Air Corps.
He was the first man from Cincinnati, Ohio to train to fly both Blimps and Baloons at Lakehurst, N.J. A graduate of Michigan State University, he entered the service as an aviation cadet. He enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor, in January, 1942, during those early dark days of the war.
By December 1942 Tolford was an Ensign and stationed at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fl. During that month he participated in the wedding of a fellow Ensign, and gave away the bride. He was later transferred to California. The 2 huge Blimp hangars were finished in 1943. Tolford became a Lt. Commander.
After being discharged, in 1945 he formed Tolford-Good Aviation to take over and operate surplus military airfields. He also served as aviation advisor to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Tolford sold this company in 1950 and helped organize the Rubbertone Corp.
Hugh Tolford Meets Soupy Sales
In 1952 Tolford joined California Transit Advertising, handling sales promotion and research. By 1956, he was a Vice-President of the Beverly Hills Company. The company placed all those lobby-card size ads along the insides of buses. Anyone who ever rode a bus would remember staring at the ads out of boredom.
During the fall of 1962 Tolford connected to Soupy Sales, who at that time had hugely popular television show in Los Angeles on a local station, I think it was KABC. It was great fun, he had two dogs (all you could see were their arms and paws) White Fang and Black Tooth. They interacted with Soupy throughout the show. At some point Soupy was suspended for a time because he asked his audience – kids – to go into mommy’s purse and get those green bills and mail them to me. Needless to say, this caused a big uproar.
However, before that incident, Soupy took on a serious campaign to keep kids from dropping out of high school. Tolford had the transit bus cards designed, and Soupy showed a short film on why kids should finish high school. I’m sure it had an impact.
In the early 1980’s Fred Dorsett and I went on a book buying trip to Central California to meet and trade with some collectors. On the way back to Los Angeles we stopped at a restaurant to get a bite and when we sat down at the booth Fred looked over at an older couple sitting a few booths away and said loudly “hey that guy looks like Soupy Sales.” It turned out to be Soupy and his wife, and they invited us to sit with them. We had a great time talking about his television show twenty years past and other shows. Fred & I were both fans and Soupy said he was amazed that so many folks remembered his show. Youtube has examples of his various shows, free to watch and have a lot of belly laughs at Soupy’s antics. He did the famous pie fight with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
The Death Valley 49ers
For years Hugh Tolford was Production Chairman of the Death Valley 49ers. He was in charge of the annual encampment that takes place in November of every year. The group was founded in 1949 on the 100th anniversary of the so-called Jayhawker Expedition, much of which ended in disaster in Death Valley. The very first encampment brought out around 50,000 folks camping and enjoying the festival.
When Tolford took over promoting the annual encampment, the attendance had dropped to a few thousand. He boosted attendance to 10,000 then15,000 and eventually at times about 27,000. He was a great publicist and a dedicated “desert rat” prowling the back roads of Death Valley with his wife and daughter. The Tolford family were into silversmithing, writing, photography and exploring Death Valley. In the mid-1960s the membership was $2. Today it is $50, another example of the loss of value of the old dollar.
One of the amusing things Tolford did was to get the Stetson hat company to issue a replica of the “Boss of the Plains” hat made of beaver that became famous in the covered wagon days. These hats were not sold, but Tolson and some of the 49ers were gifted hats by the President of the Stetson company.
Tolford was also involved in real estate. One ad I found offered an unfurnished house on 35 acres. “Stables for horses, beautiful site, $20 per month. You pay utilities.” That sounds like a great deal, even in 1964. So how do you like the value of your dollar now? What would that cost to rent today? I would think somewhere between $5,000 – $10,000 depending on location.
Hugh Tolford Charity Work and Leadership
Hugh Tolford was a bundle of energy all his life. We wonder when he ever had time to read, or even sleep. Aside from his job at the California Transit Advertising he was active in quite a lot of organizations:
–Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board
–Zamorano Club (President in 1984)
–E. Clampus Vitus (President and Noble Grand Humbug)
–The Big Ten Club (President – he attended University of Michigan)
–Sheriff of the Westerners Los Angeles Corral
–President of the Death Valley 49ers in 1965
–Ran book fairs for the ABAA for about 15 years.
–An author of books, limited edition keepsakes, and pamphlets.
Some Books by Hugh Tolford
–The Death Valley Chuck-Walla
–The Place Called Death Valley. 35th Annual Death Valley 49ers Encampment.
–Fifty Years Ago at Furnace Creek Inn
–Zabriskie Point and Christian Brevoort.
–Take the Train to Death Valley: Death Valley Railroad LTD.
–Automobiling Desert Trails
–The Ties That Bind – A Biographical Sketch of Horace M. Albright
Hugh Tolford passed away on June 7, 2011. I was honored to know him and a retrospective of his life reveals what a giant of a man he was.