Looking back on... The Shakarian Family

DOWNEY - Similar to other communities throughout Los Angeles County, the turn of the twentieth century proved to be a catalytic period for Downey economic development.Nestled in the heart of Los Nietos Valley, the small community of Downey, had already established itself as an agricultural and commercial hub following the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad depot. Unlike its neighboring cities, Downey's downtown district already contained banks, mercantile shops and even a department store before 1900. While much credit is given to Albert Ball, founder of the Ball and Tweedy Sunkist fruit packing plant, and E.M. Smith, the aviation pioneer who started EMSCO Aircraft Corporation, for fueling the 1920s wave of manufacturing and trade in Downey, there is another family that greatly influenced the city's economic expansion: the Shakarians. Born in Armenia, Isaac Shakarian came to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, narrowly escaping persecution and genocide in his home land. Once in America, Shakarian traveled to the west coast and after initially residing in Los Angeles, Isaac and his wife, Zaroohi, soon settled in Downey. With the help of his wife, and son, Demos, Shakarian would spend the rest of his life impacting Downey commerce and culture through Reliance Dairy Farms, which eventually became the largest independently owned dairy in the world. However, Isaac began with only three cows when he started in 1913. Hoping to establish the largest dairy in the world, Shakarian bought just 14 acres of land on Imperial Highway for the venture. But as a result of the prosperous economic climate in Downey, Shakarian's herd grew to more than 500 cows and his land expanded to nearly 200 acres by 1923. Demos Shakarian, who was taught to milk a cow as a toddler, described the Shakarian land as an acreage full of "cornfields, eucalyptus tress and pasture land in the heart of Downey." While the family originally lived in a small wood plank house, Isaac soon replaced the old home with a two-story white stucco Spanish style house on South Cerritos Avenue, now Columbia Way. While the family relied heavily on the cattle, Isaac also diversified into hauling milk, raising hogs and packing meat. By 1926, the herd had grown to 1000 head of cattle and Shakarian began taking on active roles in the community. He eventually became the president of the Downey Chamber of Commerce in 1938 and the Kiwanis Club in 1940. Despite the family's new home and social status, the Shakarians continued to travel weekly by horse and carriage to Los Angeles for Sunday services at the Armenian Pentecostal Church, where the Shakarian children were baptized and exposed to Pentecostal Christian doctrines such as divine healing and speaking in tongues. The teachings would later influence Demos who established a deep religious foundation that would guide him throughout his career as both a successful businessman and worldwide evangelist. Although Isaac Shakarian encountered much success in the dairy business, he also faced challenges during the height of the Depression including labor disputes and price wars with competitors. As the Depression began to take its toll on Southern California, Shakarian established the Great Western Milk Transport Company, which featured 400 milk tankers used to help transport Shakarian dairy products throughout the state. Shakarian also helped open a meat packing plant, just off of Downey Avenue and Firestone Boulevard, called the Great Western Packing Company, which slaughtered 700-800 cattle daily. Along with an asbestos company started by E.M. Smith, the meat packing company was one of the only businesses in Downey that kept a significant amount of people working during the 1930s. Following this string of successful ventures, the Shakarians began to prosper greatly, drawing local politicians, businessmen and community leaders to their home for weekly dinner parties where Zaroohi prepared her famous Armenian dishes. During this time, the Shakarian children, Demos, Ruth, Lucy, Grace, Roxanne and Florence attended Downey schools, including Alameda Grammar School and later Downey Union High School. By the 1930s, the Shakarian family expanded after Demos, at age 20, married Rose Gabrielian, 16, in the backyard of the Shakarian home. Following the ceremony, Demos made preparations for a second house to be built next door to his parent's home. After construction, the Shakarians decided to purchase land in north Downey, hoping to relocate to a more affluent neighborhood. The original homes were moved and placed on Lexington- Gallatin Road, known now as Lexington Road. Today, both Isaac and Demos Shakarian's homes still stand respectively at 8417 and 8413 Lexington Road. In September 1940, Demos created another subsidiary to the growing dairy business with the introduction of a drive-in dairy. Ultimately, the drive-in dairies, which totaled more than a dozen by 1965, would become the most enduring Shakarian ventures. The Reliance Drive-in Dairies offered customers eggs, cottage cheese, buttermilk and fruit punch when the first location opened in Downey in 1953. By 1943, Reliance, now with a herd of cattle over 3,000, also secured the right to sell their dairy products at various retail outlets, including Ralph's Grocery Stores, bringing in more profits. However, eager to share his faith, Demos Shakarian began sponsoring tent meetings around Los Angeles, organizing evangelistic crusades with well-known preachers such as Oral Roberts, Charles Price and Billy Graham. In 1951, Shakarian organized a Los Angeles campaign for Roberts and won the televangelist's friendship and support for his proposed fellowship for Christian businessmen. The following year, Shakarian started the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International (FGBMFI), an interdenominational organization, which spearheaded a movement toward charismatic, Pentecostal Christianity in the 60s and 70s. Following the death of Isaac and Zaroohi Shakarian, Demos and his siblings left the dairy business, selling or leasing the remaining buildings tied to their father's business, including a large piece of property on the corner of Woodruff and Imperial Highway, sold to Calvary Chapel Downey by Shakarian for a bargain price in 1976. In July 1993, after Shakarian died at age 80, a memorial service, led by Oral Roberts, was held at the church, where nearly 1,000 people attended to honor the Shakarian legacy. Today, Richard Shakarian, son of Demos, serves as president of the FGBMFI, which now claims more than 6,000 chapters in over 160 nations around the world. Moreover, the Shakarian family reflects the array of skilled, noteworthy innovators that helped establish Downey as a hub of economic expansion during the early 1900s. Though the Shakarian farms are here no longer, the family homes remain as a testament to the ingenuity and sincerity embodied by these early Downey pioneers who strived to make a difference in the community they loved.

********** Published: December 30, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 37

FeaturesEric Pierce