Sunday, February 04, 2018

Leonard Zerlaut: The Wizard of Garden Grove

Leonard Zerlaut. Photo from The Criterion/Garden Grove Employee News, May 1988
You think we’d have heard about a genius local inventor who’d run several businesses simultaneously, held six patents, and invented technology that made possible the Disneyland Monorail system, the Seattle Space Needle, countless military and commercial aircraft, and the New York World Trade Center. It seems like we’d all have heard of such an Orange Countian, whose creative legacy spanned from the 1930s into the 2000s.

But too few have heard of Leonard Zerlaut.

Some time ago, I was researching the history of Little Saigon and was curious about what was located in that largely undeveloped area prior to it becoming the world’s largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam itself. One of the major businesses in that area back then turned out to be Leonard Precision Products Co. Starting with the obvious, I Googled “Leonard Precision Products” and found that the best “hit” I got was a reference on one of my favorite blogs: Stuff From The Park. Reading the blog post – which was about a photo stamped with the company’s name – I found that I myself was called out in the comments section!:

“I am hoping that Chris Jepsen (O.C. History Roundup) would chime in here with information on the company,” wrote Patrick.

Then I remembered a conversation I’d recently overheard (in passing) while running the Orange County Historical Society. For some reason, I remembered hearing someone say that the guy “who ran the Leonard machine shop was a real mechanical genius.”

That was it. I had to find out more about this “Leonard” fellow. (Sorry it took so long, Patrick.) Here is what I found:

Orange County machinist and inventor Leonard E. Zerlaut (1911-2003) may be best remembered professionally as the creator of tube processing procedures and equipment for airplane factories. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Zerlauts (like many Americans) heading for California, circa 1930.
 A 2000 article entitled, “A Creative Life: Leonard Zerlaut,” in a Garden Grove Historical Society (GGHS) newsletter, described his early life:

“Leonard Zerlaut was born in a farmhouse on his father’s 120 acre farm in Holton, Michigan in 1911. One of three children, he graduated from high school in 1928. Two weeks before graduation, he also graduated from the Chicago Electrical Engineering School located in Muskegon. He was able to accomplish this feat by taking correspondence courses. He then worked for the Steiner Electric Co. in Michigan.”

His father, Frank James Zerlaut, was farmer and prominent civic figure in west central Michigan when the Great Depression hit, in 1929. The bank foreclosed on the farm, which was sold at auction.

Frank took the family – wife Lola Grace and three children – to Southern California, where his sister lived.  Work was harder to find in California than they’d expected, and Frank and Leonard both worked at whatever odd jobs were available. In 1930, Frank and Lola bought the Ocean Inn hotel and restaurant at 138 E. Ocean (now Garden Grove Blvd.) in Garden Grove. Frank managed the hotel, and Losa ran the restaurant. But guests were too few and far between. The bank refused to cut them any slack, and soon the Ocean Inn was also lost to foreclosure.

In February 1933, beset with financial problems and ill health, Frank tied a gunnysack full of rocks to his waist and jumped off the still-under-construction Seal Beach jetty. He was dead at the age of 58.

The following month – in what seemed karmic retribution against the bank – the Ocean Inn was utterly destroyed in the great Long Beach Earthquake.

In the wake of his father’s death, the hard-working 22-year-old Leonard worked even harder. Already running a Garden Grove auto repair shop at Verano (now Euclid) and Ocean Ave.– he now went on to be the welder for the Chevrolet garage at Euclid (now Main St.) and Stanford Ave. and soon owned the business and lived on the second floor of the shop. Learning from his father’s troubles, he established a life-long policy of eschewing debt and paying cash on the barrelhead for anything he purchased. It served him well.
A Zerlaut's patent which grew out of his work on the monorail.
The 1930s were a busy time for Leonard Zerlaut. His business was growing by leaps and bounds, he received a patent for a welding procedure to bend pipes, he continued to expand into additional areas of machine work, and he served in the Garden Grove Volunteer Fire Department. And in 1934 he married Meta Rehme (1914-1999) of Costa Mesa – the daughter of pioneer Santa Ana blacksmith Fredrich Henry Rehme. They had their first child, Marilyn, in about 1939.

Zerlaut started a new business in 1940 – a machine shop called Leonard Precision Products Co. (sometimes referred to, early on, as the Zerlaut Machine Works) at Flower and Hanson Streets in Garden Grove. Within a year, newspapers reported that Zerlaut had sold parts and machinery to Henry Ford, aircraft companies, and the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, his shop manufactured tools and equipment for use in aircraft factories, among other things. Locally, he built the air raid siren for Garden Grove, which was placed on the grounds of the Garden Grove Water District. He also developed special equipment for stamping CO2 bottles. He would also go on to develop machines to bend chairs, make water heaters, and perform other industrial tasks. He developed a reputation for tackling whatever challenge or task was thrown his way.

A son, Frederick “Fred” Zerlaut, was born in 1942. And by the end of the war, Leonard also had two business partners: M. E. Wartnik and Robert L. Bedford.
Leonard Precision Products, ca 1950. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“Wartnik was an attorney from L.A. or Long Beach maybe. He had money to invest in the company, and he handled legal matters and guidance,” said Fred Zerlaut when I interviewed him in 2015. “Bob Bedford was Dad’s workmate at the shop. He was a Fullerton guy. He did a lot of the bookkeeping and stayed with the business until he retired and then died shortly afterward.”

According to the GGHS, for many years, Leonard Zerlaut “flew his own plane, which he used for both business and pleasure. He surprised the locals from time to time when he landed his plane on the small Midway airstrip on the south side of Bolsa Ave. and after checking to see the road was free of cars, he taxied his plane across the street to his business. There he loaded his plane with parts he had made and flew them to Rohr aircraft in San Diego. He also subcontracted work for Consolidated Aircraft, Ryan Aircraft, Vultee Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft.”

In 1949, as a civilian volunteer, Zerlaut became part of the Orange County Sheriff Department’s first aero squadron. At the direction of Sheriff Jim Musick, he was on standby to respond (in his small plane) during disasters, searching for downed planes, and other emergencies.

“He was a Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department and he served about twenty years,” said Fred. “His shop was right across the street from the Westminster Airport. He rented hangars at the northeast corner of Brookhurst and Bolsa from the Posts,” said Fred, referring to the Post Brothers, whose nearby farm equipment company famously constructed the world’s largest plow.
Zerlaut (third from left) and others in the Orange County Sheriff's first Aero Squadron, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy O.C. Sheriff's Dept.
As his business and civic responsibilities grew, so did Zerlaut’s family. In addition to their own two children, Leonard and Meta took in five foster daughters over the years.

Leonard Zerlaut was also involved in the local Rotary Club, and in the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America for many years. “He literally built the health lodge at Camp Ro-Ki-Li,” said Fred, referring to a large Scout camp sponsored by the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs. “And around 1979 he built the main meeting and mess hall [a.k.a. “the Barn”] at the Rancho Las Flores Scout camp at Camp Pendleton. He was later presented with the Silver Beaver Award for his service to the Scouts.”

According to longtime Scouter and historian Phil Brigandi, Zerlaut served on the Orange County Council’s “board of directors (or at least the advisory board) for more than 25 years, beginning in the 1950s. He was our vice president in 1954 and 1955, and our representative to the national council from 1956 to 1964. I knew several people who always spoke very highly of him.”

Zerlaut’s plane also proved useful in the early days of the big new scout camp at Lost Valley in San Diego County. “He flew in and out several times,” said Brigandi. “Folks who went with him tell me it was quite a thrill to use the meadow as an airstrip.”
Leonard Precision Products. Photo courtesy Westminster Historical Society.
The process of moving Leonard Precision Products to a new location at 9200 Bolsa Ave. (now in the City of Westminster) began in April 1952. With buildings full of heavy machine tools and many active contracts to be fulfilled, moving turned out to be a two-year process. (Eventually, he would have six buildings on this property.)

In 1953, at Wartnik’s suggestion, the business was split into three separate companies. Leonard Precision Products continued to build machines and tools for other manufacturers, and Tube Specialists of California used those machines and tools to make specialty tubing to order (mainly for aerospace). The third company, Zerlaut Realty Co., owned the land the other two businesses sat on.

In the 1950s, Zerlaut bought out Wartnik’s share of the business. Bedford stayed on, and Leonard’s younger brother, Maynard E. Zerlaut also was brought in as a partner.

Leonard Zerlaut held a total of six patents. These included a “tube-bending apparatus” in 1964, a “feeding system for a swaging or tapering apparatus” in 1966, and an “apparatus for the forming of concrete” in 1959. The last of these came about when his company was building the concrete track for the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail System. Zerlaut’s new steam pressure cure process for concrete allowed one new section of rail to be completed every day from each form.
Building Disneyland's monorail tracks and submarines. Courtesy Stuff From The Park.
Zerlaut, also built the machine that welded the steel for the Space Needle at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition (1962), for New York Harbor’s double-decked Verrazano Narrows Bridge (1964), and for the New York World Trade Center.

“One of Leonard’s hydraulic machines could make 400 bends of tubes an hour, later increasing to 1800 bends an hour,” the GGHS tells us. “Midas Muffler bought one of his machines to make mufflers. Also, Quantas Airlines bought his equipment, which necessitated Leonard making trips to Melbourne, Australia to work with the company on how to use and replace the equipment he sold them. Additionally, a British company in Manchester used his equipment which meant frequent trips to England.”

Micro-midget race cars were popular in Southern California in the 1960s, and Zerlaut built one for Fred. These tiny race cars were something like a modern go cart, but with real suspension systems. Hugging the ground, and with the engine roaring only inches from the driver ear, these little cars gave the illusion of going much faster than they actually did (which was plenty fast enough). The Zerlauts’ father and son team traveled all over to compete in races, eventually taking home prizes from the national competition in Selma, Alabama.

Leonard Zerlaut also built a dune buggy, which the family towed all over the U.S. and Mexico behind their motor home. The buggy is now owned by his grandson, Leonard.
Zerlaut's Micro-Midget Racer. Photo courtesy Garden Grove Historical Soc.
“My dad was pretty easy going,” said Fred Zerlaut. “He had a pleasant personality and never cursed. He was a church Christian, but not an adamant, every-Sunday guy. … His employees liked him and everyone would get together for picnics. He treated people fairly, and he treated everyone the same. He would hire whoever seemed most qualified for the job at hand. Race and color weren’t important to him.”

Zerlaut sold Leonard Precision Products and Tube Specialists of California to Conrac Corp in 1967. (Conrac was purchased by machinery manufacturer PHI in 1985.)

Shortly thereafter, engineer Homer Eaton -- who’d helped create the electronics for Zerlaut’s popular tube-bending machine – asked Leonard, Fred, and three others if they’d like to join forces with him to create a computer-numerical controlled (CNC) measuring system for tube bending. The plan for the new Eaton Leonard Co. was to build it up, give it a good start, and then sell it after seven years. Leonard came out of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it retirement to help get the new business off the ground. It was located near the sugar factory in South Santa Ana. Leonard was most active and hands-on from 1972 through 1975, while the business was being built. But once it had a firm foundation under it, he stepped away from it more and more. By 1980, when Eaton Leonard was sold to the Kole, Kravis & Roberts investment group, he was only coming in to the shop for occasional meetings. Still, it was only when the sale closed that he found himself truly retired.

Eaton Leonard is now international and still produces precision tube-bending machines and other “tube forming automation for a broad array of fabricated products.”

In addition to following in his father’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer, Frederick Zerlaut served as a pilot in the Vietnam War and now plays tuba in the Coastal Community Band. He also owns one of John Philip Sousa’s original sousaphones.

Marilyn Zerlaut (now De Boynton) also inherited some of her father’s creative and technical talents. When she wasn’t busy being a mom, she worked at a division of Corning Glass and was a bookkeeper for engineering companies. She has also made highly detailed miniatures, including an impressive model of the Hale House at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles.

In retirement, Leonard Zerlaut spent a good deal of his free time volunteering with the Garden Grove Historical Society, particularly in the 1980s restoration of the town’s 1926 La France fire engine, which he had once used as a volunteer firefighter. According to the GGHS, he also “restored the old bandsaw… removed all the windows from the Ware-Stanley house, re-glazed and replaced them. He rebuilt the electric shoe repair equipment in the shoe shop, restored the old Mormon hand cart… installed the plumbing in the schoolhouse, restored the lathe in the blacksmith shop. An extraordinarily creative individual, Leonard Zerlaut has shown he is capable of building almost anything.”

According to longtime Garden Grover Terry Thomas, Zerlaut’s gift for quickly grasping new ideas never waned: “When desktop computers first came out, he got one right away and did great with it.”

Meta Zerlaut passed away after an extended illness in 1999.
The Asian Garden Mall, also known as Phước Lộc Thọ, was built in 1986.
Since 1987, the site of the old Leonard Precision Products complex at 9200 Bolsa Ave., in Westminster, has been home to the Asian Garden Mall – the commercial heart of busy Little Saigon. It’s impossible to even imagine taxiing an airplane across the street anymore.

Leonard Zerlaut died of natural causes in Orange County at age 92 in 2003. “Gifted with a fine mind and good hands, he did not seek personal recognition for his accomplishments,” noted his obituary in the Orange County Register. “All who knew him will long remember his gentle ways and giving spirit.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story! KS