Ed Tompkins: Monolith Store owner and school namesake
Land of Four Seasons
September 17, 2022
One of the most familiar and charismatic residents of the Tehachapi Valley was a man named Ed Tompkins, whose name is still very much with us: Edward L. Tompkins Elementary School on Curry Street was named for him.
After living a long and happy life, Ed died at the age of 92 on May 5, 2012 in his sleep in Anderson, California. Because few of the people whose children attend Tompkins Elementary know much about the school's remarkable namesake, allow me to tell you more about him.
Ed was friendly man with a delightful sense of humor who was very well known in the area. He owned the Monolith Store in the now-vanished townsite of Monolith from 1946, when the town was a thriving community of 350 people, until he closed it on October 12, 1972. Ed's store was the last structure standing at Monolith.
Ed was also a community leader who served as president of local school boards – first the Aqueduct School District, then later the Tehachapi Unified School District when it merged with the school districts in Monolith and Keene. Though he had a keen sense of humor and loved to laugh, Ed was serious about putting the needs of local schoolchildren first and he gave many years of service to local school boards.
Ed and his wife Helen moved to the Tehachapi area on Christmas Eve of 1944, and in 1945 Ed was hired by A. R. "Burt" White to help run the Monolith Store and Monolith Post Office. Ed had previously worked in a bank, so Burt White thought that the young Tehachapi newcomer would have skills useful in running a post office.
In 1946, after working for Burt for a year, Ed bought the store, post office and cafe. The first substantial change he made was to convert the store to full service to self-serve. While Mr. White owned the Monolith Store, customers would stand at the front counter and tell the clerk what they wanted, and the clerk would then dash around the store grabbing two cans of green beans, one package of baking soda, or whatever the customer wanted.
"I bought four shopping carts, set up the racks so people could get their own groceries, and began the self-serve system," Ed told me. It was the first "help yourself" grocery store in the Tehachapi Mountains, and one of the first in Kern County.
Ed stocked a huge variety of merchandise in the Monolith Store, including beer, dry goods, gasoline, fresh produce, clothing, meat, stationery supplies, cigarettes, canned food and much more. Ed had a remarkable memory and even 40 years later he was able to recall the prices from those early days: a five-pound bag of sugar for 50 cents, six bottles of soda for 25 cents, cigarettes for $1.39 a carton, donuts were 39 cents a dozen, coffee at 45 cents a pound, and a motorist could fill their tank with gas at 19 cents per gallon.
Monolith was a thriving community in those days – 110 of the 130 post office boxes in the Monolith Post Office were rented out, and there were about 350 residents living in the town. The cement plant had more than 500 employees during the post-war years, and the only ones living at Monolith who weren't employees of the Monolith Portland Cement Company were the Tompkins family – Ed, Helen and their children John and Diane. In addition to Ed and Helen, the store had three full-time workers.
In 1960, the plant began a policy of not renting out homes in the townsite when they were vacated, and the community dwindled. The Tompkins family moved to Tehachapi in 1960 into a house on C Street, where Ed and Helen lived until 2003, when they moved up to Anderson to be close to their daughter Diane and her husband John Cavellini and children.
Ed also owned the Western Auto store on F Street in Downtown Tehachapi for many years with his partner, Wayne Warner. Ed was an active Lions Club member who served as president and was given one of the Lions Club's top awards for his many years of service.
Ed's genuine love for people and his warm and friendly sense of humor made him popular throughout his long life. Typical of the sentiment towards Ed was this comment made to me by longtime Tehachapi gardener Herb Silver: "Ed was such a cheerful man and sooo full of history. I really miss him. He was our first client when we started our gardening business in Tehachapi over 50 years ago."
Helen died in 2004, but Ed had continued on in relatively good health, living in a small house the Diane and John had built on their property in Anderson. Shortly before his death, Ed was hospitalized briefly and then was transferred to a facility called Oak River Rehab in Anderson, which has named portions of the facility after California mountain ranges. Ed was in a room located in, appropriately enough, the Tehachapi wing, and that was where he went to sleep and never awakened, so in a sense he died in Tehachapi after all.
He was buried in a cemetery in Anderson next to Helen. The two of them were a couple who a friend described as people who "Approached life right." Ed has left a positive legacy in the Tehachapi area and is still remembered with a smile by the many who knew and appreciated him. He loved children, and I'm glad that Tehachapi kids still attend classes and play happily at school named in his honor.
Keep enjoying life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.