When George Benson Page left his Tennessee home in 1919 to come west, he dreamed of becoming a cowboy.But instead of roping steers, Page ended up putting his brand on a company that has become one of the biggest laundry and linen companies in the United States—Santa Barbara’s Mission Linen Supply.
As a boy in Lebanon, Tennessee, Page remembered watching with his friends a silent movie starring cowboy Tom Mix and his wonder horse Tony. “After that we said, ‘boy we’re going west to become cowboys,’” Page remembered..
The sixteen-year-old Page hopped a freight train west. He ended up in Los Angeles and landed a job greasing cars. Later he oiled equipment for Peerless Laundry. “That’s when I got laundry in my blood,” said Page.
As the years passed, Page learned all about the laundry business. When he heard in the late 1920’s about a small town up the coast where the opportunities were better than in Los Angeles, Page headed north to Santa Barbara where he went to work for the Troy Laundry. He ultimately convinced the owner to let him fix up an old truck that was rusting away and use it to solicit his own customers on a straight commission basis. In six months he had built the largest route in the company.
At the end of the decade Wall Street crashed, and the country was edging into a lengthy depression. The twenty-six year old bought a truck of his own with a low down payment and formed his business, Mission Linen & Towel.
Page started supplying towels to Easterners who vacationed in Montecito. He rustled up much of his business in a red barn next to the Biltmore Hotel, where servants of the well-to-do gathered once a week.
“I’d go out there on Saturday nights to the dances, and I got to know all the servants,” he said. “Through them I built up a big laundry route in a short time.” Maids, chauffeurs, and groundskeepers became the young entrepreneur’s friends. They worked for people like Mrs. Pillsbury, Mrs. Norton, and the Fleischman family, and they referred their employers’ business to Page.
“One of the biggest accounts I had was with the McCormicks of the McCormick Implement Company,” said Page. That company was founded on Cyrus McCormick’s grain reaper, which he began manufacturing in Chicago in 1847. The Chicago family vacationed in Santa Barbara during their summers. Their estate had forty-six gardeners and five chauffeurs, and Page supplied them all with overalls and uniforms.
Page ran his business from a plant operated by Troy Laundry. He delivered linens and towels during the day and leased Troy’s plant and equipment at night to do his laundering and pressing. After a few months of sixteen-hour days, Page purchased Troy Laundry, and a year later he built an addition to the plant.
An early episode illustrates the industry that was typical of Page’s. Colonel “Max” Fleischmann, of the Fleischmann yeast and liquor fortune, often anchored his yacht “Haida” off of Santa Barbara. Trucks from all of the local laundries were lined up at the wharf, hoping to get their share of the laundry on board. On one such occasion Benson Page rowed out to meet the Haida before it arrived at the anchorage. The captain of the Haida was so surprised to see Page in that little rowboat that he invited him on board; and when Haida finally anchored off Santa Barbara, the local competition was surprised to learn that Ben Page had already negotiated arrangements to handle all of the ship’s laundry requirements.
In the beginning, wealthy homeowners, barbers and butchers provided the bulk of Mission Linen’s business; but the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 increased business at hotels, bars and restaurants, which soon became a large part of the growing company’s business.
In 1936 Page expanded into San Luis Obispo; and in the 1940s, Salinas, Modesto, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Bakersfield and Ventura became part of Mission Linen’s growing network.
One associate said Page “is more than a character. He is an old-time Southern gentleman,” said Richard Feldman, who runs a used laundry equipment business in Los Angeles.
“He put me in business,” said Feldman. Page encouraged Feldman to start his own company and paid his telephone bills for the first six months of operation. “He did that for a lot of people, and that’s rare,” said Feldman.
Page’s formula for success was simple enough: “Surround yourself with good people, treat them well, and never overextend yourself financially.”
George Ben Page Foundation
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