Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gordie's House: One of the last surf shacks

ABOVE: One of the original tiny homes---before the 21st Century tiny house movement---in the alley behind Lake Street near Pecan Avenue bears the street number 505 1/2 and the hand-painted name, "Gordie."  Despite the size of his home, he was a larger-than-life character. (Photo, September 2012)

UPDATE: In 2012---shortly after this feature was written---the Higgins property at 505 Lake Street sold, including Gordie's tiny home in the alley between Lake and Main streets, at 505 1/2 Lake Street.  It has been modernized and no longer retains its historical features or Gordie's name. 

   Who is Gordie and why does the tiny building behind 505 Lake Street bear his name?  If you're a local surfer of a certain vintage, you might already know.

   Gordie Higgins was one of Huntington Beach's first surfboard shapers at a time when boards were actually, well, boards.  The 1920s Lake Street home behind which the tiny "Gordie house" sits belonged to his brother, Bud Higgins, who made one of the first redwood surfboards after watching Duke Kahanamoku and other Hawaiians surf Corona del Mar in the 1920s.

   The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1989, Long May They Wave, that "along with lifeguard Gene Belshe, Higgins decided to try to make what is regarded as the county's first homemade board. Kahanamoku suggested that his 11-foot board was too large for the Corona del Mar breakers, so the young locals set out to make two scaled-down, 10-foot boards." 

LEFT: Gordie Higgins was one of Huntington Beach's first lifeguards, along with his brother, Bud Higgins, who was the first chief lifeguard. (Photo, 

    Bud Higgins is reported to be the first surfer to shoot the pier.  Both Bud and Gordie are on the Surfing Walk of Fame Honor Roll (1997).  They surfed solely to surf.

RIGHT: In 1913, steamship lines advertised pleasure trips to Hawaii for "surf-boating" and "surf-boarding".  Soon after this trans-Pacific travel, a group of surfers referred to as "the Hawaiians" landed in Southern California, bringing their boards with them. For Huntington Beach, it was a match made in heaven. (Los Angeles Herald, 1913)

    When Nancy Wride wrote about Gordie for the Los Angeles Times twenty-three years ago (Mixed Feelings in Huntington Beach: Wave of Development Rolling Into 'Surf City').  She wrote about the affection with which people greeted him and about Gordie's concerns for a changing town.

   "Sweet-faced Gordie Higgins, 75, grew up here when the streets were dirt, the sidewalks wooden and oil--not surfing--was the lifeblood of Huntington Beach," Wride reports.  
ABOVE LEFT: Duke Kahanmoku, circa 1920, inspired local boys to try their hand at surfing and surfboard shaping.  You can find a statue of "the Duke" on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, near the Pier, and a bust of Duke inside the Surf Museum at 411 Olive Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach.

   "As he sits in the heart of downtown, cross-legged on a bench smoking his Dorals, the old man speaks without nostalgia when he says, 'It never will be the old town, such as it was,'  Higgins told Wride, who noticed his board-toting soulmates.  "The young surfers know it too--the ones who wave at him as they cycle past towing their boards, hollering, 'How ya feelin' Gordie?' "

ABOVE: Tiny, but charming, Gordie's house in the alley behind Lake Street bears the number 505 1/2.  It is a few minutes walk, barefoot, of course, to the beach. (Photo, September 2012)

   Wride continued to follow Gordie as he moved to his table at the Sugar Shack on Main Street.

   "...Gordie Higgins continued to hold court, blue eyes flashing as various friends stopped to chat. He can remember the days when there were only two cars in the whole town of perhaps 3,500 people. He remembers the tent city downtown where the roughnecks camped while working the oil fields in the 1920s," Wride writes.  

   "He remembers the saltwater plunge and how people threw pennies into the deep end for him and other divers. He remembers the first gas station in town, the red cars that could get you to Los Angeles in 45 minutes."

LEFT: Gordon "Gordie" Higgins served in the U.S. Navy, enlisting in 1936 and serving through World War II. The Santa Ana Register reported on the "popular" Gordie receiving 100 letters from his friends back home in Huntington Beach. (Santa Ana Register, May 2, 1942)

  Gordie served in the U.S. Navy from 1936 through World War II, surviving the sinking of the carrier Yorktown.  After leaving the Navy, he worked a variety of jobs, driving haul trucks, working as a locksmith, always staying close to the Pacific and his Surf City home.

   He married, but later moved into the tiny home behind his brother Bud's house at 505 Lake Street, which had been their parents' home.

Left: Gordie's big brother Delbert "Bud" Higgins was the City's first chief lifeguard and, later, fire chief.  For a July 4th celebration in the 1930s, he soaked himself in alcohol, set himself on fire, and dove off a 50-foot platform above the pier into the water

   City historian Jerry Person wrote about his friend, Gordie and his brother, Bud, in 2006 just after Gordie passed away (Huntington Beach Independent, A life lived in our city's golden days).   As Gordie got older, Person would "would find him sitting outside on a chair by his front door," ready to talk about the old days.  He recalled the bond between the Higgins brothers, who shaped not just boards, but the growing town's culture for generations to come. 

   "Have you ever seen that TV commercial with those two old guys selling Medicare Part D insurance, and they walk away together?" writes Person.  "When I still had a store on Main Street, I have a vivid memory of Bud and Gordie leaving together and walking up Main Street just like those two guys on the commercial."

ABOVE: Gordie's, the home of one of Huntington Beach's pioneer surfers and surfboard shapers, is now a memory. RIP Gordie Higgins, 1913 - 2006. (Photo, September 2012)

Editor's note:  The home of Bud Higgins, 505 Lake Street, and Gordie Higgins, 505 1/2 Lake Street (alley) was sold to a new owner in October 2012 and its historic features, along with Gordie's name, are gone.

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