Friday, November 1, 2013

Public television program to feature Huntington Beach family's pioneer history

ABOVE: The Furuta family of Huntington Beach in 1922, (standing) Toshiko, Nobuko, Raymond, and Kazuko, (seated) Yukiko, baby Etsuko, and Charles. (Photo courtesy of the Furuta family) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

    We borrow from our sister blog, Historic Wintersburg,
 to share an upcoming public television series that will feature another aspect of Huntington Beach history.

   Discussions began in January 2013 with the new public television series, Our American Family, about the history of the Furuta family of Historic Wintersburg, now part of north Huntington Beach.  The program producers were looking for a family whose story is iconic for Japanese Americans, from their earliest arrival in America in 1900 through their path to the present day.

    The mission of Our American Family is "to document our American family heritage, one family at a time, and inspire viewers to capture their own family stories - before those voices are gone."  The producers talked about their own families and the lessons we can learn from those who came before: "Every day that passes is another day closer to a day when we will no longer be able to hear first-hand what it meant to be a family during this simpler time, before the world changed.  To hear first-hand what lessons were learned that we can apply today..."

ABOVE: Charles Furuta (front row, second from left) stands on the steps of the Huntington Inn with Ed Manning, Huntington Beach's first mayor upon its incorporation in 1909 (second row, far right in light-color suit).  This photograph, circa May 1912, may memorialize a meeting to organize fundraising to rebuild the Huntington Beach pier. (Photo courtesy of Wintersburg Presbyterian Church). © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

  In September 2013,  filming began to capture the story of Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta, and their descendants.  With the recorded 1982 oral history of Yukiko Furuta, the stories and memories of five generations of the Furuta family will be heard.  The oral history interviews will include historic photographs and present-day images filmed on the Furuta farm and other places in Historic Huntington Beach.

 Our American Family featuring the Furuta family will be aired in 2014 (date to be announced) on public television around the country.   For readers of Historic Huntington Beach and Historic Wintersburg, a special preview from the program's producers.

Note: This excerpt starts in 1912, the year Charles Furuta married Yukiko Yajima.  Charles had lived in the United States for 12 years---arriving in 1900---and, had saved enough money to buy land and build a home in Wintersburg Village, now part of Huntington Beach. He donated land on his farm for the Wintersburg Mission.

Editor's note: For more information about sponsorship of the Our American Family program, please contact

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.

Friday, August 16, 2013

There are places we remember: The Bowen buildings and our oil boom history

ABOVE: The Bowen Buildings, once at the intersection of Lake Street and Yorktown, across from the present-day Huntington Beach City Hall, circa late 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Masuda) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   It's sometimes surprising what people care about, when it comes to historical buildings.  But, part of Huntington Beach's history was as an oil town and we cared about the Bowen Buildings.  

   Three old tin and wood buildings, built in the 1920s, one with a classic Western false front, painted a dusty dove grey.  The Bowen Buildings represented the beginning of the oil boom in Huntington Beach, with wildcatters, get-rich-quick schemes, and a radical change in the countryside.

ABOVE: An oil field near Alabama and Clay streets in Huntington Beach, circa early 1920s.  We have since cleaned up well(s). (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   Huntington Beach went from agricultural fields, tules and beach, to bustling town in true California pioneer "Gold Rush" spirit, only this was black gold.  Oil worker encampments sprung up, as did the businesses that supported the boom.

   The Bowen Buildings are remembered not only as an oil boom business, but as the business of one of Huntington Beach's early mayors, Samuel R. Bowen.

ABOVE: Huntington Beach's Main Street in 1927, a year before Samuel R. Bowen was elected to the city council. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Memories of a Bowen descendant
   In 1984, Beverly Bowen Moeller, the granddaughter of Samuel R. Bowen, wrote down her memories of life in the 1930s in Huntington Beach.   A typed collection of pages filed away in the Orange County Archives, she titled it Fifty Years Ago in Huntington Beach.  It now represents a memory of life in Huntington Beach eight decades ago.

   She offered her memories "for the entertainment and edification" of those living in Huntington Beach today, humorously describing how she learned the word "edification" from her grandfather, Samuel R. Bowen.  

    "He had, upon one of his European journeys, witnessed an example of belly-dancing in some Mediterranean port. 'It was not particularly edifying,' he stated solemnly to me,' " explained Bowen Moeller.  "I learned no more about belly dancing from him, but he helped to increase my vocabulary."

   Samuel R. Bowen was bi-lingual--with Spanish his first language--and well educated.  His granddaughter recalls him meeting "with a small group of friends on Wednesday nights to read Don Quixote in the original 17th Century Spanish and laugh at the adventures of the hapless knight."

LEFT: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605. (Photo, Wiki Commons) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   "My grandfather...was proud of saying he was the first civic official to have hired a landscape architect," recalled Bowen Moeller, living in Dallas, Texas at the time she wrote down her memories.   "His purpose was to enhance the appearance of the town half covered with oil derricks."

   "We could see and smell the activities associated with oil extraction and we could hear the wheezy regular puffs of the condensers from our classrooms at the elementary school," remembered Bowen Moeller.  "During the twenties, Huntington Beach was awash in oil revenues."

ABOVE: Inspecting the Pacific Coast Highway north of Huntington Beach after the March, 1933, earthquake. (Photo, USGS) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The earthquake of 1933
   Bowen Moeller lived "in the country" on Ellis Avenue, about a quarter mile east of Five Points (near Main/Ellis Avenue and Beach Boulevard today).  She recalls the night the field beside her home "became a focal point for scores of frightened people, those from Huntington Beach proper who feared that a tidal wave was imminent, and neighbors who were afraid to stay indoors as the aftershocks continued."  It was the earthquake of '33.

   "A tent was put up beside our house and a bonfire was lit," describes Bowen Moeller.  "Throughout the night, the fire was fed, the time between the aftershocks were noted, and the neighbors took turns telling folk tales from the countries of their origin.  There was music and song.  Someone had brought an accordion and perhaps there was a guitar and a fiddle."

ABOVE: Eader's Bakery in Huntington Beach, circa 1900.  Some of the cooking was done outdoors in the alley off Main Street. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Caught in amber
   Bowen Moeller's memories give us a glimpse into life in the town around the time Samuel R. Bowen was mayor.  The five pages of typed memories are not long enough.

   "...I could tell about flying in an open-cockpit biplane, grocery shopping at Chamness before supermarkets, fireworks from the pier on Fourth of July, Uncle Somebody who read the funny papers on the radio on Sunday morning," continues  Bowen Moeller.  

   "I remember the nine-hole golf course, the pool hall (where no lady entered but I could go in to fetch my father), Harry Bakre's Golden Bear Cafe, Eader's Bakery, Tovatt's HardwareBill Gallienne's Texaco station, McCallen's refinery."

   "These memories are akin to the proverbial fly caught in amber, caught and preserved unchanged..."

Fishing for oil
   In another memoir of her grandfather as part of the publication, Early Business in Orange CountyBowen Moeller explains the rapid success of his business.  He had been operating for a couple years by mid 1922, when there were "seventy-nine oil companies in the field, 118 producing, 142 drilling and forty derricks under construction."

   The business of "fishing" came about because "lost pieces of equipment can become wedged in the (drilling) hole and must be 'fished out' before drilling can continue." describes Bowen Moeller. "Fishing is expensive.  An authentic field report of a fishing job reads like a saga of frustration."  She describes a fishing job that others had tried to finish over a seventeen-day period that was resolved in six hours when Bowen showed up with his fishing tools.

ABOVE: The arches that once stood at the west end of Main Street at Pacific Coast Highway were installed at the direction of Huntington Beach Mayor Samuel R. Bowen. (Photo, Frasher Foto Collection, Pomona Public Library) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Taking a stand
   When Bowen decided to run for office, there were several issues troubling local residents.  One was municipal restrictions about where oil drilling could occur and the encroachment of oil drilling in residential areas.  There had been an effort in 1922 to remove drilling restrictions in 42 blocks of the downtown area, which Bowen worked to defeat.  The residents wanted a cleaner, more attractive community.  

   Another issue was the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Orange CountyBowen ran for election in 1928 on a slate of three candidates--including former newspaper man Elson Conrad and pharmacist Bayard Butcher--all of whom took pro oil drilling restrictions and anti Klan positions.   

   Bowen's mother, Emilia Miranda--married to his father,  newspaper man Nathan Streeter Bowen--was Mexican American, Bowen had been tutored by a Belgian priest, and his neighbors were from all over the world.  His granddaughter Bowen Moeller recalled in her 1984 typed memories that the Huntington Beach community was a collection of immigrants.

ABOVE: The oil field along present-day Pacific Coast Highway, circa 1935. Today, there are miles of beautiful, open beach front. (Photo, Frasher Foto Collection, Pomona Public Library) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   "...I would walk along the high-crowned oil road past the chili pepper drying houses, past an old wooden derrick with the fields of the small farms belonging to German, Japanese and Italian neighbors," wrote Bowen Moeller. "Across the street from our house was my favorite place in my small world, the nearly self-sufficient farm of the Armenian neighbors..."

   Bowen is quoted as mayor, "Our ultimate destiny is to be a city and not an oilfield."  He hired landscape architect Richard Beeson, had the gateway arches placed at Main Street and the pier, negotiated with Standard Oil for a municipal golf course, instituted a program for street paving and lighting, worked on lengthening the pier, and perhaps most importantly, led the City effort to acquire beachfront property.

Battle for the beachfront
   Famously, Bowen took on the Huntington Beach Company while on the city council.  At a September 4, 1928, meeting an incident was described in which City police officers and officials confronted Huntington Beach Company employees who were removing campers from the beach.  The discussion is noted in the minutes as a "confabulation."

   "About three years ago, we executed a lease covering ocean front property between Third Street and Main Street, to be used by the City of Huntington Beach and its guests as a playground only, for a consideration of One dollar per year," J.S. Lawshe, Huntington Beach Company is reported as stating.  "At the time of the execution of these agreements, there was also a verbal agreement to the effect that the city council would pass an ordinance restricting the use of closed tents, cooking and housekeeping on our property for the reason that it is unsanitary and conducive to immorality. We do not want people to camp on our property."

ABOVE: An excerpt from the September 4, 1928, Huntington Beach city council minutes (click on image to enlarge). (City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Bowen responded, "Word came to me about noon Saturday that the Huntington Beach Company employees were ordering people from the area between mean high tide line and low water mark, whereupon I advised the Chief of Police to consult with the City Attorney and act according to the Attorney's instructions."
ABOVE: An excerpt from the September 4, 1928, Huntington Beach city council minutes, describing the confrontation between the City and the Huntington Beach Company (click on image to enlarge). (City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Bowen is reported at a later meeting to have publicly asked the city attorney about the City's powers in acquiring the beachfront land, to which the attorney replied the City's powers were "absolute."  The negotiations to acquire the land proceeded.

   Clearly, Bowen had a vision of what Huntington Beach might become, once the oil boom subsided.

ABOVE: The Bowen Buildings in the process of demolition after being gutted by fire, circa 1989.  To this day, locals question the nature of the fire, as preservationists had mobilized an effort to create an oil museum utilizing the historic structures. (Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Where the Bowen Buildings once stood
   Today, where the Bowen Buildings once stood, is a small bronze plaque along the sidewalk at Yorktown Avenue and Lake Street. 

Inscription on the monument:
   Three industrial buildings were located at 1980 Lake Street and were operated by Samuel R. Bowen and his partner, Sisti Siracusa, as the S.R. Bowen Company and the Bowen Fishing Tool Company
   The S.R. Bowen Company was founded in 1920 and was credited with numerous developments of tools used in oil production in Southern California and worldwide. Some noteworthy tools produced included the Bowen L&L Spear (used to retrieve pipe from oil wells). 

   The S.R. Bowen Company remained in Huntington Beach until the mid 1950's when they moved to Santa Fe Springs, CA.

RIGHT: Monument for the S.R. Bowen Buildings at the southeast corner of Yorktown Avenue and Lake Street. (Photo, August 16, 2013) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   The S.R. Bowen industrial buildings were locally significant because of the elaborate, interior exposed wood truss roof supports and corrugated metal ("Tin"), exterior siding and roofing. The buildings contained machine, welding and blacksmith shops, warehouse space and offices. The buildings were constructed in 1920-1928 and dismantled in July 1989.

LEFT: Samuel R. Bowen. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

 Samuel Redman Bowen was born in Martinez, CA and spent his early life in the San Francisco area. he came to Huntington Beach from Coalinga, CA in 1920. In 1928 he was elected Mayor of the City and served one term. 

   He was a veteran of World War I and a member of the Huntington Beach American Legion Post. He was also a past president of both the Huntington Beach Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Samuel Bowen died August 6, 1944.  

   Presented to the City of Huntington Beach by the Huntington Beach Company - 1989

ABOVE: The S.R. Bowen Buildings monument flagged by a realtor's sign, at the corner of Yorktown Avenue (formerly Mansion Avenue) and Lake Street, where the Bowen Buildings once stood.  Historical sites nearby include the former Northam Ranch property on the hill across the street (behind senior assisted living facility) and Huntington Beach High School on Main Street. (Photo, August 16, 2013) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Special thanks to the Orange County Archives for the wealth of historical records they save for research and future generations.

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.   

Monday, July 22, 2013

Boards on the beach

ABOVE: An unidentified surfer shooting the pier, circa 1970. This pier was knocked down by a winter storm in 1983, rebuilt, and the present-day pier re-dedicated twenty-one years ago in July 1992. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "The first use of boards was about 1912 when they used a piece of 1 by 12 board about 4 feet long and pushed off from 5 foot water. This type of board caused many accidents to the stomach area as it nose dived to the bottom causing injury...There were no surfboards on the coast except the one belonging to George Freeth of Redondo Beach and it was a very makeshift one made of several boards with cross p1eces nailed to hold it together."
                                        An Early History of Surfing in Huntington Beach, 
                                       Delbert "Bud" Higgins,

   The U.S. Open of Surfing is in town and the beach is host to thousands, watching surfing competitions from bleachers, marveling at skaters defying gravity at the "skate bowl" constructed on the sand, and dancing barefoot to live music.  It is a multi-million dollar event, attracting thousands to the beach, with an international following.

   It's sometimes hard to imagine that the original surfers put their toes in the sand here---the original Surf City---a century ago.

OVERLY DRESSED - A fully-clothed crowd at the Huntington Beach pier and bandstand, circa 1914.  One of the top songs of that year, "I'm on My Way to Mandalay," listen at (Photo, Library of Congress)

   Delbert "Bud" Higgins, one of Huntington Beach's first lifeguards and the city's first fire chief, recalls meeting "the Hawaiians" in the 1920s.  Locals had already been playing around with boards in the surf.  Hawaiian surfer George Freeth demonstrated the sport of wave-riding in 1907 at Redondo Beach and was a featured part of the 1914 re-dedication of the pier.  

LOCAL HERO - Irish Hawaiian George Freeth is reported as diving into the "boiling surf" from a Southern California pier, rescuing local fishing boats from crashing into the rocky coast. Freeth taught writer Jack London how to surf in Hawaii, prompting London to write Riding the South Sea Surf for Ladies Home Companion in 1907.  London further glorified surfing in The Cruise of the Snark in 1911. (Image, Los Angeles Herald, December 17, 1908)

LEFT:  Freeth arrived in Southern California in 1907 and his surfing demonstration was a highlight of the Huntington Beach pier re-dedication ceremony in 1914.  Freeth's surfing demonstrations also were a popular event at the Breakers, Atlantic City, and at Coney Island, New York. (Photo, Wiki Commons)

   By the 1920s in Huntington Beach, Bud Higgins and others were enamored with the sport and inspired to make their own boards after meeting "the Duke."  

   "Duke Kahanamoku from Kahaliana and two other Hawaiians came over from Hawaii to make a movie and spotted the surf at Corona Del Mar, surfed there...It was there I first saw their boards, talked to the Hawaiians and invited them to surf the Huntington Beach Pier," recalled Higgins in a personal history he wrote in the mid 1960s.  

   "They visited here on several occasions surfing the west side of the pier. After surfing here they stashed their boards, which were 11 feet long and l8 inches wide," Higgins remembered.  "They said if we should make new boards, they should not be longer then 10 feet." 

   Surfing legend Corky Carroll wrote about Higgins on his blog, "Bud was born in 1908 and became a Huntington Beach lifeguard. He grew up riding what we would call a 'bellyboard' these days, along with body surfing."   Carroll notes the boards crafted in the 1920s were vastly different than what you'll see on the beach today.

CALIFORNIA GIRLS - Girls at the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1930. Today, their granddaughters and great granddaughters surf the pier.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "They weighed 135 pounds. Obviously these were not all that easy to carry around. You just didn't see guys riding their bikes down to the beach with a board under their arm in those days," writes Carroll.  Surfers holding a board under one arm, bicycling, skating, or walking barefoot to the beach is an everyday site in Huntington Beach today.

   "By Bud's own account, they would wind up using old telephone poles that were weather beaten and had become lighter just to get the weight down to a "manageable" 100 pounds," continued Carroll.  "...these dudes took to attaching metal "nose guards" on their big wood boards to protect them from damage caused by running into the pier. Can you even imagine getting run down by one of these massive board/ships with a big macking metal nose guard? Amazing that they didn't just knock the pier over on the way through."

   Higgins remembered his first attempt at making a board, with friend and fellow lifeguard Gene Belshe in 1927.  They used---what else---California redwood, the lumber available for local home building.
   "We went to the San Piedro (sic) Lumber Company to inquire about lumber. We found we could buy a solid plank of kiln dried redwood 20 feet long, 24 inches wide, and 3 inches thick for $40. We purchased the plank and cut it in two so we would each have a 10-foot board," recalled Higgins

LEFT: Delbert "Bud" Higgins and Gene Belshe with their first boards. Higgins wanted everyone to "see the coast from the top of a wave." (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives; also Huntington Beach Lifeguards, Images of America, Arcadia Publishing)

   The boards absorbed so much water after hours of daily surfing, that Higgins and Belshe put them in a room in the "Saltwater Plunge" used for drying towels, to help dry them out.   He described the boards as being slippery and hard to maneuver, and that getting hit with one meant certain injury, often requiring stitches. 

THE PLUNGE - The Saltwater Plunge was located on the north side of the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1922.  Beach goers could enjoy a swim without worrying about the big waves that later made Huntington Beach famous. (Photo, Library of Congress)

  Higgins confirmed Carroll's account of using telephone poles, "We also found that in the rural part of the city the telephone company had old lines using 4 by 6 inch redwood poles that were weather beaten and light. We traded them for our new planks and made the boards out of the old poles having them planed to thinner planks." 

   As surfing took off along the coast, there were a variety of jerry-rigged boards.  Higgins recalled some "made wood frame works and covered them with metal, soldering the seams to make them waterproof. They sounded like a can bouncing on the pavement when ridden on a wave and were not too successful."

BOARDS UP - Carrying a board was the first test of fitness.  Huntington Beach Longboard Crew at a surfing contest, circa 1938. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   According to, Higgins is reported to have surfed the Huntington Beach pier "while standing on his head."   Early surfers were allowed to jump off the pier with their boards, to save a little time and effort paddling out.  

   As reported in Historic Huntington Beach's July 4, 2013,  post, one of Higgins' famous feats of daring for the annual celebration was to set himself on fire and dive off the pier.  (We feel compelled to remind those readers who self-identify as knuckleheads: none of these stunts are allowed any more.)

THE ONE AND ONLY - Duke Kahanamoku at a surf contest ceremony near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1963. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

SURF CULTURE - By the 1960s, surfing had attracted a huge following and a distinct So Cal culture.  Generations of Huntington Beach residents learned as children and continue to surf into their golden years. (Test photos, City of Huntington Beach archives, circa 1963)
FIFTY YEARS AGO - Crowds gather for a surfing contest near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1963. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives) 

 Left: A young surfer with a hand-crafted wooden board, circa 1928.  Oil wells that once lined the coastal highway in Huntington Beach can be seen in the background. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)   

   A century after the first splash of boards near the pier, Huntington Beach retains an unabashed fondness for surfers.  Welcome visitors, to the U.S. Open of Surfing.  

   While you're here, visit our Surfing Museum,, and stroll our Surfing Walk of Fame   

Above and below: Opening day of the U.S. Open of Surfing, surfers in the junior men's competition make it look easy.  (Photos courtesy of Mark Bixby, July 20, 2013; See more of Mark Bixby's photos at his public Facebook page~you must be logged in to Facebook to view~

HISTORIC DOWNTOWN HUNTINGTON BEACH WALKING TOUR STOP #21:  The Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum is housed in a 1935 Deco/Moderne building at 411 Olive Avenue, just a few steps northwest of Main Street.  Walk inland up Main Street from the pier, turn left on Olive and find the Museum a few steps down the street.  Don't be surprised if there is a surf band playing in the parking lot.  Walking tour maps are available at the kiosk at the foot of the pier.

WEBCAM MINI VACATION - Can't visit in person?  View the Huntington Beach pier area on four different webcams at HBCams,

ONE OF THE LAST SURF SHACKS - Learn a little more about the Higgins family: The Gordie House

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.   

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

July 4: Our "grandiose" celebration

ABOVE: Ladies liberty, A star-spangled 1908 July 4th float in Huntington Beach.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   A tradition since 1904, the Huntington Beach July 4th parade is billed as the largest west of the Mississippi.  Adopting this day as our own prior to the City's incorporation in 1909, July 4th has featured some pretty spectacular stunts and events.

   Fireworks were a part of early celebrations, the 1905 and 1910 shows known to have been provided by the Japanese community in nearby Wintersburg Village.  The 1905 fireworks show was held on a baseball field in the downtown, most likely the site of Main Street's Triangle Park (which had a field and held night baseball games).  

The Huntington Beach baseball team, circa 1910, part of the Orange County baseball league and a featured attraction on July 4.  Huntington Beach's first mayor, Ed Manning, was the team's manager.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   Five years after the first fireworks show, the growing village of Huntington Beach added to local attractions with the saltwater plunge and bathhouse near the pier. 

Notes found in the Orange County Archives.

   For the 1909 celebration, the first year of Huntington Beach's incorporation, the Los Angeles Herald reported the day's events:
  • 10 a.m. - Swimming contest, foot of Main Street; prize, bathing suit.
  • 10:30 a.m. - Balloon ascension on Main Street in front of the Huntington Beach News.
  • 11 a.m. - Exercises at pavilion; orations by Ben F. Bledsoe of San Bernardino, H.S. Hadsall, secretary of Southern California Sugar Company. Music by Fullerton concert band.
  • 1 p.m. - Exhibition drill by I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) canton no. 18 of Santa Ana, Ocean and Main Street.
  • 1:30 p.m. - Foot races, Ocean Avenue; free-for-all 100 yard race, prize bathing suit; girls' race, prize pair of shoes; boys' race, prize suit of clothes; three-legged race, prize value of $2.50.
  • 2:30 p.m. - Automobile races on the beach.
  • 3 p.m. - Tug-of-war on the beach, Westminster vs. Huntington Beach; prize box of cigars.
  • 3:20 p.m. - Saddle horse race on the beach; prize lap robe.
  • 3:25 p.m. - Slow mule race on the beach; prize whip.
  • 3:30 p.m. - Chariot race, on Orange Avenue, Ballory vs. Bailey.
  • 4 p.m. - Launch race, Jigger vs. Peanut.
  • 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. - Concert by Columbia band of Santa Ana, at the pavilion.
  • 8 p.m. - Dance at pavilion.  Music by Bannse orchestra.
  • 8:30 p.m. - Magnificent display of fireworks on the pier.  Music by Huntington Beach band.
ABOVE: The bandstand near the pier, as it looked circa 1917. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   By the 1930s, the City continued the fireworks show over the Pacific Ocean to provide a safer viewing experience.  However, there was a little hitch now and then, as Harry "Cap" Sheue recalled (the Huntington Beach High School stadium off Main Street is named after this favorite coach).

"Magnificent bedlam": Harry "Cap" Sheue recalls a memorable July 4 fireworks show. (Public Ceremony in Private Culture, Debra Gold Hansen and Mary P. Ryan, from Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II, University of California Press, 1991)

   The City's July 4 committee recalls another exciting feature of Huntington Beach's  celebrations from that same time period, "In the late 1930s, the city’s first lifeguard and fire chief, Delbert “Bud” Higgins had a trick that no one has since imitated."

   "He would don a firesuit, cover his face with petroleum jelly, soak himself with alcohol, light a match and dive in a fiery ball from a 50-foot platform high above the pier into the water below."  

(Editor's note: Do not attempt, this will get you locked up in the hoosegow today.)

Left: Delbert "Bud" Higgins--the City's first lifeguard and fire chief--enjoying his later years as a local celebrity with bathing beauties near the Huntington Beach pier, circa 1940. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)
   By the 1960s, authors Debra Gold Hansen and Mary P. Ryan report the Huntington Beach July 4 parade was described in local news reports as "easily the most pretentious and grandiose celebration unleashed anywhere in Orange County."  Thank you, we own it.  

   Happy July 4th!   

All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.   

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Grunion run time!

ABOVE: The mythical grunion run at Huntington Beach, circa 1940.  Visitors often think we're pulling their leg, along the lines of submarine races in the desert.  Rest assured, grunions are real.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

*UPDATED 2017*

   "Between the Orange County line and Newport Bay the highway is on an embankment, behind which extend miles of shallow tidal channels.  Spongy marshes are dotted with tufted islands of salt grass. White cranes stand solemnly on long legs in the shallow water, or wing slowly across the waste of marshy islands.

   This shore is one of the most frequently visited by schools of grunion, little smelt-like fish of the silversides family that run up on the sand to spawn during spring and summer.  It is the only fish that spawns in this extraordinary manner, and it does so only on Southern California beaches."
                                                                                                    Federal Writers Project, 1941

   Some people run with the bulls.  But here, we prefer grunions.

   At the turn of the last century Californians began gathering at the beaches on the nights that spawning grunion swam to shore, a silvery mass of fishyness spread across the sand.  It was such a unique sight, it caught the attention of the the Federal Writers Project, Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and Its Environs, ("environs" meaning those of us in the boonies outside the City of Angels).

   The Federal Writers Project observed beach goers in the 1930s used "all sorts of improvised equipment--small nets, kitchen sieves, sink strainers, window screens, baskets and what not" to catch the slippery, tiny fish.  The "crowds of amateur fisherman (would) bring picnic suppers and build bonfires on the sand" as part of the night's expedition.

California Grunion (Image, Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Game, 1985)

   More regulated today to prevent overfishing, grunion running remains a beloved Southern California beach culture tradition.  For many, it was the first nighttime adventure that allowed them to stay up past bedtime.

   That was the case for Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, who remembers as a child it was a big deal to be at the beach at night.  Her family called it "going grunion hunting" or "grunioning" and warmed themselves at a fire pit on the beach.

 "I remember living in La Mirada  and taking night time trips as a child  to catch grunion at Huntington Beach State Beach.  We just grabbed them with our hands. My mom fried them in corn meal I think...They were crispy."
                                                    Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman


   Grunion running occurs at night, shortly after a full moon.  No grunion "taking" or catching is allowed during April and May, to protect the peak spawning season.  However, observation is allowed during those months.  Come June through August, the midnight run starts again.

   To put another spin on this, the Los Angeles Times once told readers "forget Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's famous roll in the sand. Grunions are once again flinging themselves on California beaches" (California's grunion have voyeurs running to the beach, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1994).   

   Like sea turtles, grunion head for the sand to lay their eggs, allowing the ocean to push them onto the beach.  With each wave, there are a few seconds to catch a handful of grunion before they wash back out to sea.  Grunion runners literally dash back and forth like sandpipers to catch the dancing, flipping fish.  You will be a sandy, salty mess by the end of the night.  

ABOVE: A bit of light sets the silvery grunion aglow at the Bolsa Chica State Beach. (Photo courtesy of David Carlberg, Huntington Beach resident and author, 2009)

   David Carlberg, a Huntington Beach local and author of Bolsa Chica-Its History from Prehistoric Times To The Present, recalls a night he and his wife, Margaret, witnessed a grunion run at Bolsa Chica State Beach.

   "We wandered up and down the beach for about an hour and not a grunion in sight. About to give up when about midnight, as if a gate was opened,  the beach near the north side of the inlet suddenly glittered with thousands of spawning grunion," recalls Carlberg.  "The spectacle extended over several hundred feet along the beach and lasted for at least a half hour, then it faded as quickly as it appeared. Since none of us had a fishing license, all we could was watch."

   For many, running with grunion is enough.  Catching them is akin to catching the greased pig at a country fair.  For those who catch a few, they'll be warming up a frying pan sometime after midnight.  The traditional preparation being a dusting of cornmeal, salt, flour, and into a fry pan with a little hot oil.

   "College days at CSULB, a group of us went down to the beach on a bright evening with little surf. I lived in Seal Beach with a roommate and we wanted to see if the grunion tasted good so we headed to the beach with a few friends. We had buckets and scooped up the little buggers by hand, I probably had 2 or 3 cups full. Went back home and got out the fry pan, a little oil, salt & pepper and we cooked them...they are very small and very boney, don't think they will catch on as a meal from the sea."
               Huntington Beach resident Karen Jackle, advising visitors not to expect a big meal out of it.
   Cookbook author Marion Cunningham writes about World War II-era grunion runs on Orange County's coast (Grunion Hunter's Delight, Los Angeles Times, 1998), "We would wait for hours on the beach, sitting around our fires, drinking beer--or the popular drink of the day, sloe gin--and eating potato chips. When we were lucky and the grunion came--it always seemed to be around midnight--they shimmered silver in the moonlight, almost as if they were dancing on the beach."

   "We would walk into the shallow surf with a bucket and capture lots of grunion in no time," continues Cunningham.  "By 2 a.m., the grunion had disappeared and, wet and tired, we would return to the house with our buckets full of grunion. I would fry them right then, and we would eat them with French bread and salad."
ABOVE: The bluesy Grunion Run by Frank Zappa, The Hollywood Persuaders, circa 1963.  Listen at

   If you're not into bare-handed fishing and after-midnight meals, not to worry.  Grunion running often is a "...good excuse for us to have a beach party and social activity...with the fish being an interest but not a major quest" notes an online site.


   "When we were all about 18 or 19 years old, we would go down to the beach with our boyfriends.  They had buckets they would put the grunion in, my girlfriend and I would grab a handful of grunion, run down the beach and let them go!  They would get so mad at us! We had some great times!"
                       Barbara Haynes, Chair, Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board,  describing her teenage "catch and release" method.


LEFT: Several episodes of the 1970s television show, The Beverly Hillbillies, featured episodes about grunion runs.  New to California, in The Grunion Invasion, the Clampetts gear up to fight Grunion, who they believe to be an invading enemy.    

   Huntington Beach author and columnist Chris Epting recalls being at the beach on the same night as fellow writer David Carlberg, when ..."all of a sudden, a motto change from 'Surf City' to 'Grunion City' seemed like it might be in order" (On the grunion hunt, Huntington Beach Independent, June 11, 2009).

   "Driving past the beach the day after the (grunion) run was surreal," recalls Epting, author of Huntington Beach: Then and Now (Arcadia).  "If only those joggers and bike riders knew what had been there just several hours before; swimming, slithering and spawning, while most of the city slept."

  Epting offers some tips for first-time grunioners: "Dress warm.  Wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet.  Bring a flashlight, but try not to use it until you know that the grunion have arrived. They will shy away from light and noise."  Remember, this is a romantic night for the grunion.  Epting's beach guide suggested looking for an isolated, gently sloping beach.

ABOVE: Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beach, just north of Huntington City Beach, offers an organized grunion run with beach parking.  (Image,

   If you want to take part in a Historic Huntington Beach right of passage,  Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beach offers an organized grunion run with California State Parks.  

GRUNION RUNS schedule for 2017 can be found on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website at

   State Parks asks you meet at the Lifeguard Headquarters at Bolsa Chica State Beach for a presentation first.  Park before 9 p.m., before the parking gates close.  You must have a California fishing license. 

One more advantage of running with grunions vs. bulls: they fit in the skillet.  In 2011, the OC Weekly "Stick a Fork In It" blog posted some recipes for grunion that reflect Southern California's diverse cuisine, from fish sauce to tacos,