Marijuana-fueled party featuring nudity and pre-Rapture sex excluded from local historian’s book detailing the early days of Ocean Beach

by on June 2, 2011 · 16 comments

in History, Media, Ocean Beach, Popular

(Author’s note – while this is a brief write-up on Ruth Varney Held’s Beach Town: Early Days in Ocean Beach, – originally published in 1975 and updated in 1984 and 1990 – a history that gracefully glosses over any social improprieties, this article’s title has been slightly modified in order to shamelessly trick you into clicking through to the full post…)

Having been itching to read a book recommended to me several weeks ago at a Rag-sponsored picnic commemorating the Collier Park Riots, I finally headed into the library last week to pick up a copy of Beach Town…delayed by at least two weeks’ searching for and fretting over my lost library card that ended up costing me only $2 to replace. The book is out of print and used copies are retailing for as much as $35 at Amazon, but the OB branch library has at least three copies on hand.

The Varney family came west and landed in OB in 1912, when Ruth was six years old – she’d remain in town another 84 years until her death, becoming a respected teacher and local historian. While her writing varies quite a bit stylistically from the contemporary, Held proves quite capable in mixing historical research from the 1850s on with her own personal recollections of events as a child in the teens and twenties. I found it amusing to read her references to “the eighties” and “the nineties,” having to remind myself to add an extra hundred years to the time frames.

Having already taken an interest in the area’s past, and a lot of it having drawn me to raise a family in this adopted hometown only some three years ago, many of the tales were ones I was already familiar with – Palmer’s shack (or Palmiro’s – the first permanent residence in the OB area, now the pier parking lot), the hucksters Billy Carlson and Frank Higgins, the developer David Collier, A.G. Spalding’s first efforts to create a park at Sunset Cliffs, Katherine Tingley and her followers in the almost cult-like Theosophy organization (creators of the compound that eventually became Point Loma Nazarene University), the Wonderland amusement park (whose animal collection became the initial menagerie of the San Diego Zoo). Here, Held’s extensive research provides a much richer picture of these developments and the people behind them than I’d found previously.

More stories concerned events and places I haven’t yet found addressed in other texts – the old fishing bridge to Mission Beach, the small duck hunters’ encampment on the mud flats before old False Bay was refashioned into today’s Mission Bay Aquatic Park, and histories of the local schools come to mind. Another major theme of OB’s development is its connection to Old Town, when San Diego comprised two competing cities and Alonzo Horton’s New Town residents took their holidays on Coronado. There’s also an abundance of detail providing a snapshot into the lives of our town’s citizens a hundred years or so ago – some great first-person perspective was provided.

Not to be missed either are quite a few archived photos of the old days, scattered throughout the book. While we’ve all seen turn-of-the-last-century fashion, it’s easy to get caught up looking at pictures of places you’re familiar with and trying to overlay a then-versus-now map in your mind – there’s even a shot of the Jones Wave Motor, addressed in a Hitchhiker’s Guide post here a couple months back.

Even without photos, some of the descriptions of the old landmarks are intriguing in and of themselves… and I was amused to find out David Collier, who Held credits as being the true “father of Ocean Beach,” had his cliff-side estate just up the street from where my present day apartment sits.

A final couple chapters were added after the book’s 1975 completion, for fresh printing runs in 1984 and 1990. While the main focus of the text addresses early history through 1930, these period commentaries give a good comparison to the values and popular activities of the time. While not alone amongst her generation in lamenting the changing morals of those that followed, Held remains optimistic as to the human condition and shows considerable improvement in 1990 from her bleak state-of-the-beach report in 1984 (coincidentally about the time I first started coming to OB as a young boy for Sunday trips with my parents).

It’s going to sound hypocritical coming from a guy who was in last week for the first time in almost two years, but get out and use your library if you’re not doing it already! There are some real treasures and great people inside – like me, now that I’m officially over the e-reader revolution (much to the chagrin of my wife, since its little light was less annoying than my keeping a lamp lit in the bedroom until late).

Next up: finding some more literature on the gap between the ‘30s where Held leaves off and the ‘90s (of the 1900s variety) when I started to some degree living the history myself. If anyone wants to join me, the old archived copies of the Rag’s print version in the ‘70s are a great place to start…

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie June 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

Very nice review, Dave, even if you shamelessly promoted it with sex and rapturing drugs.


avatar OB Joe June 2, 2011 at 11:52 am

Damn! I must have been at the wrong parties all those times – no ‘nudity’ or ‘pre-Rapture sex’ at any of the ones I attended. Plenty of you-know-what though.


avatar editordude June 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Dear reader: please excuse Dave’s headline. He was merely responding to a running joke at our last staff meeting, that the most popular headlines in terms of hits have had the terms “nudity”, “marijuana”, or especially “rapture” in them.


avatar dave rice June 2, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Don’t forget ‘sex!’ :D


avatar ss June 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Ya got me


avatar OB Mercy June 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I only moved to OB two years ago, after visiting for about 30 yrs. I was lucky in that on my first visit to the OB Historical Society a little over a year ago, was a night that Ruth Held’s daughter was there speaking about her Mom and the book, “Beach Town.” When I mentioned that I was thrilled to finally be living here after all these years, her daughter (I don’t remember her name) came up and just gave me a copy of the book. I was blown away by that, and all the friendliness from everyone there. Coming from Los Angeles, this was a big deal! And being an archaeologist, I love historical pictures and stories. I feel I know so much more about OB because of this wonderful woman and her daughter.


avatar Lucy June 2, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Yeah, you could have got me with the words marijuana sex and nudity but I LOVE the Ruth Varney Held book which I am lucky to have with me here in NorCal. It takes me right back to the sea spray, cliffs and tide pools of halcyon days gone by.


avatar Kristin C. June 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Excellent post! Recently moved out of OB, and the book sounds fascinating. Going to have to go ahead and shell out the $35 to buy a copy (damn I miss the OB Library!), but it’s worth it to get some great historical observations of OB!


avatar Wireless Mike June 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm

This is a wonderful book, certainly the most authoritative book on OB history I have read. A must read for anyone interested in local history.

This book used to be displayed on the main counter at Paras Shop. My copy is the 1984 edition with a brown cover. I used to have the original edition, but it got lost somewhere along the way. As I recall, it had a blue cover.

I’m glad this book is still around and still being read. The book itself is part of the heritage of Ocean Beach.


avatar annagrace June 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Great post Dave! Sex, Rapture, Drugs & Libraries. Yessssss!


avatar Pat June 3, 2011 at 6:55 am

Ocean Beach Historical Society will be reprinting Beach Town.
We hope to have copies available by street fair.
They will be around $20 with proceeds benefitting O.B. Historical Society.
We would like to thank Mary Bishop (Ruth’s daughter) and Molly Allen (granddaughter) for making this possible.


avatar Allen Lewis June 3, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Marijuana-fueled party featuring nudity and pre-Rapture sex, that’s what was happening in OB in the early 60’s. I know that’s not the point of this story, but OB did have a lot of that going on. Who reading this post remembers the “School house” hang out and crash pad? I do have a question for one of you historians, what year was the plunge filled in with sand?


avatar Anne June 4, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I have the original Beach Town book and and pull it out often just to remember how it used to be. My family moved there in 1960…The beach was so wonderful then. Light golden sand at least a block out from Abbot st. The sand was so hot you had to stand on your beach towel to cool the toes. No pier yet, or those small jetties. There was a place that rented air rafts. Attached to a building next to the life guard station, there was a place that sold junk food. But the building was large and held a beautiful Carousel that hadn’t been used in years. You could only see it through dirty windows and cracks in the walls. The water had such a beautiful color. I remember young sailors that brought their cot sacks, filled them with the wind, knotted the the end and used them for body surfing. OB was the best beach ever back then. It changed a lot in the 60’s. So did I.


avatar Wireless Mike June 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm

As I recall, the carousel building was at the foot of Santa Monica Ave, where the parking lot is today. It was a rickety old wooden building. Being little kids, we thought the building looked spooky. The old lifeguard building was still there. It was the early 60’s.


avatar OB Mercy June 5, 2011 at 10:26 am

Hey Anne, do you, or anyone in your family have any pictures of this time period? The OB Historical Society would surely love to see them, as would everyone else.


avatar ANDREA June 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Just last summer, I bought two books @ a garage sale for 1.00 each. Keep looking !


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