(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…