A Page from History: 1934 Pioneers Picnic and Barbecue celebrated summer in Ocean Beach
The 41st Ocean Beach Street Fair has been given the year off (for good behavior) this summer, so we all have a year to wait for the resumption of that well-loved tradition.
However, the idea of a big OB fest to punctuate a seaside summer did not originate in 1979. No sir. The summer of 1934 saw an ambitious group of local old-timers partnering with the Pioneer Society of San Diego to hold the Ocean Beach Pioneers Picnic and Barbecue “at and near the merry-go-round building on Abbott Street,” at the foot of Santa Monica Avenue, where the parking lot is today next to the lifeguard station.
A San Diego Electric Railway maintenance flat car, repurposed as a float complete with bathing beauties, toured the city to promote the picnic and barbecue. Events scheduled included a pageant, games and races. The famous Bonham Bros. Boys Band performed in the afternoon. The barbecue dinner was scheduled for 6 p.m., and later in the evening, “dancing in the street.”
San Diego Historical Society President L.A. Wright spoke, as did “Col.” D.C. Collier (the father of Ocean Beach), who recalled early OB as “the pioneer picnicking place for all Southern California.”
If you wanted to sit down at the event, you could reserve a spot at a table by calling Mary Near or Mary Varney, mother of “Beach Town” author Ruth Varney Held. All were welcome, and those with “Spanish or American costumes” were invited to wear them for the occasion.
San Diego Union reporter Forrest Warren interviewed several of the “OB pioneers” in attendance, and their reminiscences paint a lovely portrait of the beach community’s early years. Ocean Beach businessman and Pioneers Picnic and Barbecue committee chairman Frank McElwee first came to OB for his health in 1905. He recalled that he had walked out to Ocean Beach from “Selwyn Junction” (Rose Canyon) and camped on the beach for seven years in the neighborhood of the well, which he described as being close to the 1934 picnic site.
“To show what a sparsely inhabited place Ocean Beach (and all Point Loma, in fact) was, the first time I voted there were only six of us voters and the only precinct was on the bay side in a store kept by ... Joe Lial. We six sat there all day, but no one else showed up!”
McElwee started the popular Ocean Beach auto court Camp Holiday, now known as the Surfside Cottages at the bottom of Niagara Avenue, just above the pier.
Jean S. Parmalee of Del Mar Avenue came to Ocean Beach in 1910. “There was a great sand hill,” she recalled, “a sand dune across the way where Dr. Compton built his house, and this dune and others were covered with the lovely sand verbena and the mesembryanthemum. ... The lot back of me looked like a Persian carpet. It was beautiful. Everyone who came to see us was charmed with the wonderful beauty of the place.”
Joseph L. Hilliard of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard remembered that there were only a few permanent residents in Ocean Beach when he first moved to town in 1894. “People used to come out to camp in the summer and they would go back to town leaving a lot of their equipment here. Cottages and parts of houses and all sorts of shacks were moved around from place to place. It was a place of temporary arrangements during those first years.”
Chester Gunn of Kensington began coming to Ocean Beach as early as 1900. “Many years ago, I drove the tallyho [horse-drawn coach] from Kelley’s Livery Stable in San Diego to take parties over to Ocean Beach for picnics. Perhaps it was 35 years ago. In the summer such parties would be taken over frequently. I remember that we took the children from a little mission school on Columbia Street in two tallyhos, and those children had a wonderful picnic on the sand dunes. Going swimming and eating their lunches on the beach. There were no paved highways in those days.”
Gunn described the route taken by the Tallyhos as going south on present-day Rosecrans Street to Macaulay Street and over to Ocean Beach via the route traversed by present-day Nimitz Boulevard. “We went over what we called the dike and out along Point Loma to the old Nevin place and then swung through that canyon coming into Ocean Beach from the north.”
Annie B. Mulville of Del Mar Avenue came to Ocean Beach as a little girl in 1905. She remembered when there were finally enough children in OB (12!) to start a school.
“There was not a street laid out when we came here, cutting across the chaparral wherever we pleased,” she said. “Sometimes we put an extra seat in our little wagon and went on exploration trips over the point. I remember a party of us going that way out toward the lighthouse, taking turns riding and walking.”
Carl Schroder of West Point Loma Boulevard first started coming to Ocean Beach “when the old Cliff House (Hotel) was the only building on the beach.”
Schroder was excited to talk to other old-timers about “the need for a good fishing pier here ... one of the best fishing grounds around San Diego. People from inland places certainly would patronize such a pier ... and deep-sea fishing from a fine fishing pier would be one of the best attractions San Diego could offer tourists and citizens.”
Though Schroder sounds clairvoyant in his remarks, the idea of a fishing pier had been a hot topic in Ocean Beach for many years. Construction began on “the steel pier” at the foot of Del Monte Avenue in 1941 but was halted during World War II. The project was abandoned and torn down in the early 1950s.
It wouldn’t be until the summer of 1966 that OB would finally get its fishing pier.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.