The Thirties

Sometime during the mid-’30s, rumors began buzzing of a “fish camp,” with incredible surf, located on a beach in an obscure; desolate place called San Onofre.

As surfing’s popularity had increased at spots like Long Beach flood control, Corona Del Mar and Palos Verdes’ Bluff Cove, so had the idea of searching for new breaks. In those days, riding 11-14 foot planks and paddleboards at a dumping beachbreak like Hermosa was a challenging feat. So when word got back to the surfers at Corona Del Mar and Palos Verdes, about a gently sloping, long-peeling wave with size and consistency, they were immediately intrigued. Depending where you lived in SoCal, the drive averaged one to three hours, down the two-lane coast highway to get to ‘Nofre. It was an inland cruise by way of San Juan Capistrano through the citrus groves from which Orange County got its name– there was no highway along the Laguna coast at the time.

 

The chaparral-covered valleys and canyons surrounding San Onofre’s beach were owned by the Santa Margarita Ranch, which dates back to the Mexican Land Grant era of the 1830s. During the 1930s, the Haven Ranch leased the farm property across the railroad tracks from the beach. The Santa Margarita Ranch also leased out the small piece of sea level, beachfront property at San Onofre to a not-so-friendly (read: gun-toting) chap who first started the “San Onofre Beach Fishing Camp.”

The camp was quite popular with anglers, who reportedly used to pull in massive catches of sizable corbina, sea bass and halibut. The knee-deep tide pools produced an abundant seabed of clams as well. By ’37, a local San Clemente resident, Frank Ulrich, took over the lease for the camp and promptly added a Texaco gas station and café’ on the east side of the coastal highway. A handful of consistent waveriders were allowed to frequented the beach - as long as they coughed up their “two-bits” (25 cents), of course. And, for 50 cents, one could stay for the whole weekend.

“Times were tough in those days, money–wise,” remembers 86-year-old E.J Oshier, who still frequents ‘Nofre to this day. “It was still in the depression days, see? Money was hard to come by, and some of us guys were coming all the way down from the Palos Verdes area. So we’d get a few of us to pitch in enough for some gas and jug of wine.” Oshier adds with a smile. “That’s why we didn’t spend money on surfboards or trunks back then. If any of us had [money] we were off to ‘Nofre.

Pulling into Ulrich’s camp, you’d turn off the highway at the train depot and cross the tracks by way of a rutted dirt road. On the other side of them was a small shack with a meager selection of food and camping supplies. Ulrich would take your money and hand you a parking pass. “It was a pleasure to beat him out of 25 cents when you could,” laughs 80-year-old Art Beard. More often than not, they slipped in for free, eluding a distracted Ulrich, who was usually preoccupied by his gas station or café’. From there, the road dropped down to the beach, past the dirt lot with a few shabby, wooden cabins Ulrich had built to rent out to the weekend fishermen. Early on, the surf casters there despised the growing number of waveriders and wanted them barred from the camp, claiming they were nuisances and were scaring the fish away. They also pointed out to Ulrich that the rocks along the sea floor there were terribly dangerous and made for unsafe swimming conditions. But the camp’s proprietor paid no attention - times were slow and he needed any sort of business he could drum up. The surfers, of course, weren’t going anywhere. They already knew that those very rocks made for one of the longest, smoothest rides in Southern California. Over the next few years, the number of surfers increased while the presence of fishermen slowly dwindled.

“There used to be these pilings there, right about where the entrance to The Point is today. You couldn’t drive all the way to Old Man’s,” remembers then lifeguard Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who (along with “Storm Surf” Taylor and Lloyd Baker) was among the first San Diego surfers to head up to San Onofre. “That was in about ’36, but I think by ’37 or so, Lorrin Harrison and some of the fellas had cut [the wooden posts] down so many times that Ulrich finally gave up on denying surfers vehicle access to the beach down by Kukae Canyon.”

Kukae Canyon, that well-known arroyo (which no longer exists since the Edison nuclear power plant filled it in for a parking lot) was located just a 100 feet or so north of where the shack at Old Man’s is today. Named after the Hawaiian work for “shit,” Kukae Canyon was where everybody took care of “business” until outhouses were installed some 15 years later. The small canyon, which was the mouth of a dried-up creekbed, was what helped spit out some of the cobblestone rocks that formed the mellow, sloped rock bottom.

“I was glad when they cut down the pilings at ‘Nofre. Before that, it was a heck of a walk with those old, 90-pound redwood planks,” says 84-year-old Leroy Grannis, who used to come down with guys like “Hoppy” Schwartz from the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. “We’d camp out there for days at a time and just sleep on the beach. During the week you would get it all to yourself; but on the weekend, all sorts of characters showed up. Pete Peterson used to come down, what a paddler he was.”

“In ’37 and ’38, you had guys coming from all over to surf ‘Nofre – it was paradise,” says Oshier. “Someone always had a guitar or ukulele, and after we surfed our brains out, someone would pass the bottle and we’d play Hawaiian music on into the night. We’d wake the next day and do it all over again. There was never really any friction. Nobody cared if you shoulder-hopped; there was never any question of whose wave it was. We just all went…I tell ya, we had an out and out ball down there – it was the best time of our lives.”

“We were all just surfers,” explains 84-year-old Paul “Willard” Luton. “We barely ate anything all day and stayed out in the water for hours. We’d come in and someone always had a fire going – either a tire or some bits of dried shrubs. I also remember a lot of us wearing trench coats we got from Goodwill for 50 cents. It would be pretty cold there in the morning in those days.”

By 1939, the “Nofre lifestyle was well established, and so were the group of guys that were considered regulars. Some of them included: Eddie “The Mayor” McBride, Don Smith, Barney Wilkes, George Brignell, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, George “Peanuts” Larson, Dexter Woods, E.J. Oshier, “Laho Lio,” Paul “Willard Luton, John Waters and more.

Surfing Clubs became popular in the mid-‘30’s, and organizations such as Palos Verdes and the Kekala surfriders (from Orange) regularly frequented ‘Nofre. However, there was never really an official San Onofre Club at that time. “The real ‘Nofre guys didn’t care about a Club,” explains Oshier. “They went there to get away from that. They didn’t want organization, rules, bylaws, meetings and such. I mean, you knew who the real “Nofre guys were. There, everybody was a member, or nobody was a member, because nobody cared. You ust wanted to catch another wave, play another Hawaiian song, and, for some, have another sip of wine.”

In the late ‘30s, few would argue that there was no better place on the planet to live the surfing lifestyle. But the approaching storm clouds of world war would temporarily tear these wave riders from their idyllic paradise for years to come.

Next: The Forties

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