By Jennifer Erickson
Born in 1901, Blanche Smith, nee Clapp, grew up in Fresno where her father bought and restored farmhouses. She first came to Laguna Beach as a child in 1912 to visit an uncle, Fred Clapp, who owned the general store on Forest Avenue. The family continued to visit Laguna from time to time until the early 1920’s when Blanche’s father became sickly and decided to retire here.
At the time, the land now occupied by the Coast Highway from here to Newport Beach was covered in lima bean fields. The Canyon Road, the only way into Laguna, was a narrow holly-lined drive.
According to Mrs. Smith, in an oral history told to Michael Paul Onorato in 1989 for a project conducted by California State University, Fullerton, it was also a time when “everyone had cisterns [for water] and little oil stoves and no one had any gas or electricity.” Furthermore, if you wanted to get a dress or material to make one you had to go to Santa Ana, a bucolic drive through farm country. The nearest high school back then was in Tustin.
While the Clapps moved to Laguna Beach with no plans to go into business, Mr. Clapp and his wife inadvertently became boarding house proprietors almost as soon as they bought their house. Having scouted the area for a place to live, they had settled upon a home on Ocean Avenue, near the corner of Beach (roughly where the Bank of America parking lot is today). They made a down payment on it, and the salesman allowed them to take possession immediately, happily ignorant of the fact that the owner had given a key to some of his relatives from Los Angeles so that they could stay in the house for the weekend.
When the unwitting Angelenos showed up on the Clapp’s recently acquired doorstep, Mrs. Clapp made the best of an awkward situation. Since the house was large enough to accommodate everyone, instead of turning them away, she said they were welcome to stay with them. After that incident, word got out that the Clapps were willing to take boarders and they went along with it – a propitious decision considering the fact that their daughter Blanche eventually found her husband, Mr. Smith, among their boarders!
Blanche Smith spoke fondly of those early days in 1920’s Laguna, when she also was in her 20s. And while her descriptions of local pastimes back then at first seem quaint, they were not so different from what many of us do today.
Besides Cabrillo’s dancehall, which was quite a popular destination for young people, much of the recreation revolved around the beach. “There were lots of parties in town, especially on the beach. They would go grunion hunting on the beach during the grunion run. There seemed to be so many things for people to do,” Mrs. Smith said. And on the weekends, “…it seemed that everybody met their neighbors on the beach every Sunday. We all wanted to enjoy the beach. The summer visitors would pack a picnic lunch to eat on the beach. No one wanted to stay in their rooming houses to eat a Sunday meal.
Another amusement was to go on airplane rides in a plane that came to town on Sundays, “a regular old crate,” Smith reminisced. “It landed at the present day high school field. The pilot would go out over the ocean and do the ‘falling leaf.’ He would ask if you could swim because we were falling. It was lots of fun. You would think that he was going to hit the water. It was just a crate. It was a funny old plane.”
Back then, such a ride cost about $10, which was no small amount. “But it was so much fun,” said Smith. “We were probably in the air for about half an hour. I remember that he flew right over the house we lived in. My mother was out in the yard. He flew so low that it looked like I could take her hat if I wanted to. We found fun in things like that.”
While present day residents might wander downtown to see a movie in the theater, Lagunans in the 20’s and 30’s often watched movies being filmed at nearly the same location. In fact, many locals were used as extras in the movies. Mrs. Smith recalled a particularly funny incident involving some local boys. “…A movie director wanted several little boys to fall naturally. But the boys couldn’t do it, so the director told them to go down and play on the beach for a while and practice falling in the sand. While they were away, he stretched wires in the grass where he wanted them to fall. Then he called them back and asked that they run across the grass. Of course, they caught their feet in the wires and fell naturally. The town would get a kick watching them do things like that.”
And then there was the time it rained on Forest Avenue in the summer. “One year, they were going to have a ‘hick’ dance down on the beach. Everyone was going to get caught in a rain storm. Well, it was in the middle of the summer, we wondered how in the world the director was going to make it rain. I don’t know how they did it, but they put a great big hose in the ocean over near Forest Avenue and they had big wind machines in the back of the nozzle. If you were going down Forest Avenue, you would think that it was pouring rain. So we went down to the dancehall soaking wet and enjoyed ourselves. It was fun.”
After a lengthy courtship due to the fact that she had to help take care of her very ill father, Blanche married Mr. Smith in 1932. She and her husband moved to Los Angeles where they lived for the next 21 years, with frequent visits to her mother in Laguna Beach.
Then and Now
In 1935, Mrs. Clapp acquired the house at 278 Ocean Avenue that is currently known as the Murphy-Smith Bungalow and that is kept as a historical site by the Laguna Beach Historical Society. In 1953, the Smiths returned to Laguna to live with Mrs. Clapp because, as Blanche described the situation, “…my husband was an invalid and very ill. My mother was old and she owned this little house, so I thought that I would come down here and look after both of them. My husband was ill for 12 years. My mother died in 1959.”
Blanch Smith remained in the little house at 278 Ocean Avenue until she died in June of 1990. So it turned out that she had given her oral history to Mr. Onorato only about a year before she died.
When the interviewer asked Mrs. Smith about how different the Laguna of 1989 was from the Laguna she remembered from the 1920’s, she singled out two things. First was that “there are houses where no one dreamed they would be before.” This corresponded to something she mentioned earlier in the interview, which was that during her early days in Laguna “…one of the Brooks brothers [Smith’s great uncles were Nate and Will Brooks] said that the hills were going to be filled with houses one day. A lot of people thought that he was silly since there was plenty of land on the flatlands.”
The other difference Mrs. Smith noted was parking. “The car traffic is bad, parking is a major problem, and people can’t find a place to park.” Whereas in the 1920’s and 30’s, “there were plenty of places to park…”
But in spite of the spread of new homes and the parking problems, Mrs. Smith remarked that Laguna Beach had been “a nice place to live.”