By Michelle Boyd
In early spring 1871, the Thurston family of eight left their home in Utah in search of government grant land in California. The nine-month journey involved a train ride to San Francisco, a boat ride to San Diego, and a journey by covered wagon with a six month stay in Bear Valley.
Down to their last $40 and one blue hen, the Thurston family left Bear Valley and drove the covered wagon through the town of Tustin and down Laguna Canyon, where they met a man fishing along the shore of Laguna who directed the family to government grant land four miles south in Aliso Canyon. It was late November 1871, almost exactly Joe Thurston’s third birthday.
Joe was the second to the youngest child and George, age 13, was the eldest child.
Arriving in Aliso Canyon, the family was delighted to come upon an abandoned cabin of 14 x 16 feet. Boards were laid out in front of the cabin for a 16-foot extension, which is where they pitched a tent. Food was abundant, consisting of rabbit, quail, and deer, as well as seafood. One day George shot eight quail with one shot. They had lighted on a gate with their heads all in line. Father left to work for Irvine Ranch and came back days later with a large red cow in exchange for payment.
Los Angeles and San Diego were considered the only real “markets,” as Santa Ana was only two years old at the time. It was so far to market that it was not profitable to haul anything except eggs, butter, and honey, so the family’s efforts were bent toward producing these items.
The family would frequently go to the ocean to bathe, the women going among the rocks where it was protected, while the men would go on around the point and bathe in the open ocean. It was many years before there was any danger that outsiders could observe them. On these occasions the family would bring back a bushel of mussels, which were excellent eating both in soup and fried.
Joe and his brothers were responsible for cultivating the fields, herding cattle, and keeping predators away from the crops and livestock. To do this, Joe spent many nights alone sleeping in the hills. Work was seven days a week, no Sundays or holidays. Birthdays came and went unnoticed. The only day to look forward was Christmas.
On Christmas the family always had a chicken dinner and did not have any work to do, except chores. The children also got a handful of peanuts and two or three cookies. One Christmas, Joe and brother Lafe got a little tin wagon about five inches long costing ten cents each. These were the only toys they ever had. Another Christmas Joe and brother Lafe were invited to turkey dinner and plum pudding at their neighbors, the Rosenbaums of Capistrano. Because the family had only one saddle, Joe being the youngest rode bareback. The trip was eight miles through the hills, and was a treat to look forward to because the Rosenbaums had two boys about the same age.
Joe was never without his McGauffey’s Reader, reading it frontward and backwards until threadbare. Sister Sadie would teach Joe spelling and punctuation. Initially, Joe had a real difficult time with silent letters, thinking that was just plain silly. Some years later, one of Joe’s neighbors who attended school, showed him how to use a pencil. He showed Joe how to multiply, divide, subtract and add. When Joe was in the field working he would practice juggling with figures so that he became very familiar with them.
One of the things that father wanted to impress on the family was that he was superior. One way he had of showing that superiority was by finding fault with other members of the family. If something was done differently then the way father expected he was free with the flat of his hand. He called it boxing one’s ears. Probably for this reason, Joe went through life with defective hearing.
Father was not a frontier type. He had many of the finest books that were published at the time and he reveled in them. The children were supposed to be satisfied with such childish stuff as he saw fit to hand out. At rare intervals the children would start playing in the evening. Before this had gone far they would hear the command, “Stop that noise and get your books!” Everything would be as quiet as a graveyard. Those books were as interesting as last year’s birds’ nests.
Father apparently did not like seeing the children enjoying themselves. Father once said, “If I can’t make my children love me, I’ll make them fear me!” Joe felt that he overlooked the fact that it would have been impossible to prevent the children from loving him if he had treated them right.
There were quite a number of people who had settled in Laguna Canyon and at the beach, but the family seldom saw any of them because it was too far to go.
Father came home one day and said a man named Frank Goff was building a cabin on our land down by the ocean, adding that he had told him where the property lines were and he was going to move the cabin. In a short time, Frank and his two brothers, Hubbard and Lee, along with their families, had located along the coast nearby. Frank and Hubbard (“Hub”) moved to the north of the Thurstons and Lee to the south. Hub was a blacksmith and the genius of the outfit. It was he who kept the picks sharp, the tires on the wagon wheels, and the plows in condition so farming could be done.
Hub had a fiddle, one he had made himself. About once a month, the families would get together at either home to dance. The boys all learned to play the violin and accordion, so they were never short of music for the few simple tunes that they knew. One of the entertainments that the families indulged in at this time was a Valentine’s party. Everyone would think up all the silly things they could that would make a rhyme. On Valentine’s eve everyone would gather at Hub’s place, and the valentines would all be put in a basket. Mrs. Goff took them out one at a time and read them aloud. This was one of the big events of the year to which all looked forward.
In the side hill near the Thurston homestead in Aliso Canyon around 1913 was a seepage. Father Thurston hired Hub Goff to drive a tunnel where a stream about the size of a pencil had developed. By building a dam in the tunnel, a 40-foot reservoir filled. To use it needed pipe, and pipe cost money. So the family continued to haul water.
Sometime later, son Joe acquired over 300 feet of pipe, borrowed some tools from Nate Brooks, to install a waterline bringing water to the barn and to the house.
People from the surrounding country came to Laguna Beach because it was an attractive place for a vacation. Henry Goff built some extra rooms on his house, turning it into a hotel. His son, Ammon, started a store in a tent on the beach. At this time, subdivisions were going on the market in outlandish places. People came in busses, wagons, buggies, on horseback and on foot to buy land that would sell like hotcakes regardless of its value. Henry Goff sold lots from his land for $25, but it was doubtful that this was on the oceanfront.
Nate Brooks had run a tunnel high up in the hills and developed a little water, which he had piped down. As his land adjoined that of Hub Goff’s, they went in together and started the town of Arch Beach.
The real estate market went bust because suddenly the banks stopped loaning money on real estate and started collecting on their loans. Frank and Lee Goff moved to Santa Ana to start a grocery business. Several other families who had lived in Laguna Canyon also left.
Three offspring of the Thurston family were of the age where they were entitled to a little social activity. They went to Capistrano a few times each year to enjoy a social dance. They also met some of those people on the beach two or three times a year and had a picnic. They either met at Shell Beach, where there is an autograph cave, or at Three Arches. The names of all those people were carved in the sand rock of Autograph Cave, but the rock was too soft to endure.
Joe’s brother George had reached his majority and had gone out to shift for himself. Soon after, brother Lafe (Lafayett), age 17, was ready to leave home too after taking a beating from his father over a difference of opinion as to the type of deer he had bagged. Joe felt he and Lafe should both leave. But if both were to leave, it would be hard on the rest of the family, so Joe stayed behind.
But Joe did not stand idle over father’s scolding brother Frank and slapping mother in the face. Eighteen at the time, he protested, telling his father this had gone far enough. Father hit Joe and then sat down, as if this would conclude the incident. Joe looked father in the eye and said, “Mother was right, and you’ll be sorry for this!” Father now realized his authority over his own household, where he had ruled as a dictator and a tyrant, had departed and would never be regained. Father gathered his things together and left the family, never returning. Two years later, he sent a letter agreeing to sign over the deed to mother.
Eventually, mother and the rest of the family moved to Santa Ana. Joe decided to stay on to work the farm alone, raising all types of produce, but the most successful crop was corn and melon. Joe gained a reputation for his superior melons, known as Thurston melons. Over the years, Joe had occasional help on the farm, including his sister and her husband, and various other couples. He acquired more land over the years as well.
A young student, Miss Marie Harding, came to Laguna to begin her career as a teacher. There were 25 children enrolled in the eight grades, with an average attendance of 15. She found herself tested by all sorts of pranks. One morning upon opening her desk she was greeted by a large snake that had been coiled up inside. At another time she found a horned toad sitting on her shoulder, which she pretended to enjoy very much and thereby gained the confidence of her pupils. The children learned to love and respect her, and she stayed with the school.
Meanwhile, the teacher married, but it proved an unhappy affair. She and her new husband moved to Los Angeles, where they remained for some time. Eventually, she returned and renewed her position as teacher, but on her own with two small girls, Virginia and Doris, to support. Over time, a crippled mother and a younger sister also came to rely on the support of the former Miss Harding, whose teacher’s salary was quite small. When her children would see Joe, they would climb on his wagon like all children did. Joe felt they showed in little ways that they liked him.
Marie would put on a play at the school house every Christmas. These plays were written and produced entirely by the teacher, who was also an actress. Joe recalls standing in the back of the room during a performance, as the seats had all been taken, and overhearing a remark by a 70-year-old in the audience. “I have seen school plays in several states in many cities, but I have never seen a school play put on so beautifully before anywhere.”
By this time the roads had been paved and Joe was hauling produce throughout the county with a car and trailer. In order to get by the hills and get a good start in the morning, Joe came to town the evening before. That gave Joe a chance to call on Marie. He told her one evening that he would like to help her with the little ones, and would build her a house if she would chose the location. She told him she enjoyed looking up to the hills and wondered whom they belonged to when she first arrived.
Marie chose a little knoll near the school house, and there they built a home, calling it “Dream Knoll.” Joe and Marie married on the fifteenth day of June, 1921, at the little church. The sun had been hidden for two weeks, but on that day emerged in all its glory to welcome the wedding party.
They spent a week on Catalina for their honeymoon. The island was a constant presence for Joe practically his entire life, but he had set foot on it before.
“It has been said that the artists made Laguna Beach, but that is not so,” Joe said. “The artists just discovered it. It is true that it has become known as the art colony, and this is a title for which the artists are entitled to full credit, but the artist who carved out this bit of coast line and laid the little range of hills just far enough back of it to make a cozy place for people to come and live, where they might enjoy the sunshine and the sea while being protected from the rough elements of the world, had completed his work before man came on the scene.”
The author is married to recently elected Council member Kelly Boyd, among the fourth-generation descendants of the original Thurston family. She excerpted a mid-century history written by Joe Thurston, one of the 13 offspring of his homesteading parents. George Thurston Sr.’s homestead tract in Aliso Canyon was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes and recorded in 1879. George Jr. and his brother Lafayett also claimed their own Laguna homestead tracts in 1891, according to Interior Department documents researched by Beryl Wilson Viebeck in 1996.
This article was initially published in January 2007.
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