Opinion: Finding Meaning

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An Early Laguna Preacher


The whales are passing in their timeless migration to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. This improbably leads to a story about an early Laguna preacher, the Riverside orange grower remembered as Captain Handy. Curious about this Captain Handy, I did some research.

Do you remember Herman Melville’s famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael”? Ishmael is the narrator in “Moby Dick,” the classic mid-1800s novel about men in small boats hunting whales. As the book opens, Ishmael attends church at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel. The preacher, a former whaler, tells of Jonah, swallowed by a whale, and introduces themes about life’s search for truth that are then explored in “Moby Dick.”

Laguna’s Captain Handy likely attended that same church, for I found him in the New Bedford Whaling Crew Lists from 1844 to 1864. This was during the boom time of whaling and Handy gained the title of ‘captain.’ As whales grew scarce ships traveled farther, making the arduous voyage around Cape Horn to winter breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, and finally through the Bering Strait to the summer feeding grounds off Alaska. By the 1870s the industry was in decline and the writing was on the wall: Captain Handy needed a new career.

The railroads in this time were advertising southern California’s sunny weather and offering cheap fares to promote their land holdings. Captain Handy reinvents himself from a mariner living near Plymouth, Mass. in the 1870 Census, to a horticulturist, growing oranges at Riverside, Calif. in the 1880 Census. It was an impressive career change—whaler to farmer.

Nineteenth century farmers labored to eke out a living but in Riverside the good times were rolling, thanks to a new crop—the Washington navel orange. A Brazilian import well suited to Riverside’s heat, navel oranges were harvested in winter leaving the summer free. To escape the summer heat, Riverside families began a love affair with Laguna Beach. 

When Laguna beachfront lots along the bluff between Main Beach and Sleepy Hollow were put on the market in the 1880s, an alert Riverside banker bought ten for his friends, starting an idyllic summer community. Laguna’s second beach cottage was built by Captain Benjamin B. Handy.

When the Riverside families came, they brought their faith with them. Church services were held in homes until they funded a town hall for a meeting place. That hall, grandly named the “Pavilion,” hosted dances on Saturday night and church the next morning. You could party on Saturday and repent on Sunday.

In an oral history of early Laguna, Josephine Yoch, daughter of the Laguna Hotel family, remembered Captain Handy as “an ardent amateur fisherman every day of the week… and the faithful persevering leader of the Community Sunday School.”

It was a good close to Captain Handy’s life story. Like the former-whaler preacher in Melville’s “Moby Dick,” he had an audience ready to explore “life’s search for truth.” There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip.  He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]

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