Earl Shea

Interviewed and Transcribed by Kathy Morton – April 18, 2001

KM – Today is April 18, 2001.  I’m talking with Earl Shea about his early years in Seal Beach.  First of all, Earl, will you please state your name and address and have you ever used a nickname?

ES – My name is Earl Leo Shea at 242 14th Street in Seal Beach, 90740.  I had no nicknames.  My mother gave me the name of Earl so it couldn’t be nicknamed.

KM – When and where were you born, Earl?

ES –     I was born in a hospital on 5th Street in Downey, California, about one block down from the street where we lived at 242 5th Street on June 7, 1924.  My doctor had his office in the front part of his house across the street from the hospital, and his name was Dr. Welcome.

KM – Would you describe the area where you were born, the kind of town it was, and the living conditions?

ES – Well, I went to Downey Grammar School on 3rd Street behind our home and walked through a cornfield to school from kindergarten to the sixth grade and graduated to the junior high school.  Beyond the cornfield towards town was an alfalfa field.  We had a chicken coop in the backyard of our home.  When they irrigated the corn and alfalfa fields, I played in the water ditch that was directly behind our home.  The grammar school was torn down and is now a parking lot for the Downey Library and Theater.  The corn and alfalfa fields are now houses. 

I went downtown to the Saturday movies and was given fifteen cents, a dime for the movies and five cents for an ice cream cone or a candy bar.

KM – Were you near your grandparents, and what were their names and occupations?

ES – My grandmother on my mother’s side lived on the corner of Firestone and Dolan on the northwest corner.  It is now a bank building.  Her name was Elizabeth Martin and never worked.  On the lot next to the house   were all kinds of fruit trees:  pomegranate, Kadoka figs, lemon, orange, loquats, crab apple, red apple, and green figs.  My grandmother on my father’s side lived about four blocks south of Firestone Blvd. on Downey Avenue.  Her name was Elizabeth Mary Shea and never worked.  Both my grandfathers had died before I was born so I never knew them.  Grandfather Martin had a hardware store on Downey Avenue with his brother Bert Martin.  Grandfather Shea was a foreman on the railroad.

KM – Do you know when they were born or where?

ES – My mother was born in Downey, California, on August 11, 1905.  My father was born in Euclid, Ohio, on        February 28, 1903.  They met at the Jewel [City] Café [in Seal Beach] on the dance floor and were married in Downey, California.

KM – Did you ever attend church or Sunday school?

ES – Never went to church or Sunday school.

KM – What were some of your favorite foods when you were a child?

ES – Favorite foods were string beans, peas, carrots that were raised in our garden, chicken and eggs from our chicken coop in the rear of our yard.

KM – How did your mother cook, and where did she shop?

ES – Mother was an excellent cook.  She would get fruit from Grandmother’s trees and can them so we would have them all year long.  She shopped up town at the grocery store on Downey Avenue.  At that time Downey Avenue was referred to as Main Street.

KM – Do you remember what your father’s occupation was and where he worked?

ES – Well, my father started with Kilifer Manufacturing Co. that made farm implements as a foreman in the shipping department about 1928.  John Deere Co. bought out Kilifer Co. about 1932, and my dad was promoted to a salesman selling farm equipment and tractors to farmers.  As farms gave way to housing, my dad started as a bartender at Hofleys in Belmont Shore on Second Street.  When Irv Solomon died, that owned Hofleys, the son sold the building and it became North Woods Inn and is now vacant.  My dad leased a building on Second Street and opened up his restaurant and bar.  The bar was called O’Shea’s.  After he died in 1960 the owners sold the building and it is now Panama Joe’s Cafe-Bar.

KM – Let’s talk abut your schooling years.  What schools did you attend?

ES – I went to Downey Grammar School through the sixth grade and to Downey Junior High through 7th grade.  We moved to Seal Beach in 1937 and I went to Seal Beach Grammar School in the eighth grade.  We had eleven girls and ten boys in our class.  One of my classmates was Jerold H. McGaugh, Jr.  Then, on to Huntington Beach High School and I graduated on June 17, 1942.  Huntington Beach High School took in all the pupils from Seal Beach, Surfside, Sunset Beach, Wintersburg, Ocean View, Talbert, Midway City, Five Points, and Huntington Beach.  We had less than 800 students in our high school.  During the summer of ’42 I was a lifeguard in Seal Beach.  I then went to Long Beach Junior College for two semesters. 

On December 15, 1942, I enlisted in the Naval Reserve and was called to duty on July 1, 1943, and graduated from Midshipman School on January 1, 1945.  I saw active duty and was sent to Okinawa about ten days after the invasion.  After the Japanese surrendered I went to Japan on the island of Kyushu, which is a southern island, for occupation duty and moving cargo for about nine months.  I was then released from active duty on July 25, 1946.  In the summer of 1947, I was again a lifeguard in Seal Beach.  I went to the University of California at Berkeley in September, 1946, and graduated on June 17, 1949, as a mechanical engineer.

KM – Tell me about your school activities.  Were you in the band or played sports or did you have hobbies?

ES – I played golf for three years and was captain my senior year.  I swam on the swimming team as a senior and was a letterman in the Letterman Club, for three years for golf.  I was head of the National Thespians Dramatic Honor Society and participated in plays in Huntington Beach High School.

KM – Tell us about your high school social life.

ES – Well, I had many friends and still see some of them at the reunions each year including last year, and again we’ll go this year.  I went to dances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, rode the Red Car that ended at Balboa Island just before the pier next to the ballroom.  Also, went dancing at the Huntington Beach Pavilion which is now torn down and another restaurant is in its place.  And several of us went to the Hollywood Palladium, dancing and listening to the big bands.

KM – Did you do that every week or more than once during the week?

ES – Mostly every week we were dancing either at Huntington Beach or Balboa.

KM – On the weekends . . .

ES – Yes.

KM – Was there any social life during the week?

ES – Only the friends that I had here in Seal Beach that I went to school with.

KM – How old were you when you moved to Seal Beach?  What year was that?

ES – I was thirteen years old when we moved to Seal Beach in 1937.  Our house was the only house on 14th Street from Coast Highway to the railroad tracks.  My parents bought 3 lots for $300 each and our address was 240 14th Street.  The house was 2,400 square feet and had a two-car garage with a wash room, shower, plus dressing room and a room for the wood plus garden tools on the back of the garage.  All this cost $5,000 to build by hand.  When the new houses, the development, started in 1939, my parents bought a fourth lot and paid an increased price of $350.

I first came to Seal Beach during the summers when I was four years old to Grandmother’s house at 118 11th Street, and when I was eight, we had a summer place on 17th Street in Seal Beach.

KM – Now, the model homes that were built across the street from your house were across 14th Street, right, and not across Landing?

ES – Yes, across 14th Street.

KM – And, I think you told me one time that your mother’s house had a basement.  Can you tell us about the basement?

ES – We had a basement and my dad built shelves in the basement and when Mom canned fruit it was all on shelves.  I used to make root beer and I had a capping machine that I capped the root beer and it was stored on shelves.  When it got too warm, the root beer used to break.  Later on as the water table came up, the basement started leaking and we put an additional cement floor down and it still leaked.  And later on, about I guess it was about 1970-some-odd, I had a contractor come in and fill the basement in with cement.

KM – Why did the water table come up?

ES – Well, the water table in Seal Beach in the particular area around 14th and 15th is only about five-ft. deep.              We used to have a water well and a storage tank way up on high.  It filled up with salt water and was no longer usable so it was taken down.

KM – All right, now let’s talk about your adult life.  What is the name of your wife?

ES – My first wife’s name was Jacqueline Lee Voss and we were introduced by friends and married on December 14, 1951, in Long Beach at a Lutheran Church.  We divorced and she remarried and died about four years ago.  My second wife’s name is Louise Huchens Marsh Shea.  We met at a dance in Long Beach at the Lafayette Hotel.  It was a mixer.  Both of us were cut out and I saw her coming off the dance floor and asked her to dance.  She said, “Yes”.  After three dances I had her name and phone number before she was rescued by her date.  We were married in Torrance at the Church of Religious Science on March 2, 1983.

KM – Where have you lived since your marriage?

ES – Louise and I lived in Carson in a 1,800-sq. ft. mobile home from 1979 till 1987.  We were developers and built three houses on three of the four lots on 14th Street that were left to me by my mother’s death in 1983.  Our house was built on the fourth lot on the corner of 14th and Landing and was completed in 1987.

KM – And your mother’s original house was moved down the street?

ES – Yes, sold the house for a dollar and it was moved about five houses down the street to 224 14th Street and had to be turned sideways as it was 40-feet wide and 30-feet long.  We had the original plans which I gave to Chris Verholtz that moved the house and he put in his footings.  Then they bent the wires down and moved the house and then he built the foundation up from there and the center pilings to hold the house up.

KM – How many children do you have, and grandchildren or any great-grandchildren?

ES – Earl and Jacqueline Voss Shea had two children.  Erin Shea was born July 26, 1954, and Mark Shea was born June 14, 1957.  Interesting thing is, Jacqueline was born on July 28, 1927, and I was born on June 7th.  Both of them [children were born] within a few days of one another [our birthdays].  Erin and her husband Todd Werstler have two children, my grandchildren, Brian who’s nineteen years old and born on March 4, 1982 and is just finishing up his first year of college, and Amy who’ll be fourteen on May 7th, born in 1987.

Louise, with her first husband, had two children, John Marsh born September 6, 1954, and Susan Marsh born September 2, 1955.  John and his wife Terry Marsh have one child, Katherine, born on April 23, 1988. Susan and her husband Larry Shimmel have two children, Greta born on December 29, 1984, and Kurt born on March 16, 1987.  No great-grandchildren on either marriage.

KM – What was you or your wife’s occupations?

ES – Earl worked for fourteen years for Lily Tulip Cup Corp. that was bought out by Owens Illinois.  My job was director of manufacturing engineering in charge of three manufacturing plants, construction engineering, industrial engineering, quality control, the machine shop to make parts for the paper cup machines, plus manufacturing engineering.  We bought and installed both paper and plastic cup machinery in the             plants.  My biggest project was to build a 500,000 sq. ft. plant–it was in Bardstown, Kentucky–and purchase and install all the automated equipment for the manufacturing plant and the warehouse plant services.  After that I worked five years for Rockwell, Aircraft Division, until I retired in 1987.  After retirement, Louise and I were developers and built sixteen houses in Seal Beach.

KM – Did your job with Rockwell bring you back to California?

ES – I divorced my wife in 1978 and that’s when I came back to California.

KM – Can you describe the Jewel City Cafe in the 20’s or the Joy Zone in the 30’s?  Or, I guess we didn’t cover Louise’s occupation before you two got together, did we?

ES – Louise had a pre-school in Palos Verdes for six years and she became a real estate agent in Torrance for about five years and then opened up her own office as a real estate broker in Seal Beach until she retired in 1995.

KM – Now back to the Jewel City Cafe in the 20’s.  Do you have any recollections of it at all?

ES – Jewel Cafe and the Joy Zone were before my time.  However, as a kid, we used to play on the old roller coaster.  There was a coaster car in the lower section that we could push the car over an incline and then up the next incline and put a stick under the wheel, and kick it out and ride over the hump and then push it up the other side and put another stick under that and start all over again.

KM – Everyone loved that, I’m sure.  Did you have to do that on the q,t. or was that an approved activity?

ES – We had to climb over the fence to get in.

KM – Can you describe Main Street during your days here in previous times, the restaurants or grocery stores or shops?

ES – Mamie’s Place was Clancy’s at 111 Main Street.  The Irisher as far as I remember has always been there at 121 Main Street.  At 141 Main Street, Bob’s Drug Store was Brock’s Drug and before that it was Beno’s Drug Store owned by Lee Beno.  His daughter Virginia Beno married John Johnson and were the first owners of the two-bedroom model at 237 14th Street across the street on 14th Street.

The first houses built on 14th Street were two models across the street from us in 1939.  The two-bedroom cost about $2,750 and the three bedroom cost about $2,875.  This included a one-car garage and a two-car garage cost an additional $100.  The developer was Philip Norton who had his office at 710 Ocean Avenue in Seal Beach.    

At 212 Main Street was the RE Dolly Masonic Lodge, the square and compass with the letter G in the middle is still in the floor to the entrance of the now shops.  My Masonic lodge was renting from the RE Dolly lodge where I became a Mason in 1954.

The original post office was about 911 N. Electric Ave.  Carl, I don’t remember his last name, was a Western Indian and always took the mail from the Red Car and pushed a four-wheeled cart across to the post office for sorting and delivery.  One day as I was going by the post office I saw Carl face down and bleeding.         I found out later that he’d shot himself.  I was about thirteen or fourteen years old at that time.  The next post office was at 308 Main Street, which is now Quantum Sport.  There are still metal bars on the alley windows to keep the people from breaking in.  The postmaster at that time was J. Jolly Jones.  He lived across the street from our house on the northwest corner of 14th and Landing, which is just across Landing.

KM – Do you have some more information on Main Street?

ES – At 302 Main, now the Corner Drug Store, was Kresge’s five and dime.  I bought model airplanes and parts for my model planes in there.  At 136 Main Street was Cassy’s Barber Shop where I had my hair cut.  It is now Cinnamon Products.

KM – Cinnamon Productions, I think it’s called.

ES – At 327 Main or 329 Main was a pool hall where I learned to play pool. I went to the movies at the theater on Main Street.

KM – Did they have movies every day there or was that just on the weekends?

ES – I just went on the weekend because I went to school.

KM – Do you remember the organ?

ES – Yes.  It didn’t get played all the time either.  At 209 Main Street was Abbott’s Market and is now the B & J deli and pizza restaurant.

KM – Yes, BJ’s Chicago Pizza or something.  [B J Restaurant]

ES – Yes.  At 216 Main Street, Lyford Patterson owned Patterson’s Market and it is now the newspaper office for the Sun.  At 119 Main Street, Dr. Homer De Saddeler had his office.  When us lifeguards had people with cuts or other things, we would take them to his office.  It is now the first half of the Art Image shop.  At 119 Main Street was the Tower Cafe, later the Circle Cafe, and is now the second half of the Art Image shop.  At 210 Main Street was J. C. Putnam Plumbing Shop, later his son Elwyn Putnam ran it.  It is now leased out to Grandma’s Cookies by Elwyn’s son. 

KM – What do you know about the gambling in Seal Beach during the ’20’s up to the ’50’s?

ES – At 139 Main Street next to Beno’s Drug was a shoeshine parlor in the front half.  In the back room was a card game for players that gambled.  My dad went there on occasion.

KM – What else can you tell us?

ES – Well, at the Garden of Allah on 8th and P.C.H., there was gambling in the back rooms.  The Garden was open every day from 5 P.M. till Midnight for dancing, dining, and cocktails, and, of course, gambling in the back rooms.  I can’t remember who owned the place, but his common law wife was Vivian Laird who inherited the Garden of Allah when the owner died.  She renamed the restaurant in her name.  She closed the Garden and built a beautiful place called Vivian Laird’s for dining, cocktail lounge, and dancing on Alamitos and Second Street in Long Beach.  After several years, she retired.  She sold the property and it became the Queen City Cafeteria.  I understand now it’s vacant.

KM – Can you describe the 1933 earthquake and how it affected you or your family?

ES – The 1933 earthquake hit at the time of our dinner in Downey.  I was nine years old at the time and all of us ran outside on the back porch and watched an empty building collapse with the walls caving in and the roof falling down.  And that was across the alfalfa field at the time.

KM – Were there people inside that building?

ES – No, it was vacant.  We slept in the car in a vacant lot that night for fear another quake would come.

KM – Was there any fear of a tidal wave?

ES – No, not in Downey.

KM – How did the people in Seal Beach feel about the Navy coming in during World War II?

ES – It happened in 1944 while I was in the Navy.  One point of interest:  On Anaheim Landing was a store owned by Eddie Kuferly that had two bowling alleys, groceries, cold drinks including beer, cigars, candy, fishing hooks plus sinkers.   I hand-set pins in the bowling alley for two years when I was sixteen and seventeen years old in 1940-42.  I cleaned the alleys and the bowling balls.  There was a men’s bowling league that included my dad Charles Shea, Elmer Hughes the foreman of Hellman Ranch, Ben Krenwinkle the city inspector, Sperry Knighton the fire chief, and others that I don’t remember.  Bowling cost fifteen cents a game and I got five cents.  Next door at the corner of the bath house was a place that sold hot dogs and hamburgers and milk shakes run by Mrs. Janes, Eddie’s younger sister.  I paid twenty-five cents for a hamburger and a milk shake from my money setting pins.  The next adjoining building was the bathhouse run by Mrs. White, Eddie’s older sister.

Another building that was moved was the Glider Inn.  In the “Historical Look at the Glider Inn”– and I can provide a picture of that–shows a picture on the back with some people.  From left to right is Jimmie Arnerich the owner, Nina Bennis, don’t know the next one, the next one is Paul Swigart a cook, Elmer Hughes, foreman of the Hellman Ranch and I don’t know the last one.  When Jimmie Arnerich died he left the Glider Inn to his common law wife Nina Bennis.  Her sister was a cashier.  After the Inn was moved, the sisters bought the property across 14th Street and built the bank building.  After they died all the property went to Nina’s sister’s son.  He sold the bank and property and still owns the Glider Inn property and leases it out.

KM – I’ll have to follow you up and get that picture for the files.

ES – Okay.

KM – Did you know anything at all about the Japanese Americans in Seal Beach?

ES – I did not know any Japanese in Seal Beach.  However, there were several Japanese in my high school that were from farms down Warner Avenue where the Huntington Beach High school bus went to pick up the students.

KM – Did you ever know Bill Robertson?

ES – Knew of Bill Robertson and didn’t know about the city letting in the gambling.

KM – Was that pretty common knowledge or was that something most people didn’t know about, the gambling?

ES – Well, the gambling was at the old Airport Club.  There were two cement pads that were adjoining and there were Quonset huts.  Since then the front pad’s been torn down but the second pad is still there.  That’s all I know.

KM – What do you know about any rum running in Seal Beach during Prohibition?

ES – Long before my knowledge.

KM – Well, there’s one thing we haven’t talked about and that is your experience with the sludge in Seal Beach.  You’ve told me a couple of times about how you used to work down there at First Street and is it Marina?

ES – Before I went out on the beach as a lifeguard, I worked for the sewer department.  I used to go down inside the sewers and help clean sewers, and then, another one of my jobs was:  we had a sewer sludging department and used to put the sewerage out onto the sand where it would dry.

KM – Now where was that?

ES – That was across First Street about where the apartments are now.  And, the only thing that grew in the middle of all that was tomatoes.  Surprisingly, the grinding of the sludge did not hurt the tomato seeds.  Then, when it was dry, we used to grind it up in a grinder and load it into a truck and people used it to fertilize their lawns.  Lo and behold I was grinding and loading the truck and my mother buys a truckload, and I come home and I have to take the wheelbarrow and shovel it into our yard.

After the sewer dept., I had to go for my first-aid training from Earl Whittington who was the senior life guard at the time, and he taught us how to rescue people, how to pump the water out of them.  You have to crack them in the back of the neck, move the neck up and fish the tongue out if they’ve swallowed it so that you can pump the water out of them.  I pumped two people in my term as lifeguard.  I went out to rescue one and the fellow says, “I can’t hold onto this one much longer.”  I pulled him out and put him in a cross-chest carry and put the other fellow on the can, started coming in and didn’t know if I was going to make it till my feet touched the ground.  Then I jumped up in the breaker, which then pushed me into shore.  I put him over my shoulder and he weighed bout thirty or forty pounds more than I did.  When I got him up on shore, I slid him off.  Dick Whittington, who was Earl’s brother, was guarding with me at the time.  He brought in one guy out of the rip tide and I said, “Dick, pull his neck up and see if he’s swallowed his tongue.”  You put their head on their hand and then you start pumping.  We pumped for about two or three minutes and the water was flowing out of them and then the first gulp of air came in.  We put blankets on him and called Lee Howard who was our police chief at the time and our captain.  He called the ambulance and they came down, picked him up and took him away.  There’s been other times that I’ve pumped water out of people and rescued people off the pilings that were shredded on the barnacles, and that’s the kind of people that we sent to Dr. De Saddeler

KM – Now, when you were lifeguarding, you were over at Anaheim Bay, right, before the Navy came in?

ES – My main station was on the left side of the pier, or, I guess you would call it the east side of the pier.  That     was my main station.  When Earl Whittington had his day off, I used to go over to Anaheim Bay and guard, which was delightful because all the mothers, daughters and sons, especially daughters, were very nice to meet.

KM – Now, tell me about the seals. 

ES – The seals used to be in the entrance to the bay over in Alamitos Bay on a sand bar [First Street].  One time when I was body surfing, I had a seal right in the same wave that I was.  I looked over and he looked at me and I looked at him and neither one of us stopped.

KM – Now that’s over past the San Gabriel River, right?

ES – No, it was on this side of the pier, on the east side.  I was just riding the breakers.  That was before we had that sea wall there.

KM – How did it feel to come back to town and find the Navy had taken over your old life guarding spot?

ES – Well, I knew that it had happened.

KM – Well, is there anything else you can tell us about your childhood here in Seal Beach?  Where was the nearest hospital when you were a kid?

ES – The closest hospital was Community Hospital.

KM – In Long Beach?

ES – Yes.  And that’s where my mother died.  And that’s where my daughter Erin was born.

KM – It’s still the closest hospital, I believe.

ES – But it’s now inactive.

KM -As of about a year ago?

ES – Yes, about a year ago.

KM – Well, I thank you very much for your interview.

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