Joan Stegman – Founder, SB Historical Society

Interviewed & Transcribed by Libby Appelgate – November 8, 2000

L.A.: Libby Appelgate of the Seal Beach Historical & Cultural Society interviewing Joan Stegman, a Seal Beach co-founder of the Historical Society established in 1972.  I am interviewing her for the Seal Beach archives of Oral History. 

L.A.:  I would like to have you state your name and address.

J.S.:  My name is Joan Stegman and I live at 118 – 13th Street, Apt. 4, in Seal Beach.  I have lived here for about thirty years. 

L.A.:  When and where were you born?

J.S.:  I was born in 1920 and lived with my parents in Los Angeles but my grandparents owned and operated the Willard Hotel in Seal Beach on 12th Street, at the end of Central.  We visited them a lot of times.  The developer, who created Bay City, as Seal Beach was called, had gone broke and disappeared leaving behind a crumbling pier and collapsing pavilions.  The roller coaster looking like a skeleton of some prehistoric monster and concession shops, long gone.  High tides broke up the concrete boardwalk.  The jagged pieces, pieces some three to five feet tall protruded from the sand at odd angles.  It looked as if an army had erected a barrier to protect the town from the invaders from the sea.  Subsequently, a wooden bulkhead was built where Seal Way is now.  The entertainment in town was to go at high tide and watch the waves crash and rise high against the bulkhead.  The whole town had the look and feel of having been abandoned.  The Red Cars still stopped, but nobody came.  The only trees in town were the palms planted by the developer on a few streets.  Dust filled the air from the alkali dirt on the right of way.  The little cottages owned by the remaining, aging population, were unkempt reminders of better times.  When I try to describe the town I knew a child, people in Seal Beach that live here now find it hard to believe we’re talking about the same place.

L.A.:  When and where were your parents born?  Do you have any information about that?

J.S.:  My father was born in Michigan and my mother was born in Vermont.  But they both came to California at an early age with their parents.  When I think about my grandparents, Willard and Carrie Smith, who owned the Willard Hotel, it’s hard to believe we are separated by only two generations.  They lived in Island Pond, Vermont, on a farm where the main crop was maple sugar.  They survived by sheer physical strength and austerity.  It was a hard life.  My grandmother had pneumonia several times and the doctor suggested they move to a warmer climate.  It must have been traumatic for a family to sell the farm, leave their home and possessions behind, uproot the children, move to a strange new land and an unknown future.  I’ve often thought that being a Native Californian how tough that must be to move to a whole new place where you don’t know anybody.

L.A.:  And there weren’t very many people in town when they moved here.

J.S.:  Well, my grandfather purchased a lemon ranch in Pasadena, first.  He had a wonderful crop; just a huge lemon crop that he loaded onto a wagon and had horses drawing them to market but nobody bought the lemons. (Laughter)

L.A.:  Why weren’t people buying?

J.S.:  Well, it was tough times and they weren’t shipping citrus to the East as much.  They were picked ripe and they had no way to keep them fresh.  Transportation was so bad that he sold that lemon ranch and looked around for another business opportunity and found the property in Seal Beach, which he named the Willard Hotel.  The two older girls, my mother and her sister stayed in Pasadena to work and go to school.  But the two young boys came to Seal Beach and enrolled in school and worked in the sugar beet fields where Leisure World is now.  They helped their father pay the mortgage.  It was such hard times then, it’s hard to believe but that’s the way it was.

To a small child, when I first came to Seal Beach from Los Angeles, where we lived, it just seemed endless.  When I saw the eucalyptus grove in Los Alamitos, those beautiful trees, I knew we were almost there.  My father would tell me that this was the forest where Little Red Riding walked and met the Wolf on the way to her grandmother’s.  I loved the water and was so excited to see the ocean as we climbed the hill and made our way down to Seal Beach.  My grandparents lived in the front apartment of the hotel, a large living, sleeping room with just a kitchen, no bath.  There were six rooms up and six rooms down and a bath at the end of each hall.  Pull chain toilets, claw foot tub and two dollars a night.  That included homemade doughnuts and coffee, which my grandmother served to her clients.  So perhaps this was the first bed and breakfast in Seal Beach.  As a small child, I found the hotel so depressing.  Dim lights hung from the ceiling, barely illuminating the dark halls.  I think that was my grandfather’s austerity.  He probably had ten-watt bulbs in each light.

L.A.: He was trying to save money.

J.S.:  Oh, he saved pennies.  The water from the tap was nasty.  Yellow in color and tasted and smelled like sulphur.  Do you remember that?

L.A.: No, I came in 1953.

J.S.:  Oh, no.  It was so bad and horrible to drink and bathe in but you got a great shampoo.  It was well water and so soft your hair just came out beautifully.  We used to wash our hair with hand soaps; we didn’t have bottled shampoo.

L.A.:  Now, what year was that?

J.S.:  It’s got to be in the twenties or thirties. I think in the fifties before they changed it.  It took them a long time to get regular water; a new water system.  My grandmother cleaned the room, washed the sheets by hand and ironed them.  She emptied the nightjars for the tenants who didn’t want to go down the hall at night and filled the water pitchers in each room.  She was so sweet and kind and generous.  Looking back on her life, I don’t know how she kept her sweet disposition.  She worked so hard all her life with no luxuries, no entertainment, she thought only of her family.  To me, my grandfather seemed gruff and stern.  He fought the elements in New England and even though the climate was mild, he was fighting the bureaucrats in Seal Beach.  I remember those conversations. 

L.A.:  What did he fight them about?

J.S.:  Because, he said, when he bought the property, all the utilities were supposed to be paid for.  Like sewers and curbs and roads.  Then he kept getting these bills from City Hall for this and that and the other thing.  It drove him wild.  He was such a saving man.  He saved pennies.  He cursed Stanton and his cronies.  (I remember those names you called out before we started recording.)  For services he had to pay.  I have the 1922 tax bill for the Willard Hotel, $50.00 for the year.  If it went up pennies, he would just be furious.  We had a vegetable garden in the empty lot next door to the hotel.  He found pleasure in that garden and that was a joy for him.  He couldn’t get over how beautifully things grew in California because it was such a struggle in Vermont to get anything to grow and such a short season.  He died in that garden of a heart attack in 1927.  My grandmother stayed on to run the hotel.  She was sitting on the porch of the hotel one day on that green bench [that President Taft sat on when he visited] and got up to go inside and died of a heart attack. It was 1938.

L.A.:  Oh! Where were you at that time?

J.S.:  In ’38, I was 18 and she had given me, bless her little heart, enough money for my first semester at USC.  I had planned to go to USC, if I could.  So, she gave me that for the first semester, then she died.  So, I didn’t get any more money from her.  I had to go to work for a year and save money to go back to school.  My first childhood memories began in the early 1930’s, after the depression.  My family was very well off before 1929.  My mother and father.

L.A.:  What kind of occupation did your father have?

J.S.:  He was a building material salesman and Los Angeles was booming.  He helped build the Biltmore Hotel.  He was on that job.  He used to come home and tell us how gorgeous it was.  So, he had a good job but Seal Beach was still in the depression.  Everybody had left and nothing was going on here at all. 

L.A.:  After the Jewel Café was popular.

J.S.:  See, that disintegrated and was torn down.   So nobody paid any attention to Seal Beach.  Venice was going full tilt and so was Newport and Balboa, Laguna but Seal Beach was just a forgotten little town.  When the developers went broke, Seal Beach went broke and it never recovered until the seventies.  Really, it laid here fallow all those years.  It was undiscovered by anybody because it’s off the beaten track.

L.A.:  Everybody just went right by it and went on to Newport.

J.S.:  Didn’t even know where it was.  My family was well off until the depression in twenty-nine.  Instead of coming to Seal Beach for vacations, which was such a dreary little town, we went to Coronado and stayed at the hotel.  That’s where we learned to swim at the bay down there.  We also rented a house every summer at Catalina.  The same little house and just had a wonderful time there.  We’d rent it for six weeks or a month, I don’t quite remember how long.  I loved Catalina.  So much was going on.

L.A.:  This is after your grandparents died?

J.S.:  Oh, no.  My grandparents were still living here.  I was only six or seven.  We’d come to visit them, but we didn’t want to spend our vacations here. 

L.A.:  What was it like?  The Joy Zone was gone and there were very few people in town.

Was the gambling still here?

J.S.:  There was a gambling ship and there was gambling but that didn’t help the town at all.  That was just sort of separate.  It didn’t mean prosperity for the town at all.  But then, like everybody else, my father was unemployed after twenty-nine.  So, then my vacation, when I got to an age, was to take the Red Car and come down and stay with my grandmother.  That was our only vacation, then.  When I stayed with my grandmother, before you went to bed each night, you looked for mosquitoes on the ceiling.  Then you squashed as many as you could with a broom and then you hopped into bed and covered your head, knowing you’d missed a few and left the ones who were still looking for a meal.  The ceiling was black with them.  All the kids all over town were always eaten alive.

L.A.:  Because of all the wetlands surrounding us. 

J.S.:  Before they used DDT and stuff to spray them, I guess.  The beach was wonderful, though.  I loved the gentle rolling waves you could ride into shore.  Before the jetties were made longer and we don’t have the shore break we used to have.  I really grieve for the beautiful waves that we used to have.  They used to just roll in and you could ride them for blocks.  I always remembered the seaweed, too.  There didn’t have to be a storm, just high tide and the beach would be piled high with seaweed.

L.A.:  That shows that it was a healthy ocean.

J.S.:  Yes, yes.  We had all kinds of shorebirds and I remembered hearing the sound of the sea all over town. 

L.A.:  How about the seals?

J.S.:  There were seals, too.  My grandmother kept a can of kerosene ready when the beachgoers returned.  People used to say it was oil bubbling up from the bottom of the ocean.  But, it wasn’t.  It was the tankers going into Long Beach cleaning out their tanks.  Some days our bathing suits and our feet and arms and legs would be covered with tar. It was a scourge.  Boats waiting to get in the Long Beach Harbor did it.  They polluted the sand and the ocean.  The beach wasn’t ever cleaned as it now so that’s what I liked was going down and finding all the treasures among all the flotsam and jetsam.  You could find great seashells and if the tide was out it seemed as though you could walk for miles out.  All you had to do was squat down in the water, put your hands in the sand and pick up clams as big as your fist.  They were gorgeous.  Then you took them home and put them in a pot of fresh water and watch them spit out their sand.  My family made the most wonderful clam chowder.  I can still remember the smell of that cooking because they cooked it with bacon and onions.  The onions were frying and I knew we were going to have clam chowder.  It was fun for the kids to bring something home to cook for a meal.  We really enjoyed it.  I don’t remember any lifeguards down on the beach when I was little.  I don’t think there ever was one; maybe they had one at the pier.  I don’t know.

L.A.:  Just during the summer?

J.S.:  I used to go down to the beach all by myself and nobody seemed to worry.  I was a good swimmer so they didn’t worry about it.  When was the Long Beach earthquake; what year was that?

L.A.:  1933.  Were you here in 1933?

J.S.:  No.  But we had to come down and see my grandparents to look.  Looky, loos.  Like when we had our hide tide.  For the most part there wasn’t any damage.  The worst was that brick hotel on the corner of Main and Central.  That fell down.  But I think the Willard Hotel just shifted off its foundation a little.  So they got some horses and some pulleys and they just moved it back on the foundation.

L.A.: Marge Ordway said that her building fell down.  Her father owned the meat market and produce store on Main St.  It was called Schmitt’s. 

J.S.:  Was it brick?

L.A.:  Yes.  Also, the one on the corner that you spoke of.

J.S.:  My uncle tells me a story.  There was a barbershop downstairs and I guess there were some rooms for rent.  But there was a whorehouse in the hotel upstairs, from what he tells me.  The morning before the earthquake the Orange County Sheriff came in and raided the hotel and took all the girls to jail.  So when the earthquake hit and that hotel fell down, they were saved.  I don’t know how reliable his stories are.

L.A.:  I have heard that story before.  I think it is a town story.

J.S.:  Then another one during the depression, ’29, ’30 with the banks failing.  My grandfather was dead by that time but my poor grandmother had pennies and money saved in banks in Pasadena and even here.  She lost everything.  They just closed the banks.  But when I became a teenager, I started walking to Anaheim Landing.  That was the place to be.  Nobody went down to the ocean; that was practically deserted on this side of the pier. [South side] The Bay, we called it.  The Bay became the gathering place for local people and summer people.  Some who had houses around the bay and some from town.  There was a bulkhead around the bay and a small pier, which led to a raft.

We had so much fun diving off that raft and off the pier.  There were three buildings above and behind the sand built on a wood platform.  You’ve seen pictures of the bay?

L.A.:  Yes, I have.

J.S.:  One was a bowling alley, and don’t ever remember anybody ever bowling, for some reason.  It was closed by the time I was a teenager.

L.A.:  Did they just do that during the summer?

J.S.:  I don’t think it was in operation and there was also a little restaurant that served hamburgers and hot dogs.  God, they were so good!  Ten cents apiece.

L.A.:  What was the name of the place?

J.S.:  I don’t remember, but it was a couple called Irene and Carl.  I wish I could remember their last names, but I don’t.  They were a wonderful couple.  Everybody was crazy about them.  My father would come down Friday afternoons, noon, if he was through work.  He never had any money but if he made a couple of bucks he would go to the race track, then if he won anything, he’d come down and he’d stand on the wood platform and say to all the kids, “I’m buying hamburgers for everybody!”  There would be a mad dash to the hamburger stand.  But even if he bought them for ten of us, it was only a buck!  He could be a big shot for a while.  There was a third building that was in use too.  I think they would rent bathing suits.  Remember when they used to rent bathing suits?

L.A.:  I thought that was on the boardwalk.

J.S.:  It was on the boardwalk in Seal Beach, but they had one on the bay, too.  They would rent scratchy woolen bathing suits to the day-trippers.  Then, behind that, was a outhouse for all the day goers to use and if anybody saw you walking toward that and going to use, they would say, “You gonna go to Hell!”  It was terrible.  I don’t know if they ever serviced it or took care of it.  The lifeguard was Earl Whittington.

L.A.:  I heard he was the first Lifeguard of Seal Beach.

J.S.:  I think he had an older brother and he was a lifeguard on the oceanfront.  But Earl was at the bay.  All the kids were crazy about him.  He was over six feet and this beautiful tan.  He was a strong swimmer and he gave us instructions on how to improve our swimming.  He’d call us all together and say,  “OK, lets all kick.”  You know, the butterfly kick, by the hour.  Now, when they swim, they barely kick their feet.  They’ve got a new arm routine.  You know, when we swam the Australian crawl, we bent our elbows.  Now your arm comes straight up and that’s where you get all your strength.  So, poor Earl was giving us the wrong kind of swimming instruction.  But he used to practice, himself, by the hour.  We didn’t have sunscreen.  We painted our cheeks and our noses with zinc oxide.  Do you remember that?  We looked like a band of warring Indians.  Most of us who were daring enough would jump off the Red Car trestle that spanned the bay.  We’d sneak up there and if they didn’t catch us and if was high tide, it wasn’t so far down, the bravest ones would jump in [to the water].  This was a regular gathering place every summer.  I’d go home in the fall to go to school but come back the next summer and it was like greeting old friends.  The same group of kids went every year.

L.A.:  Do I know any of them by name?

J.S.:  The only family’s name that I remember is the Arnold’s.  I’ve forgotten other people’s names.  The people that owned the houses around the bay were considered rich to some of the poor locals.  Some of the locals would come but then there were the summer people who had all the beautiful bathing suits and the poor local kids…I was considered poor because my grandmother lived in Seal Beach at the Willard.  One of the rich girls who lived at the bay had a beautiful red canoe and she let everybody use it.  We practiced paddling it against the tide when the tide was coming in to improve our paddling skills.  We would take it at night, put a lantern in a canoe and paddle up into the wetlands and spear stingrays with the boys, mostly.  There would be about four of us go; two boys and two girls and the boys would do all the spearing.  I couldn’t stand to kill them but I got stung once.  When we’d go up into the wetlands, you could see them.  When it was low tide, the water would be only about a foot or two deep and by shining that lantern, you could see a whole bunch of them sitting on the sands in the wetlands.  I never did learn their habits except we always knew there was a lot of them up there at night so we’d always go at night.

L.A.:  Why couldn’t you see them during the day?

J.S.:  Well, at the bay you didn’t because the water was deep so you didn’t have the fear of stepping on them.  But when you went into the wave, that’s when you’d get stung by the stingrays because you were walking on the sand.  One thing we loved to do was when the tide went out maybe eight or ten of us walked at the head of the bay.  There were steps down from the bulkhead where you would walk down into the water.  And we would just float, like we were in a river, and splash and kid each other and play.  The seals would join us, if you can believe it.  We would be on our backs splashing and playing and the seals would pop up, sometimes right in the middle of us and look at us as if they wanted to join us.  They would swim around our circle and they would follow us clear out to the bay.  It was so much fun.  Then the jetty wasn’t as long as it is now so we’d swim until we reached the jetty and then you’d have to swim across the jetty and then catch the waves out to the ocean. 

L.A.:  I’m surprised they had jetties built during that time.

J.S.:  Well, they built the jetty when there were those terrible winter storms.  That was the beginning of the end.  I told you the surf would come up over the boardwalk the developers built and it just tore it up.  So we had a lot winter storms that I remember as a child and they probably built that jetty then.  Some summers I’d come down to Seal Beach and the beach would be very wide and sometimes it would be very narrow.  So it was just a natural movement of the sand.  They tried to manage it and of course, you know you can’t.  The sea always wins.  That was certainly fun to do that but it could be dangerous but I did get caught one time.  I went with a good friend of mine who was a good swimmer but it was late in the afternoon, I think, and the tide was going out so fast, we just flew out of the mouth of the bay.  What we didn’t realize that trying to cross over and come out with the tide and come in with the breakers, it was like going against a heavy riptide.  Then when we got across the jetty, the waves were breaking beyond the jetty and they were huge and coming fast and furious, we couldn’t catch our breath.  We had to dive under them, so I made sure I didn’t do that trick anymore.  Because I hollered to him for help and he said you gotta help yourself because I’m tired, too.  So I learned my lesson for watching I didn’t go out when the tide was too high because it was tough.  But it was sure fun.  We had all kinds of people come down on Sundays from inland.  Day-trippers.  They were mostly farm families and they’d come down there with their picnic baskets and wearing their overalls and their blankets….

L.A.:  What cities were they from?

J.S.:  Artesia, probably.  Through that whole corridor.  When we used to come to Seal Beach, we’d go through Los Alamitos and that was all farmland.  All the way up there.  Berry farms, everything.  In fact, you remember the old Anaheim Landing when they used to ship farm goods from Anaheim Landing?  People brought their produce down there and they had boats coming into Anaheim Landing.

L.A.:  Was this in the 1930’s?

J.S.:  No, no, no, no, no.  Long before that.  But anyway these little farm families would come down and I got acquainted with one of the teenage boys that came with his family.  He would come down in the afternoon when he’d finish his chores.  He invited me to dinner one time to their house and I didn’t know places like that existed in California.  It was like going back in time.  I thought I was going up for lunch but it was dinnertime.  They had big bowls of food on the table and I couldn’t get over the horseflies and it was hot as Hell up there.  Their parents sat at the table and there must have been three or four or five little kids around the table.  They would stuff themselves in silence and just ate and ate.  All I ever knew about lunch was a sandwich or a little something to eat and here they were eating this huge meal. 

L.A.:  What did they have to eat, do you remember?

J.S.:  All I remember were these huge bowls of food.  Probably mashed potatoes, corn, chicken and all that.  I said, “I don’t want to back to that place again.”  Horseflies, ohh!  That was one of my boyfriends.  Then I met Stanton’s son, Jack.  I was about fifteen and he must have been seventeen.  I was always surprised that he even looked at me because two years difference with kids that age is chasm.  But he was the rich kid in town, of course and he had two of the most beautiful surfboards that you have ever seen.  They must have been made in Hawaii because…

L.A.:  Now, what year would that be?

J.S.:  I was fifteen.  It was 1935.  One was a racing board, what they called a paddleboard that the Hawaiians used.  Not too many Hawaiians surfed in those days.  The craze started in California.  But anyway, the racing board was blond wood and fairly heavy, curved underneath and with a sharp nose so it would go through the water and it was fairly light.  But the surfboard weighed tons!  It was flat and I bet it was three inches thick.  Of course, it had a curved nose but the back was flat.  When you caught a wave and stood up on that thing, you felt as though you were standing on a tabletop.  But if you lost it, look out!  It was heavy and it could just kill you!  The wonderful thing was that there was a sandbar at the mouth of the bay and the waves came in at low tide just like Waikiki.  That’s where I learned to surf.  He took me out there.  The waves were so low and gentle and they just petered out as they hit the deep water.  He [Jack Stanton] taught me how to surf there and I surfed on that big board.  I couldn’t stand on the racing board because it was too tippy. 

L.A.:    So you were surfing in 1935?                                                                                                                                

J.S.:  He took me around this jetty and I surfed some big waves and I lost that board and it scared me to death.  I would look up and could see it coming down at me.  It was like a house.  It was so big and heavy.  I couldn’t carry it and get it in the water.  But that’s the kind of boards they made.  They were made of wood.

L.A.:  They used to call them “logs”. They weren’t made of balsa wood.

J.S.:  He took me to dinner to the Pacific Coast Club.  Do you remember where that was, in Long Beach?

L.A.:  Yes.  A very elegant place.

J.S.:  His grandfather belonged to the club.  So just the two of us went.  He even ordered champagne for us and I thought, “ Oh, how elegant it was!” 

L.A.:  At seventeen years old?

J.S.:    He was seventeen. I was fifteen.  But in California in those days, it was like Mexico.  You went into a bar and you were fifteen and you could afford it, you could have it.  No asking for driver’s license.  Same with driving, you started at twelve or thirteen and kept going.  But that was so much fun to have champagne at the Pacific Coast Club.  When they tore it down, I felt so bad.  As I said, everybody used to meet each other every summer, every year.  So when I came down the next year, he was gone.  He must have been in college then and he had gone away to school.  I never saw him again.  I was always crazy about him because he was such a good-looking kid and he taught me to surf.

L.A.:  Philip Stanton still lived in town didn’t he?  He didn’t die until 1945. 

J.S.:  When his house was going to be torn down, I tried to get in touch with Jack’s mother.  She lived in Long Beach.  I think I talked to her on the phone and she said there was nothing that she could do.  I think she sold the house to somebody, or the grounds so it got torn down.  It was a shame.  He took me into the house one time, so I saw it.  I thought, “What a gorgeous house!” 

L.A.:  Largest house in Seal Beach then.

J.S.:  Oh, yes.  Being a teenager in Seal Beach was fun.  But I never told Jack the story of my grandfather cursing his father.  Oh, I went out on the gambling boat, too, and I think I was only about fifteen.  They took you out on a little boat.

L.A.:  Lighters, did they call them?

J.S.:  Yes, I don’t think I was out there for very long and I certainly didn’t have any money to gamble with.  I was wide-eyed at everything that was going on.  That was the first time I’d seen…

L.A.:  Were there many people out there?

J.S.:  Oh, yes.  But not from Seal Beach, nobody had any money.

L.A.:  Tell me some more about the gambling ships.  I heard that they took the liquor to shore during prohibition. 

J.S.:  I don’t know anything about that because I was only fourteen or fifteen.  I just remember going out on the boat once and I don’t know who I went with.  I certainly didn’t go with my parents.  I didn’t get their permission. I just went. 

L.A.:  My sister and I had so many friends who wanted to come to the beach with us that finally my grandmother and my parents let us have the front apartment she owned on Ocean Ave.  It was just a front apartment and a small one.  I think it was five units on a twenty-five foot lot.  It looked like a railroad car and no garages.  They didn’t require those because there were no cars in town when they built it, anyway.  I think she was only getting about fifteen dollars a month.  So, she let us have it one summer so that we could all stay in there.  Those teenage girls living in a dinky apartment it must have really been something.  There was one family we used to adore and that was the Arnolds.  They had a house on Seal Way and they were from Pasadena.  The father owned a jewelry store there.  Jimmy was the youngest.  He had polio as a child and he walked with canes and had braces.  He swam.  He’d throw his braces aside and go swimming and had a strong, strong upper body.  It was his legs that were affected.  He was the most marvelous person.  He was the life of the party.  He had older brothers and sisters and we used to go to their house late at night because they had a piano in the house.  Everybody sang.  There were guitars, ukuleles.  Sometimes at night, or the day before, we’d go out [on the beach] and gather a lot of driftwood and put it in between the dunes out in front of his house.  Then when it got dark, we’d take the guitars and ukuleles and built a big fire and sing around the campfire.  We’d roast hot dogs, buns and marshmallows.

L.A.:  You could build bonfires on the beach, then?

J.S.:  Oh, yes.  You could even shoot off fireworks on the beach.  I really enjoyed it.  It seemed so cozy at night down amongst those sand dunes with the roaring fire.  If there was a red tide, the driftwood would burn red, green and yellow.  It would snap and send up sparks.  Oh, it was beautiful.  It made a beautiful fire.  It seemed to me, as I remember, there was a lot more fog in Seal Beach when I was a child.  You’d get those foggy nights during the summer where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. 

L.A.:  The atmosphere has changed because of the growth and development.

J.S.:  I think so.  If these fogs would roll in while we were having our bonfire, we’d dare each other to go swimming because you didn’t know which way you were going.  You couldn’t see if you were beyond the breakers so it was rather scary, but it was fun.  But that was sure a lovely family.  Jimmy, I think, eventually got married.  I know he got married because I saw his wife wheeling him in a wheelchair one time when I was down here.  I saw him on the boardwalk.  So he evidently came down here to spend the summer or maybe to live, I don’t know.  I don’t know if they still owned that house, I sort of lost touch with him.   Let’s see, what else.  Oh, another couple of boys I met had a sister that lived in Laguna.  I met them on the beach at Anaheim Landing and they said, “We’re going down to see our sister, do you want to go with us?”  So I said, “Sure.”  I was enthralled with that town.  I said, “Oh, why can’t Seal Beach look like that.”  So pretty, with that ocean view.

L.A.:  Seal Beach at this time was mostly Hellman property.  There was a farm on this hill and there were crops up there, weren’t there?  Old town was all there was to Seal Beach and Laguna didn’t have all agriculture and farmland.

J.S.:  It was the high hills behind them.  They couldn’t farm them so they built houses there and they had beautiful views of the ocean.

L.A.:  Seal Beach used to have a hill and it used to be called a mesa.  From newspaper articles I’ve heard it described that way.

J.S.:  Seal Beach wasn’t on a hill; it was just a small area on the beach.  One time I got to go up in a bi-plane.  One of the boys was much older than I was and my father worried but he was a sweet guy.  One day he asked me.  He took flying lessons and had his own license so he asked me, “Would you like to go up in a bi-plane.”  He didn’t call it that, just called it an airplane.  We went over to Long Beach.  I didn’t ask my parent’s permission, sat in that open cockpit.  That was so much fun flying over this area.  I thought it was thrilling!                                                                                                   

Let’s see what else.  We didn’t wear clothes all summer, mostly bathing suits, bare feet.  I hated to go home where I had to put on clothes.  My father would have to drag me home from the beach when he was ready to go home at the end of the summer.  The Arnold family knew a lot of football players from the junior college in Pasadena that were going to SC [University of Southern California].  They would come down to visit the Arnolds and pass footballs back and forth on the beach.  Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth Streets.  They’d always make the girls center the ball so they could see what they could see when they were bent over.  We used to laugh about that.  “You want me to center the ball again?”  They were fun to have those big football players down here.  That was really my last summer at the beach, when I was seventeen.  Because I knew I had to get serious about working because I wanted to go to USC and I know I had to work hard and save money.  So that was just about it for me for a while.                                                                  

One thing I remember was when Philip Norton came to town.  I don’t remember the year but he bought [Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth] and sold lots.  We could never figure out how he could build on tidelands when the water always came way up there.  How could he get permission from the city council when they knew the tides came up to Ocean Ave. sometimes?  We could never figure that one out.  He sold the lots on the bluff.  He built a model home.  I went through it with my father and I wanted that house so bad.                          

I went to a council meeting the other night and a woman said she owned that first house on the bluff and I wanted to talk to her and say, “Well, from the beginning?”  I don’t know if she owned it originally, or what.  She was an older woman.  I remember when it was built.  I don’t think I was more than sixteen.  Maybe her parents bought it and she inherited it.  But anyway, it sold for $35,000.  I said to my dad, “Can’t we buy that?”  And he said,  “I don’t even have thirty five cents.”  Then the Navy came to town.  Everybody thought it was going to be wonderful because Seal Beach was still downtrodden.  So they thought this was really going to make Seal Beach.  I don’t know what they thought.  The officers were going to come to town and build houses or what.  It didn’t do anything but take our bay away and moved all the houses.  One of the things I’m glad that happened since the Navy took it over was that whole wetland could have looked like Huntington Harbour.  Developers would have come in, torn down all those wooden cottages around the bay and build high-rise.  Then we’d have another bay full of useless yachts that only pollute. 

L.A.:  Yes, that would be awful.

J.S.:  My life was changing during that time.  When your sixteen or seventeen we all wanted to go to Balboa Island for Easter Week.  That was the place to go.  My sister got a car from my aunt.  A little model A Ford with a rumble seat and we’d all pile into that and go to Balboa for the week and it was so much fun.  That was always where the action was, you know, Seal Beach was dead. 

L.A.:  Was this in the ‘40’s?

J.S.:  ‘30’s.  We’d go to dances at the Balboa Pavilion and there were so many kids from all over.  So I didn’t come to Seal Beach much after I was seventeen.  But my parents would stay here and I had a boyfriend in town whose parents had bought him a brand- new convertible Ford.  I loved convertibles; of course, they were the thing.  Since we both worked on Saturdays, I asked him if would come down Saturday night and stay with my parents and go to the beach here.  I’ll remember this night forever.  It was a beautiful full moon night and when we got to Seal Beach Blvd. [Bay Blvd.], where the Hellman property is, we had to stop because sheep were crossing the road with a sheepherder.  The coats on those sheep looked phosphorescent because the moon was so bright.  It made their white coats shine.  We sat there waiting for them to cross the road; it must have taken them about twenty minutes.  I looked at that full moon and the whole scene seemed like it was out of the movies.  It didn’t seem real.  The sheepherder saluted us with his crook when it was time to drive on.  That was the last pastoral scene in Seal Beach.  After that, it pretty much went.  The farms disappeared.  The Hellman house was so darling but they tore that down when Rockwell Aerospace was built.  But they saved the palms that were on the property and moved them to the Rockwell property. [Now, Boeing.]                   

I didn’t think about Seal Beach for a long time because I went to USC and finished because I went to work and took a lot of credits by going to summer school.  I got married when I was 21.  My husband joined the Air force.  This was WW2, 1941 and he trained as a bombardier so I followed him as long as I could until he went overseas.  We left from Grand Island, Nebraska.  When he came home, he had been in prison camp in Germany where he was shot down.  He parachuted down.  He did come home and developed a brain tumor and we thought it was from the fall in parachuting.  It cracked his neck evidently.  He was in prison camp for about nine or ten months and you know they didn’t get any food or care.  So he died a year later. 

L.A.:  How long had you been married?

J.S.:  Five or six years.  I had my first son and the baby was nine months old when his father died.  In the meantime, my mother had inherited a little cottage on Twelfth Street from her mother and she decided she’d like to start coming down to the beach.  It had been rented for about twenty-five bucks a month all these years.  It was an absolute wreck.  The yard was full of garbage.  I don’t think they ever took the garbage out; they just threw it out the back door.  We had to just plow up the backyard.  There were bottles, cans.

L.A.:  I guess there was no city garbage collection.

J.S.:  Yes, there was.  There were so many flies in the summer because nobody covered their garbage and there were no garbage disposals so there were lots of flies.  The garbage cans were left with the tops.  So, it was a mess.  Even we’ve lost a lot of beauty there are some things that are better.  My mother’s birthday was on the Fourth of July so it became a tradition in that little house to have a big party.  I had my son but she had a lot of friends and she had people over all summer long. 

L.A.:  What is the address of this house?

J.S.:  Just down the street from the Willard Hotel.  158 Twelfth St.  The Willard is 150.  My mother was such a wonderful cook.  Always had a pot of coffee on the stove and fed all of the kids.  The nice thing about is that when every one came they had stopped at all the produce stands along the way.  They brought corn, strawberries and string beans.  You couldn’t miss them.  When you drove to Seal Beach, you’d pass so many of them you had to bring some.  In those days, people brought food instead of wine.                                                                                                        

I did re-marry when my son was about three or four years old.  Then I had another son.  The two boys would come to Seal Beach all the time to stay with my mother.  They have their own experiences as children [in Seal Beach].  The little one was a fisherman and he would go by himself, get up, when he was about seven, and catch that morning boat and go fishing for the day.  A couple of times he won the jackpot.  He used to say the guys would get mad at him.  “You little shrimp, go home!” 

L.A.:  So what year was that?

J.S.:  He was born in 1950, so that was 1957.  I told you I found those notes from my older son.  He was born in 1946.  He talks about Seal Beach almost like I do.  It was still so undeveloped.  It was so backward.  But the kids just loved it.  My boys were coming here and bringing their friends.  They couldn’t go to Anaheim Landing so we would get in the car and drive over the bridge to the peninsula in Belmont Shore because that was the bay.  For smaller children that was a safer place because there was a shore break here.  That wasn’t so good for swimming.  The youngest boy, the fisherman, would get in a big inner tube at the bay and actually catch fish out there.  Then they took the bridge down and we couldn’t even do that. 

L.A.:  We used to go to the Peninsula over the Ocean Ave. bridge.

J.S.:  In 1968, I came to live in Seal Beach permanently.  My husband retired and we sold our home in Las Feliz and decided to build a three unit place where that little cottage was.  It was too much for mother to keep up.  We built her a little one-bedroom apartment and built a two bedroom above for the boys.  So when they were in college they could bring their friends home.  My husband and I had the downstairs apartment.  We thought that was the neatest way for a family to live.  My sons would have parties upstairs and then when we went to our apartment, we didn’t have to clean up.  It was theirs.  My mother enjoyed it too.  She had a nice, new place to come to and didn’t have to worry about renting it or cleaning it.  It was fun for everybody.  But, when I was building that place, I cried every time I came down here to check on the building.  Seal Beach seemed to be so dirty.  We didn’t have street sweepers and trash was everywhere because we’d get those winds and the dirt from the right of way would be all over.  The town seemed so poor.  And I thought, “Am I going to live in this place?”  The building department said it was the first time they had OK’d plans that an architect drew up.  I had an architect draw up the plans.

L.A.:  Did everybody design their own plan?

J.S.:  They got contractors.  Architects were too expensive for Seal Beach.  Before my husband died, we bought the lot on Thirteenth St. and were going to build a bigger place because [by then] we both decided we liked it here.  I was surprised about my husband because he was a native New Yorker.  Never went to the beach.  Never liked the beach because he only went to Coney Island, got burned to a crisp once a year.  But here, he got tan and he loved City Council meetings.  We used to go to them all the time.  He’s the one who got me embroiled in the right-of-way controversy.  He used to go to the beach and talk to people and the kids.  He came home one day and told me that this thing was going on.  The council was going to build [double duplexes] on the right-of-way.  He said, “We’ve got to join the fight.”  Which we did. 

L.A.:  Our family did, too.

J.S.:  My husband died but I decided to go ahead and build a place on Thirteenth as we had planned and my grandparents had a place on Eleventh St. that just had some little wooden bungalows on it that my mother inherited.  We tore those down and while I was building, I built two places.  It was the toughest thing I ever did in my life because that was when the Coastal Commission was coming in.  I got the foundations laid.  Well, first I couldn’t get a building loan, nowhere.  I must have gone to twenty banks and they said, “Seal Beach, who wants to loan money for building in Seal Beach?”   They said you are spending too much money in that little town.                                                                                  

So, finally, one day I was sitting on the beach and out of the ocean out walks this guy, he’s carrying a beer and he’s got a mop of curly blond hair and he walked right up and sat down next to me and he said, “Are you Joan Stegman?”  And I said, “Yes.”  He said, “I hear your trying to get a building loan.”  That’s what a small town is like.  He said, “ Your going to the wrong places, go down to Newport.”  He said, “They know what beach town property is, they’ll give you a loan.”  So I went down to Newport and got my loan.  He helped me a lot because he showed me how to present my case.  Show them how much income I expected from these buildings and so forth.  But he was building a place on Tenth and Ocean and that how he found out I was doing the same thing.

L.A.:  And the Coastal Commission, did they get in the way?

J.S.:  The Coastal Commission had just come into being and the city made me sign a paper that they could stop my building anytime.  If that had happened, I’d of lost everything.  Because, if I couldn’t go ahead with my building contract…

L.A.:  They didn’t know if the Coastal Commission was going to vote against it.

J.S.:  Right.  At that time they were going to have anything three miles in [from the ocean] go through the Commission.  It could have been stopped.  I could have been broke.  But I wasn’t. 

L.A.:  The Coastal Commission wasn’t organized really well, yet.

J.S.:  They still haven’t.

L.A.:  Do you have anything about how you got involved in the Historical Society and how you founded it? 

J.S.:  That was my son.  The older son.  He used to come down here to stay when he was through college.  He was working at different things, like most kids out of college, and he would come down here to the beach and stay in this apartment we had for him, bring his friends.  One of the things he started was a tree farm.  He met the Baums somewhere in Seal Beach.  He came home and said to me, “ I met the nicest couple and they want to start a Seal Beach Historical and Cultural Society.  I want you to meet them.”  My son was always getting me involved in things.  We had lunch together one time and that’s how it started.  He’s the one who really got me interested in that.

L.A.:  How did you get the Red Car down here?  Was that difficult?

J.S.:  We found out that Mr. Fellowes who brought the car down to give people rides to raise money.  That [street] car that’s on the rubber wheels.  We had him down here on Founder’s Day a couple of times.  Five cents a ride, trying to raise money for the Historical Society. 

L.A.:  1971?

J.S.:  1971 and 1972.  We thought we would like to have a house or something [to house archives].  That’s when Fellows said he had this old car.

L.A.:  Richard Fellows?

J.S.:  Yes, the one that was killed, surfing.  He said that he had this wonderful old [red] car that was a storage car and we could have it.  [A tower car that went up and down the tracks and repaired the electrical lines that ran the old streetcars].  We could have it for $350.00.  Of course, nobody knew what a wreck it was!  So I heard that there were grants that the government was giving small towns to help found museums.  I wrote to them and it was funny because the very day we were having a fundraiser, I got a letter that very morning saying that my grant money [application] had been accepted with a $350.00 check in it.  So I went down to meet the kids getting ready for the rides, the Red Car rides, waving the check in the air and saying, “Oh, we bought the car!”  They delivered the car right opposite Fifteenth St. and did people scream, “Get that wreck out of our sight.”  So that’s how it started.

L.A.:  So when the Pacific Electric Right of Way was bought up with Redevelopment Agency money, you found a place for it?

J.S.:  Yes, but that was a battle.  They didn’t really want that Red Car there.  It was so ugly.  The city didn’t help us a bit to get started.  Now they’re being very nice.  In the beginning everybody made fun of it until we started getting some publicity in the papers around town.  In L.A. and Orange Co. then they were proud of it.  They did not want that Red Car sitting on that green grass.  Because it really wasn’t a Red Car, it was a decrepit Red Car.  That’s about it.

L.A.:  Anything else you would like to add?

J.S.:  I was two years old when I first remembered Seal Beach and here I am, eighty.

L.A.:  Your still here and loving it.

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