Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wintersburg's Okuda family and memories of life on the Bolsa Chica Gun Club


An aerial view of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, circa 1930s. The area where the Gun Club buildings once stood is now behind a chain link fence. (BolsaChicarestoration.org)

~Update August 2016~

    The divide between the "haves" and those with less was never more evident in the peatlands than when the gun clubs arrived.  Past the western edge of Wintersburg Village's farmland, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was among the most prominent, boasting a wealthy, eclectic membership.

   For the Okuda family, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was home for over two decades.  Harry Okuda maintained the landscaping and kitchen gardens, including the yard of chickens being readied for club members' dinners.  Harry arrived at the Gun Club circa 1910 or 1913--coinciding with his arrival in the United States (note: family memories which place arrival at 1910 and information written by the census taker differ, not that unusual for the time).

RIGHT: Jimmie Shigero Okuda was one of two Japanese American students to win a Huntington Beach essay contest about "the harmful effects of liquor, tobacco and narcotics" in 1932, the other being Haruka Oka.  The Oka Elementary School on Yorktown Avenue in Huntington Beach is named after pioneer Isojiro Oka. The article notes, "Superintendent Baldwin commented on the fact that two Japanese students were among the prize winners." (Santa Ana Register, April 23, 1932)

   The 1930 census for Wintersburg Village included the Bolsa Chica in its enumeration and listed Harry "Okuta" (age 53) as a "Bolsa Chica Gun Club gardener," his wife, Aekeno (age 40), Bill (age 11), Jimmie (age 9), and Irma (age 6).  

   Seventy-five years later in 2005, Dave Carlberg--author of Bolsa Chica-Its History from Prehistoric Times To The Present--sat down with then 84-year-old Jimmie to talk about his life at the Gun Club.  Carlberg wrote about Okuda in the Amigos de Bolsa Chica's summer 2005 newsletter, Tern Tide.
  
   "Okuda's family was one of the few clubhouse staff who actually lived on the gun club property," explains Carlberg.  The Okudas lived in a house below the clubhouse.  Jimmie was born in 1921 and spent his early childhood years on the Bolsa Chica.

   "When not attending school in Huntington Beach," Okuda told Carlberg, he spent his days "fishing and swimming in the lagoon, helping tend his mother's chickens or enjoying sunsets from the beach."

LEFT: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth after a hard day purported to be  at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, circa 1925.  (The Bolsa Chica Land Trust describes this photo as being "a gift from Huntington Beach lifeguard, Wade Womack. Wade, in turn, had received it from Grace Bixby more than 25 years ago. The photo was taken at the Gun Club 'about the year 1925' according to the notation on the back." bolsachicalandtrust.org)

   "At times he would help his father care for the landscaping around the clubhouse, including a nine-hole golf course.  Young Okuda watched as lines of chauffeur driven Duesenbergs, Cadillacs and Buicks dropped off bankers, industry leaders, sports figures, Hollywood stars, members of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Committee, and even royalty.  One slim, ordinary looking gentleman Okuda observed entering the clubhouse, the eleven-year-old was later to learn, was the Prince of Wales, two years later to be known as King Edward VIII of Great Britain."

RIGHT: News about the Bolsa Chica Gun Club regularly made the local papers, particularly when there were manly exploits to report. (Santa Ana Register, June 29, 1916)

An exodus of khaki-clad men
   By 1905, it is reported there were 23 shooting clubs in Los Angeles and Orange counties devoted to duck hunting, the Bolsa Chica being one of the wealthiest.  The Oct. 15, 1905, Los Angeles Herald reported the opening of hunting season: "There was an exodus of khaki-clad men from Los Angeles last night.  Trolley cars and trains took them away by hundreds, and automobiles and livery rigs conveyed scores to the chaparral and the club houses by the shores."

LEFT: More than one Japanese American worked the Bolsa Chica Gun Club. The death of K. Hirashiba was reported in the Los Angeles Times, discovered in the barns of the Gun Club.  Hirashiba was working under for J.H. Cole, a local ranch owner and "club detective" who helped the Gun Club fend off the fights with local farmers. Hirashiba had ridden from the Bolsa Chica wetlands to Smeltzer, where the present-day Bella Terra shopping center is located, near Edinger Avenue and Beach Boulevard. (Los Angeles Times, August 22,1905)

   "Down at the club houses last night," continued the Herald, "there were merry crowds of sportsmen who burned good tobacco and drew the long bow until the momentous hour when the dice were rolled for the first choice of blind and first gun."  (For our 21st Century readers, "drawing the long bow" means they were telling a few tall tales or heavily embellished stories about their exploits.)

RIGHT: Bolsa Chica Gun Club, incorporated in 1899 "for the purpose of promoting hunting and fishing." (Photo, amigosdebolsachica.org)

   During the start of the 1908 hunting season, the Los Angeles Herald reported, "On most of the preserves the club houses and lodges are comfortably--some even luxuriantly--arranged with kitchens, snug sleeping quarters and elegant dining rooms." The previous year, the Sept. 29, 1907, Herald had noted "quantities of food supplies have been laid in, to say nothing of liquid refreshments, the latter to prevent members of taking cold when they get wet.  Needless to say, all hunters will be very cautious not to fall into the water or get their feet wet." 

Early morning hunts
   Okuda talked with Carlberg about the hunters being taken out in the early morning "to the fresh water ponds that covered much of the Bolsa Chica.  Instead of using dogs to retrieve downed ducks, local boys in hip boots were hired to do the work."  Okuda told Carlberg he was "too young to play bird dog, but he sometimes tagged along.  Okuda remembered "the awesome sight and sound of several thousand ducks suddenly taking flight when startled by gunfire."

Members of the Club
   Memberships in the Bolsa Chica Gun Club initially started at $1,000, then later rose to $75,000, making the club more exclusive.  

RIGHT: A headline from 1903 gives a hint of the clash between the wealthy Gun Club members and the celery farmers and ranchers in the peatlands. The standoff was described as "guns have been cocked and pointed between the gun club guards and the farmers, when a word or a breath would have brought on a tragedy." (Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1903)

   Some of the 3,400-acre Bolsa Chica Gun Club members were staggeringly wealthy for the time, valued for their sporty quality, or for the fact that they were conveniently well connected.  This worked in the Gun Club's favor when they battled "the Peatlanders."

 LEFT: Bolsa Chica Gun Club member Hulett C. Merritt planned a "great skyscraper" in downtown Los Angeles.  If approved, it was to be the tallest fireproof building in the country west of New York and hinged on the Los Angeles city council approving an ordinance change.  The city council balked, fearing the building would alter the landscape of Los Angeles. Merritt called the city council position "arbitrary" and threatened a petition.  Opponents told the city council the building would block sunlight and make downtown Los Angeles "damp, dark, dreary, dismal, drafy defiles of dim depths with denizens dying of dread disease".  The Los Angeles city council upheld the height ordinance. ("Skyscraper Plans Hinge on Council, Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 7, 1910)

Among the members of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club were:
  • Hulett C. Merritt, described by the Dec. 11, 1910 Los Angeles Herald as a "millionaire and financier" in an article about the planned Merritt Building in downtown Los Angeles.  At the time, Merritt was pushing city leaders to waive building height restrictions from 180 feet to 233 feet.  Merritt is reported as saying he would scrap plans for the Italian Renaissance-style monument to his family unless he was allowed the height variance, otherwise "it's beauty will be marred and I want to build for the artistic value more than for any profit I may get out of it."  Originally from Minnesota, Merritt had sold his interests in the Merritt - Rockefeller syndicate in 1891 for more than $81 million.
RIGHT: Bolsa Chica Gun Club member William Bayly arrived in California in 1898 and was described as "one of the foremost mining men of the southwest". (Los Angeles Herald, April 27, 1906) 
  • William Bayly, a colleague of H.E. Huntington, Bayly helped develop the West Coast's version of Naples. The Bayly's European travels, soirees, and "delightfully appointed" luncheons at 10 Chester Place were regular features of the Los Angeles' society pages.
  • Dr. G. MacGowan, a Los Angeles physician, once attacked by a Mrs. Robertson with a horse whip.  As reported in the April 18, 1896 San Francisco Call, "The doctor today received a note from the woman...'I warn you not to say anything further about the insanity theory' intimating there would be more horse-whipping if he attempted to prove her insane."
  • Gail B. Johnson, a board member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Vice President of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, a director of the Sinaloa Land Corporation, and director of German American Savings Bank (later First National Bank).
  • J. S. Torrance, multi millionaire Pasadena resident and director of the Pacific Steel Company.  Brokering deals for Home Telephone Company, Torrance was questioned by the San Francisco grand jury in 1907 for a fund of $300,000 "for use in bribing the supervisors to grant the Home Company the competitive franchise."  In California In Our Time (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1947), Robert Glass Cleland writes, "under the state's promise of immunity, eighteen of the supervisors confessed the wholesale acceptance of bribes, not only from the organized activities of the underworld but on a still larger scale from public utilities and other corporations doing business in the city."
  • C.P. Moorehouse, a Pasadena sportsman, he is reported by The Herald, July 12, 1896, to have taken a 137-pound tuna in Catalina Island's Avalon bay "after a four hour fight."
  • J.D. Thomson of Pasadena, Premier and Mascot Oil Companies, Hidalgo Oil Company, and Boca del Cobre and Sierra Pinta mining companies.
LEFT: "Millionaires Perry Weidner, Isaac Milbank, and M.C. Neuner," members of the Dominguez Field Aviation Committee, carried Hoxsey "along the cheering, hat waving stands" of a reported 75,000 spectators. (Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 27, 1910)
  • Isaac Milbank, member of the Dominguez Field aviation committee, a director of the Sinaloa Land Corporation, and a director of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company.  Milbank was involved with the aerial duck hunt over Bolsa Chica by French aviator Hubert Latham, Dec. 23, 1910, (see http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com/2012/03/part-two-of-our-interview-series-with.html) and was present four days later when American aviator Arch Hoxsey broke the world record for altitude in a Wright biplane, 11,474 feet.  Latham crashed his Antoinette monoplane at a windy Dominguez field that day and set the remains on fire.
  • James Slauson, a member of the Southwest Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Los Angeles Municipal Music Commission.
  • H.L. Story, of Story & Clark in Chicago, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, president of the Railroad Men's Railway Company, and member of the Pasadena Audubon Society.
  • M.J. Connell, president of the California Fish and Game in 1910.  This presented an awkward situation when the commission considered banning aerial duck hunting after the December 1910 aerial duck hunt over the Bolsa Chica by aviator Hubert Latham.
RIGHT: On the mesa near the Bolsa Chica Gun Club's former location. (Photo, May 2012) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

100 Dam Years
   As glamorous as the Bolsa Chica Gun Club may have been, not all were happy with its presence.  In order to create bigger duck ponds, the Gun Club blocked the natural tidal flow, quickly incurring the wrath of peatland ranchers and farmers.

   In August 1907--after years of fighting and legal actions--the over 40-member Bolsa Chica Gun Club offered a $500 reward "for the arrest of the persons who scuttled its dredger in Fremont Creek last week...trouble between the farmers in the vicinity and the club members arose after the dam was built..." It was a dispute that continued for a century.

LEFT: The powerful Bolsa Chica Gun Club won this round of the dispute with residents in the peatlands when the War Department decided in favor of the Gun Club. Ranchers and farmers had protested Gun Club dams in the wetlands as an obstruction of navigable waters. The Gun Club had installed earthen dams in the Bolsa Chica in 1899 to create ponds to attract more ducks for hunting. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 1903)



 RIGHT: Two years after the War Department ruling, four hundred ranchers in the peatlands petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt regarding the dams installed by the Bolsa Chica Gun Club.  Two years later, the Gun Club reported that as they were preparing to dredge out ponds "some one in the dead of night obtained access to the dredger and bored an auger hole in its bottom" and sank it.  The Gun Club offered a $500 reward to identify the culprit and stated they spent $1500 retrieving and fixing the dredger. ("Gun Club Arouses Wrath of Farmers," San Francisco Call, Dec. 12, 1905)

   It would not be until August 2006--ninety-nine years after the Bolsa Chica Gun Club complained about farmers destroying one of their earthen dams--that a wetlands restoration project re-opened the tidal inlet.  A two-year $147 million dollar project cleared the wetlands channel once again.  In the darkness of dawn--the time when early 20th Century duck hunters tromped out to the man-made ponds--local environmentalists and activists fulfilled the long-ago wish of the peatlands ranchers and cheered the return of saltwater to the wetlands.

  Update: As of August 2016--ten years after the tidal inlet was opened--wetlands stewards worry about funding to continue the regular dredging of sand to keep the saltwater flowing and maintain the natural wildlife habitat.

A childhood on the Bolsa Chica
   It's not likely a young Jimmie Okuda was aware of the going's on in the lives of the Gun Club members or of the politics regarding the dammed tidal inlet.  He was living an ideal child's life with wetlands and fields to explore.  Okuda's family worked and lived on the Gun Club property until 1935, when his father, Harry Okuda, lost his job due to an injury.  Jimmie was then 14 years old.

 LEFT: Another accidental death at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was reported in the Santa Ana Register. The death of Kamino Senzo would have occurred at the time the Okuda family were living on the grounds of the Club. (Santa Ana Register, October 19, 1915)

   "The family was desperate.  These were depression years and there was no work," writes Carlberg.  "Then Okuda's mother realized that the experience the family gained raising chickens at the gun club would get them through hard times."  The Okudas bought a small farm near present-day Brookhurst Avenue and the 22 Freeway, and by 1941 "their chicken farm was operating in the black."

    Then, World War II.  Like most of Wintersburg's and Orange County's Japanese Americans, the Okudas were forcibly removed from California and confined during WWII. The Okudas were sent to the Colorado River Relocation Center at Poston, Arizona.

     Okuda told Carlberg the family turned the farm over to their chicken feed supplier.  Fortunately, the Okudas were able to regain the farm when they returned to Orange County.  They moved the farm to the area of Hazard Avenue and Bushard Street--due to the construction of the 22 Freeway--before retiring it to urbanization.

   In 2005, Okuda told Carlberg he had taken up a game favored by the gun club members--golf--and had become a world traveler.  Jim Shigeru Okuda passed away in 2007 in nearby Westminster, with funeral services held at the Wintersburg Presbyterian Church (the former Wintersburg Japanese Mission).


RIGHT: The Bolsa Chica Wetlands, looking south toward downtown Huntington Beach.  A boardwalk and hiking trails through the wetlands can be accessed off both Pacific Coast Highway and Warner (Wintersburg) Avenue. The Bolsa Chica Gun Club was included in the early census reports for Wintersburg Village. (Photo, M. Urashima, May 2012)
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


 
Special thanks to Huntington Beach resident Dave Carlberg, author of Bolsa Chica--Its History from Prehistoric Times To The Present, for providing information about Jim Shigero Okuda.

All rights reserved. No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima. 

4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the history of the Gun Club and the Okuda Family! Grew up in HB and find the local history fascinating. I often walk the wetlands and enjoy reading the articles about Wintersburg.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I had heard of the 'Gun Club' but never knew it's location. I am enjoying the stories & history so far regarding Huntington Beach, Wintersburg and of course the Bolsa Chica Wetlands area.
    Greatful for this info. and love the old pix too.

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  3. My family was associated with a family that were members of the Gun Club. It's a shame that more of the WW2 gun site wasn't saved. The city has failed to establish the wet lands as a real tourist site and instead has allowed developers to encroach on the land and violate the Indian history sites even destroying ancient artifacts. But good people are still fighting to save it from developers. Also the Japanese history of the city is also being damaged and downplayed by the city.

    ReplyDelete

The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.