Most everyone likes to think of their youth days as the best time of their lives, and I'm no exception. In fact, I think growing up in the 1950s was probably the best time of the 20th Century ... especially if you lived in a small-town atmosphere.
Bill Rice and his collie, "Lucky," at their Southern California Gas Co. home at the southwest corner of 15th Street and San Fernando Road in 1953.
We had that back in the '50s in Newhall, Saugus and Castaic, when the combined population in the whole area was probably 5,000 a tiny fraction of today's burgeoning population in the Santa Clarita Valley.
It was a great time to grow up, and it's sad today to return "home" to find traffic, housing tracts, hordes of people and new shopping centers. I guess that's progress, but ...
When my family moved to Newhall in 1953 it was a glorious time. We came from the "city" (Montebello-East Los Angeles) and it was sheer pleasure to get away from the rat race even then. The Santa Ana Freeway was just beginning to set the automotive trend for the state, so to travel to Newhall or visit relatives back in the city, the "only" way to go was on Foothill Boulevard, through San Fernando to La Canada-Pasadena and down one of the main boulevards like Rosemead. The trip took several hours no wonder few ever came to visit us. In fact, most of our relatives thought we lived "way out in the country." Today I can make the trip from Orange County to the Newhall area in less than two hours.
It was definitely different moving up here from the city. I remember my first trip to Castaic ... on the school bus from Newhall Elementary to play baseball against the school there. I've never seen a baseball field with so many large rocks on the field! No grass at all.
And where were the sidewalks in Newhall? They must have rolled them up each night ... except for San Fernando Road in the downtown area. Traffic signals? No way, even though when we first arrived here we did have truck traffic on San Fernando Road.
A dog's eye view of the CHP station, seen from the Rice home. Click to enlarge.
In those first few years, as our house set on the Southern California Gas Co. property right across the street from the California Highway Patrol office and the truck weigh station, trucks had to come off highways 14 and 99 into Newhall for weighing. It took awhile to get used to the trucks rolling through all day and night, as my bedroom windows faced the weight platform, but eventually we learned to ignore them. Finally, the CHP and scales were moved out to their present location on 99 (Interstate 5 now) and it got real quiet in town.
Another noisemaker on the other side of the Gas Company was the Southern Pacific Railroad. They still were running steam engines in early '50s, and I'd run out to the fence almost every day to watch the beautiful orange and black engines huff and puff. The mail was delivered and picked up by rail, too, with a post down near The Newhall Signal office where they'd hang a mail bag. An "arm" extended outward from the train, snatching a bag of outgoing mail to the southbound or northbound Daylight or Owl runs. One of the train's mail clerks would toss out a bag of the day's mail to a waiting Post Office clerk. I wonder how many pieces of mail got torn up with that bag hitting the ground at about 40 mph?
I graduated from Newhall Elementary in 1953 and I still have the photo of the graduating sixth graders. [Click here to see this oversized photo in a new window.] I can't remember all of the names, but I tried to identify all I could. I think several of them still live in the valley.
When I was in junior high at Hart (at the time, Hart was a junior and senior high school), we had a unique experience one afternoon. While junior high football practice was underway after classes, several of us noted what we thought was a fire on a four-engine plane overhead. Others said it was just the afternoon sun reflecting off the engine, but when the plane circled at Castaic and then circled back over Newhall, parachutes begin popping out all over. A couple of dozen military chaplains were jumping out of the transport plane.
There were parachutes all over the sky from Newhall to Bouquet Canyon, where the plane finally crashed. Fortunately no one was injured much I think one chaplain sprained his ankle when landing on the railroad tracks near Saugus and another had a cut ear from the chute chords clipping him, but I'm sure there was a lot of praying going on. None had ever parachuted before.
By the time I was in the eighth grade, Hart was somewhat of a sports power, even though we had to play all the big schools that were two or three times our size. We had only about 800 students in total, from 7th through 12th grades.
I'll never forget a basketball game in 1955 when we beat Ventura High. It was the first home loss for Ventura in about a decade, and boy, were they mad. Our team and student rooter buses had to have a police escort out of town to keep the rock-throwers away from us.
Joe Kapp, Ray Bond, Brian Hurt and Jimmy Gibson were the leaders of that team. The season came to a crashing halt in the CIF playoffs when we lost to Mt. Carmel, another "big" school.
Sinatra in Newhall, 1954. Click for more.
We got kind of used to seeing movie trucks around the valley most days, shooting scenes for motion pictures and for that new technology, television but it was pretty exciting during Easter vacation of 1956 when we had all week off to watch the movie "Suddenly" being filmed in Newhall and Saugus, with Sterling Hayden and Frank Sinatra starring. They filmed from the roof of a building across the street from the train station, then filmed from Newhall Avenue up to dentist Dr. Ross's house on the hill. In the movie, you would think the house (3 miles away) overlooked the station, where Sinatra was supposed to shoot the U.S. President as he got off the train. [Click here to see the author's photos from the filming of "Suddenly."]
We saw a lot of movie people in town, such as John Bromfield in the "Sheriff of Cochise" series for years; Broderick Crawford of the "Highway Patrol" television series; Lee Van Cleef, Mamie Van Doren, Frank Lovejoy, Gene Barry and others. Barry visited the Jack Royal family home on Chestnut Street one early evening. They had watched him film a segment of his TV western at Melody Ranch, but said he never got to watch the show because he was always working at that hour. They invited him to their house, and he came over and watched his program.
Elvis Presley stayed at the Circle J Ranch when they filmed his first movie, "Love Me Tender." There were a few girls who skipped school that week!
It was a great small-town atmosphere in those days, and you knew a lot of people as you walked down the streets on the way to or from school. We knew most of merchants along San Fernando Road, such as Harry Osler at his shoe repair store, Maggie Hampton at the Snack Shack, the Cones at the Bamboo Inn restaurant on the corner of Lyons and San Fernando, the Ostroms in their American Theater movie house (now the American Legion Hall), and others. The owners of the M&N Market, next to Newhall Hardware, used to give bubble gum for every "A" you got on your school report card.
During the summer a lot of the kids worked in the onion fields. We made 12 cents a sack for picking onions near Newhall Park. Kids would work in the morning, get their money about noon, then spend it to go swimming at the park pool, or sneak across the fields to a couple of ponds where you could swim. It's all golf courses and housing areas now. Most of us learned to drive out there too ... no houses, only a couple of farm roads. The "drag strip" was out on Newhall Avenue when it went clear through and hit San Fernando Road again near the Edison station.
Going to school was an all-day adventure for many of the Hart students. They had long bus rides for kids near Acton, the five-mile grade up at Frenchman Flats, Castaic, Bouquet Canyon, etc. Some of them had to catch the bus about 6:30 a.m. and didn't get home until after 6 p.m. if they played after-class sports. I was lucky: I could sleep until 7:30 and still be to school by 8:15, as we lived just across the tracks on San Fernando Road (our house is the "Pet Hospital" now).
There used to be two houses there, both owned by the Gas Co. We lived in one, as my father was a district supervisor. Our next-door neighbors were the Donaldson family, Stu and Mary. Their four kids all graduated from Hart Bob in 1950, Dick in 1951, Diane in 1955 and Nancy in 1958.
The late '50s saw the best sports era Hart had seen until recent years when the Indians football team has won several CIF championships. My class, from '56 to '59, won just about every sports championship in the newly formed Frontier League. We dominated in everything. We were 10-2 and 11-1 in football during my two final years in school, and our basketball team was a winner every season, including a school-record 17 wins in a row in 1959. Unfortunately, our season went down the tubes in the CIF finals at San Marino twice!
In football we were 11-0 and rated No. 1 in the small-schools division of the CIF, but lost 13-7 at San Marino, after we had a touchdown called back because of a clipping penalty an action behind the runner that was unnecessary and had no real bearing on the play.
Then we played San Marino in the CIF basketball finals and lost by 5 points. I still think we were robbed by lousy officiating, as the refs let 6'-6" Bob Sommers (who went on to Stanford) get away with just about everything. He finally was fouled out with a couple of minutes left in the fourth quarter (he should have gone sooner). I know, at 6'-1", I had to play center against him, while our best rebounder, Dave Jones, had his ankle in a cast from the semi-final game against Artesia. In that game we beat Artesia by 9 points, even though they were rated the No. 1 small school. They also had beaten San Marino twice in their league meetings. We did play them at Hart, however.
Several Los Angeles area newspapers wrote about the Hart-San Marino basketball game and how poor the officiating was, and as editor of Hart's school paper, the Smoke Signal, so did I. I got called into principal George Harris's office for that story! We were vindicated somewhat, however, when the CIF that year decided that no more CIF finals game would be played on home courts. [Click here for basketball team photos.]
Joe Kapp in Valencia, 1998.
While Hart was a little powerhouse in sports, we had a couple of graduates who went on to give us some national fame, too. Joe Kapp ('55) went on to lead the Cal Bears to the 1959 Rose Bowl, went to the CFL in Canada for a few years and won the Grey Cup championship, then came down to the Minnesota Vikings and led them to an NFL Super Bowl appearance.
In track and field we had Tommy Herrington, who led the nation in high school pole vaulting. His success brought Bob Richards, then the world's best pole vaulter and Olympic champion, to the school a couple of times as a guest speaker. Then we had Bobby Avant ('57) who led the nation in high jump at over 6'-11". He also became the first Caucasian to high jump 7 feet while competing for the USC Trojans.
I got my start in journalism in the ninth grade when I signed up for the Smoke Signal staff. Instructor Jim Buddell tried to kick me out of class because I didn't have "beginning journalism" in the eighth grade. But I hung in there and wrote the junior-varsity football game story the first week. Buddell let me stay in class, made me copy editor as a junior and editor as a senior. I've been writing ever since ... now as a "fishing and hunting" outdoor writer since 1964 (after college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo) for Western Outdoor News, the largest outdoor sports weekly newspaper in the country.
It's been a great career, as I've fished all over the United States and Mexico. This year my wife, Anne (Ettaanne Cunningham, class of '58), and I are going to Alaska for a week of salmon and halibut fishing. Somebody's got to do it! We've also been to Mexico a couple of times for bass fishing, plus Cabo San Lucas where Anne caught her first marlin, yellowfin tuna and dorado.
Not everything happened for us in Newhall, but in those days you could go out of town and not get into danger. When we finally were old enough to have a car and drive, we used to go to Hollywood to "cruise" the boulevard. It it was safe and fun to do in those days ... no druggies or hookers to trash up the streets. We'd hit the local hangouts like Bob's Drive-in in Van Nuys and the drive-in theater in Reseda. For our music, the era of rock 'n roll started when I was in junior high at Hart. We'd go to Cassell's in San Fernando to get the latest rock 'n rock records. 45-RPMs were 49 cents, long-playing albums were under $4. Stereo was just invented.
It was quite a shock to some students when Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper (J.D. Richardson) died in the plane crash. A few of our students who had transferred from San Fernando knew Valens there.
The Dodgers and Giants came west in 1958 to bring us Major League Baseball. Before that, baseball was pretty much a radio sport. Television wasn't yet very big. We didn't even get a color TV until the early '60s. We used to carry the newest invention transistor radios to school to hear the World Series every year. In 1956, teacher Bob Seaton would not let us listen to the game in class, but at the end of the hour he finally let us turn on the radio, just in time to hear the last three outs of Yankee Don Larsen's perfect game.
The '50s were a great time to grow up. There were no drug problems and no gangs. It was a big deal if someone was able to get a six-pack of beer. We still look back on those years as the best of times, and get a chance to relive them annually when we go back to Newhall for the Fourth of July.
My wife and I re-met at the big Hart class reunion at the Ranch House Inn in 1996. I hadn't seen her since 1958, but now we're married and enjoy reminiscing about the "old days." It's especially great as we both grew up with the same friends. On the Fourth we especially look forward to returning home where the Jauregui family hosts an open house for a lot of us old-timers. We generally see about 20 people we went to school with at this outing. It's a family reunion every year!
©2000 Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures