I wish every street in Huntington Beach had a Gwendoline Runyard.
She passed away in January at 90, a year after her husband, Bob, but left behind a remarkable trove of memories inspired by the neighborhood where she lived.
Runyard wrote in 1955: "During my search for a larger house for a larger family I found Old Pirate Lane. Here stood one old country-type red farm house, with matching barn, positioned on this rarely traveled grass, gravel, and dirt track which led to the edge of a little airport. The house faced Graham Street."
The farmhouse, built in 1906 by the Graham family (and no longer red), still stands. As does the house the Runyard family built in the 50s, and pretty much every other house originally constructed on this dead end side street that doesn't run much beyond the length of a football field.
But what a wonderful little world it represents; a peek back to a simpler, uncluttered, more rugged Huntington Beach.
Runyard, a poet and family archivist published a small book some years ago, named for her street. Her son John and I used it as a guide as we walked the neighborhood of his youth. The small paperback details the stories behind every house and each family that lived in those houses, in both words and rare pictures.
John painted a fine picture for me, recalling the lush, thick, fragrant orange and eucalyptus groves, the agriculture – and the horses. His family, along with several others, kept horses in their backyards (along with goats, bunnies, chickens, pigs and even a burro). In the early 60s, John and his brothers would ride their horses to the beach, trotting down Warner Avenue before cutting across the wetlands and moseying to the sea. Can you imagine that today?
In the Runyard backyard are remnants of the rich past: the hay shed for the horses, citrus trees, and an old swing set visible in some of his Mrs. Runyard's vintage photos. A sign, "The Runyard Ranch," hangs from a shingle. Just how quaint was life here in the early 60s? One day the two Runyard horses jumped the fence. They were found soon after, grazing at Meadowlark Golf Course.
The golf course factored in when the kids wanted to make money, too. Before the high nets or fences were put in place to catch errant balls, Runyard and his pals would retrieve the shanked shots and sell them back to the golfers for a quarter apiece.
Then there was the sand pit, located just down Graham, right before you hit Warner. This was a 60 foot high, steep crested ridge that led down to a fresh pool of water where local kids would make rafts and hunt for crawfish. That is, when they weren't riding horses or tending to other farm animals.
The 73-year-old Ralph Ricks soon joined us on our stroll. He moved to Old Pirate Lane in 1973 (his house, located at the end of the street, was moved here from Belmont Shore in the mid 60s). His yard spilled into Meadowlark Airport and after enough pilots bummed water and electricity from him, he decided to buy a plane and then the pilots gave him flying lessons. He parked his craft in his front yard.
He and John recalled the old pepper tree, a constant fixture in Gwendoline Runyard's writings. Once located in the middle of the street, the neighborhood focal point was torn down a number of years ago to make room for a new house. Just like the old oak tree was. Sure, a few things have changed, and from time to time, the pot gets stirred. Like when, as Ricks described, a "Newport lawyer moved in and started complaining about the roosters."
Ricks also explained why the street is now called Old Pirate Drive (versus Lane). See, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that lanes would now run only north and south, and drives would run east and west, like Old Pirate. If one of the bureaucrats that made this decision ever had a moment to visit, they might understand just how foolish their blanket law was. After all, Old Pirate is not a "drive." It is most certainly a "lane."
Oh, and I can't forget the famed, faded pink tank, which provides water just for this neighborhood. "The Old Pirate Water Company," Ricks laughed. "No chlorine, just the best tasting water in the city. Our own private well." All the neighbors share repairs and upkeep equally, of course, and some of the handier residents get in and fix it themselves when it gets stubborn.
There is a palpable peace in the air; a gentle, country quality that first lured Gwendoline Runyard here to stake her family's claim. It is a special place.
Ricks disappeared from our conversation and soon, he was rumbling down the lane in his bright yellow 1911 Ford Model T. It was the perfect touch as it passed the farmhouse that was built just five years before the car.
You can enjoy all that John has been uploading about his mom and Old Pirate Lane at:http://runyard.org/OPL/moms-opl-book/START.HTML.
And I thought it appropriate that we close with one of Mrs. Runyard's poems, titled "OPL – Then and Now."
Dappled shade of the pepper tree
Half-way down the Lane,
Was welcome in the Summer's sun.
'til sea winds blew cool again.
Eucalyptus trees in rows
Line some boundaries in the sun.
Grass struggles through the gravel path
In the road not yet begun.
Quiet. lies in the meadows here
Far from cities busy roar,
Enjoying the gift of the Spring rains,
Oblivious of what's in store.
For some day soon, the road will burst
With builders' trucks, and cranes,
Yet despite the construction's noise,
This rustic lane remains
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.