What do Teddy Roosevelt, King Gustaf of Sweden, the Prince of Wales and Pope Pius XII all have in common, as it relates to Huntington Beach?
They all visited the Bolsa Chica Gun Club.
Opened around 1900 on property that is now the Bolsa Chica wetlands, the club boasted a beautiful redwood and cedar hunting lodge and many amenities catering to the well-heeled duck hunters of the day. Initially, membership in the club was limited to 40 with an initial membership fee of $1,000 and annual dues of $60, making it one of the most exclusive clubs in the area.
I've learned much about what I know about the club from my friend David Carlberg, renowned microbiologist, environmental activist and author of several books, including the exceptional "Bolsa Chica — Its History From Prehistoric Time to the Present."
David, along with his wife, Margaret, has long been active in the Amigos de Bolsa Chica. But he also has a keen interest in the history of the gun club, which is why I arranged for us to actually walk the site of the club's ruins. Neither of us had ever had access across the fence, and so recently he, my son and I were led on a walking tour by Taylor Van Berkum from Fish and Game. (Thank you to Reserve Manager Carla Navarro for arranging our visit.)
And what a fascinating experience it was. I often walk the trail near the original site of the club, looking through the fence and wondering what it might be like to actually explore the area. On the warm, sunny day we were there, dry winds blew the high grasses, creating a heavy "whisper" that all but drowned the nearby ocean waves.
I could not believe Dave had never been back here before, given his extensive research and analysis of the club's history. But here we were, examining the old foundation and road that led to the club and lining up old photos to notice that many of the original palm trees were still in place, swaying over knotty groves and thick wild mustard plants rather than a member's clubhouse.
My mind flashed back to the 1930 film "Sarah and Son," starring Fredric March, which featured several key scenes shot right here at the site — some of the only known film footage of the structures that were once here. But all was not Hollywood and male bonding over brandy at the end of a long day. Tensions arose out here when, in order to create bigger duck ponds, the club members blocked the natural tidal flow, infuriating the many peat land ranchers and farmers.
Carlberg also explained to us how, after the military was done using the site after World War II (that area of the bluff had gun mounts then to protect us from a potential seaside attack), the land was given back to the club. But its best days had passed, and soon after, it closed.
Then, according to Carlberg, it was either torn down or burned down in the late 1960s, leaving little today except some concrete foundations, what appears to be a rusted hay wagon and lots of errant, rusted piping and rubble. Nature had done a predictably good job reclaiming the site.
Interestingly, we noticed lots of seashell fragments, which Carlberg told us probably date back to when a Native American Holocene coastal village existed here some 8,000 years ago.
On the very interesting historicwintersburg.blogspot.com website, there is more information relating to the club.
Reading there, I learned about the Okuda family, for whom the club was home for over two decades. As it states, "Harry Okuda maintained the landscaping and kitchen gardens, including the yard of chickens being readied for club members' dinners. Harry arrived at the club circa 1910 or 1913 — coinciding with his arrival in the United States" from Japan.
Seventy-five years later, in 2005, Carlberg sat down with then-84-year-old Jimmie Okuda, Harry's son, to learn about his life at the club. Carlberg wrote about Okuda in the Amigos de Bolsa Chica's summer 2005 newsletter, the Tern Tide. 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."
It was impossible not to think about the Okuda family as we stepped carefully through the overgrown brush surrounding the former gun club site.
But that is the magic of wandering in a place that holds so much history — the stories seem to hang in the air, alive in the breeze, trapped in the very trees that bore witness to it all so many years ago.
Here, where prominent local men with names like Torrance, Slauson and Huntington roamed, where the Okuda family came of age, and where even Teddy Roosevelt left his footprints (and no doubt, a few less ducks). Right here in Huntington Beach.