•Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly series celebrating Laguna’s heritage this month.
May is Heritage Month in Laguna Beach.
Nature created the beautiful Laguna terrain, but it was the early residents who set the stage that made Laguna distinctive in South County — an enclave of homesteaders, entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
Some of the names of the early settlers — Isch, Goff, Brooks, Jahraus and Thurston — still resonate today, memorialized on buildings or streets.
A mobile-home park, a school, a scholarship endowment and book also bear the Thurston name.
The Thurston family settled in Aliso Creek in 1871, equipped only with a plow, a wagon, a few hand tools and one blue hen.
It was a hardscrabble life for many years. The 13 children raised on the 152-acre homestead, located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, grew up isolated from the world — the nearest neighbors eight miles away.
Joseph S. Thurston, who was 3 years old when the family moved from Tustin to claim the homestead, was 10 before he saw another child who was not a sibling.
But the boy and the man saw the history of Laguna, as it happened and recaptured his memories in “Early Days in Laguna” or “Early Days of Laguna,” depending on the copy, both versions copyrighted in 1947.
Regardless of the title, the book is endearing, from the dedication to his wife, Marie, to animals he owned, such as Ginger, the horse he said might as well have been named All Spice to anecdotes about early settlers.
The book also explores his family relationships, some as rocky as the homestead.
Thurston’s father, whose name is never mentioned in the book, left the homestead when Joe was 18. No loss, apparently to the family. Joe was glad to see him go.
While other members of the family came and went, Joe became the head of the family and later a leader in the community that was growing north of Aliso Canyon.
He was there when the groves of eucalypti were planted to establish land claims. He saw the building of the first church, the first market, the first post office and the first bank. He patronized the first store to serve ice cream — paying 20 cents a saucer. He sold produce to the first hotel.
He was a member of the fledgling Chamber of Commerce and among the 483 unanimous voters in the election that created the Laguna Beach County Water District to supply the town when the old well dried up in Laguna Canyon. The vote cost them $1,370 each, a precedent followed decades later when folks in town taxed themselves to buy up parcels in Laguna Canyon.
Thurston owned virtually all of Mystic Hills and some of Temple Hills, and he met his wife at the first little school house in Laguna.
Marie Harding was the sole support of two young daughters, Doris and Virginia, her mother and her sister — earning a meager living as a teacher when he drummed up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage.
He wrote: “Perhaps it was the struggle she was making against almost overwhelming burdens that brought us nearer together and made me wish to share with her. I was much older and would not have encouraged such a thing were it not for the burdens she was bearing.
Marie and Joe were married June 15, 1921 — a sunny day in the midst of the same June gloom familiar to us today.
“The sun had been hidden for two weeks and had not been able to show his face, but on that day he came out in all his glory and welcomed the wedding party,” Joe recalled in his book.
Doris married Robert Boyd in 1938. They had five children: Robert, nicknamed “Happy,” the eldest, was given the middle name of Thurston; followed by Barton, always called &Bo;” Kelly; Mary Lucinda, known as Cindy; and Randy, “the baby.”
Two of them have continued the family’s tradition of active participation in the business and community affairs in a city that owes much to their forbears.
Kelly is the owner of the Marine Room Tavern and a city councilman. He has been married to Michelle Vierstra since 1982.
Randy owns Thurston Boyd Interiors. His homes have been featured in noted shelter magazines and opened to the public for fundraising tours.
They shared some of their memories and thoughts about Laguna with the Coastline Pilot.
Q: Did you have much time with your grandparents?
Kelly: “My grandmother was only 55 when she died, but my grandfather lived to 80, so I remember him really well. He used to drive the three older boys up to Mystic Hills in his 1937 Buick after he laid out the streets and drop us off to plant iceplant.
He had a stand of eucalyptus trees on Temple Hills, and he used the saplings to make a corral for his horses.
Randy wasn’t even born then.
Q: If your grandfather came back today, what would he recognize?
Kelly: About the only things would be Legion Hall, which was the school house where my grandmother taught, probably the high school, which was K-12 in his time. We lived right across the street, but the school district eventually condemned our property and took it over. He would also recognize Laguna and Aliso canyons.
Q: What would he like?
Randy: Heisler Park.
Kelly: He would probably be surprised at the growth of the Festival of Arts [celebrating its 75th season this year] and the other festivals.
Q: What would your grandmother like?
Kelly: The schools.
Q: What would your grandfather hate?
Kelly: The overcrowdedness, like we all do, and the traffic.
Randy: How chic Laguna has become.
Q: What was your grandfather’s most important legacy to you?
Randy: I feel so fortunate to have the family history we do in this town.
Kelly: Not many people in California can say that.
Q: When did your grandfather sell the Aliso Canyon homestead?
Kelly: During the Great Depression.
Q: What do you think of the Athens Group proposal to build a replica of the family canyon home for a small meeting center in the redevelopment of its Aliso Canyon property?
Kelly: I think it’s great.
Randy: They should hire me to do the interior.
Q: Where did your parents meet?
Kelly: Here in town. My dad came here after working in Mexico. He and his brother lived where the Old Brussels was. I understand they were quite the boys.
Q: What changes have you seen in Laguna that you hate?
Kelly: I miss what was at Main Beach — the bowling alley, the dance hall, Benton’s Coffee Shop, Francis’ shoe store, a hamburger place called Ships Ahoy. I miss Orange Julius and Leo’s Barber Shop and the little houses.
Randy: I miss an actual downtown.
Kelly: Yeah, we used to have Stuart Avis, Marriner’s Stationary, Klass Electric, the toy store and Bill Shield’s hardware store where he always kept the rainfall records. And when I was young, the Jahraus’ lumberyard was still on Forest Avenue. Just about the only things left are Bushard’s Pharmacy and the hanging gate sign. Trotters Bakery was the best.
Randy: You probably knew then about 90% of the people you passed on the street.
Q: What do you love?
Kelly: I have traveled a lot, but coming back to Laguna is coming home. It will always be home. I have never found another place as charming, and I don’t plan to ever leave.
Randy: The beaches. Whenever I go away and I come back and drive past Las Brisas, that view just grabs my heart.
Q: What would you like the future to bring?
Kelly: I’d like to see less traffic congestion, and we [the council] are working on it, and I would love to see neighbors be friendlier to one another. I am so tired of people saying we are becoming a community only for the wealthy. People who bought homes for $100,000 didn’t sell them for just $300,000 so others could afford to move in.
Randy: I am a preservationist about architecture. I have bought a lot of older homes. And my passion is to restore the cottages so people won’t tear them down.
Q. Kelly, What about your children from your previous marriages?
Kelly: My daughter Shana is 35. She lives in Colorado and has a son, Michael, 10. My son, Sean, lives in Canada and has a daughter, 5. Michelle and I also have several children [fostered] that we consider our own.
Q: What about the future?
Kelly: None of them can afford to live here. Except when Cindy comes home for the holidays or a couple of week in the summer, it’s just Randy and me.
Randy: We don’t like that.