by Anne Batty
Life in the present, and all its yesterdays, becomes tomorrow’s history. That history can only be reserved, protected and recorded by people who care fervently about something of value. Those who care and do something about it are special.
The Spanish Village-by-the-Sea, has a history well worth preserving, and the town has been fortunate enough to inhabit a group of people who not only care, but also have logged thousands of volunteer hours to prove it.
This movement to preserve San Clemente’s history started in the early ‘70’s with a teenager who was born and raised in the village. His grandparents were friendly with the town’s Founder, his father was a walking-talking local history book and his mother a tireless civic volunteer. As a young man, like most local kids, he “lived” at the beach. He was comfortable with his surroundings, especially the “great houses” peering down on the pier, and only mildly curious about the people who had built them and lived there.
As time passed, this same young man watched in alarm as these historic buildings were forsaken and demolished in rapid succession; one after another, until finally upon returning from a family vacation and seeing that the Las Palmas School had been torn down, he had had enough.
That young man was Fred Divel. In October, 1972 - supported by his parents Don and Lois, the San Clemente Women’s Club, the Junior Women’s Club, the AAUW, Friends of the Library, Librarian Phyllis Rauch and resident Marion Moon - Divel wrote the first of what would be many letters to the editor, to rally concerned citizens interested in saving those familiar San Clemente sights threatened with destruction. Soon, a meeting was held in the Ole Hanson Room of the Community Clubhouse. That meeting sparked successive gatherings in various locations around town, and by April, 1973, the San Clemente Historical Society had been founded.
It was to be a non-profit organization whose purpose was to unite everyone interested in the historical aspects of San Clemente; to foster greater community familiarity; and to preserve, protect, defend and record the history of the village, past, present and future.
The Historical Society began its work immediately. Stationary and membership cards were designed and printed and a newsletter was written and published by local activist Maxine Hoppe.
Next, Marian Moon spearheaded the first fund-raising project. While bulldozers were literally approaching to raze the Easley-Rasmussen house (next door to the Casa Romantica), for replacement by the first of several condominiums, members were salvaging ornate Spanish tiles from the stately mansion. Those tiles were eventually sold to eager preservationists, with funds invested in the Society’s meager treasury. At the same time, an old tile fountain and bench were rescued and that fountain now holds court at the back entrance to the Community Clubhouse on Avenida Del Mar.
Before long a mapping committee, also under the guidance of Moon, began locating all the surviving original houses built in town during the Founder’s period. Photographs were taken, labeled, cataloged and placed in albums for safekeeping — and future reference.
Eventually, through the efforts of member Blythe Welton, the society endorsed the Junior Women’s Club’s intent to produce a 4th grade local history textbook entitled, “From Fishcarts to Fiestas.” (This book is being revised and updated today and will be distributed to local schools this school year.) Welton also spent endless hours sifting through rare surviving copies of the town’s early newspaper, El Heraldo - discovered in the basement of the old City Hall – laminating stories about the town for future display in a planned museum.
Then, distinguished villager and Disney writer, Norman Wright, oversaw the editing of the rare find of a three-reel film chronicling the early construction of the village’s distinctive roads, houses, public works and buildings. With narration added by Ole “Bob” Hanson, grandson of the town Founder, this film was a treasured addition to the society archives.
THE WORK GOES ON
From those humble beginnings to the present time, Historical Society core players - the Divel family, Marion Moon, Howard Massie, Blythe Welton, Maxine Hoppe, Phyllis Rauch, Charles Ashbaugh, Helen Foerstel, Pat Bouman, Gloria Portner, Dorothy Fuller, Rae LaForce, Ray Benedicktus, Lee and Dena Van Slyke, and others too numerous to mention - have worked tirelessly to archive the village history. Gathering data, chronicling events, collecting memorabilia, raising money, and lobbying to preserve and duly register historically significant sites, Historical Society members have endeavored to educate the community and its visitors to what a treasure San Clemente truly is. Illustrating in interesting and entertaining ways the importance of preserving its originality, unique character and impressive history.
Though at times it has humorously been referred to, and at times has even felt like, “The U-Haul Museum”, for the last 30 years the Historical Society has diligently preserved, protected, hauled and stored the city’s valued memorabilia, newspapers and photo collection. Private homes, storage units, donated space in the Old City Yard, the Bit of History building in the San Clemente Inn, the Casa Romantica and an Ole Hanson-era home on Avenida Cabrillo have served as their museums and housed their treasures. It hasn’t been an easy task being an entire community’s attic, and finally through perseverance and determination they have hopefully found a permanent home in the Oscar Easley building, also known as “Historic City Hall”, in the geographic center of the original Spanish Village.
WHO WILL CARRY THE TORCH?
The time, dedication and steadfastness of these hometown visionaries cannot be measured in money. Nor can the treasures they have worked so long and hard to preserve.
As time marches on these indefatigable volunteers are aging and their numbers dwindling, with few replacements in sight. Anyone visiting the Historical Museum or looking around the village can easily see the results of their valiant efforts. It would be a shame for those efforts to have been in vain, or even worse, to have treasures once preserved, lost forever.
It is time for a new generation to step up to the plate and continue the work so valiantly begun by these stouthearted pioneers. The torch to preserve San Clemente’s history and historic treasures must not go out.
For those brave enough to carry the torch, the rewards will be great. Just look at the Casa Romantica. The years and efforts spent by the Historical Society to preserve the City Founder’s home have finally paid off. The Casa has been saved, and in 2003 its grand rebirth has been accomplished.
Perhaps now, like that original young man provoked into action by the sight of wasteful and unnecessary demolition, neglect and apathy, a new breed will come forward, having the courage to say to the wrecking balls in the future, as he has said, “don’t go there – back off. That’s my hometown you’re messing with.” Thus that torch, so fondly lit by that caring little troupe, will continue burning brightly for years to come.
The San Clemente Journal is grateful to Fred and Lois Divel and the archives of the
San Clemente Historical Society for the information contained in this article