Joseph Thuston's Laguna Beach of Early Days

One of the most unusual books ever written about the history of Orange County is Joseph Thurston’s Laguna Beach of Early Days, published (by him) in 1947 and recently republished by The History Press (2017).

Perhaps it will help to start with what this book is not.

It is not a history of Laguna Beach. It is not (especially according to some of Joe’s siblings) a history of the Thurston family. It’s not even much of an autobiography. What it is, I think, is Joe Thurston’s reflections on his early life, and some stories he clearly liked to tell.

George and Sarah Thurston both came from early Mormon families, and were pioneers in Utah. In fact, Sarah’s father, Erastus Snow, was one of Quorum of 12 apostles of the Mormon Church, second only to President Brigham Young. Depending on which source you believe, he had between four and sixteen wives, and more than thirty children. Sarah was the first. She married George Thurston in 1858 and they had 15 children themselves.

George Thurston had been very active in the Mormon Church, served as a local Bishop, and as a missionary to England. But in 1870 he left both the church and Utah, taking his family to California. They lived for a while in San Diego County, then came to Orange County, looking for land to homestead. They finally found it in Aliso Canyon, and settled there towards the end of 1871. Joe Thurston was then about three years old.

Even by the standards of their day, the Thurstons had a pretty tough life. There wasn’t much land, there wasn’t much water, and they lived a fairly isolated, self-sufficient life. And eventually, George Thurston abandoned them.

“We had lots of hard times and lots of good times,” Mrs. Thurston told a reporter 35 years later, “and in looking back there are some of the terrible things I don’t like to think about or talk about.”

Joe Thurston was the oldest son still at home when their father left, and stayed on with his mother and younger siblings for another seven years. At age 26, he finally left, and wandered from job to job for a couple years before eventually coming back and taking over the ranch – still supporting his mother, who had moved to Santa Ana. Initially he rented the place from her, then later bought it. Mrs. Thurston died in 1928.

Joe stayed on the ranch – often alone – until 1921. He made his living farming; mostly fruits and vegetables that he sold to the tourists each summer in Laguna Beach. The old timers all remembered his delicious watermelons.

He finally moved to town around 1920 and married a local schoolteacher – Marie Harding. Thurston Middle School is named for her. Joe then turned real estate developer, and opened the Temple Hills tract. But the Depression hit him hard, and he went bankrupt in 1935.

Now you’ll only learn about a third of that from Joe’s book – and not in any organized way.

It was also in 1935 that the old South Coast News asked Joe Thurston to write up some of his reminiscences of early Laguna Beach. And he did – every week for a year and a half. You can find some samples of them here.

Ten years later – as Joe celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of his arrival in the area – he turned to the subject again, and in 1947 published Laguna Beach of Early Days. The book is fully rewritten. There’s nothing directly quoted from his newspaper articles, though some passages follow them pretty closely. He starts by citing the success of his articles, but says he had to leave out many personal details. This created demand for a “more complete” story, he says.

That story is almost Shakespearean or Dickensonian in its portrayal of his early life and especially of his father, who is never even named in the book. He is always simply called “Father.”

Thurston begins with his father leaving the church (he does not say which one) and bringing the family to California, where he hoped to find government land to homestead. He didn’t have much luck, and according to Joe, began to suspect that the government land office was in cahoots with the big ranch owners to keep out settlers. Even after they'd found the land in Aliso Canyon, Joe records many run-ins with Cyrus Rawson, who owned the Niguel Rancho in those days.

In fact, in 1871, when the Thurstons arrived, neither Rawson nor anyone else knew exactly where the boundaries were of the Niguel. It wasn’t officially patented by the government until two years later. A year after that, George Thurston finally filed a homestead, getting his patent for 152 acres in 1879.

Unfortunately, that152 acres included steep hillsides, the meandering creek bed, and the worthless land near the shore. Still, the Thurstons managed to grow crops, raise chickens and cows (for eggs and butter), and keep bees. They also grew grapes, walnuts, and watermelons.

Aliso Creek was too salty to drink – so they hauled their drinking water from a spring nearly three miles away in Woods Canyon. Took their baths at the beach; men on one side of the rocks, women on the other

Joe puts much emphasis on all this as the last of the pioneer days before the modern “machine age” began. He says when they arrived there was no one living on the South Coast from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano (which might even be true), and that it was five days to Los Angeles and back, and seven to San Diego. The only schooling they got was at home, and their father did all the doctoring for the family (including – he implies – delivering his own children).

His mother rarely left the ranch, and the children almost never. They did not celebrate birthdays or holidays (except Christmas) he says, adding that he could only recall ever getting one toy as a gift.

According to Joe, he was put to work at very early age, out herding cattle (on foot) at age 8. By age 10, he tells us, he came to feel like a “slave,” ordered around, and shown no respect; but then he realized he could think what he wanted. For the next 25 years – in fact, maybe for all his life – Joe Thurston seems to have lived a great deal inside his own head.

We do learn a little bit about early Laguna, and some of the other pioneers. Joe says he was about 13 when he started selling watermelons to campers at what was then known as “Riverside Camp” along Main Beach in the early 1880s. Later in the decade, Southern California’s real estate boom brought more settlers to the area, and there was even briefly a store and post office nearby in the boomtown of Arch Beach.

But almost from the beginning, we read time and time again how awful he thought his father was. On page after page George Thurston is described as quarrelsome, puritanical, short-tempered, controlling, and violent. “If I can’t make my children love me, I’ll make them fear me,” he claims he once said. “It seemed that he took every occasion to humiliate and crush the spirit in us.”

“The Last Straw,” Joe says, came when he was 18. His father was scolding one of his other sons and his mother stood up for him. George Thurston “had words” with her then slapped her in the face. Joe says this was the first time he’d ever seen him do that. He stepped in and told him he had gone far enough. By standing up to him, he claimed, “His authority in his own household where he had ruled as a dictator and a tyrant had departed from him, never to be regained.”

His oldest brother, George Jr., happened to be visiting – and he insisted on going ever further. Despite their mother’s objections, he and Joe went to Santa Ana, found an attorney, and got her to file for divorce. Almost immediately after – according to Joe – their father packed up and left.

From this point, Thurston’s book gets a little more disorganized, as he drifts back and forth between his life before and after his father left. As the oldest son still at home, he felt responsible for his mother, and took charge of the ranch for about six or seven years. Finally he announced that he was leaving to make his way in the world. His mother and her younger daughters moved to Santa Ana soon after.

Joe came back in 1896 and took over the ranch again. Usually – to hear him tell it – virtually alone. But reading between the lines, he seems to have often had hired help. Still, he says he felt very strongly the sense of being alone – which in a way pleased him. He says he talked to his horses a lot. In fact we hear a lot about them later in the book.

But again, his stories drift, as he writes some more about the growth of Laguna Beach. He says that a banker from Riverside named Dyer built the first cottage here. He writes about the Post Office, the stage coaches meeting the trains at El Toro – until they were replaced by Joe Yoch’s auto stage – the school, and the community’s slow transition from summer resort to city. Along the way he gives Nate Brooks’ twin brother Will quite a roasting, is kinder to “Old Joe” Lucas, but not to Frank Hemenway.

Late in the book, we hear a little more about his father, and a little bit of his background. Joe says that after about ten years he made an effort to re-establish relations with his family. But according to Joe, none of them would have it. He was in Texas then, and Joe always assumed he died in the Galveston hurricane of 1900 but there are some indications it may have been a year or two later.

Then it’s back to the development of Laguna Beach, including the hotel, the art colony, the early newspapers (perhaps because Joe first wrote these recollections for the paper), and the old Citizens Bank that became Bank of America (Joe was on the Board of Directors after he moved to town around 1920).

He tells us he bought George Rogers’ old place on a whim, subdivided and started selling land. He named the tract Temple Hills, because hills are “the temples of creation” – “it would be a drab country if we did not have the hills.”

Somewhere along the way he met the local school teacher, took a shine to her and her two young daughters, and finally offered to build her a home. Only then, it seems, did they decide to get married. That was in June 1921.

Some of Joe’s later stories are a little, well, pointless . . . just fragments really. And he still sometimes jumps back 20 or 30 years without warning. But again and again, he keeps coming back to his father. His “principal fault” he says, “was that he allowed himself to be ruled by his emotions.” And “These were not very reliable, and were not properly guided by reason.” He was a man, Joe felt, who refused to be satisfied. He had “an undying hatred of tyranny in all its forms. He was the champion of the downtrodden, whether it might be the tyranny of religion, crooked politics or a despotic government.” He had read Paine’s Age of Reason and as he said, “dropped the Bible like he would a hot egg.”

“We were taught that religion was the dying embers of superstition,” Joe wrote, “that it throttled reason and hindered progress, and that it was vanishing before the light of reason.”

“I used to wonder how a man of his general ability and with his particular ideals could be so unkind and thoughtless in the treatment of his own children,” he wrote. “He was very emotional and appeared to let his emotions rule. His word was law, and he was quite sure that he could not be mistaken.”

All this adds a certain air to Joe’s later accounts of his dealings with the children of some of his ranch hands where he portrays himself as rather strict, and not afraid (in at least one instance) to strike them. He also portrays himself as smarter than them – he always knew what they were up to – and felt he was better at dealing with them than their own parents.

For all this, it makes it rather hollow when Joe writes of his father after 124 pages, “When I see men who are called gentlemen, who build up a fortune at the expense of others and at the expense of their own character, I realize he was not so bad.”

Some of his siblings don’t fare much better than his father in his book. His portrayal of his oldest brother, George Jr., is none too kindly. And says he never had anything in common with his brother Frank, only six years younger. In fact he portrays him as a little deranged later in life. His Mother is largely a shadowy figure in his story, portrayed as sad, frugal, and unwilling to stand up for herself or her children.

Along the way, we also get a little of his philosophy of life. Joe Thurston, it seems, had a philosophical turn of mind – or at least he thought he did. He even wrote at least one other book about his ideas and ideals. In Early Days he writes about how nature works to endure despite its environment, and even grows stronger (but does not make obvious connection to his own situation). He says age does not always bring wisdom (but again, draws no moral). He speaks of himself as a “lone wolf” – and a “confirmed optimist,” and ends his book by stating that a man reveals himself through his actions, that it is by his actions that “he is classified and remembered.”

And his siblings, it seems, would all agree. I have heard that they were very unhappy when his book came out. In fact, his younger sister, Harriet, quickly wrote her rebuttal reminiscences – a 1,322 page manuscript called “Children of Aliso.” I have never seen a copy, but have read a summary of it. She seems to deny or ignore Joe’s lurid claims about their father. She is also much more specific about the entire family, with plenty of dates and details, suggesting she may have had access to the letters and other contemporary documents her mother kept.

“Children of Aliso” does seem to confirm the general outline of the family’s arrival and early years in Aliso Canyon – including their father’s departure in 1887. There 60 chapters in all and the story I’ve heard is that she insisted that if it were ever published, it could not be cut or edited in any way. And so – it has never been published.

As for Joe, he recovered from bankruptcy during the Depression and remained in Laguna Beach the rest of his life. He kept on writing, but now about religion and philosophy. How much of it was ever published I’m not quite sure. He died in 1957, at the age of 89.

How true is Joe Thurston’s portrayal of his father? There’s probably no way to know for sure. All the family seems to agree that life was hard in the early days. And the best evidence that their father only made it harder may be that family seems to have fragmented in later years, with only some siblings and descendants keeping touch with one another.

But even if Joe’s book is all true, his bitter stories about his father only get in the way of what should be an interesting pioneer story. That story is better told in his articles for the South Coast News in 1935 and ’36. They’re really quite good; better than his book in many ways. They tell us more about “Laguna Beach of Early Days.”