Living in Pismo Beach – Jim Gregory

Living in Pismo Beach, where we connect you with some of our favorite people who live and work on the Central Coast. Those community and business leaders who make living on the Coast such a unique and diverse experience.

Episode #9

Jim Gregory
Arroyo Grande Historian of Arroyo Grande, CA

Jim Gregory, Arroyo Grande Historian of Arroyo Grande, CA, joins Ashlea Foster Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm on Living In Pismo Beach.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. Hey. Hey ladies.

Jordan Hamm:

Hey!

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh, so it’s what, two days to Fourth of July? And it’s a different Fourth of July this year than usual, but I’m still looking forward to going and picking out some fireworks this afternoon with Jack.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah, it’ll be fun.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah we’ll have our own little fireworks show in the street here.

Jordan Hamm:

I told my boys we’re making a flag cake, we do that every year. But no fireworks, [inaudible 00:00:55] slow.

Ashlea Boyer:

You’ll have to post a picture of the flag cake. We’ll post video of our fireworks, and you guys can watch.

Jordan Hamm:

Perfect.

Ashlea Boyer:

And I don’t know if you want to have them watching TV at five in the afternoon, but you can record it. At 8 PM, they’re doing the Macy’s Fireworks on NBC, on the east coast.

Jordan Hamm:

Good to know, we’ll do that.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. All right, well I’m excited for today’s guest. It’s someone that Shannon and I know well from Rotary, and his affiliation with the high school, with my alma mater, and it’s Jim Gregory. Huh?

Shannon Bowdey:

He taught both my sons too.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, he taught both your sons, yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

How sweet.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. I missed him, because he came in after me, but I got to see him and his love for teaching when I had interaction with him for our Rotary Interact Club. And his love of the students and the school was definitely very apparent.

So Jim was a teacher and he’s now a writer who was raised in the Upper Arroyo Valley. And his fascination with history began with his education at the two room Branch School, which was built in 1888. He taught history, literature and the social sciences for 30 years at Mission Prep in San Luis Obispo and at his alma mater, Arroyo Grande High School, before retiring in 2015. He was Lucia Mar’s Teacher of the Year in the school year 2009-2010.

Jordan Hamm:

Since retiring, he has written five books, World War II Arroyo Grande, Patriot Graves: Discovering a California Town’s Civil War Heritage, San Luis Obispo County Outlaws: Desperados, Vigilantes and Bootleggers, Central Coast Aviators in World War II, and an essay collection, Will This Be on the Test? Patriot Graves, Outlaws, and Aviators, have all won National Book Awards.

Shannon Bowdey:

He lives in Arroyo Grande with his wife, Elizabeth, a teacher and campus minister at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, his sons, John and Thomas, three dogs, several cats, and a tortoise named Lucy.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, let’s welcome him, Jim.

My first question starting out is, I have to point out it’s fairly unusual to meet another Central Coast native. So tell us a little bit about your memories of attending the two room Branch School and growing up in Arroyo Grande.

Jim Gregory:

Well, I have to confess, I’m not quite a native. I was born over the county line in Taft. Although according to my older brother, I was not actually born. My parents found me at the bottom of an oil derrick, [inaudible 00:03:49] by Gypsy and then they took pity on me. Anyway, that was my big brother’s version of the story. But my father got a job as comptroller from Madonna Construction. And so we moved over to a Arroyo Grande in the early 1950s, so after I was either born or found abandoned by Gypsies, whichever version you want to go with. We lived in the Fair Oaks section, and then we moved out to Huasna Road near the Harris Bridge, which is at the corner of Lopez Drive in Huasna. And that was where I was able to start school at Branch Elementary, which was then, I’ll show you a picture of it in a little bit, it was a two room pink schoolhouse. We learned later that it was pink because that was the color of the asbestos shingles on the outside. But it was built in 1888.

And I think that, and along with my father who was an accountant, but he was also a wonderful storyteller, that’s where I really picked up my interest in history. It’s kind of hard. It kind of rubs off on you by osmosis when you go to a school that was built in the 1880s. So another contributing factor was I was a kid during the centennial of the Civil War. And since I’m named for not one, but two Civil War soldiers, that kind of came as a natural interest too. And later I would be able to write a book about… We have nearly 60 Civil War veterans buried here in a Arroyo Grande. So they had some pretty interesting life stories.

Ashlea Boyer:

Right. Wow.

Shannon Bowdey:

Cool.

Ashlea Boyer:

Awesome.

Shannon Bowdey:

So 2020 has been a year for the history books, for sure. Have you been writing anything being inspired by the events of this year?

Jim Gregory:

Yeah. As a matter of fact, I wrote an article for the South County Historical Society Press about the 1918 flu and its impact on a Arroyo Grande. I’ll never know the exact number, but there are at least six or seven people in our cemetery that I know died of the flu. One of them was sadly a freshman at Cal who had just graduated from an Arroyo Grande Union High School. Another one, his father was a farmer in the Oak Park district. He was a soldier serving in France. And tragically, the first time his dad learned of his death was, he got back a bundle of letters, and on it was written “soldier’s deceased.” So that was the first time he heard of his son’s death. And then there were two sisters, just an incredible chain of events. The younger sister had just lost her baby a few months before. She got the flu. And then her elder sister came to her parents’ home in Arroyo Grande and took care of her. And she got the flu. And they died about 10 days apart from each other. One was 26, one was 34. So it was just an incredible series of events.

And just as was the case here, school was closed. Churches were closed. The movies were just beginning to be popular, they were showing at Tanner’s Hall, which is where City Hall is today. And teenagers were outraged because they couldn’t go to the movies. But they reopened the schools, and the flu hit really hard in October. And it started to wane by November. They reopened the schools in December, and it came back. So school was only open for about a week and then it closed again until February of 1919. So it came in waves. And both the board of supervisors and the Arroyo Grande City Council made the wearing of masks mandatory in public, and-

Ashlea Boyer:

So many parallels. Wow.

Jim Gregory:

Yeah. You could be fined up to $100. I looked it up, the equivalent today is $1,750 for not wearing your mask in public. So they were very strict about it. Poly had the same kind of sensation that Arroyo Grande schools did. They dismissed for an extended Christmas break until it kind of subsided. Then they came back in January, and darn if there wasn’t another wave that hit. And Poly’s total student body, I think was 180 kids, and four of them died, and four students died in January, which-

Ashlea Boyer:

Goodness. Wow. Yeah. Wow. Well that kind of leads right into Jordan’s question.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah. Yeah. You’ve been in education for years now. You’re retired, but we’re just curious what advice you could give to those that are in the education or students or administrators, teachers that are going through this right now?

Ashlea Boyer:

Or parents that are going to be homeschooling again. Please, no.

Jordan Hamm:

I know. I know.

Jim Gregory:

My wife teaches at St. Jo. She’s teaching religion as a campus minister. And I retired just in time, because watching her struggle with distance learning… Teaching is hard work, period. You have to really be dedicated to it. But I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Elizabeth has in trying to not just communicate the lessons, but make sure the kids are keeping up, monitoring grades, and she also is in charge of service hours and things like that. So it’s just been an enormous amount of work. But the secret is that you really have to like kids. And I was so happy that I kind of fell into teaching as a career. It turned out to be well chosen. And that’s the one thing I miss about teaching, is the kids. There’s a lot of other things that I don’t miss, but that particular element I really do.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. Well, and I know that Elizabeth is like our teachers at my son’s school at St. Pat’s, that they really got robbed of that final quarter of the year. And you could see it all over their faces. And when they send videos getting ready for next year, you can see they’re very wistful about hoping that they get to at least have some time with their students.

Jim Gregory:

Teaching is really about human relationships. And even if it’s you in a classroom of 32 kids, the personal emotional connections that you make with those kids, that was something I always strove for in history. I didn’t just want them to learn it. I wanted them to kind of feel it. And so making that emotional connection, you can’t do that over a computer, but you can in a classroom. So I miss that part too.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, that leads us right into, we wanted to hear some of your amazing stories and history soundbites about how our little burgh here in Arroyo Grande and the surrounding areas is connected to the world over the years. So I’m going to turn it over to you and have you share your screen.

Jim Gregory:

Okay, let’s see if I can get this rascal to work here. Here we go, and share. And here we are. So this will be a brief commercial announcement. These are the books I’ve written. The Central Coast Aviators just was a national finalist in the Indie Book Awards, which is a national awards for independent and small press publishers. So I was real tickled to hear that. I love airplanes. And so that’s what led me to write that book. But what I tried to do in the classroom and try to do in the books is what you suggested Ashley, is that our little town, our area, Arroyo Grande [inaudible 00:11:54] Pismo Beach, has a lot of connections to American history that are just not in the textbooks.

So what I try to do is to communicate that, yeah, we’re important too. One of the most pivotal events in South County history was World War II. And Arroyo Grande’s population was 1090 people in the 1940 Census. So we really were small, but just to give you an example, if I can get the slide to work, here we go.

Ashlea Boyer:

There we go.

Jim Gregory:

There we go. There’s where my interest in it… First through fourth grade in the right hand classroom, fifth through eighth grade in the left hand. One teacher, they had to juggle six subjects among four grades, and I got a superb education. And on the right, that are the steps I would walk up in 1958. Big year, Alaska just became a state. But that photo was taken in 1898, and that’s Clara Paulding, Doc Paulding’s wife. She wrote her bicycle from Crown Hill to teach at Branch. She taught at Oceano, she taught the Huasna school, she was the principal of the grammar school, she helped to start the high school, but she always said that Branch kids were her favorites.

Ashlea Boyer:

Of course.

Jim Gregory:

Oops, pardon me. And one of the connections that we have, those are the kind of the big four, the Rancheros Francis Branch, the founder of Arroyo Grande, John Michael Price. There’s a little tiny pit bull puppy in between his ankles. I love that. The lower left is William Dana, and lower right is Isaac Sparks, whose family still farms ranches in the Huasna Valley.

But one of our connections out here in Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach was, of all things, to the New England shoe industry, which is really one of the basis for the first American Industrial Revolution. And cattle were grown, Branch’s Rancho Santa Manuela was 37,000 acres, not so much for their meat as for their hides. And at slaughter time, which would have been about this time of year, the hides were drenched in seawater, stretched on pegs until they were dry. And what you can see there are sailors, they probably would have been, around here, off of Cave Landing, loading those hides onto boats to be carried onto bigger ships and eventually taken back to places like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where they provided the raw material for the shoe industry.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, I like that factoid. Who doesn’t like shoes?

Jim Gregory:

And as as near as I can tell, very few Civil War battles were fought in the South County of San Luis Obispo. But again, we have more than 60 Civil War veterans, including four who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg who eventually settled in the Arroyo Grande Pismo Beach area, and they’re buried in our cemetery.

This cheerful looking fellow here is Otis Smith. And on December 16th, 1864, he was part of an Ohio regiment that attacked Shy’s Hill at the Battle of Nashville. And that painting by Howard Pyle shows a Minnesota regiment that same day attacking the same hill. Well, Otis Smith seized that Confederate battle flag when he got to the top of the hill, which meant that he got into a pitch fight, because regimens refused to surrender their flags without a fight. So it was not something to be taken lightly. So he secured that flag, which is today in a museum in Florida. And for that, he won the Medal of Honor. And the next time folks go by the cemetery, if you look for a powder blue flag, that marks Otis Smith’s final resting place. He never talked about it. He was a farmer in the upper Arroyo Grande Valley, and he belonged to the local veteran’s organization. But like most of these Americans who’d survived the Civil War, he didn’t like to talk about his experiences.

In the World War II book, I write about three big waves of immigrants, from the Azores, from the Philippines, and beginning of the very early 1900s, from Japan. Most of the folks who settled here in Arroyo Grande were from Kyushu, which is the southern most of the Japanese islands. And they were kind of forced here. The young fellow on the left, the Meiji emperor, began the modernization of Japan. And he did that through pretty ruinous land taxes. So a lot of these people who came to Hawaii and the west coast were farmers who’d been forced off their land. And probably the first family to settle here were the Saruwatari family. They came to Arroyo Grande about 1901. And that’s them outside their house in the center photo. That house still stands off of Halcyon Road, it’s directly across the road from the Halcyon post office. And on the right is one of the Saruwatari sons, that’s Stone Saruwatari, which is one of my all time favorite names. And he was a member of Cal Poly’s Ag Mechanics Club. And that shows him off of Halcyon Road, and he built that tractor himself.

Ashlea Boyer:

Wow.

Jim Gregory:

Now Stone’s brother Aki owned that bank of brick buildings on Branch Street, which was built in 1897. Aki’s grocery store would have been right next to today’s meat market. And I found this advertisement. I love the prices. And then World War II was such an incredible turning point, because to me, the central tragic event in South County history was the internment of Japanese American citizens. And I found this in April of 1942, they were taken away at the end of April. This was a note from Mr. Saruwatari thanking his customers for their service. They went first to the Tulare County fairgrounds, and then they were transferred to the Gila River internment center. And for the first 30 days, they were there. The temperature was at or above 109 degrees for 27 of the 30 days. It was just an incredible change from living in Arroyo Grande.

Many of them would serve in the military, including Haru Hayashi, who was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he was a heavy machine gun instructor. Sadami Fujita was a local farm worker who was killed in the Vosges Mountains of France in October of 1944, won a Bronze Star. And they saved a young Texas National Guard unit, mostly made up of 19 year old draftees. And so technically, Haru and Sadami are honorary Texas. The governor of Texas in 1961 said all Japanese American soldiers who participated as members of 442nd, they are for all time, Texans.

This is Harriet Quimby, she was a journalist and then a flyer, known for her plum colored flying suit. She wrote an autobiography in which she said she was born in Arroyo Grande, California, which is not true. She was born in Michigan. Her family did live here for a while. She also, in her autobiography managed something I wish I could do, she lost a decade in age. And so she was kind of a creative writer, but she was a superb aviator. And she was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Unfortunately, she had a lousy sense of timing. She did that on the same day Titanic sank. So Titanic made all the front pages and Harriet Quimby was somewhere on page 24. So that was in April of 1912. And tragically in July, this is the last photograph taken of her. Her plane would crash into Boston Harbor, kill her and her passengers, it was very risky business.

But she was the inspiration for a young girl then living in Iowa who came to San Luis Obispo in 1936, that’s Amelia Earhart visiting the Cal Poly aeronautics department. Poly students built, as far as we know, the first monoplane built by an American university. So they had a very well known aeronautics program as far back as 1936. Of course, a year after this in July of 1937, there is her Lockheed Electa over the Oakland Bay Bridge outward bound on her last journey.

Ashlea Boyer:

Wow.

Jim Gregory:

This is Arroyo Grande in 1903. And this is Branch and Bridge Street, and I just want to show you a saloon. Oh, there’s a salon. There’s a salon. And by golly in the dark circle, it says Calaboose. So just a short drag from the nearest saloon, if you got too inebriated, to the jail, which is in [inaudible 00:21:14] Alley. So Arroyo Grande, Clara Paulding, a teacher said it, is “rather a wooly place.” In fact, in one of those saloons, a town constable was shot to death in 1904. So it was pretty Wild West.

So I don’t think South County took kindly to beginning of Prohibition in 1920. These are bottles of beer being poured down the gutter in front of the old San Luis Obispo County courthouse. Very small police department and very remote coast. So that made San Luis Obispo County ideal for smuggling booze. And this is from Effie McDermott’s wonderful book. This is the Waldorf Inn in Pismo Beach in 1927.

That young fellow in the circle is Al Capone. And I found an article from an old time Chicago Tribute reporter who said that the Central Coast was so remote, there were only two Coast Guard cutters between Monterey and Los Angeles. And one of them was a converted World War I tug, which had a top speed of eight knots. So it was very easy for characters like Capone to smuggle ashore. And this was evidently one of his favorite places. Here he is on a visit to California and to Pismo Beach in 1927. Now, if you look at the windows, here’s to me the cool part, the Waldorf today is Cool Cat Burgers in Pismo Beach. So I guess if they haven’t done so already, one of those booths should have a little brass plaque on it that says, “This is the Al Capone booth.”

Ashlea Boyer:

That’s awesome.

Jim Gregory:

This is the Arroyo Grande Women’s Club today. And it has a connection, believe it or not, to the New Deal. This is a Dorothea Lange photograph of the hills around Arroyo Grande about 1935. They had the Soil Conservation Service. So the worst soil erosion he’d seen in America was in Arroyo Grande, California. The hillsides had been overcultivated, and [inaudible 00:23:16] in Oklahoma. So what happened was in 1936, the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in a Arroyo Grande and began reclamation projects to save the soil. That’s a bean straw [inaudible 00:23:31] they’ve built there on the left. And their headquarters was on the site of today’s Women’s Club.

So they were between 18 and 25. They earned $27 a month, and they were expected to send half of it home. They were from New York City, New Jersey, and Delaware, about 200 boys and young men. And the barracks would later be demolished and moved to near the monarch butterfly place at the end of Grand Avenue, where it would become a rec camp during World War II, and entertained soldiers from Camp Cook, from Camp San Luis Obispo, from the Santa Maria Army Air Field. And one other thing the Women’s Club South County women did was to serve breakfast to these young fellows for the duration. And the woman in a circle there is Miss Ruth Paulding for whom the middle school was named.

Ashlea Boyer:

That’s awesome.

Jim Gregory:

Now in 1940, going back to [inaudible 00:24:33], The Ten Commandments, our county’s famous for movie locations. Well Clark Gable and Joan Crawford filmed Strange Cargo when they stayed here in Pismo Beach in 1940. The cool part was that they, Gable was still in his escaped convict costume, played a pickup game of softball on Pismo Beach with some kids from San Luis Obispo High School who just happened to come to the movie location. And they played softball with Clark Gable, with the king, which I think would have been pretty cool.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Jim Gregory:

I doubt that they forgot that softball game.

Ashlea Boyer:

No.

Shannon Bowdey:

Wonderful.

Jim Gregory:

Now this is Morgan Barcellos Ford agency on Branch Street. That little fellow in the oval is Wayne Morgan, Mr. Morgan’s son. This is a 20 million Ford on its tour in 1931. 1931. And of course today, it’s not a Ford agency, it is Doc Burnstein’s ice cream parlor. But it has a connection to, of all events, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Wayne Morgan, and that’s him on the top, and that’s his second grade classmate, Jack Scruggs on the bottom, and this photo was taken in 1926 at the Arroyo Grande grammar school, which stood on the side of today’s Ford agency.

Well, 15 years later, both of these second graders found themselves as sailors on the battleship Arizona. On December 7th, both of them were killed. Scruggs was a trombonist in the Arizona ship’s band, and this photograph, which is taken from a Japanese airplane, it shows the exact moment of Jack Scruggs’ death. He was with the ship’s band preparing to play the National Anthem when those bombs off Arizona’s stern. The concussion killed him and blew his body into the harbor. And the young Wayne Morgan was killed about 10 minutes later. So the odds against having two young men from the same little town in California on the same battleship just must be astronomical, but there were 20 sets of brothers killed on Arizona.

Ashlea Boyer:

Wow.

Jim Gregory:

Now that on the left hand photograph, that handsome young fellow second from the left, was named Art Youman. And he was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, and those are some paratroopers preparing to head for Normandy early morning on D-Day. And Art was one of them. He survived his jump into Normandy and he fought until the end of World War II. And for his 23rd birthday present, he was ordered into the Belgian town of Bastogne during the coldest winter in Europe in 30 years.

The 101st were told, “Guys you’re going to be here for three days tops,” to stop German advancing what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. They were there for two months. It was incredibly cold, but Youman survived. In fact, he was such a good soldier that his commanding officer promoted him to sergeant. And his commanding officer was played by a British actor, Damian Lewis in the miniseries Band of Brothers, which is based on a book by Stephen Ambrose. So Art Youman of Arroyo Grande, California was a member of the Band of Brothers.

Ashlea Boyer:

Wow.

Shannon Bowdey:

Cool.

Jim Gregory:

Now Heritage Salon used to be Buzz’s Barber and Beauty Shop, which is where I got my hair cut, the number one chair by Buzz Langenbeck, who also raised the best avocados in Arroyo Grande, California. Whole nother story. Today, it’s Heritage Salon.

But I met a man who was getting his hair cut in 1959 by Kelly, who was in chair number two, and a stranger came in, got down in Buzz’s chair, they had a chat. The guy had a goatee, which in 1959 meant you were potentially either a beatnik or a communist or both, but he paid Buzz his buck 75 and went out to get something to eat. And my friend who was getting his hair cut in the second chair, he got his hair cut. We went outside and he saw this big green pickup parked on Branch Street with a camper shell. And in the cab of the pickup, there was this big handsome French poodle. Well, come to find out, the guy who had just gotten his hair cut would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was John Steinbeck. And the poodle was named Charlie. So that was probably on the last leg of Steinbeck’s, he was probably on his way back to Salinas, or actually probably by then, lived near Monterey. Wanted to get a haircut before he got back home and finished writing his book. So our little encounter with a Nobel Prize winner.

So those are just a few of the stories, but again, the idea is, we’re not so insignificant as we might think we are. Where we live is very important, not just to us, but to the mainstream of American history.

Ashlea Boyer:

It’s true. It’s amazing. And I’m so glad that you’re here to keep track and unearth all of these stories, because every time I hear you speak, I learn something new. And it’s always fantastic.

Jim Gregory:

Well thank you very much. I hope next to… They’re interested in something called hidden history of Arroyo Grande, and so many of the homes and storefronts and in old Arroyo have some incredible stories behind them. So who knows? That might be my next project.

Ashlea Boyer:

That’s awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Jim, for coming on today, we really appreciate it, and sharing with us, all of us, and we hope people will pick up your books, because I have at least two of them and we enjoy them so much.

Jim Gregory:

Okay. That sounds good. Just in case people forget, they’re also available on Amazon. And there’s a red house on Beach Street in Arroyo Grande, you can stop by and ask me for one.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much. All right, we’ll see you soon, Jim.

Jim Gregory:

Okay, thanks everybody.

Jordan Hamm:

Bye.

Ashlea Boyer:

Thank you.

Shannon Bowdey:

Jim, can I ask you a question real quick?

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh wait, [crosstalk 00:00:31:20].

Shannon Bowdey:

Is it okay if I ask him a question?

Ashlea Boyer:

Yep, go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.

Shannon Bowdey:

A friend of mine told me about a book yesterday. I think I have all your books, but a friend told me about another book, it’s called According to Madge. Do you have any idea where I can get that from?

Jim Gregory:

Yeah. The South County Historical Society has some copies.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay.

Jim Gregory:

She’s terrific. She is not fond of the New Deal.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay.

Jim Gregory:

Not a big Franklin Roosevelt fan.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay.

Jim Gregory:

Okay.

Shannon Bowdey:

I told him I was going to be talking to you, and he says-

Jim Gregory:

Yeah, I recommend Madge’s book.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay, good.

Jim Gregory:

Okay.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay.

Ashlea Boyer:

Thank you.

Shannon Bowdey:

Thank you. Bye.

Ashlea Boyer:

This is Ashlea Boyer.

Jordan Hamm:

Jordan Hamm

Shannon Bowdey:

And Shannon Bowdey.

Hosts:

With the Pismo Beach Homes Team

 

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