Making book on the past: OB group seeks memorabilia
by Martin Jones Westlin
Published - 03/06/13 - 01:54 PM | 4361 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This image shows three generations of Blavatt women cruising Ocean Beach in 1924. 
                                                                                           Photo courtesy of the Ocean Beach Historical Society
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It was a piece of local history fit for Hollywood, so Hollywood made a movie out of it. “The Rainmaker,” a 1956 film starring Burt Lancaster, centered on Charlie Hatfield’s groundbreaking efforts in something called pluviculture, or chemically altering clouds to fuel precipitation. The real-life San Diego of 1916 was one of Hatfield’s more noteworthy customers — and little did anyone know that City Council would get far more than it bargained for when it hired him.

What started out as an attempt to fill parched Morena Dam exploded into cascading rain over most of January that knocked out phone service, broke two levees, eventually claimed around 20 lives and hit the Ocean Beach area particularly hard. San Diego was fit to be tied, refusing Hatfield his fee ($1,000 per inch of water), over which he would sue the city for the next 22 years.

On either side of the squabble, Ocean Beach has carved its unique niche in local history, boasting the snowlike swath of foam that enveloped its shoreline on the Christmas of 1940, the Days of Fun events that kept thousands of families occupied in the 1950s and ’60s, the Collier Park antiwar melee in 1971 and even a “cure” for tuberculosis one visitor experienced as early as 1905. The neighborhood is a crazy-quilt of the best and worst of San Diego — and the Ocean Beach Historical Society seeks your help in designing the fabric.

Arcadia Publishing, a publisher of books on the histories of American locales, is commissioning the society to compile a pictorial anthology on Ocean Beach. The Mt. Pleasant, S.C. firm has churned out work on local lighthouses, aircraft, Coronado, Central Park, legendary residents of more than 50 legendary towns and even one on The Beach Boys. Kathy Blavatt, Ocean Beach resident and historical society member, is appealing to the public for any materials on the neighborhood’s past even as she sings Arcadia’s praises.

“They’re really neat books,” Blavatt said. “And ours, because we own the rights to the archives, we have them available. We also keep the archives for Point Loma. We could do the book now, but we want to give ourselves the best chance at the best photos, so we’re asking for anything anybody has about OB, on older families who’ve lived here a long time, the weather, the migration to OB from 1913 to 1916, Wonderland (Amusement Park), old buildings no longer standing, old cottages, fishing pictures, anything on (residences along) False Bay (now known as Mission Bay), where Robb Field is now. There are so many things that I think people don’t think of as donating, but so many of them are very important in keeping the neighborhood alive and preserving its character.”

Blavatt’s extensive graphics background will weigh in the final stages of the project. She and society member Jonnie Miller will write the 8,000-word text that will accompany the 240 photos. Deadline for submissions is May 1.

The historian in Blavatt fuels her activist bent. The Palo Alto native’s been an Ocean Beach resident since 1965, taking the community’s roily history in stride — but the lessons hit home nine years ago, when she discovered a picture of her grandmother and great-grandmother cruising Ocean Beach in a 1924 Model T. Community involvement took over from there, with Blavatt suddenly becoming one of 17 contesting for a City Council seat vacated in 2005 in connection with an alleged scheme to repeal the city’s “no touch” strip club laws.

“It took me several years to recover from that election,” Blavatt said. “I didn’t like all the things going on. There was a lot of development being proposed, and some of the stuff with NTC [the former Naval Training Center] was becoming a big bait-and-switch, and SeaWorld was expanding. I went to a lot of council meetings and felt the power of the developers in this town. It just was disheartening.”

But there’s more to San Diego than its City Council, which can never dispel Ocean Beach’s impenetrable sense of place.

“The feel for history has remained part of the public process in Ocean Beach,” Blavatt said. “You have the Christmas parade. You have the chili cook-off [every June]. You have the Town Council. You have the [merchants’] MainStreet Association. You have the activist groups. You have the People’s food co-op. It’s such a part of the background and history.

“People do care about the community, and they’re active,” she said. “As much as the merchants might fight with the activists, I think in their hearts they all know and love this community and are trying to do their best for it. Right now, the groups are getting along pretty well. Everybody wants the homegrown businesses here.”

Blavatt added that the nonprofit, 14-member historical society board oversees more than 300 members, up from under 200 a few years ago. She emphasizes that many of those are younger men and women whose maverick take on life echoes that of an older Ocean Beach.

“There’d be a yacht basin here if it weren’t for the people who stopped the yacht basin from coming in in the 1970s,” Blavatt said, recalling that people moved rocks and sand and tried to tip over the cranes in the protest. Nothing wrong with a little nonviolent civil disobedience now and again, Blavatt said.

“That’s OB,” she said. “Anything can happen here. You say ‘That’s OB,’ and that’s the answer to everything. You can’t say that about other places.”

You couldn’t say it in 1938, either, when the fallout from Hatfield’s stunt was finally laid to rest. It was then that the courts declared the rain an act of God, absolving everybody of blame and leaving one future historian scratching her head.

“It’s so typical of San Diego,” Blavatt said. “They gave him the liability, saying he caused the rain, and we weren’t going to pay him because he couldn’t shut it off.”

But one neighborhood would reinvent itself in time, just as it’s done whenever necessary over its 126-year history. Meanwhile, the book project is more than a tribute to a locale. It is the locale, with its bouquets, its brickbats and its quirky, singular lore.

That’s OB.

Residents with anything to offer can email Blavatt at or call historical society archivist Mary Allely at (619) 223-7784.
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