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A Return to Eden: Enchanted Summers at Crystal Cove State Park

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A vintage postcard of Crystal Cove. | Image: Courtesy of Laura Davick, Crystal Cove Alliance

I have long fancied myself a wannabe beach bum, a pirate, a Gidget-type lady. Now, I have another moniker I would like to possess: "coveite." A coveite is what one time residents of the utterly magical Crystal Cove, off the PCH in Orange County, call themselves.

Recently, Laura Davick, Founder & Director of External Affairs of the Crystal Cove Alliance, whisked me around Crystal Cove State Park on a electric cart. It was as if we had stepped back in time, to a 1950s beach paradise. There, in the midst of an isolated clutch of kitschy, brightly colored cottages, an artist painted at her easel, a class made seashell necklaces together, and everyone said hello. Later that afternoon, my friend Cat and I sat at the Cove's Beachcomber Cafe, watching children run in and out of the waves in the bright sunshine. At 4 p.m., a bugle sounded, and all the waiters stood at attention as a flag featuring a Martini Glass was raised over our heads. It was happy hour. It was warm, and it was a Wednesday in mid-April. We looked at each other and shook our heads. California is some kind of paradise.

The history of Crystal Cove is as fanciful and seemingly unreal as the place itself. Archeological findings indicate that as far back as 4,000 years ago, Native Americans camped at the small natural cove near Los Trancos Creek during the summer months, feasting on mussels, crabs, and sardines. During the Spanish and Mexican years, the land was virtually untouched, simply a blip of uninhabited wilderness owned by Mission San Juan Capistrano, and later the famed Sepulveda family. In 1864, sheep-ranchers Flint, Bixby, and Irvine bought Sepulveda's extensive holdings. After the firm dissolved, the Cove became part of James Irvine's massive Irvine Ranch, which at the time of Orange County's creation in 1889, occupied "between a quarter and a third of the new county's area," according to "Crystal Cove Cottages," a book co-authored by Davick. The Irvines were staunch agrarians, who used the ranch mainly for grazing and farming. The Irvine Company refused to develop the land, or even allow railroads through, much to the consternation of many in Orange County.

It is not surprising that artists were some of the first modern people to discover the picturesque little cove. One of the first was the plein air painter William Wendt of the Laguna Beach art colony, who painted a picture of the Cove in 1912. Soon other artists were driving down the new dirt road from Laguna, and Irvine Company employees were camping on the beach. Location scouts from Hollywood came calling, and by the late teens film companies were using the cove as a substitute tropical island in a number of early motion pictures, including 1917's "Treasure Island." Set designers began constructing primitive thatched huts in the cove, and palm trees were imported from Los Angeles. Eventually movies like "The Sea Wolf," "Sadie Thompson." and "The Isle of Lost Ships" would film there. For years, all cottages were required to have thatched roofs so they could double as Polynesian huts when cash rich Hollywood came calling.

Roadside sign to Crystal Cove
Roadside sign to Crystal Cove A roadside sign leading to Crystal Cove. | Photo: Courtesy of Laura Davick, Crystal Cove Alliance

By 1925, movie traffic was so brisk the Irvine's built a small office at the cove and hired onsite managers to oversee the filmmakers. They also collected small fees from the increasing number of campers and day trippers who had discovered the enchanted spot. It was around this time that Beth Wood, who ran an early concession stand, is credited with naming the cove. According to Davick's book, her son Ron said, "The water in those days was so clear that you could see down right to the sand. And it was crystal clear, and that's where she came up with the name Crystal Cove."

With the completion of the Pacific Coast Highway in 1926, the cove's popularity grew exponentially as explorers stumbled into paradise. Cove lovers began taking over the movie studio huts or building their own simple lean-to structures out of found materials. Shipwrecks were a big boon to this essentially illegal enterprise. In 1927, a 287-foot schooner named the Ester Buhne wrecked at Balboa Point. According to coveite Bud Carter, per "Crystal Cove Cottages," as a result of the wreck, "A lot of lumber came into the cove and people started to build cottages where they had been building their tents. They just built -- no permits or plans." One family used washed up telephone poles to build the foundation of their cabin.

By the late '20s, a sophisticated tent city lined the beach during the summer months. Though cottages and tent dwellers had no official rights to the land, plots were claimed by the same families year after year. Essentially squatters, the cottage dwellers had year to year leases on their structures (this would be changed to ten year leases in 1940). It was a wild era, with film companies partying on the beach at night, while rumrunners anchored offshore in boats painted black and loaded boxes of illegal liquor into waiting cars at the cove. Resident Pearl Van Pelt recollected to the L.A. Times, "Bottles of liquor would pop up all over the place. One time a friend of mine found several cases of scotch, and we had a giant party up and down the beach that night." By 1930, a typical report on Crystal Cove read as such:

Crystal Cove, replica of an attractive Hawaiian village located between Corona Del Mar and Laguna, is operated in city fashion. They have the tents staked in rows with a parking row immediately behind them, up and down the full length of the beach... all available space is completely occupied. (L.A. Times, Sept 1, 1930 News of Southern Counties)

Though the idyllic community was sometimes called "poor man's paradise," coveites came from all walks of life. One cottage was built by four working girls, one by a family in pest control, another by a doctor, another by the longtime secretary for Max Factor, the legendary Hollywood makeup artist.

By the late '30s, there were over 45 cottages at Crystal Cove. Laura Davick's parents met at the Cove during this time, as did several other longtime cove couples. Summer days were spent body surfing (the waves at Crystal Cove were particularly suited to bodysurfing), boating, hiking, hunting for abalone, and sunbathing. Bud Cater remembered, "It was a grand time to be fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old with a cottage at Crystal Cove. The tenters would come, and along with some of them came their daughters; campfires every night, dancing in front of the store." Children from the Cove would play with the children of Japanese farmers, who lived in the hills across the street, running fruit and vegetable stands on the PCH. Occasionally Dust Bowl Oakies would show up at the cove, relieved to finally see the ocean after many hard months on the road.

Summers from the 1940s to the early 1960s were equally magical times at the cove. As resident Stella Hiatt put it for Davick's book, "Every night was Saturday night, and every night was New Year's Eve."

"It was really amazing how much beer could be gone through in a weekend," another coveite remembered.

The 4 p.m. martini glass flag salute.
The 4 p.m. martini glass flag salute. The 4 p.m. martini glass flag salute. | Photo: Courtesy of Laura Davick, Crystal Cove Alliance

Daily life was centered around volleyball games and hanging out at the beachfront soda fountain. Many coveites, including Laura Davick, kept horses at a nearby stable and would ride them up and down the coast. The tenters were a particularly wild lot -- there were frequent luaus, sing-alongs, and barbeques in the de-facto "yards" tenters set up in front of their temporary dwellings. It was during this era that the cove's unofficial flag was born:

Every Saturday at four o'clock... tenter Doc Shearer gathered a group of campers around the flagpole outside his cabana. Everyone saluted as Doc blew taps on his bugle and raised the flag his wife, Babe, had sewn; the black background bore the sharp white outline of a Martini glass. ("Crystal Cove Cottages")

The sense of community among the coveites grew stronger and stronger as generations of families spent their summers at the cove. After wild nights, one elderly lady tenter played mother hen, holding a "Juice Club" for the children so their parents could sleep off the night before. Everyone helped fix everyone's dwellings, and families were brought closer together living in such tight quarters. The cottages were still primitive, and since the families did not actually own them, they were usually cheaply maintained rather than improved. "The thin board partitions permitted no secrets at all," Shelia Green remembered in "Crystal Cove Cottages." "There was even a hole in the wall that separated the bathroom and kitchen, so that the person on the toilet could watch the meal preparation."

The cove's summer personality changed dramatically in 1962, when tenting was officially banned by the county. Now only cottage dwellers and day visitors, the cove was a quieter, more relaxed place. As Orange County boomed and the Irvine Company changed leadership, the coveite's secluded, simple way of life became more anachronistic and precarious. However, the '60s and '70s were a free and eccentric time at the cove. A makeshift "yacht club," which consisted of a sign announcing the yacht club (and pointing to the club "restroom" -- the ocean) and an old Hobie Cat, became a popular hangout spot. Yacht club membership cards were handed out as a joke, and coveites used them to gain access at real yacht clubs all over the world. Coveite Stan Benson hosted all day tie-dying and crafting beach parties. A man named Allan Wallace became the community's unofficial watchdog, lurking by the entrance to chase away outsiders.

Cottages at Crystal Cove State Park
Cottages at Crystal Cove State Park Beach cottages as Crystal Cove State Park | Photo: Courtesy Crystal Cove Alliance

In 1979, the Irvine Company sold the 1,898 acres, including Crystal Cove, to the state. The family's long time vision of the area being a public state park had finally come to fruition. But this sale meant eventual eviction for the coveites, and they knew it. For the next two decades, Coveites lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, but life went on. The popular movie "Beaches" filmed at the cove, bringing its landscape a new iconic status. Many older, summer residents moved to the cove full time. At 7 o'clock every morning, rain or shine, Cinda Combs and Stella Hiatt, two longtime coveites, would swim out to a buoy in the sea, where their husbands' ashes had been scattered years before. Numerous court battles were fought, and stays of execution were repeatedly granted to the coveites.

In the late '90s, California State Parks began planning to turn the cove into a luxury eco-resort. Coveites knew their time at the cove was ending. Davick formed The Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove (now Crystal Cove Alliance) to preserve the cove and its character. Her vision for Crystal Cove included a series of education facilities and a public-private partnership where Crystal Cove would be managed by a non-profit organization, not a for-profit entity. With the help of Joan Irvine Smith and others, the plans for the Eco-resort were squashed. But this victory meant the end had finally come -- coveites were evicted in January of 2001. On July 8, move-out day, the coveites temporarily halted packing up decades of memories and joined Combs and Hiatt on their 7 a.m. swim. According to Hiatt in Davick's book, "There were men, women and children -- some swimming, some on boogie boards, some on surfboards. When we arrived at the buoy, each person tossed a rose and offered a special prayer or farewell words to the place we all loved so dearly."

A new chapter began at Crystal Cove. Under the passion and leadership of the tireless Davick, Crystal Cove State Park has been transformed in the past 16 years. Twenty nine of the 46 cottages have been painstakingly restored and are now offered to the public for rental at reasonable rates. There are many popular education and scientific programs at the cove, and the laid back, happy spirit of the original dwellers seems to infect every guest. "Our goal at CCA during the next five years is to accomplish great success in all of the core components of our mission of restoration, education, and conservation," Laura Davick says. "We look forward to the completion of the final 17 cottages at Crystal Cove, to impacting thousands of students and park visitors with innovative education and conservation programs, and to creating a sustainable future for excellence at Crystal Cove State Park." She goes on, "With continued support from our community, and the many families and friends that have joined us in this pursuit of excellence, the legacy of Crystal Cove will be preserved for future generations to come."

As Cat and I got into our car at the end of our one enchanted day at the Cove, we gave one last wistful glance at the beautiful, peaceful paradise. Rarely have I been so sad to leave a place I have only just discovered for myself.

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