Four such graduates are John Crie, Bob Jahres, Bob Frazee and Floyd “Buster” Bennett. All four men remain close and continue to get together regularly for reunions 75 years after having attended the beach neighborhood elementary school.
Asked about the biggest difference between Mission Beach then and now, all four friends offered variations on a similar theme.
“There were a lot of vacant lots,” said Crie. “I can tell you for sure because I had a magazine route and I walked all over the place — and there was nobody there.”
An increase in population density was a common thread in their discussion of how things have changed.
“San Diego is so crowded now, so much traffic, just so much different than it was back then,” said Jahres, now a Crown Point resident who noted “there were only about a half a dozen houses on Crown Point” then. He said much of Mission Beach and Clairemont once was “nothing but sagebrush.”
“There were vacant lots all over the place,” agreed Bennett, who today lives in rural Jamul. “It was a totally different life.”
Regardless of when you lived in Mission Beach, there is one thing around which life in the beach community has always revolved: the ocean.
“What we did was go fishing a lot,” said Crie. “The ocean was loaded with fish. Most of our recreational activities centered on the ocean or the bay. There wasn’t much else to do.”
Crie’s father, Ed, an early-day Mission Beach entrepreneur, ran a service station, along with a boat and canoe-rental business.
“My first job was cleaning the beach up, dragging it right next to the boat dock,” Crie said.
Jahres said Depression-era Mission Beach was a great place to grow up.
“I can’t think of a better place … one block to the west was ocean, and one block to the east we had the bay — it was ideal,” Jahres said. “We swam. We body surfed. We sailed.”
“John’s (Crie’s) dad had a boat landing and I loved boats and worked for Mr. Crie and he made me a speedboat mechanic,” recalled Frazee. “I could drive a boat before I could drive a car. I ended up being a hydroplane champion in 1968.”
The ocean played so heavily in residents’ lives that it seemed inconceivable there was a lifestyle out there that didn’t include water sports.
“I thought everyone in the world lived in a place where they had an ocean to jump into,” said Bennett, who recalled never wearing shoes and walking daily through sand lots to get to MB Elementary. “One day the teacher sent me home with a note to my mom. I thought I had arrived. The note said, ‘Please put shoes on this boy.’ ”
As elsewhere, a neighborhood school is a foundation and focal point of its community. Nowhere was that more true than old Mission Beach Elementary, located at the corner of Santa Barbara Place and Mission Boulevard during the beachfront’s formative years in the 1930s and 1940s.
However, the former school grounds, like the surrounding community, is now going through a major transition.
Closed in 1996 because of declining attendance, the former school and its 2.23 acres of prime coastal real estate was sold at auction by San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) for $18.5 million in May to the highest bidder, developers McKellar-Ashbrook, LLC of La Jolla. The former school site, among others, was sold SDUSD to help offset a $92 million gap in next year’s $1.1 billion school district operating budget.
Matt Peterson, land-use attorney representing Mckellar-Ashbrook, said plans are to redevelop the old school property once necessary community plan amendments are secured.
“The idea is not to build apartments but condominiums, including some duplexes and triplexes,” Peterson said.
As the years have gone by, there have been other similar threads knitting Mission Beach residents together.
Crie remembers yesteryear Mission Beach as being self-contained. He said it had just about everything you needed at his dad’s service station, Harry’s Market or the meat market.
He recounted a memorable trip once to the meat market.
“I said, ‘I need some dog food,’” he recalled. “The clerk said, ‘You want to eat it here or take it with you?’”
Jahres remembers a tight-knit community with unique quirks all its own.
“It was more of a family community, though still funky,” he said. “It was small but we had everything, a drugstore and soda fountain, Piggly Wiggly and Safeway markets. We even had a Mission Beach newspaper.”
Jahres said he remembers Mount Soledad being completely uninhabited during his youth. He said he and his buddies used to “drive up the dirt roads and shoot their .22-caliber rifles up on Soledad” for fun.
Frazee said Mission Bay was once little more than a “swamp.”
“Mission Bay wasn’t very deep, just a few feet,” he said, adding there was a path “you could run a sailboat through,” something he and others did daily with homemade boats. “It took them 20 years to dredge it out.”
According to “Images of America: Mission Beach” by Terry Curren and Phil Prather, in the horse and buggy era before 1915, Ocean Beach was “San Diego’s” beach. But Mission Beach ultimately caught up.
Excerpts from the book note:
“… Not only was Ocean Beach more accessible, but it also had all of the attractions, namely Wonderland, the oceanfront amusement park with a dance hall, food establishments and rides for kids of all ages. But by the early 1920s, Old Mission Beach, north of Santa Clara Place, was a thriving community with new stores, many houses and a growing population.”
San Diego pioneers John D. Spreckels and a group of investors began the construction of the Mission Beach Amusement Center with its landmark wooden roller coaster, Plunge swimming pool and Mission Beach Ballroom. The ballroom hosted concerts by all the major big bands and entertainers of the 1930s and ’40s, including Stan Kenton, Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole.
Signs of changing times are clearly evident today in Mission Beach real estate.
The 2.5-mile cement boardwalk from south Mission Beach through Pacific Beach was aptly named: it was wooden originally. And the modest summer vacation cottages in the early 1900s have morphed a century later into million-dollar-plus condos.
Crie recalls Mission Boulevard, always the main drag of town, being paved with two lanes on each side of a streetcar track going down the middle.
Though it’s not the same, the quartet of lifelong friends who met and shared good times at Mission Beach Elementary School continue to embrace their hometown school and community.
“I still think it’s a great place,” said Crie.
There’s one bad thing though about having grown up during the 1930s and ’40s in Mission Beach, as Frazee pointed out.
“People didn’t know about sunscreen back then,” he said.
One to look forward, not back, Bennett said it’s still a kick to revisit Mission Beach and reminisce about old times while having new experiences.
“We go down there just for fun, just for a trip,” he said.