The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1981, Volume 27, Number 2

By Brian Wiersma
Professor of Journalism at Mira Costa College in Oceanside

And Mary Taschner
Graduate student in Historical preservation at the University of San Diego

Images from this article

GROWTH has been the yardstick of progress in southern California, and in this century it is thought of as an historic constant: with the mild climate and proximity to the ocean, people naturally flow here like marbles to the corner of a tilted board.

But population growth isn’t automatic or random so much as it is orchestrated. In fact, a study of Oceanside in northern San Diego County during its most formative period in the boom years between 1920 to 1930 provides a model of how to grow and develop a town. Guided by a group of local businessmen and led by the Chamber of Commerce, Oceanside grew from a static population of 1,161 in 1920 to 3,508 persons by 1930.1

To get an appreciation for this tripling of the population in a decade, realize that sleepy Oceanside had a net population increase of 164 persons from the year of its incorporation in 1888 to 1920, when it boasted 1,164 residents. Then leaders began to beat the civic drum.

The story is unwittingly dramatized in a pair of photographs today in the Oceanside Library showing the pier-beach at the foot of Third Street. One photo from 1918 shows few persons or cars, and even if it was taken on a cold day, it is still in marked contrast to the 1922 photo showing 124 countable cars and a beach and old pier packed with people, many of whom had erected tents on the then expansive beach.

Excluding the early mission period, Oceanside developed as the railroad brought settlers in the 1880s. The railroad went inland from Los Angeles southward to Fallbrook and then westward to the ocean, and passengers got their first view of the Pacific at Oceanside. Many liked what they saw; they built new houses from fir, cedar, sugar pine, oak and spruce cut at and hauled by wagon from Palomar Mountain (then called Smith Mountain) forty miles distant. By 1888 there were an even 1,000 persons at the railroad junction town of Oceanside, apparently named by persons from the San Luis Rey Mission area a few miles inland who once spoke of going to the “ocean side” on hot days. (There is an alternate name theory. Early land promoters, seeking to sell the East on the area’s sunny climate and coastal serenity, came up with the succinct description “Ocean Side,” later modified to Oceanside.)

But the year 1888 was a bust year as well as a boom one. The trainloads of speculators suddenly fell off and land prices, which had soared from $10 or $20 an acre to $50 or $100 per acre and more, plummeted. There was nothing in Oceanside but faith to keep the boom going and that wasn’t enough.2

It is unlikely that the ambitious and progress-oriented businessmen of 1920 studied earlier Oceanside history, but the programs they developed were sound. They left little to chance. First came planning and preparation; next was advertising; finally, real public improvements such as streets and water were financed and built. When problems arose, these young leaders — many of whom were relatively new to the city — used whatever means they felt necessary to continue the city’s progress.

Strategy was basic: take a suitable location and make it desirable via civic promotion and advertising; next, make it accessible, with new roads, if necessary; lastly, make it possible by paving the streets, providing utilities, and generating home loans. Not surprisingly, of course, this selling of a city was conducted by men who had the most to gain, including merchants, bankers, and professional persons. Civic pride and profit are powerful motivators.

A first small sign of an awakening Oceanside occurred on December 27, 1919, when a group of city boosters met to promote a highway connecting northern Imperial County and northern San Diego County.3 Persons in the Brawley area, it was felt, would come to Oceanside – even if just for the weekend -to escape the summer’s heat.4 And once these early tourists got a taste of ocean-view, climatically wonderful Oceanside, they would buy or build in the coastal city.

It is not known exactly who spearheaded the road project, since early newspaper documents and background material and Chamber of Commerce records have all been lost. But those in attendance at the meeting included Dr. R.S. Reid, Dorsey Merrill, Ben Thorpe, C.G. Borden, Tom Hurley, Charles Merrill, W.S. Spenser, and J.F. Martin.

To give the road a boost, Dr. Reid and nine other businessmen raised and donated $1,000 toward the Brawley Road. And by the summer of 1920, the major road links were completed. The road, also called the Imperial Highway, went from Oceanside to Pala and from there to Santa Ysabel, Julian, and then Brawley.5

Even before the first group of desert-dwelling motorists arrived, the Chamber of Commerce began working for the creation of a local building and loan association. There was only one bank in town then, the First National Bank, and it didn’t make what is known today as home loans.6 The bank was located at the northwest corner of Mission Avenue and Hill Street. Like most of the other buildings on the block, it stands today; but it is the only recognizable structure on the block from this period.

If the tourists were to have somewhere to stay, then housing must be provided; and home construction loans were the key to this housing. After several explanatory meetings, the Building and Loan Association was formed and subscriptions to purchase stock were sold to raise loan capital.7

Thus began a long-range plan to ease the projected housing shortage. Next, the Chamber of Commerce turned its attention to the summer ahead. A letter written to The Oceanside Blade by E.W. Fairchild during this period expressed the business sentiment: “If we don’t get busy and provide accommodations for our summer visitors, we will be left out in the cold. Are we going to sit still and let people go to some other beach?”8 The tone of the letter is instructive. Nobody has ever accused Oceanside of being sophisticated.

In order to provide a maximum of housing in a minimum of time, Chamber members formulated a strategy. Some 10,000 shares of stock, to be sold at twenty-five cent each, would finance five houses and a “tent city” on the beach at the present site of North Coast Village.9 In addition, a plan to provide campgrounds for tourists was launched.10

The Chamber of Commerce also realized that extra attractions besides the then-expansive, white sand beach and tents were needed. Two assets already existed: a small fishing pier built before the turn of the century and a salt water plunge, located at the base of the present pier. But the plunge needed work and the addition of a bath house.

Feeling that as the beach goes, so goes Oceanside, nineteen local merchants raised another $10,000 for public improvements.11 The gamble paid off, almost immediately. Not only did the plunge open in time for the summer season, it also proved such a success that a new owner, A.E. Baldwin, purchased the operation in mid-July.12

The Chamber’s search for new industries, tourists, and attractions during this period was intense as well as innovative. At one point in early 1920, the Chamber had even investigated the feasibility of combining the plunge with a bath house, steam laundry, and an ice making and cold storage plant on the theory that each could utilize the others’ waste products.13

Water for domestic use and irrigation was also a vital concern, as voiced by a Chamber of Commerce member in a page one Blade article on March 6, 1920: “The time for talk is over. Immediate action is needed to secure water; if not, the water will be gone, and with it the chances of ever being more than a 2 x 4 dry-farming community.”

True to form, the Chamber sought a water district concurrent with its work on other projects and plans. One idea was to secure and use the water of the San Luis Rey River from the Warner Dam system; but any water district would require money and thus voter approval.14 Before the end of the month, the Chamber of Commerce made the decision to push for a drive to obtain signatures calling for a special water district. The group also agreed to raise funds for preliminary expenses,15 but there were delays. By the end of 1922, when the city pumped eight million gallons more water than in the previous year, even the citizens agreed that the city water system was inadequate. 16

Within three months, the city council (then called the Board of Trustees) had plans drawn up for an $80,000 bond issue to pay for improvements, and before the year was over the bond issue passed and construction on the expanded water system began.17

In late 1920, the Chamber of Commerce formulated a new plan to solve the housing shortage anticipated during the coming summer beach season. They formed a syndicate that was simple in its goals and execution. New housing would create new housing, and to get something going, the Chamber members raised enough money to build two houses. The profit and capital from these two built three new houses, and from the sale of these came four other new houses.18 And so it went.

As with virtually every other phase of the growth plan, the local newspaper played a major role in promoting the housing program. The weekly Blade carried front page articles headlined, “Chamber of Commerce Works to Solve the Housing Problem,” or “More Houses Needed.” In some instances it was hard to tell where the news stopped and the housing ballyhoo began, as the housing shortage was underscored. The Blade conducted a series of interviews in the early 1920s with prominent individuals, such as Judge E.M. Cranston of Escondido, who were quoted as saying they wanted to live in Oceanside but couldn’t find a suitable place.19 Two years of these articles convinced the residents that lack of housing acted as a real barrier to the progress of the town, and in greater numbers they backed the Chamber’s new advertising campaign to attract new houses and persons to fill them. It was, of course, long before there was such a thing as slow growth or no-growth among the citizenry. Prosperity lay in numbers.

Throughout 1920 and 1921, Oceanside businessmen acting as one through the Chamber of Commerce worked to provide the basic necessities required for stimulating and perpetuating growth-which wasn’t called 11 growth;” rather, it was euphemistically call “progress.” Thus, by early 1922, they felt they could move into the next area of their overall plan: the advertising campaign.

As a first step, the Chamber of Commerce put together a pamphlet extolling Oceanside as a good place to amass a bank account. Voluntary subscriptions paid for the mailer, which the Chamber sent out nationwide, hoping to attract new residents.20 One could call it the forerunner of Oceanside’s later campaign to “Tan Your Hide in Oceanside.”

Locally, the Blade cooperated by running long lists of new arrivals at the city hotels, such as The Travelers on Cleveland Street. The names of persons logging in at the city tourist camps also began to appear on the front page of each edition of the newspaper.21 Of course, the strategy was simple if not very original. Publishing more names sold more newspapers, and many of these would be mailed back East to friends and relatives – with the names circled in ink. It’s little wonder that word of Oceanside got out efficiently and relatively quickly.

In late summer of 1922, a series of full page advertisements also began appearing in the Blade. Addressed to property owners and paid for by a group of “progressive individuals and firms,” the first advertisement urged owners to “build an ideal home of your own; create an atmosphere of attractiveness, and after this, lend your financial support so someone else can build.”22 Each week thereafter, a new full page advertisement offered an attractive picture and a floor plan of the latest style in what was called then modern bungalow, featuring ornate plaster, stucco, and tile roofs. Reasons to build one of these new houses were also included. An August page emphasized the financial advantages of utilizing an empty lot instead of “just paying taxes with no return.”23 By September, advertisements placed the future of Oceanside’s growth squarely in the hands of the property owners.

Unless they built, Oceanside could not hope to attract and keep new residents.24

Almost immediately, the building campaign bore fruit, and by October, escrows had swamped the First National Bank.25 At the end of the year, new building figures totaled over $150,000, including two schools and $95,000 worth of small and medium sized houses — substantial sums in a period when $2,000 bought both a house and a lot.26 The Building and Loan Association financed many of these new residences and continued to do so throughout the decade. Home loans made by the association at the end of 1922 totaled $27,000, an average of $1,300 per property. And even though the association required a “substantial” down payment, the Blade reported on December 30 that “they could have loaned twice as much money if they had greater assets available.”27

With increased population and prosperity, paved roads became a priority; and by the end of 1923, most of the major city streets in the downtown area had been paved.28 These street improvements resulted in major traffic pattern shifts; Hill Street displaced Cleveland Street as the town’s main street, as businessmen relocated two blocks east for greater visibility.29

Perhaps the most symbolic development came in 1924 with the city’s first major “subdivision,” Plumosa Heights, named for the Cocos Plumosa palms that lined its cement streets.30 The twelve block subdivision sold lots, not houses, but it triggered a doubling in building as the number of new houses went from 50 in 1923 to nearly 100 in 1924.31

Laid out before zoning came to Oceanside, Plumosa Heights was also the city’s first restricted subdivision. All property buyers had to be Caucasian; Mexicans need not apply, according to deed restrictions. In addition, a minimum of $4,000 had to be spent on construction of a dwelling set back at least 20 feet from the street. The lots were 50 by 108 feet and cost from $700 to $1,500. A down payment of ten percent was required; payments were made quarterly. The interest rate: seven percent.32

The subdivision was located just east of Hill Street and north of Oceanside Boulevard on what developer and banker B.C. Beers called the last remaining undivided property overlooking the ocean. Still identifiable today by its cement streets and old-fashioned street lights, Plumosa Heights was designed for the well-heeled buyer, as Beers explained in a full page newspaper ad under the headline, I HAVE BEEN TOLD….


“. . . I was foolish to open and offer for sale NOW this wonderfully situated high OCEAN VIEW property. (Better wait a year or two; it will make you a lot more money.) I have been told I was foolish to spend so much money IMPROVING the property, for it would sell as high WITHOUT improvements. I was informed I was foolish to spend so much money for engineering service in establishing boundaries. I am foolish because I don’t employ some HIGH POWER selling organization to put on barbecues, run excursions, advertise extensively, etc., etc.. . .”And so NOW I am here AGAIN with RENEWED determination to live here from NOW ON. Being foolish, it takes certain conditions to KEEP me happy. One of these is to do in my small way as MUCH as I can reasonably do to aid in the progress and development of the community in which I live.

“Five years ago I came here DELIBERATELY-and BECAUSE I KNEW it was a most DESIRABLE place to live from the standpoint of CLIMATE. My judgement THEN was that in a few years Oceanside would be a nice little residential town of a few thousand people with REAL streets (not utility lanes). . . . ” 33

According to the plan, increased residential building created new businesses, and the jewel in this commercial crown was the 650 seat New Palomar Theatre, completed in late 1924. It boasted of a $10,000 organ and a second story ballroom.34 The theatre exists today at 314 North Hill Street, but it is a shadow of its former self, featuring B grade movies. To encourage the budding businesses, Chamber of Commerce leaders again tapped the familiar theme of civic patriotism. Chamber advertisements in the Blade reminded residents that prosperity could only be obtained through “the unified efforts of progressive citizens.” In other words, spend money in Oceanside and build up your community.35

Ironically, there were opponents of growth in Oceanside in this era, but there is no parallel between them and what is known today as liberal nogrowth or slow-growth advocates. Rather, the growth opponents were old, moss-back conservatives who thought that if dirt streets were good enough for grampa, they were good enough for them. They didn’t oppose most growth measures. Rather, they objected to spending city revenues to bring them about.36

This posture on the part of the conservatives raised the ire of citizens anxious to see their city grow unimpeded. The acquisition of Oceanside’s second pier provides an illustration. In mid-July 1925, the electorate led by the Chamber of Commerce actually defeated a $75,000 pier bond issue proposed by the council. Why? Because the Chamber wanted a $100,000 pier bond issue — one big enough to erect the longest pier on the West Coast.37

When the Chamber couldn’t step in because of political considerations, wives of the members did. Exercising their newly acquired political clout stemming from the 1920 Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution, the women through the Oceanside Women’s Club led a drive against trustees Jesse Newton and George Dickson.38 Though recall attempts failed, the two were voted out of office in 1926 by an overwhelming majority because they lacked a “progressive attitude.”39

Just two weeks after the new trustee members were seated, the Chamber got what it wanted. A pier bond issue was put on the ballot and its passage was hailed by the Oceanside News under the headline, 1100,000 Pier and Beach Improvement Bond Issue Wins by Vote of 693 to 95.”40

In fact, in 1926, Oceanside got more than a pier; a new sewer system was installed, and on New Year’s eve, the city turned on seventeen miles of new street lights.”41The 1,224 foot long pier was dedicated on July 4, 1927,42 and even though it would be replaced by another pier twenty years later, the city now had the major catalyst it needed to attract new tourists and the businesses which would follow.

Having once devised a plan and implemented it, it was necessary for the Chamber only to keep things rolling in the last years of the 1920s. By 1929 — with the pier, new utilities, and a growing downtown business sector Oceanside had become its own best advertisement. The beauty of the city and its recreational advantages, centered around the beach and pier, of course, replaced the old selling points of climate and investment opportunity.43 Fittingly, construction began on the new Oceanside City Hall designed by famous California architect Irving Gill — as the year 1929 came to a close.”44

In all, between 1920 and 1930, Oceanside grew by 202 percent.45 But more importantly, civic leaders reversed the three-decade long vacuum created in the wake of collapse of the late nineteenth century California land booms. Each new improvement had been a calculated risk, designed to attract and keep new residents, and when problems arose businessmen using their own energy and money solved them. Though similar tourist-attraction and development strategies continued in Oceanside until recent years, new progressive business leaders never equaled the growth rate of the 1920s.



1. Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920, Volume 1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921. Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Volume III, Part 1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932.

2. Harriet L. Barnard. “Oceanside, 1769-1945,” Unpublished Paper, pp. 9-14. W.D. Frazee. Oceanside, Oceanside: 1888. See also Richard F. Pourade, The Glory Years (San Diego: The Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1964) for a general discussion of the California land booms.

3.”Brawley Road to be Started,” The Oceanside Blade, December 27, 1919, p. 1.

4.Oral interview with Mr. and Mrs. Roy Boyer, October 10, 1979. Mr. and Mrs. Boyer, who lived in Brawley in 1919, remember coming over to Oceanside for weekends after the new road opened.

5.”Brawley Road is Given Another Lift,” The Oceanside Blade, January 17, 1920, p. 1.

6.Oral interview with David Rorick, former Chairman of the Board, Oceanside FederalSavings and Loan, October 10, 1979. Mr. Rorick provided an explanation of how the Building and Loan Association operated. He said also that the Association later became the Oceanside Federal Savings and Loan Bank.

7.”Move to Get More Homes in Oceanside,” The Oceanside Blade, January 24, 1920, p. 1. “Building & Loan Organized and 9 Directors Chosen,” The Oceanside Blade, February 28, 1920, p. 1.

8.This letter was written to the Editor of The Oceanside Blade, March 13, 1920.

9.”Ladies Day Brings Throng to Lunch,” The Oceanside Blade, March 13, 1920, p. 1. “Tent City Ready Soon For Summer,” The Oceanside Blade, May 22, 1920, p. 1.


11.”Arrangements are Complete For Opening the Bath House,” The Oceanside Blade, May 29, 1920, p. 1.

12.”Bath House Bought by A.E. Baldwin,” The Oceanside Blade, July 17, 1920. p. 1.

13.”Chamber of Commerce Will Go After New Industries,” The Oceanside Blade, February 7, 1920, p. 1.

14,”Move to Further Formation of an Irrigation District,” The Oceanside Blade, March 6, 1920, p. 1.

15.”Land Owners to Secure Irrigation District Election,” The Oceanside Blade, March 20, 1920, p. 1. For a further discussion of the legalities of this issue, see the Oceanside Board of Trustees minutes for 1920. An oral interview with Ernest Taylor, an Oceanside city engineer in the 1920s, provided further information.

16. “Water Record Shows Growth,” The Oceanside Blade, December 30, 1922, p. 1.

17. Oceanside Board of Trustees minutes, May 10, 1923, August 9, 1923, September 27, 1923.

18.”Chamber of Commerce Works to Solve the Housing Problem,” The Oceanside Blade, November 13, 1920, p. 1.

19.”More Houses Needed,” The Oceanside Blade, August 26, 1922, p. 1.

20.”Advertising for Oceanside,” The Oceanside Blade, February 11, 1922, p. 1.

21.For these lists and articles, see summer issues of The Oceanside Blade for 1922.

22.Advertisement, The Oceanside Blade, August 12, 1922, p. 3.

23.Ibid., August 26, 1922, p. 3.

24.Ibid., September 2, 1922, p. 4.

25.An article in the October 21, 1922 The Oceanside Blade mentions this.

26.”1922 Building Breaks Record,” The Oceanside Blade, December 30, 1922, p. 1.

27.Oral interview with Mrs. Beth French, teacher in Oceanside in the 1920s, November 2, 1979. Mrs. French’s father built a group of houses financed by the Building & Loan Association. Mr. and Mrs. Roy Boyer, previously mentioned, recall that they lived in a house financed by the Building & Loan Association. Oral interview with David Rorick, previously mentioned, also provided information on the Association.

28.Oceanside Board of Trustees minutes, July 26, 1922, September 13, 1922. The Board of Trustees minutes for the entire decade indicate that many streets were paved. Interviews with David Rorick and Raymond Wilcox, former Oceanside city councilman, also con- firmed this.

29.This was confirmed by interviews with Raymond Wilcox, Marie Chavez and Lucy Chavez, Oceanside residents during the 1920s. “Hill Street Property in Good Demand,” The Oceanside Blade, January 20, 1923, p. 1.

30.”Making Plans for Fine Residence Section Here,” The Oceanside Blade, March 13, 1924, p. 1.

31.”Building Figures Show Big Increase,” The Oceanside Blade, March 5, 1925, p. 1.

32.Advertisement, The Oceanside Blade, March 20, 1924, p. 4.

33.Ibid., March 6, 1924, p. 5.

34.”New Palomar Theatre Opens With a Good Bill and Crowd,” The Oceanside Blade, December 11, 1924, p. 1.

35.Advertisements in The Oceanside Blade, September 25, 1924, p. 3, October 16, 1924, p. 5, and January 15, 1925, p. 2.

36.Oral interviews with Ernest Taylor and Raymond Wilcox.

37.”Trustees Pass Resolution with $75,000 Bonds for Pier,” The Oceanside Blade, July 16, 1925, p. 1.

38.”Advocates of Recall of Two City Trustees in City Election,” The Oceanside Blade, July 16, 1925, p. 1.

39.”MacDonald, Merrill, Landes Winners in City Election,” The Oceanside Blade, April 15, 1926, p. 1.

40.”Huge Petition Asks for Privilege of Voting on an $100,000 Pier Bond.” The Oceanside Blade, May 13, 1926, p. 1. “Election for Pier Ordered,” The Oceanside Blade, May 13, 1926, p. 1. Oceanside Board of Trustees minutes, May 12, 1926, June 18, 1926 and June 21, 1926.

41. “Approximately $400,000 in Improvement Program,” The Oceanside News, July 1, 1926, p. 1., “17 Miles of Light to be Turned on in Oeanside at 7 PM Friday Dec 31,” The Oceanside News, December 30, 1926, p. 1.

42. The front page of the July 7, 1927 The Oceanside Blade describes the dedication ceremonies.

43.”Chamber of Commerce Campaign is Making Progress,” The Oceanside Blade, April 29, 1929, p. 1.

44.”Committee Goes Over Tentative Plan For Center,” The Oceanside Daily Blade Tribune, October 17, 1929, p. 1. Oral interviews with Beth French, Raymond Wilcox and Ernest Taylor. The minutes for the Oceanside Board of Trustees from October 9, 1929 through December 15, 1929 trace this process.

45.U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census Population: 1970 Vol. 1, Characteristics of the Population, Part A, Number of Inhabitants, Section I — United States, Alabama-Mississippi, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1972.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the authors. The Martin Building (above) on the corner of Tremont Street and Mission Avenue, c. 1920s. Opposite, the Oceanside railway depot.