By Tara Torburn, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Surfing memorabilia lines the halls, including tikis and a
tribute to the "Queen of Makaha," Rell Sunn.

California Surfing
Museum facing wipeout

Charming Oceanside structure
of surf memorabilia will be razed

By Greg Ambrose

OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- No one was surprised when Jack Schroeder walked through the doors of the California Surf Museum and handed the director an original book of surf cartoons by California surfing pioneer Matt Kevlin.

Stoked. Delighted. But not surprised.

Jane Schmauss and Rich Watkins have long since become accustomed to the eclectic parade of people who walk through the door to pay homage to this charmingly chaotic temple to the arcane sport of surfing.

The sea spray-coated wooden building rests within sight and sound of waves crashing against the Oceanside Pier on the California coast. The doomed structure is an irresistible magnet for people walking beside the shore and the length of the pier: honeymooners, beachcombers, prowling youngsters, wave watchers, and an elderly couple from Manhattan.

Even though they live on an island, the East Coast couple was fascinated to stumble onto an ocean world they never imagined exists, and avidly examined the displays of surfing history.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have serendipity direct them to the humble museum, and the directors of the nonprofit museum bless the surf publications, travel books and magazines and area tourism agencies that send visitors their way.

The museum has become a must-stop for Japanese surfers on pilgrimage to California, Hawaii residents homesick for something that reminds them of the islands, aging surfers seeking to bask in the glow of fading memories, and youngsters curious about the roots of their exciting sport.

Schmauss was pleased to learn how far the museum's popularity has spread.

"I've worn my museum T-shirt in Hawaii and people always stop me to say 'I've been there,' " he said.

Few people would recognize the former Pride's Inn biker bar in its current incarnation, with its sky blue paint job, an old surfboard perched atop the roof with letters spelling out "California Surf Museum," and a wall covered in graffiti-style ocean art by a local surfer.

Stepping through the door is like walking into the home of your delightfully deranged old aunt, the one who surfs.

A tiki of King Kamehameha's personal god Kukailimoku greets visitors, carved from a telephone pole by a young Hawaiian surfer in the 1930s.

Nearby is another wooden tiki honoring Ku, this one recently hewn from a coconut tree. Many other choice pieces of Hawaiiana are strategically placed throughout the museum.

And why not? Part-Hawaiian surfer George Freeth showed Southern Californians how to surf in 1907, became Oceanside's first lifeguard and died in 1910 rescuing people off the Oceanside Pier.

The full spectrum and genesis of wave-riding vehicles line the walls and hang from the rafters: hollow paddleboards, 'olo and alaia redwood boards from Hawaii, a twin-fin redwood longboard from the 1930s, and balsa and foam surfboards from the 1950s through today.

The museum devotes a room to pay tribute to bodysurfing and paipo and kneeboarding.

There's even an old ironing board on display, a playful jab at all the old-timers who claim their first ride was on their mother's ironing board. California surf pioneer Ron Drummond swears the board was his first surfboard.

By Tara Torburn, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Jane Schmauss, left, Rich Watkins and Tara Torburn
at the California Surf Museum.

One jewel in this treasure trove is an old redwood surfboard covered with signatures of such Hollywood stars as Dick Powell, Edgar Bergen and Frances Farmer. Apparently actor Edgar Lakes of "Dagwood Bumstead" fame got the other stars stoked on his newly discovered sport in the 1940s and convinced them to sign his board.

Although the ever-changing special exhibits are heavy on California surf history, the permanent displays pay handsome homage to surfing's Hawaiian roots.

A photo of surf legends George Downing, John Kelly and Wally Froiseth with their hefty old longboards from the glory days of their youth in Waikiki and Makaha peeks out amid the clutter of displays. Loving shrines to Duke Kahanamoku and Rell Sunn remind everyone of where surfing comes from, and that a sense of aloha should permeate the sport.

Most people drop a donation in the collection box and leave the museum smiling.

But the museum will be bulldozed soon to make way for a swank commercial development. The move to the new location won't be too traumatic, as museum volunteers and members are well practiced in the art of relocation. Ever since Schmauss and Stuart Resor started the museum in 1985, it has seen more temporary homes than most Rwandan refugees, up and down the Southern California coast.

The oceanfront site in Oceanside is special, however.

"I can't tell you how much we are going to miss this building," Schmauss says sadly. Her biggest fear is that no one will be able to find the museum so far from the waves. Museum directors are reluctantly trading the perfect ocean-view location and huge parking lot for a concrete building two blocks mauka with a long-term lease from the city of Oceanside.

That last part is important, because the permanent address will let museum directors apply for grants, the lifeblood of a nonprofit organization. "It all comes down to money," says Watkins, a surfer since 1961 and museum administrator since 1992.

While everyone loves to visit the museum, not enough people donate time and money. Only a small group of volunteers shows up to do all the hard work of maintenance, moving, and holding fund-raisers, says Tara Torburn, whose Oceanside Longboard Surfing Club can always be counted on to help.

The California Surf Museum isn't content to be merely a repository of surfing artifacts. It opens its hoard of surf literature to historians, brings school, church, YMCA and foreign groups to the museum, organizes beach and block cleanups and barbecues, and holds luaus and surf contests that benefit cancer centers and the police and fire departments.

The new museum will feature a research library, museum store, an administration office and a lanai where people can talk story.

Renovating the new building will cost $50,000, and it takes an additional $35,000 yearly to run the museum.

It would be a huge help if the 30,000 people who visit the museum each year would drop a dollar or two in the collection box to show their appreciation for the free admission, says Watkins.

It would help even more to become a museum member, says Torburn. "Come visit, tell people about the museum. We're always looking for corporate sponsors. Send money."

California Surf Museum

Where: 308 North Pacific St., Oceanside, CA 92054
Phone: 619-721-6876

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