- Historic Sites
The Beach Boy
How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
A few months later “A Royal Sport,” London’s article on surfriding, appeared, and soon boatloads of tourists began arriving, eager for pleasures of the outdoor flesh. Ford was ready for them: He replaced the lackadaisical local surfer hangout with a proper organization, the Outrigger Canoe & Surfboard Club, complete with its own acre of beachfront, on a twenty-year lease at five dollars a year; he had trails cut in the mountains to facilitate hiking. He boosted Hawaii and surfing in the same breath. He was tireless. And all the time hotels were springing up, and friendly shrubbery was planted, and drinks were iced and towels fresh and always available. By 1911 the waves were getting thick with riders; sometimes a hundred of them could be seen where once had been only Freeth’s silhouette.
In 1915, when Jack and Charmian returned to Hawaii for a breather, the Outrigger Club had a long waiting list, and the couple had a hard time getting a hotel room for the night. But where was George Freeth? He had answered the call of the mainland. Shortly after the publication of “A Royal Sport” there arrived in the islands some heavy-suited men who were agents of a business empire. They represented one Henry Huntington, a railroad and real estate magnate of Southern California. They had an offer to make to the twenty-three-year-old surfer: For a certain amount of money, at a certain time and a certain place, would the lad demonstrate his “walking on water”? George was willing and able. The Bronze Mercury was to be a lure.
For Huntington owned—among many other properties —a seaside town called Redondo Beach, which, prior to his purchase, had been a barren spot, good mainly for cattle ranching. Huntington’s brother-in-law, himself a canny businessman, had written that the very name Redondo made a capitalist “shy like a horse at an automobile.” However, Henry had vision and plans. In 1905 he bought 90 percent of the town; by 1907 he’d built a threestory pavilion, a good restaurant, a large theater. The Hotel Redondo, designed on classic English lines with dreamy spires and tall, wobbly chimneys, its walls covered with gold-framed prints of hunting scenes, had been built earlier. Now he needed customers not only to come out for a holiday by the sea but also to buy up the available real estate. To this end he utilized his famous fleet of electric Red Cars, shipping out as many as a thousand trippers by the day from nearby Los Angeles. “Free Excursions Every Twenty Minutes!” shouted his ads in the Los Angeles Times. “Dirt Is Flying! Spikes Are Being Driven!”
George Freeth was imported in time for the summer season of 1908. The Red Cars took visitors a short walking distance from the Hotel Redondo, where, after a full lunch, they could watch an extraordinary exhibition. At 2:00 P.M. and again at 4:00, a young Hawaiian “walked on the waters,” came creaming in on a wave, picked up his huge plank, and ambled off with the smallest hand gesture. The announcer said that his board was eight feet long and two feet wide and weighed more than two hundred pounds. Also, Freeth was single and had blue eyes and brown wavy hair. Women of all ages watched him closely.
The dollars that rolled in because of George’s surfing eventually found their way to Huntington, way up in his solid, stately home in San Marino, a stultifying town far inland, where the sun beat down mercilessly but where, safe behind thick brick walls, was a growing treasure of great British art. Eventually the grand haul would include a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s Quartos, crates of eighteenth-century British oils and watercolors, and—the crowning glory—Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie gazing at Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.
That autumn, Freeth set up a lifesaving station in nearby Venice; by wintertime, 4 Had saved fifty people.
Came the autumn of 1908 and the crowds melted like sandcastles. But there was still plenty of good work for Freeth. In nearby Venice, a city of canals created by the cigarette baron Abbott Kinney, George set up a volunteer lifesaving crew based on the pier. Who bankrolled him nobody knows. But he got by; his needs were few. By wintertime he and his boys had saved fifty people from drowning. George was always the first to dive in. And what a diver too! At every incident, it seemed, he was inventing a new dive—triple somersault, double twist with head between knees, cannonball curve (for a laugh)—and always he came home with his victim safe and sound.