Early San Diegans couldn’t celebrate without lots of noise

More unexpected vignettes from San Diego's history — including the Horribles

Kelly family at Rancho Agua Hedionda
  • Kelly family at Rancho Agua Hedionda

1.) This photograph, taken in the late 1880s, was rare for its time. No male cradles a wide-brimmed hat in his arm. No one stares up, or dreamily off, as if posing as the person they wish to be.

Instead it’s a photo you can hear: free spirited, in the moment, with the laughter of a caring family. They are six members of the Kelly clan of Rancho Agua Hedionda. The land grant (called “stinking water” after a sulphur spring) went from near today’s Carlsbad, just above Batiquitos Lagoon, east to Palomar Airport and up to Vista Way.

When the owner, Robert Kelly, died of cancer in 1890, the family drew lots and divided the property equitably among his brother, John, and John’s nine children — itself a rare phenomenon in a land-grabbing era.

The photograph is rare because in those days most families would have torn it up as too frivolous.

2.) Walter Gifford Smith, in The Story of San Diego, tells of a duel at the border monument, “where one combative San Diegan sat down on a nest of cacti to load his pistol and thenceforth retired from active duty.”

Smith also writes that the first pioneer stages from San Antonio to San Diego took 34 days in 1857, and that “every passenger should provide himself with a Sharps rifle, 100 cartridges, Colt’s revolver, belt and holster, knife and sheath, a pair of thick boots and woolen pants, a quantity of under-clothing, a soldier’s overcoat, one pair of blankets, India rubber blanket, bag with needles and thread, sponge, brush, comb, soap, and towels.”

3.) In the early years, San Diegans couldn’t celebrate without lots of noise: fireworks, firearms blasted skyward, cannons, clanging anvils, big brass bands. Another tradition was “the Horribles.” It began, most say, in Prescott, Arizona, 1881. Wanting to outdo Mardi Gras, the citizenry dressed in fantastic costumes, played “horrible” music, and did an anti-parade down the main street of town.

San Diegans embraced the event. No festivity was complete without locals, even men of prominence, dressing in the worst possible taste — clothes you wouldn’t think they’d own — and singing off-key, as they paraded down D Street (today’s Broadway), waving like idiots. Some carried signs. One called National City's Steel Works & Machine Shop "National City Steal Works."

At parade’s end, someone would recite the Horribles’ poem:

  • Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
  • Without a decent suit to wear
  • The Horribles conduct their revels
  • In clothes that look like painted devils.

4.) In May, 1887, Canada and the U.S. were having troubles. In an editorial for the San Diego Bee, Clara Foltz offered a “simple solution”: Uncle Sam should propose marriage to our northern neighbor. “Then Miss Canada will blush and look down, and thinking of her alliance across the sea, she will say like the shy maiden that she is, ‘Ask mother.’”

4.) San Diego Bee, June 31, 1887: “A modern newspaper to be all the rage has only to give flaming headlines and from three to ten columns of sensational articles, descriptive of every degree of crime. Such is the daily mind food of the rising generation. The average youth of to-day reads nine columns of newspaper matter descriptive of crime to one column on the useful arts, or any other subject which would normally develop the mind.”

5.) In 1889, word spread fast that tourists had discovered several gold nuggets at Mussel Beach (today’s Ocean Beach). Horses, wagons, and carriages splattered each other on the narrow, muddy trail to the seashore, where they found not nuggets, but melodramatic promoter Billy Carlson, in frock coat and top hat, selling staked-out beachfront lots at bargain rates.

6.) From 1885 to 1888 San Diego had a real estate boom that became a spending frenzy. The population more than doubled, prices tripled, often in a single day. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego’s ardent enemy (May, 1886): “She has got it and is holding on to it with the tenacity of death and the tax collector. I hear of a score of men who have made their ‘pile’ within a twelvemonth, and I know that a score more are pursuing the eagle on Uncle Sam’s twenties with a fierceness of energy that causes the bird o’ freedom to scream a wild and despairing scream…

“This is peculiarly a San Diego pursuit; you never see anything of the sort in Los Angeles, where the populace take care of the noble bird and encourage him to increase and multiply greatly. The Angelenos understand the national chicken business, you see.”

7.) The last word on the boom. Theodore S. Van Dyke quotes an old timer: “We were a lot of very ordinary toads whirled up by a cyclone until we thought we were eagles sailing with our own wings in the topmost dome of heaven.”

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