Cardiff-by-the-Sea turns 100 this year, an anniversary that will be celebrated with a fittingly old-fashioned parade and picnic on July 2. There will be pie eating and dancing and old-timers “spinning yarns,” and you can rest assured that someone will fancy up the Kook.
North County’s beloved beach town may be a centenarian by the books, but Cardiff’s history dates back beyond that. Among the earliest settlers to the stunning Pacific hamlet were Hector MacKinnon and his wife Sarah, who arrived in 1875 and staked out a 600-acre farm near the mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon.
The MacKinnons grew barley and corn and raised livestock like goats and chickens, peddling milk, butter, and their legendary orchard-plucked jams to neighbors, the nearest of which was more than two miles away. The family started a one-room schoolhouse in its barn, where a recruited teacher taught a few pupils. In 1882, a rare snowfall — can you imagine? — forced the school into the main house for the day. Cardiff pays homage to these early arrivals with MacKinnon Drive.
A more famous accessory to Cardiff’s founding is Frank Cullen, the Boston painter who made his way west in 1910. He envisioned Cardiff as a thriving coastal city and purchased MacKinnon’s land, dividing the area into lots, which were sold for $30-$45. Cullen’s wife Esther urged her husband to name the new town after her hometown of Cardiff, Wales. She’s also behind the British street names such as Birmingham and Manchester.
Before Cullen’s dream could be realized, the town needed a steady water supply. At first, a two-inch pipe brought water three miles from Cottonwood Creek to a storage tank on a hill above Cardiff. That didn’t cut it for the young community, which included an increasing number of flower growers. In 1922, Cardiff formed the San Dieguito Irrigation District and the original water tank was transformed into a house, which is still around.
By the 1920s, Cardiff was home to a train depot, a school, a library, a hotel, restaurants, a mercantile exchange and a post office, not to mention an influx of new residents who realized how unique the town was.
Cardiff’s early history all the way through its bustling present is beautifully documented in Images of America: Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a book by Wehtahnah Tucker and Gus Bujkovsky. To assemble the page-turner, Tucker reached out to her neighbors. “I was able to find so many people, especially as word got out that I was writing a history of Cardiff,” says Tucker. “Total strangers openly shared their life stories with me. The thing that surprised me most was how absolutely proud the Cardiffians are and how many of them would never even conceive of leaving.”
The photos in Tucker’s book, all printed in black and white, tell the story of Cardiff in many ways. Some point to civic pride — a picture of the Cullen Building Hotel includes folks in 1920s finery standing on a balcony — to peculiarities, like “Hobo Day,” when local schoolchildren dressed like hobos, replete with their lunches in sacks tied to the end of sticks.
But the most moving photos are those of individuals and families, from the prominent — like Dorothea Smith, an entrepreneurial matriarch who’s now in her 90s — to the lesser-known locals, still an integral part of the town’s history.
Tucker, a former East Coaster, says she’s joined the ranks of Cardiffians who settled down and realized they’d found home. “Cardiff is a quintessential California beach town with a very strong sense of a community ownership while at the same time people are very welcoming. It’s such a special place.”
Irene Kratzer, whom Tucker cites as an “imperative” support system for her research, is another such Cardiffian. She and her husband moved to Cardiff in 1983. “I’d always been fascinated by Cardiff-by-the-Sea,” Kratzer says. “I’d never been here, though. It was the name: It’s so catchy.”
Cardiff was still very “small-townish” when Kratzer arrived. “We didn’t even have a stoplight up on MacKinnon. When we were incorporated [into Encinitas] in 1986, we fought to keep our name. We still have our own post office and zip code.”
And its own surf scene, which continues to thrive. “Quintessential California” wouldn’t be complete without legendary surfers, and Cardiff has plenty, from Linda Benson and Don Hansen (who founded Hansen’s in Encinitas) to global surf star Rob Machado.
“What is there not to love about Cardiff?” says Machado. “It’s maintained that small coastal-town
vibe. It’s a tight little community. It’s pretty special.” (www.cardiff101.com) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS