Cover Stories

The Boards Are Back in Town

GT1526 coverWEBMore than a century after a famed trio of Hawaiian princes first surfed in Santa Cruz, their redwood olo surfboards are returning to the Museum of Art & History

The Santa Cruz waterfront was bustling with activity during the early weeks of July 1885. The South Pacific Coast Railroad had been completed in 1880—linking Santa Cruz not only to the far reaches of the state, but also to the entire country—and summertime tourism was emerging as an important piston in the city’s economic engine, filling the hotels on Pacific Avenue and Beach Hill to capacity.

Ice cream, cold cider and lemonade were now being served at the Free Museum on the Main Beach, and large crowds were drawn to saltwater spas prominently advertised by the Dolphin, Neptune, and Long Branch bath houses. Baseball games between the local Olympic and Riverside teams drew large crowds to what was known as “Leibrandt’s Lot,” directly across from the bath houses in Beach Flats.

As early as the 1870s, “surf swimming,” as it was called, had become one of the most popular attractions in the bourgeoning tourist Mecca. One account from the Santa Cruz Daily Surf in June of 1885 noted that “the beach and the surf were both at their best on Sunday afternoon, the breakers with their white crests, beautiful enough to delight the genuine sea lover … Late in the afternoon, a large party of swimmers went into the water, a number of our best lady swimmers being among them.”

The Surf’s editor Arthur A. Taylor observed that visitors like to enjoy “the merry buffeting of the waves” as they escaped the sweltering heat of California’s inland valleys.

On Saturday, July 18, 1885, however, the “buffeting” was not so “merry,” as a huge summer swell crashed along the local beaches, bringing into Monterey Bay what the Santa Cruz Sentinel called “the biggest breakers of the season.” A “party of bathers from Woodland were rolled under,” the newspaper reported, as “only red stockings could be seen protruding out of the water.” One young boy was “dashed against a buoy with so much force as to bruise his legs.”

The Sentinel conducted an interview with one of the visitors who had been rolled by the swell. “When the first breaker came, I picked up a woman who I thought was my wife, but I soon found out I was mistaken, and I dropped her quicker’n a hot cake,” he asserted. When the third breaker hit him, he said, “I thought I was gone,” but he “felt a grip on his collar” and had been saved by none other than Santa Cruz waterman W.H. Daily, widely acclaimed as the “Champion Swimmer in America” and a beloved swimming instructor on the Santa Cruz waterfront for more than decade.

Santa Cruz was a beach-and-surf town even in the 1880s. By the following decade, it would be widely known throughout the state as Surf City.

The following day, waves would play a central role in another event taking place on the local waterfront, this time an event making global history. The Surf reported that “Sunday afternoon at the beach was one of the liveliest of the season. It was warm, very warm, but tempered by a breeze, which made the heat endurable and kept people good-natured.” It described the promenade along Beach Street as a “bright and moving picture of itself,” as each of the local streetcars brought “a full load to join the gay groups already on the sand.”

On no other Sunday of the season, the Surf assessed, “have so many bathers, both ladies and gentlemen, been in the water, and all pronounced it delightful.” There was an exciting ocean race that afternoon between a pair of swimming brothers—William and Irvine Jones—with William winning by 20 yards and collecting $40, a substantial purse for that era. A small theatrical troupe, including an undersized donkey pulling a miniature cart, performed a comedy routine along the breakers and “afforded much merriment to the spectators.”

Further east along the beach, however, at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, an exhibition of a different type was taking place, one never before witnessed in the Americas. Three Hawaiian princes—David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole—were in the water with long surfboards made of local redwoods, and milled in the shape of traditional Hawaiian olo boards, reserved in the Hawaiian islands traditionally for royalty.

According to the Surf,  “The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun, at least, so said those who were ‘in the swim.’” As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves and making some nervous onlookers feel sure that they were about to be dashed against the rocks.”

And then came the first account of surfing anywhere in the Americas:

The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.

What is noteworthy about the description is that the Surf correspondent was not only familiar with the princes—and assumed his readership to be as well, since they had arrived here to considerable fanfare earlier in the summer—but the writer was also aware of the term “surf-board” and that their ocean escapade was a cultural activity they had brought with them from Hawaii.

One of the princes, the Surf noted, later injured himself that afternoon jumping from the “railway bridge” a few hundred yards up the river, “but the water proved too shallow, and he was stunned and breathless for some time after.”

The day, however, ended triumphantly. “The evening was quite as delightful as the afternoon,” the newspaper concluded. At the mouth of the San Lorenzo, where the princes had earlier performed their surfing exhibition, “the Santa Cruz City Band played its finest airs by the light of an immense bonfire, and boating was the order of the evening. Guitar music and singing added to the charm of the scene and the hours sped all too rapidly.”

The tale of the three princes surfing here in Santa Cruz has been woven into local lore for decades. The authors heard the story, as young adults decades ago, from the mouth of fabled waterfront historian Skip Littlefield of the Santa Cruz Seaside Company.

In 2010, we helped coordinate, with the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department, the placing of a plaque at Lighthouse Point commemorating the princes’ visit here, and published the first detailed account of not only their presence in Santa Cruz but also of the larger social network that originally linked them to this community. Last year, we added to our historical findings in the Museum of Art & History’s History Journal No.7, A Split History.

Littlefield had indicated that the surfing princes had brought the special redwood olo boards they had made here in Santa Cruz back to the islands with them. It made sense, but there had been no documentation of their return.

We surmised that Littlefield obtained the information through one of his friends—either legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, who was close to the princes and visited Santa Cruz three times during his career; or local journalist Ernest Otto, who was 25 at the time of the princes’ arrival in 1885 and had written about them frequently in the 1940s and 1950s. While we continued to uncover significant details about the princes and their extensive social connection to Santa Cruz over the years, we had been unable to locate the boards.

We wrote the Bishop Museum in Honolulu asking if they had access to any records of the princes surfing in Santa Cruz. They didn’t—or more precisely, they didn’t realize that they did.

Then, in April of 2012, after going through the archived holdings of the Bishop, surfing historian Mac Reed, who was raised in Santa Cruz and now lives in Montana, purchased a special membership to the Bishop and was allowed to make a specific request to view a pair of artifacts located in storage, which he thought might be related to the princes’ visit. What Reed found, in essence, was the Holy Grail of local surfing: two redwood olo surfboards, one belonging to Kuhio and the other to Kawananakoa, that had been bequeathed to the Bishop by Kuhio’s widow, Elizabeth, in 1923 as part of the Kapiolani-Kalaniana’ole family collections.

It was a stunning and historic discovery. “I was impressed,” said Reed from his home in Montana. “Finally, the story all came together.”

Prince Jonah’s redwood olo was 17 feet 2.5 inches and weighed 150 pounds; Prince David’s board was even larger, 17 feet 9.5 inches, and weighed in at 175 pounds. Both, according to an appraisal provided for the museum, had “numerous small dings that were consistent with use.” Moreover, the appraisal identified the olos as holding “a special provenance and significance to the sport of surfing”—these were the boards that had been “milled in the shape of traditional Hawaiian olo boards” and had been ridden by the princes in Santa Cruz 130 years ago this summer.

What was even more remarkable was that the information in Littlefield’s dusty files on the surfboards was very close to the mark: According to his records, the princes rode surfboards made of “solid redwood planks and milled locally by the Grover Lumber Company. They were over 100 pounds in weight and 15 feet in length.”

Now, the two boards found in storage at the Bishop Museum are coming home, completing an amazing historical journey that links the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing with the ancient redwood groves of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a history that brought Hawaiian royalty to Santa Cruz, not just once, but several times over a period of four years. It’s also a narrative that includes a high-seas tale of fraud and larceny.

In the center of this history is a strong and powerful woman of color living in 19th-century Santa Cruz, a Yankee community that was constantly challenged by racial hostilities. And perhaps most significantly, it’s a tale of a cultural exchange that was first presented as a gift to the citizens of Santa Cruz that caught hold and then flourished on the northern rim of Monterey Bay for more than a century.

The history of the three princes in Santa Cruz is a tale that has continued to unfold, decade by decade, year by year, day by day. After Mac Reed’s initial discovery, one of the authors of this story, Kim Stoner, met with the Museum of Art & History’s director, Nina Simon, and Marla Novo, the curator of collections, who negotiated yet another cultural exchange—this time with the Bishop Museum—so that the two olos, first shaped and ridden here in 1885, are now returning home, to be on display at MAH beginning Friday, July 3, and continuing until Oct. 27 (see sidebar).

It promises to make for a monumental exhibit. There will be talks and walks, a special paddle-out commemorating the 130th anniversary of the princes exhibition, and a first-of-its-kind demonstration at Cowell Beach, in which local surfers will ride a broad spectrum of traditional Hawaiian boards shaped by legendary local shaper Bob Pearson of Pearson Arrow Surfboards (with redwood provided by Bud and Lud McCrary of Big Creek Lumber and local surfer Randy Gray).

Now, 130 years after the princes rode redwood boards at the mouth of the San Lorenzo, the olos are coming full circle—from Santa Cruz to Honolulu, and back again.

Twenty years after the princes arrived here in Santa Cruz, a lengthy obituary appeared in the Surf on Oct. 2, 1905, for “Mrs. Antoinette Don Paul Marie Swan,” who had died the day before at her family home on Cathcart Street. The obituary noted that Swan “was courtly in manner, and had a charm in her dealing with people that won many friends. She was a kind neighbor and a devoted mother, loved by her children.” She was clearly a well-liked and widely respected member of the community.

The obituary also included some detailed information about Antoinette’s lineage, rather unique to Santa Cruz at this time:

She was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, of Spanish parentage on her father’s side, he being for many years consul from Spain at Honolulu, and owner of the island at the mouth of the Pearl River, and was very prominent in the islands … Her mother was of Scotch and Hawaiian ancestry.

Not all of the information in the Surf obituary was accurate, but it was close enough to provide both an open window into her life story and enough clues to put the various pieces of this intricate historic puzzle back together. In many respects, Antoinette Swan served as the social and cultural linchpin to the three princes’ story and to the origins of surfing in the Americas.

According to baptismal records in Hawaii and her death certificate here in Santa Cruz, Antoinette “Akoni” Marin was born on the island of Oahu on Oct. 6, 1832. Contrary to the reference in the obituary, her mother, Kaikuloa, was a full-blooded Hawaiian and a “chiefess,” which made Antoinette, by birth, of “ali’i,” or noble Hawaiian lineage.

In November of 1851, an item in the Honolulu Polynesian newspaper noted that 19-year-old Antoinette had married Lyman Swan, then a young businessman on the Honolulu waterfront. He was a partner in Swan & Clifford, a seemingly successful chandlery business that fitted out whaling ships during the heyday of the Pacific whaling industry and the era of Moby Dick. (Indeed, a young Herman Melville had worked for Antoinette’s hanai brother-in-law, Isaac Montgomery, during his four-month sojourn in Honolulu.)

Apparently, unbeknownst to his partner, Ornan Clifford, Swan began forging “bills of exchange” (or checks) with several whaling ships. He was also accused of short-selling coal. On April 13, 1855, authorities in Hawaii issued a wanted poster charging both Swan and Clifford with forging $40,000 in promissory notes and leaving more than $80,000 in unpaid bills just after Swan had snuck out of Honolulu on a merchant ship. It was a huge amount of money during that era—the equivalent of millions today—and the case quickly garnered international attention. A $5,000 reward was offered for information on their whereabouts.

While Clifford immediately returned to Honolulu and declared his innocence (several supporters in Hawaii signed a letter on his behalf), Swan was apprehended on a ship in Alameda, California. All of the forged bills had been executed in his handwriting. While Hawaiian authorities tried to extradite Swan, he was never to return to the islands. He endured several years of both civil and criminal court cases against him in San Francisco, and was found guilty on several charges.

Somehow, he managed to bring Antoinette and his daughter Lily to California during his various court cases. The family first resided in San Jose, and then moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-1860s. By that time, there were five children in the Swan household.

A native of New York and originally a baker by trade, Swan returned to his roots and opened a restaurant and, later, a bakery on Pacific Avenue. He was dubbed by the Sentinel as the “king of good dishes.”

By the time of the arrival of the three princes in 1885, the Swans were popular and widely respected pillars of the Santa Cruz business community. The family purchased a large plot of land in downtown Santa Cruz, at what is now the corner of Front and Cathcart streets, that backed up to the San Lorenzo River.

In fact, Lyman Swan was so respected in Santa Cruz that he was the “ninth signer” of the Constitution and Roll of Members of the Society of Pioneers of Santa Cruz County. There was never any mention in any local documents or newspaper accounts of the criminal activity that forced him to leave Hawaii and led to his quiet relocation to the northern sweep of Monterey Bay.

The second half of the 19th century was a time of profound cultural and political transition in Hawaii. The globalization of the world economy brought ever-increasing outside pressure on the islands and forged changes internally as well.

In 1884, the popular Hawaiian monarchs, King David Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapiʻolani, who were childless, adopted the three princes after the deaths of both their parents. By blood, the three brothers were Kapiʻolani’s nephews, the sons of ali’i from Kauai, and they had been sent to Hawaii’s finest schools. Now they were being prepped for the monarchy.

David, the oldest (nicknamed “Koa”), was born in 1868. Strong and handsome, at the age of 16, in the fall of 1884, he was first sent to St. Matthew’s Hall in San Mateo—a full-fledged military school for boys founded by the stern and “never smiling” Episcopalian taskmaster, Rev. Alfred Lee Brewer. The following year, Edward, born in 1870 and the frailest of the three brothers; and Jonah, nicknamed “Cupid,” born in 1871 and a brilliant athlete in all sports, joined their older brother in California.

It has long been assumed that the princes were here only once, during that seminal summer of 1885, but it was recently discovered that they were in Santa Cruz several times up until November of 1889, when David and Jonah were identified in the Sentinel as visiting with the Swans.

As early as July 12, 1885, it was noted that the “Olympic Rink [located downtown] was honored by the presence of the Hawaiian princes, who received their first lesson in roller skating. They fell down about as many times as ordinary individuals. A pair of skates has no respect for rank. They level all persons who can’t skate.” Their subsequent visits to the Swans’ home—and their various activities while here—were chronicled in dozens of newspaper accounts over the following months and years.

It would be doing a significant disservice to the historical record, however, to suggest that life at the Swan house was a bed of white ginger blossoms—for the princes or for the Swans themselves. In fact, the Swan marriage was a decidedly unhappy one. Lyman Swan’s larceny may have long been hidden from the Santa Cruz community, but he couldn’t hide it from from Antoinette, whom he had shamed with his activities in Honolulu. She decided to return to the islands for lengthy periods of time, where she served as a special assistant to the royal family.

There is a perfect geographic logic to the princes surfing in Santa Cruz, one that leads to another immigration story, though from an entirely different direction. Just as the Hawaiian princes had perfected the art of surfing in Hawaii, the Grover family, of Dutch lineage (their original name had been spelled “Groeben”) learned logging in their native Maine, where their father, Elijah Grover, owned and operated a lumber mill. They brought that knowledge with them to California.

Lured originally by the prospect of gold in the Sierra, Whitney Grover, the first of several Grover family members to migrate west, arrived in California in 1848. Several other family members followed, crossing the Isthmus of Panama together in 1850.

A trio of Grovers—Stephen Frealon “Godfrey” Grover; James Lyman Grover; and Dwight Grover (eldest son of James)—eventually settled in Santa Cruz County in the early 1860s, where they began their first major logging operation along Bates Creek in Soquel. Over the course of the next decade, the Grovers expanded their lumber operations to redwood tracts along Soquel Creek, Porter Gulch, Laguna, Ben Lomond, Bear Creek, Boulder Creek, and the Hepsidam region of Bean Creek (near Scotts Valley).

According to one newspaper account, the Grover & Co. enterprise was among “one of the best known in the state,” generating vast sums of wealth. During the 1870s and 1880s, the three Grovers built a trio of ornate mansions on Walnut Avenue in Santa Cruz, all designed by architect John Williams, adjacent to present day Grover Lane (across from Santa Cruz High School).

In June of 1882, the Grovers purchased a lumber tract along Clear Creek (above what would later be known as Brookdale), where they initiated extensive lumber operations. In August of the following year, Grover & Co. began operation of a large lumber yard and planing mill near downtown Santa Cruz, located along a spur of the South Pacific Coast Railroad at the jagged bend of lower Pacific Avenue (near its present-day juncture with Center Street).

Most significant to this story, the Grover lumberyard was located less than a half-mile from the Swan family home on Cathcart Street, where, more than likely, the princes would have continued to refine the shape of the boards with draw knives. From there, the Swans’ immediate proximity to the San Lorenzo River would have made the transport of these 150-pound-plus boards easily facilitated downstream to the river mouth.

Some surfing historians have dismissed the account of the three Hawaiian princes surfing in Santa Cruz by either denying that the event ever happened or deriding it as a one-off occurrence without long-lasting historic or cultural significance.

The extensively documented history of the princes’ activities here—along with the olo surfboards to be on display at MAH over the next four months— belie such contentions.

Perhaps most importantly, the experiences of the three princes surfing here in Santa Cruz played a significant role in the history of surfing. A decade after their departure, there are verified accounts that their surfing exhibition “stuck” here in Santa Cruz long after they were gone. In July of 1896, the weekly edition of the Santa Cruz Surf made the fascinating observation that “the boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.”

Of equal significance, we now know with certainty that the redwood olo boards that they rode here in Santa Cruz—milled from first-growth redwood trees from the Santa Cruz Mountains—went back with them to Honolulu, where, for the next 40 years or more, redwood shipped from Northern California across the Pacific Ocean became the primary material for the construction of Hawaiian surfboards.

It’s yet another circle in this story. A “one-off” this was not.

The Princes of Surf exhibition runs at the Museum of Art & History July 3 until Oct. 25. The following events are part of the 130th anniversary celebrations:

First Friday Exhibition Opening with Geoffrey Dunn and Kim Stoner: July 3, 5-9 p.m., Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. 429-1964.

O’lo Hui Nalu Surf demo, Paddle-Out, and Luau July 19, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Cowell’s Beach, 21 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz.

Princes of Surf Walking Tour Sept. 19, 10 a.m.-Noon, Museum of Art & History.

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