Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lonely Vigil

Tattered and soot-stained from wartime, Old Glory keeps a lonely vigil inside a custom oak display case. The stars and stripes from World War II are located at the south entrance to the Beaumont Civic Center. Day after day, a procession files right past the flag, slowly and inexorably. They’re headed inside City Hall to pull a building permit, take out a business license or pay their sewer bill. But few know the true story behind the flag that flew proudly over the U.S.S. Beaumont while it gathered meteorological data, patrolled the sea lanes and supported land operations in the Pacific.

Proud legacy

The onetime yacht was pressed into duty during the war. Its polished, wooden decks bristled with .50-caliber guns instead of well-dressed passengers. During its many voyages, smokestacks on board belched thick, black smoke. Along the way, faint traces of gray soot coated the flag, which bore 48 stars that symbolized the number of states earlier in our history.

In 1946, only a year after the U.S. S. Beaumont ended wartime operations, the Navy wrote Beaumont officials asking whether they wanted to display the ship’s battle colors. City officials proudly accepted the offer and preparations got under way for displaying the flag. Ken Smith of Wildwood Cabinets made the custom display case, which came with wheels. Jerry Casey of Beaumont Glass got credit for the framing job. Sandi Miller of Miller Enterprises did the tapestry work. During the 1980s, the Exchange Club of the San Gorgonio Pass recognized those who helped make the exhibit possible. Inside the display case are black and white photos of the U.S.S. Beaumont and historical documentation about the ship’s role in WWII. On April 9, 1946, the 11th Naval District wrote to the city of Beaumont and saluted the U.S.S. Beaumont as a large gunboat that “carried the name of your city into battle in the war zones.”

Honoring the flag

So, the next time you’re in City Hall, please take a moment to glance at Old Glory. And with the Fourth of July coming up, let’s all pay tribute to a living symbol of Beaumont’s history—our stars and stripes forever!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Right Combination

The big vault door almost beckons as you walk into Beaumont Civic Center and spot the safe lodged in the north wall near the glass double doors. The combination dial and heavy metal door with gold leaf lettering bring to mind safecracking scenes from old Hollywood movies.
Have you ever wondered what’s inside the old Cary Safe and what’s it doing in the middle of a well-traveled public hallway? The dial is frozen, and the combination was lost decades ago. Even so, this is one safe that Geraldo Rivera won’t need to crack.

Mystery solved

This is a mystery with an answer. Geraldo, who came up nearly empty-handed years ago when he cracked Al Capone’s safe on live TV, would come up short again. Capone’s safe had some dirt and a few empty bottles; the safe inside the Civic Center is just the vault door. There is nothing behind it, except a small bit of wall space.

Few people know that little secret in small-town Beaumont, yet they keep trying in vain to open the safe; children and adults stop in the hallway, glance around, reach for the combination dial, tug on the handle, and hope for the best.

Unlocking history

Actually, Beaumont displays the door because it’s a piece of local history and a bit of Americana. The venerable Cary Safe Co. was located in Buffalo, N. Y. around 1900 and made safes for companies all across the country. Today, collecting, restoring and trying to open the old safes is a big hobby with a wide following on the Internet.

The history of this safe began in 1928 when today’s Civic Center opened as Beaumont High School. The plans included a very secure concrete vault room, further fortified by a heavy door manufactured by the Cary Safe Co. For decades, the vault room and its heavy door remained hidden away in the Finance Department. Several years ago during some remodeling, the vault room was torn out to create more work area. But city officials couldn’t part with the old safe door. So in keeping with a city that loves its past, Beaumont had the vault door displayed for everyone to see. When Beaumont celebrates its centennial in 2012, the old Cary Safe will be part of the many pieces of history that tell the story of our hometown.

Putting their stamp on Beaumont

Beneath our feet is a marvelous piece of hometown history—that humble, well-trodden concrete sidewalk. Kids play on it and ride their bikes. Adults walk and jog on it for exercise. Fido tugs at his leash. But how often do we pause and appreciate our sidewalks? Sure, once in a while we sneak a peek when we hear the echo of that old saying: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!”

Now, if you’ve got a few moments and want to see how hard-working laborers put their “stamp” on our city decades ago, stroll on over to the Beaumont Unified School District’s headquarters (formerly Beaumont City Hall.) If you look at the sidewalks in front of 500 Grace Ave., you’ll see smooth concrete poured and floated during 1929—the same year the stock market crashed and America plunged into the Great Depression.

Today, more than 80 years later, you’ll see nary a crack or bulge in that concrete. The sidewalks have remained unscathed through decades of weather and spidery tree roots and generations of people scuffing their feet. Today, we admire such craftsmanship. And if we ever forget, those long ago artisans left us a little reminder etched deeply and proudly into the cement: “Osborn Company 1929 Contractor.”

By the way, do you know something about Osborn Company and the men who created those sidewalks? If you do, please contact the Beaumont Blogger and we’ll do a little more research.

Siren's Song

The old air raid siren has been silenced by time and world events. It no longer sounds off with that eerie, haunting wail that once echoed throughout Beaumont during the 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, many across the country believed that blasts of the siren and “duck and cover” drills in school would save lives if the Russians launched a surprise nuclear attack.
But the Cuban Missile Crisis passed, test ban treaties were signed and the Cold War ended. The “all-clear” signal, however, didn’t mean the end of duty for a venerable air raid siren in a small town. Growing up in Beaumont, people knew it was lunch time when the siren went off at noon. For years, volunteer firefighters kept an ear out for distinctive tones that said, “Stop what you’re doing, and head for the station immediately.”

Silent vigil

But today, the siren’s wail has gone quiet, perhaps forever. Seemingly relentless woodpeckers have pockmarked every square inch of a pole that the almost forgotten siren rests upon. Today, families enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon in the Stewart Park never even glance up and notice the siren. If they did, most would be puzzled. The solitary siren keeps a silent vigil of its own—a throwback to a bygone era.

Staying safe

The era of air raid sirens was also a time when some Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards, listened to transistors radios and watched black and white televisions. There was the persistent worry of a giant flash, a mushroom cloud and the end of the world. It was an age when youngsters wrapped their arms over their heads, coiled themselves under school desks, and turned away from windows. They were acting out what many had seen in a 1951 Civil Defense movie called “Duck and Cover.” It starred Bert the Turtle who saved himself when danger arrived by ducking inside his shell. Today, you can find Bert the Turtle on YouTube. And if you look up in Stewart Park, you will see an old guardian looking out over Beaumont.

Marking History

Once upon a time in a small town, waist-high, concrete street markers with bold, black lettering pointed the way to the street where you lived and to your favorite mom-and-pop store. But over the decades, the stubby markers have gradually disappeared—replaced by modern, easier-to-read street signs with reflective lettering.

Some residents like Barbara Dwyer still love the quaint old-time street monuments. She’s lucky enough to still live on a corner with one. The marker sits along a dirt stretch of Cherry Avenue where it meets the paved Antonell Court. It’s imprinted with the word “Cherry” and below that in smaller, faded letters is “Ave.” Very little is known about the history of the few remaining markers left in town. But in Dwyer’s neighborhood, the markers probably go back at least a half-century like the homes.

“It’s kind of neat to have something from back in the old days,” Dwyer says. “We like it—even if most people don’t say much about it.”

Today, the street marker keeps a lonely vigil on the street corner. Cherry Valley resident Bruce Murrill works throughout Beaumont and often drives the city’s streets. During his travels, he’s seen three or four of the old markers. “I keep an eye out because they’re part of Beaumont’s history,” Murrill said. “I just kind of like them.”

If you have your own favorite old-time marker near where you live, have spotted one around town or know something about their history, make sure to email or write in and let the Beaumont Blogger know!

Buried Treasure

Did the class of ’35 bury something beneath that patina-colored bronze cap or is the bronze cap simply a plaque left in commemoration by the students?

It’s been 75 years now.

At the front steps to what was once Beaumont High School (now the Beaumont Civic Center), the class from long ago left a “marker.” It reads simply, “35.”

Small-town mystery

We’ve all walked right past the marker while going about our business. For decades, a canopy of tall, stately deodar trees with feathery, outstretched branches has shielded the marker from nature’s elements.

But what (if anything) did the class of 1935 put away for some future generation to rediscover? Graduates from that class would now be in their 90s.

Back in the 1930s, the approximately 150 students at Beaumont High made their own fun. They tried to catch a greased pig at the Cherry Festival. They watched hometown farmers pit their finest draft teams against one another in pulling contests. Before a big game with Banning High School, Beaumont students would light a flaming, celebratory bonfire fueled mostly by abandoned outhouses. Girls would sell lilac blossoms along Highway 99 (now Sixth Street) for 50 cents a bunch. Wendell Wallace, from Beaumont High School’s class of 1938, remembers crowds of teenagers hanging out at the Standard station hoping to catch a glimpse of movie stars in fancy cars on their way home from Palm Springs.

Long ago secret

But there’s still the nagging mystery about what the classmates of ‘35 had in mind when they cemented that marker solidly into the ground. They weren’t the first graduating class. A plaque on the front wall proudly proclaims that Beaumont High was “erected in A.D. 1928.”

Did the class of ‘35 bury newspaper clippings, photographs or maybe some quaint souvenirs of small-town life? Seventy-five years later, should we let the past stay buried for others to discover in some distant time, or should we open a window to the past? Perhaps sometimes it’s best to let the mystery live on, so that we can always wonder what might be there as we walk near those steps in front of the Civic Center.