I received a phone call from a history student at Cal State Long Beach who was thinking of doing a paper on why Long Beach’s nickname was “Iowa By the Sea” and wondered if the Long Beach-Iowa connection was actually once a big thing.
It was. For decades, from the late 1920s and on into the post-war years you couldn’t swing a cat in this town without leaving a patch of fur on a Hawkeye.
Most of my relatives motored to this coast from Iowa from the 1930s and on into the 1960s. My mom was from Iowa, my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather all came from Iowa. On into the 1980s I still had numerous cousins, and great-aunts and uncles living there.
So connected with Iowa was Long Beach, even in the 1980s, that in 1982, when the University of Iowa appeared in its first Rose Bowl, the Long Beach newspaper I was working for sent me and a photographer to Iowa to cover the Rose Bowl. We watched the Hawkeyes go down in defeat with despondent farmers on an inevitable sunny day in Pasadena while sheltered in the Midwest from a brutal Iowa winter that closed off the road to town.
But yes, certainly during Long Beach’s earlier days, Iowans were all over town, coming here in great waves for the vaunted sunshine, a huge contrast to the weather they had become accustomed to, if not enamored of.
And, of course, most people today are aware of the Iowa Picnics in Recreation and Bixby parks that drew an excess of 100,000 Iowans from Southern California from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. The picnic continues these days, drawing a much smaller number, to the Battleship Iowa in San Pedro.
Iowa’s state newspaper, the Des Moines Register, kept up to date with the happenings in Long Beach for the benefit of those whose friends and relatives that had decamped for our town, especially in the wake of the March 1933 Long Beach Earthquake. The paper, for days after the catastrophe, ran letters from Iowans who were in Long Beach, giving news of their experiences:
“Mrs. Henry A. Miller, formerly of Des Moines, was thrown from her bed but not seriously injured.”
“Mrs. E.H. Tovey of Des Moines reported that her sister escaped injury although her home was practically demolished.”
The mass migration had a big enough impact on Iowa and Long Beach that the paper sent out its best man, Harlan Miller, who wrote a popular column, “Over the Coffee,” from 1925 through 1965, to Long Beach to describe this seaside town that was luring farmers away from the Midwest in such large numbers.
The article, which appeared in the May 2, 1937 Des Moines Register, remains the best look at the laconic life of the retirees who came to Long Beach, “the coastal paradise where so many thousands of Iowans go before they die.”
Harlan hit all the hot spots—the Pike, the Rainbow Pier and its Spit & Argue Club, the dance halls, the band concerts on the beach, the croquet and roque courts.
“The sunlight is so brilliant that a movie star would be wearing smoked glasses,” Miller wrote. “But these Iowans have learned to squint in 10,000 days in the open fields, and they are not afraid of wrinkles.”
The columnist was impressed by the sheer number of Iowans here in the town of 160,000. “The vast majority of this augmented citizenry came 2,000 miles in pursuit of the setting sun, a hegira of patriarchs unmatched in history.”
The Depression and the native frugality of Iowans combined for a limited income from these retirees, Miller noted. “Many live on $60 to $70 a month. Of this sum, about $30 would go to rent, $25 for food and clothing, $10 for medicine and doctors and $10 for riotous living.”
“Farmers usually come to Long Beach around the age of 70,” he wrote, “looking for 10 years of peace and repose.”
A typical day would begin with a game of horseshoes at the park, and continue with a stroll around Rainbow Pier.
“At 2:30 comes the afternoon concert on the beach, until 4, when several thousands will be listening (some with ear trumpets) with the blue Pacific beyond to rest the eyes.”
That’s followed by window shopping on Pine, before supper. Many dine at home, while the more monied, wrote Miller, “dine out at one of the many inexpensive places where a retired appetite may well be satisfied for anywhere between 35 to 60 cents.”
And then? They danced.
“For an amazingly large fraction, dancing becomes the consuming fraction. Thousands go literally dance mad,” he wrote. “Until recently, many of the dances lasted until 2 a.m., but now a 12:30 closing is more or less observed at most of the halls.”
Although Miller found Long Beach more than suitable to meet the needs of retirees, he nevertheless concluded that “Long Beach is not an exciting place. Inevitably it has a decided Midwest flavor, with subtropical foliage,” and he noted a discernible yearning for home among these transplants.
“The great milestones of Long Beach existence are visits from the old hometown from children and grandchildren and old cronies. Without these visits to anticipate, many would become distressingly lonely and isolated.”
Miller concluded his piece: “It remains a debatable question whether the brilliant sunshine and the mild sheltered climate ever becomes a completely satisfying substitute for the mellower glow of the old neighbors and the old neighborhood back home.”
And, yet, apparently it was, because few ever returned to the heartland. While Long Beach’s population is now incredibly diverse, and relatively few native Iowans call Long Beach home now, there are still plenty of us who can trace their recent roots back to the farm.