Retired Lt. Col. William R. Barrett, Bird Rock’s first paperboy in the ‘20s, resides in La Jolla’s Casa de Manana retirement center, which, back in the day, was a fancy hotel he used to sell abalone to.
Barrett, now 88, was honored at Taste of Bird Rock in July with his very own “exhibit” in a display showcasing the La Jolla neighborhood’s colorful history.
Waxing nostalgic, Barrett recently offered a meandering, anecdotal account of what it was like to grow up in the Jewel during a much simpler era when cows were all over the hills and property in the Shores was hard to sell because “who wants to buy sand?”
Barrett’s recounting of La Jolla’s early days reads like a chapter out of “Tom Sawyer” - barefoot kids playing pranks, hustling to make a buck and having “adventures” with locals and tourists alike who swelled the Village’s population during summer.
Barrett delivered newspapers to Bird Rock between the ages of 5 and 19. His route, which started out with six morning Unions and five evening Tribunes in 1922 grew to 100, and 90, respectively, by the time he sold it to a girl.
One of his fonder memories is going out with his buddies at age 12 in a skiff at night to poach in-season lobsters from traps. Undersize specimens were returned to the deep, those that were regulation size were put back for the fisherman, but those just shy of regulation, well, “They were ours,” said Barrett, noting that they’d peddle them door-to-door for 25 cents each.
“We used to make $5 or $6 a night,” he said. “That was double the wages a man could make.”
Barrett also recalls diving for abalone in water “colder than hell” to get his quota, two of which he sold every day to Casa de Manana.
Barrett remembers back in 1926 when there were 13 houses in Bird Rock, two automobiles and no paved roads.
“You could hear the rocks in the ocean,” he said. “They make a beautiful noise, rolling in and out. I don’t even know if they’re there anymore.”
Children back then, out of necessity, made their own toys. Barrett said, “We made skateboards, barrel hoops with a crossbar that we would use to roll discarded wheels.”
Barrett never wore shoes until he was 7, and then only because he was forced to go to school.
“We lived outdoors,” he added.
Tourists went largely unappreciated by La Jolla youths early on.
“They were cluttering up our beach and our tennis courts,” Barrett said. But things changed once they became teens. “We realized, a lot of them were from Hollywood: And they’re all rich and the gals are pretty. We started enjoying it. We couldn’t wait for summer.”
Barrett, who recently celebrated his 67th wedding anniversary with wife Ruth, said he was astonished by something he discovered at La Jolla High’s 50th anniversary.
“I couldn’t find one couple that had divorced,” he said. “In the early days, when you got married - you couldn’t afford to get divorced.”
What is the biggest difference between life in La Jolla in 2009 as opposed to 1929?
“You had stability then,” Barrett answered. “If you made a little bit of money, you could put a little bit away every month and it would grow. But not now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”