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Remembering the glamorous history of party town Encinitas

Encinitas in the late 1940s, as seen from the corner of Highway 101 and E Street, looking northeast. Photo courtesy Encinitas Historical Society
Encinitas in the late 1940s, as seen from the corner of Highway 101 and E Street, looking northeast. Photo courtesy Encinitas Historical Society

Looking back, it seems incredible that legendary stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra used to flock to San Diego’s North County, all attempting to escape the urban jungle of Los Angeles to enjoy the sun, surf, and of course the Del Mar Racetrack.

It was an especially glamorous footnote to the history of Encinitas, which was teeming with celebrity hotspots and places to party.

“The early days of Encinitas were not hectic,” explained Lloyd O’Connell, 89, a retired Encinitas historian who had stints teaching or running institutions like Pacific View School, Ocean Knoll, and who was the founding principal at Park Dale Lane.

“It was actually pretty rural. Most of the area back then was full of flowers,” he said. “The flower industry was probably the biggest one we had in the early days. Farmers always suffered from a lack of regular water. We had dry farmers who didn’t have water until 1961.”

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Coastal North County first earned its reputation as a party spot thanks to Prohibition. Back then, revelers from Los Angeles would drive down the coast to hop the border into Tijuana, seeking booze. On their way south, they would stop in roadside towns like Encinitas.

However, in July 1937 when the Del Mar Racetrack opened for business, San Diego’s North County solidified its place as a glamorous hot spot.

“For a time, we had a gun club in Encinitas on Hilcrest Avenue owned by Fred Coots,” explained O’Connell. “The area was pretty wide open in terms of the country, and the club had about 4,000 acres full of game. People like Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien were frequent guests; these guys would go out and do their shooting, and at night they’d come back to have a bonfire to cook their prizes.”

Another hip place was, oddly, a motel complex. Leucadia’s Log Cabin Apartments were originally dingy motorcourts that were refurbished by Jeanne and Leonard Fuller in 1962. Celebrities soon started to flock to the quirky 4.5-acre property, which featured flower and antique shops on its premises. One of its most famous guests, Sammy Davis Jr., was a regular.

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Jeanne Fuller, who gave a May 2010 interview to the San Diego U-T before passing away this past September, recalled Davis fondly. “He used to cook macaroni and cheese for the surfers that lived there and entertain them. His son used to call up to see if his dad was OK. We’d say, ‘Oh, he’s fine.’”

Other notable guests of the complex included Desi Arnaz Jr. (who is said to have spent his honeymoon there), Liberace, and Bette Davis.

Another celebrity hot spot, the former Beacon Inn in Cardiff, opened in 1928 and shuttered in the early ’60s. The beachfront property off Highway 101 attracted the likes of Peter Lorre, Betty Grable, Harry James, and Jimmy Durante — just to name a few. In addition, Charlie Chaplin’s family owned real estate in the area.

According to O’Connell, a mix of glamour and quaintness was the norm for the area, which soon experienced a population explosion. “The growth ... was really something in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he remembers. “In the early ’60s, Encinitas was very easy-going, with mostly farmland. It bloomed very, very quickly after El Camino Real became a six-lane road and Highway 5 was developed.”

Today, celebrities are still lured to the track and beach, and many make it a point to stay in places like Carlsbad’s La Costa Resort, which has been known to host the likes of Tiger Woods and Drew Brees.

And as another season of racing continues, people like O’Connell can’t help but remember how Encinitas used to be.

“When I was a part of the Encinitas Historical Society, I asked member Mac Hartley to put together a book about the area’s history,” said O’Connell. The book is still available in used condition on Amazon.com. “Mac did a beautiful job.”

Almost as beautiful as the rich history of Encinitas.

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