James A. Howland, father of Jim Howland and Liz Howland Smith, arrived in Ocean Park around 1903.
From the beginning he recognized the importance of owning land and homesteaded property in the San Joaquin Valley and Oregon, and he later purchased lots in Venice.
One of the Venice lots was on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue. Here, James built a big rooming house for his mother Elizabeth.
The location was near where the Short Line Canals were being dug and Elizabeth would frequently watch the construction workers.
One day she asked how they came up with the names for the canals. One of the workers asked her what her name was. And the rest is history — that’s how one canal was named, although the Howlands never lived on Howland Canal.
Not many people can brag about being a native of Venice, but Jim can. A year-and-a-half younger than his sister, he was born at home.
When Liz was born in Santa Monica 81 years ago, their mother “stayed for ten days in the hospital and was cold and lonely,” she says. “She said that the next time she was pregnant she would stay at home and have the baby.”
Home to the Howlands at that time was 916 Victoria Ave. in Venice. The property next door is still in the family, now owned by Liz’s son and daughter-in-law, Jonathan and Diane.
The canals weren’t a place to enjoy when Jim and Liz were children.
“That was not a desirable place,” says Liz.
“It got run down and pretty much slummy around there,” Jim adds. “There was debris in the canals and they weren’t maintained. They looked pretty bad.”
Instead, the beach, the Venice Boardwalk (Ocean Front Walk) and Venice Pier were favorites of the children. Liz remembers walking. Jim remembers riding his bike.
There was also public transportation — the Red Car and the Yellow Bus Line.
“The local fare on the streetcar and the bus was five cents at that time,” says Jim.
“The Venice Pier was the place to hang out,” says Liz. “When I was older, they had a racing derby — four horses together in each line.
“One of them would always win. One horse would go way back and you’d think, oh no, and then he’d come up and pass all the others. Well, the thing was, the same one in each line would win.
“My girlfriend’s boyfriend was in the office punching in who would win. We knew which horse to get on. So whichever one my girlfriend got on I would get on the same one behind her and we’d go way to the back and then come up and win.
“The fun house was so wonderful because for 15 cents you could go and play and stay there all day.
“The other rides cost five cents. We liked the flying airplane. That was a thrill because it actually went up in the air.
“We’d always say, ‘Do you think it will come loose and we’ll go over the ocean?'”
Jim adds, “We were going to ride in the fun car and there was already somebody in it, so my sister said, ‘Well, if I can’t ride in the front, I’m going to ride in the back.
“That’s like playing crack the whip. I said, ‘No, let’s get as close to the front as we can.’ She said, ‘No, I’m going to the back. So she goes to the back and I’m sitting three or four cars from the front. Boy, that thing can really go.
“We’re just getting back and there were two little kids sitting behind me and they tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘That girl you were with in the back, she’s not there any more.’ I look around and she’s gone. We’re coming to the landing and she comes crawling out of the car.”
“It got so rough, I thought I’d be safer on the floor,” says Liz. “I got scared and just went down. Those wooden racers made this creaky sound. You’re thinking ñ what’s going to happen next?”
“Venice was the winter quarters for some of the circuses,” says Jim. “Yankee Patterson was one. They’d come around to the school kids and say, ‘We’ll give you this packet of tickets and if you sell nine, you can keep the tenth one for free.’
“Yankee Patterson wasn’t that big but LG Barnes and some others housed animals. One time they had a bunch of laughing hyenas. You could hear them at night.”
“A lot of kids would play in the neighborhood. Before these houses were built here (east of Lincoln Boulevard) we’d play football in the field. There was a big path that went through at an angle and all the school kids would come through the path.
“When we built that house (next to Liz’s home) in 1937, they were a little upset because it impinged on their right-of-way.
“Kids entertained themselves. They didn’t go home and watch television.
“Some of them had a paper route. The ones in sports stayed at school and worked out. The ones who went home had chores at home or they played outside.
“They didn’t know any better, so instead of polluting their minds with television they’d read a book or do something else.”
Liz continues, “The Plunge was a big item to people our age. First there was a bath house opposite where the post office is now.
“There wasn’t a high school at the time. Venice High School was started in the bath house. A replica of the bath house is on the boardwalk.”
Liz has a wonderful Venice postcard collection. She enlarged several of the cards to give to a neighbor.
“It was so much fun making those that I gave some to the Sidewalk CafÈ,” she says. “If you go to the restroom you’ll see them all on the wall. The manager, Chris, said to me, ‘I want a picture of you to put up there.’ I gave her one that had an enlargement of an article from the Venice Vanguard from about 1944 when they were trying to open a USO in Venice and it was the same building where the Sidewalk CafÈ is now.
“The article had the address and the date, so, I wrote, ‘This is from Liz Smith (Liz Howland back then) in this building when she was 18 years old and now she and her husband are 80 and here is the way they look, and still coming to the Sidewalk CafÈ.”
The Sidewalk CafÈ is across from where The Plunge used to be.
“So when I sit there I see The Plunge instead of the grass and ocean,” says Liz.
She still enjoys going to the boardwalk.
“It’s so much fun,” she says. “We see tours of people. You’ll see a middle-aged couple looking around and I’ll go up to them and say, ‘Welcome to Venice.’
“They go, ‘Oh, have you lived here very long?’ ‘Yes, for 80 years. (Her 81st birthday was July 26th.) This is where the pier was — right where you’re standing.'”
Liz graduated from Venice High School in the summer of 1943. Jim graduated in the winter of 1945.
WANDA STEWART — Wanda Birkenfelt Stewart graduated in 1926 and celebrated her 100th birthday this year on April 1st.
Wanda actually lived on Howland Canal from the age of 15 to 22.
She was an early role model for the feminist movement.
She showed independence by living in a rooming house on Howland Canal apart from her mother to go to school, working as a night usher at the California Theatre on Windward Avenue to buy her own clothes, and not getting married until she was 32.
Living on a canal then didn’t mean anything to Wanda.
“It was just a place to live,” she says.
She did have fun dancing and swimming. She went to the ballroom on the pier to dance and was a member of the high school swimming team.
She enjoyed riding on the Del Rey Dinky, a streetcar that came from Playa del Rey and stopped in Venice. She also remembers taking the Red Car to school.
What is Wanda’s secret to longevity?
Being happy, having close friends, not drinking and not smoking, she says.
There is a pillow in her living room that says, “I’m not old. I’ve just been young a long time.”