Redondo Beach may claim him but it’s Venice that can truly stake the claim to fame for George Freeth, the man credited for bringing surfing from Hawaii to Southern California in the early 1900s, says Elayne Alexander, a Venice historian and member of the Venice Community Trust Archival Committee.
A slide show presentation on the life of Freeth and the 100th anniversary of the surfing phenomenon, which has come to be a defining image of the Southern California lifestyle, is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 22nd, at the Danny’s Deli, 23 Windward Pacific Ave., Venice. Admission is free.
The speaker and presenter of the program is Dr. Arthur Verge, a historian, professor at El Camino College and 35-year veteran Los Angeles County lifeguard, who has researched the topic for the past five years with historians Elayne Alexander and Dave Kastigar.
Freeth came to Venice on July 22nd, 1907 at age 24 and by the end of the month, it was reported in the news that a Hawaiian was riding the waves on a board on the north end of Venice.
As if it weren’t enough to bring what later would become the cultural phenomenon of surfing to Southern California’s shores, Freeth is also revered as a pioneering lifeguard.
Freeth was the mentor of Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic champion who is widely known as the father of modern surfing, who called Freeth the “most consummate waterman I have ever known.”
Freeth was the founder of the Venice Volunteer Lifeguards and shuttled back and forth between Venice and Redondo Beach on Pacific Electric cars earning his living as a paid lifeguard and swim instructor at Huntington’s Redondo Plunge. He was a mentor to many of the area’s children, teaching them surfing, swimming, lifesaving skills and water polo.
He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, when he saved seven Japanese fishermen from drowning.
The fishermen had been trapped by stormy weather and high winds on some jagged rocks at the Venice breakwater.
When it became clear to the lifeguards that the use of a dory would not be possible in a rescue attempt, Freeth swam out to the fisherman and rescued each one of them, a feat unheard of in those days, Alexander says.
“In some ways, this makes Freeth the father of lifeguarding as well,” says Alexander.
The lackluster pay received by lifeguards is said to be what led Freeth to leave Los Angeles County in 1915 for a job offer in San Diego.
In 1918, Freeth became a victim of the swine flu pandemic. He survived an initial bout of the flu, but a relapse overtook him the next year and he died April 7th, 1919 at the age of 35.
Historian trio Verge, Alexander and Kastigar dug deep for archived newspaper articles in the Los Angeles Times, Redondo Reflex, Venice Vanguard, Santa Monica Outlook and newspapers in Hawaii to unearth information about the life of Freeth. They even found a shot of Freeth that had run in a Houston newspaper, kept in the archives of the Los Angeles Public Library.
They researched Freeth’s family tree — Freeth was half-English and half native Hawaiian — and went to visit a relative in Hawaii that Freeth had visited during his lifetime, says Alexander.
The historians tracked his path in Venice, then shifted to Redondo Beach.
They visited San Diego and walked the streets mapping out places that Freeth lived and worked and stayed, including the Southern Hotel, which is still in operation.
Having been viewed as an important historical figure who had never received his proper due as those like Duke Kahanamoku who followed in Freeth’s footsteps had, the local historians first began looking into doing a project on Freeth in 1999.
Alexander has authored three historical books — Abbot Kinney’s Venice-of-America, On the Wings of an Eagle, and Images of America – Venice, California.
Verge’s historical photo book, Santa Monica Lifeguards, was published last year by Arcadia Publishing, preceded by Los Angeles County Lifeguards, which came out the year before. He is also the author of Paradise Transformed: Los Angeles During the Second World War, and is a specialist on the impact of the World War II. Verge has lived in England, Spain, Denmark, and Austria.
In 1991, Verge directed El Camino College’s Semester Abroad Program in England and he has co-directed the Vienna Institute with Dr. William Doyle since 1993. Currently, Verge serves as a co-director of the Professional Lifeguard Foundation and has been a Los Angeles County Lifeguard for some three decades.
Information, (310) 566-5610.