This is part of a year-long series to explore the history of Cardiff-by-the-Sea as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
CARDIFF BY THE SEA — The history of the community’s schoolchildren and their education is one of delight as evidenced by the many stories recounted by former students of a single event that occurred annually. “Hobo Days” has become a part of Cardiff lore even though the tradition was disbanded decades ago.
In 1914, just four years after arriving from Boston, J. Frank Cullen donated land for a new schoolhouse to replace the one-room building accommodating students at the south end of Rossini canyon. The entrepreneur, who plotted the town site and sold lots for $30 up to $45 for prime corner spots, gave several acres of ocean view property for the school’s location where Cardiff Elementary now stands.
Aptly named Cullen School, the building boasted two classrooms, a hallway and separate restrooms for boys and girls. There was even a basement for social gatherings according to historical documents.
However, there was no bell to signal the beginning of class to the surrounding households that began to fill with children as the population grew. Historical records indicate that two school board trustees traveled to Santa Ana to purchase a locomotive bell salvaged from a wrecked engine for $20. The fact that the bell was too large for the existing tower at the school did not deter them. They simply built a larger belfry to accommodate the aging bell.
By the time Bobby Lux, a longtime Cardiff resident, entered Cullen school, Ada Harris was serving as teacher, principal and superintendent. He fondly recalls “Hobo Days” as a time when the usually no-nonsense woman donned scruffy pants and a hat and encouraged the children to do the same. “It was a good time,” he said.
The annual event was not a modern-day fundraiser, nor a social or political statement. Rather, it was a time when children were allowed to dress as hobos, tie their cloth-wrapped lunches to sticks and carry them to school. “Most of us didn’t wear shoes then,” recalls Doug White, a former student. “Some kids’ dogs would even follow them to school.”
The rag-tag bunch would descend on the school grounds after Harris rang the first bell and begin digging fire pits to cook cans of beans. “It sounds a little like camping at school,” said Cynthia Dugart, a newly arrived Cardiff resident. “Those were times when you could do things without worrying if you’d get sued,” she said with a laugh.
Hobos were frequent visitors in the small town as the men would jump the slow moving trains to stop over, many of them looking for work and food during the economically depressed 1930s and 1940s.
“We didn’t think there was any controversy to ‘Hobo Days’” White recalls. “It was just fun for the kids to rub dirt on their faces and dress different.”
Construction on the current Cardiff elementary school was completed in 1950 by locally owned Smith Construction. The effort took just six months according to Rosmary Smith Kimbal, whose father underbid the project in order to ensure he would be responsible for building a safe place for his four children to attend school. “He didn’t care if he lost money (on the project), he just wanted to make sure it got done right,” Smith Kimbal said.
Just nine years later another school was added to the district and dedicated to Harris on the occasion of her retirement. Her much beloved “Hobo Days” were a recent memory as educational standards began to change and schools became more regulated by outside entities. However, the benefit of the event on the lives of the students who participated can still be realized more than four decades later.