Cambrian: Opinion

Changes to Cambria and Hwy. 1 may be barely noticed but are still worth remembering

The French Corner Bakery in Cambria used to be a service station.
The French Corner Bakery in Cambria used to be a service station.

Change can be sudden, or it can be so gradual you barely notice it. Then, one day, you wake up and the whole landscape looks different.

I remember growing up thinking that certain things were permanent. When you’ve only been alive five or six or seven years, and something’s been around longer than you have, you tend to think of it as eternal. It’s always been there, and it always will be.

When I was a child in Fresno, back in the late 1960s, there was a burger joint called Lesterburger that was the biggest thing in town — bigger even than McDonald’s. There was one across the street from the college football stadium, and you’d hear radio ads or see TV commercials for it every day. It had this cool, bespectacled mascot with a crewcut and a burger belly that was instantly identifiable.

Fresno was my world back then, and the few years I’d been on my planet were that history. I didn’t know any different.

White Front was the king of department stores. It was the Walmart of its day, at least for Fresno. Everybody shopped there for bargains on everything from records (they still had those then) to the appliances in the front window that gave the place its name.

I left Fresno in 1972, and when I returned six years later, White Front had closed and Lesterburger was out of business.

Things change.

If one of the iconic fixtures of your youth suddenly disappears, it can seem like a tectonic shift. It’s like, all of a sudden, the world’s a little off kilter and nothing will ever be quite the same again.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of White Front or Lesterburger. Kids like me may have thought they’d always be there, but if you grew up in Pasaic, New Jersey, or San Diego, until someone tells you about them, it’s as though they’ve never existed.

Local history

I didn’t grow up in Cambria, so I would never have known that this town once had an airfield, a downtown movie theater or a roadside eatery called the Chuck Wagon if someone hadn’t told me. I wouldn’t have known that the French Corner Bakery used to be a service station or the newspaper I edit was once in the West Village.

I might never have known history of the Veterans Memorial Building if Jerry McKinnon hadn’t gotten up to talk about it at the September meeting of the Cambria Community Services District board.

McKinnon recalled how the building’s main hall was brought up in three pieces from Camp San Luis and reassembled here by the Lions Club. Cambria was lucky to even get a memorial building, he said, because the Board of Supervisors had already decided to put the vets hall planned for the North Coast in Cayucos.

“But then they questioned, why, my goodness! You mean the veterans from Cambria are going to have to drive all the way to Cayucos?” McKinnon recalled. “You have to remember, in the 1950s, between here and Morro Bay, there were over 200 turns in the road. It was a very narrow road, and it took a long time to get down to Morro Bay.”

Roads rerouted

Indeed, highways change a lot over time.

Familiar symbols greet us from the roadside: billboards, businesses, geological features. We might pass them a hundred times and barely notice; but once they’re gone, it’s like an old friend has left town.

The roads themselves change, too. Main Street through Cambria used to be part of Highway 1, and Santa Rosa Creek Road was Highway 46. Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo was part of Highway 101, as was Spring Street in Paso Robles. The motels that line both streets are evidence of an earlier time when travelers stopped for the night along what was then the main highway.

Just this summer, Caltrans moved a nearly three-mile stretch of Highway 1 farther inland north of San Simeon, near Piedras Blancas, to protect it from coastal erosion. Then, there’s the new section of the same highway being built across the Mud Creek Slide farther north.

Personally, I write about history for two reasons: to remind people of familiar faces and landmarks that might otherwise fade from memory, and to introduce those faces and landmarks to others who might otherwise never have known them.

That’s what Jerry McKinnon did for me at that September meeting. For all the talk of new board members, property purchases and sewer repairs, to me his brief history of the Vets Hall contained the most enlightening words spoken that afternoon.

Thanks, Mr. McKinnon.