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The Memories of Ernest Otto

Lowell Bready, Sutton Christian, George Moorad, Ernest Otto, and Laura Rawson in the Sentinel office, 1938
Lowell Bready, Sutton Christian, George Moorad, Ernest Otto, and Laura Rawson in the Sentinel office, 1938.

There was a time once when the only book I imagined writing or editing was my own fantasy series. Santa Cruz was a place, trains were cool but irrelevant, and history was a fun hobby but nothing more. One by one, those dominos fell. In 2003, I shifted my major from Media Communications to History. In 2011, I began writing blog posts about Santa Cruz County’s railroading history. And in 2019, I embarked upon a journey to tell the larger story of Santa Cruz County’s history.

With the conclusion of Ron Powell’s The History of Rancho Soquel Augmentation series in 2022, my initial thought was to fast-track my Santa Cruz Trains series. The blog hadn’t gone idle, though the output had slowed considerably as work, projects, and life got in the way. And it had been a while since any published Santa Cruz Trains content was released. So in December 2022, I decided to begin work on SIDETRACKED: Laurel & Glenwood as a bit of a palette cleanser and proof-of-concept. It has been a great success and more SIDETRACKED books will be released over the coming years (stay tuned for a future blog post!). No, this was not the book that people have been wanting since 2015, but it was a book that most readers have enjoyed. Work on other Santa Cruz Trains books continues whenever I find the time.

The Secret History of Santa Cruz County logo

The Secret History of Santa Cruz County logo

Readers of Powell’s books may have noticed in the front that I considered these a part of a larger series: The Secret History of Santa Cruz County. This was my first hint that more would come down the line. The concept of the series is simple: find and publish books and historical material about Santa Cruz County that has been largely forgotten or lost. Powell’s books were the inspiration, since his manuscript was public domain and it so clearly needed some work to bring it up to proper publishing standards. But since I included that series title in The Tragedy of Martina Castro, I’ve thought to myself: what’s next? Well, Ernest Otto’s Our Old Santa Cruz…

Ernest Otto was a reporter for the Santa Cruz Surf and Santa Cruz Sentinel from the 1880s until his death in 1955. He was born in Santa Cruz in 1871 and, other than some short trips, never left the city. As a result, he lived much of the history that the rest of us have only read or heard stories about. His memories, even into his 80s, were clear and precise. He could remember which circus came to town in 1882, who lived at 311 Church Street in 1907, who visited Santa Cruz by train in the summer of 1893. He knew everybody, talked with anybody, and angered nobody. He was one of the city’s most favorite residents and was the dean of newspapermen of California, a leading light in the newspaper business, at the time of his death. And in 1939, he decided that he wanted to share his stories in the Sentinel.

Our Old Santa Cruz…By Ernest Otto began appearing weekly in the Sentinel from March 1939 and continued for over two years after his death, to June 1957. Each week Otto focused on a different topic about growing up and living in Santa Cruz. In early articles, he often wrote about the streets around the Lower Plaza, of beautiful gardens and fruitful orchards, of swimming holes that he used to frequent with his friends, of jobs he and his friends held, of early industries, and of churches and local organizations. In later years, he expanded his scope to include surrounding suburbs, more recent history, concepts such as common sounds and things that people didn’t do anymore in the 1940s, accidents and natural disasters, and so much more. Though he sometimes repeated himself, what he repeated was always in a different context than before.

Naturally I couldn’t allow such a treasure trove of early history to be lost. I had discovered Otto’s works when researching local railroad history, but I didn’t realize the breadth of it until accidentally coming across an editor’s note that suggested the column was weekly. I then scoped out how long it ran and found that it was 18 years. So long for a personal column to run! And to my amazement, I found that nothing had been published of this material except a long out-of-print highlights book. The opportunity could not be missed. This would be the next entry in The Secret History of Santa Cruz County.

Our Old Santa Cruz... Volume 1 cover

The result will be a series of books, the total number to be determined once I figure out if he ever began republishing old articles (only one found so far, which was clearly an editorial mistake) and how many articles I can fit in each book (the lengths varied pretty widely). Each volume will feature an average of around 125 articles accompanied by over 100 historical photographs from the UC Santa Cruz photograph collection and other repositories depicting the topics that Otto discusses. Very little has been altered from the original articles except spelling and punctuation when appropriate or necessary to correct. Rare historical inaccuracies have been retained for fidelity to the original text, but because of the reflective nature of these articles, readers should keep in mind that minor inaccuracies may exist throughout. Work on Volume 2 is already progressing—future volumes in the series should release every October until all original content is published.

Our Old Santa Cruz… Volume 1 by Ernest Otto is available now at Bookshop Santa Cruz and (Affiliates link).

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Thank you and happy holidays!