Good weather has led legions of people to California. At the end of the 19th Century, the transcontinental railroad gave mid-westerners a way to escape harsh winters and enjoy life in a more temperate climate. Many were from Iowa.
So many, some referred to Long Beach as “Iowa by the sea.” An Iowa picnic took place on the bluffs in 1900, and Iowa picnics soon became an annual event.
The latest in that tradition will take place Aug. 12 this year, at a relatively new Iowa transplant — the USS Iowa. The battleship is moored in San Pedro as a living museum.
But the picnic tradition still belongs to Long Beach. In the mid-20th Century, picnics took place in Bixby Park; others were in Recreation Park. The number of attendees was staggering; reports say 100,000 people gathered at Iowa picnics during the 1940s.
Howard Genrich left Algona, Iowa, and moved to Long Beach to teach science in 1954. The 92-year-old said he went to his first Iowa by the Sea Picnic in 1955 at Recreation Park. At that time, he said the park was divided into 99 areas, representing Iowa’s 99 different counties.
Upon arrival at the Iowa picnic, guests would sign the clipboard of their native county, Genrich said. Picnics served as reunions, he explained, allowing California-based Iowans to chat with one another and hear news about events back home.
“It was also a time to lie and talk about how bad the snow was when you were a kid,” he joked.
Jo Ann Kock said she was happy to trade the cold of Rockford, Iowa, for the warmth of Long Beach in 1962. She went to an Iowa by the Sea picnic with a friend shortly after her arrival, but said she didn’t stay long because the event was a really big thing and she didn’t know anyone. Now, Kock said, she loves attending the picnics and is proud of her Iowa background.
Dignitaries were often present at Iowa by the Sea picnics. In 1928, Iowa son and soon-to-be president Herbert Hoover was a picnic speaker. The former president attended another Iowa picnic in 1945.
Governors from Iowa and California often attended the gatherings: an Aug. 10, 1951 Press-Telegram article about the Recreation Park picnic featured Gov. William Beardsley of Iowa, Gov. Luther Youngdahl of Minnesota, and Gov. Earl Warren of California (who went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).
Playwright Meredith Willson grew up in Iowa and wrote “The Music Man” about his hometown. Willson showed up to lead the Long Beach band in a rendition of “76 Trombones” during the 1959 Iowa picnic.
As generations changed, the number of picnic-goers has dwindled; however, the picnic’s purpose has remained the same. Long Beach resident Kimberly West, who spent much of her childhood in Mason City, Iowa, said the gatherings are still a great way to connect with other Iowans.
“The picnics bring people together and let them share the kind of memories that only people from Iowa would understand,” West said.
West manages publicity for the picnic, which has recently moved from a park setting to a pier location by the Battleship Iowa. This year, the event will be from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 at Berth 87 in San Pedro.
Formerly a potluck, the Iowa by the Sea Picnic is now a catered lunch with pulled pork and side dishes provided by Naples Rib Company. The event offers games and sing-alongs, including Howard Genrich leading the popular “Iowa Corn Song.”
West said the planning committee has added a few elements to remind former Iowans of their rural roots. Along with regular activities, the afternoon will feature hog-calling, cowchip tossing, and a contest for the best farmer’s tan.
Registration for the Iowa picnic is at www.IowaByTheSeaPicnic.com. Tickets, which include food, beverages, and admission, are $35 for adults and $12 for youth 6-12 (those 5 and younger are admitted free).