Local couple dedicated to sharing the story of Solana Beach’s past

By Claire Harlin

Every youngster who’s attended third grade at a Solana Beach elementary school within the past eight years likely remembers a day when they pretended they were living in the early 1900s, doing household chores with antique appliances, playing traditional games like marbles and hopscotch, and making homemade ice cream on the lawn of the oldest home in Solana Beach.

This simulation is part of an annual educational program orchestrated by the Solana Beach Civic and Historical Society in which every third grader in the last weeks of school takes a field trip to the Solana Beach Heritage Museum at 715 Valley Ave. and tours the tiny two-room building, which sat for 101 years at on Pepper Tree Lane, now called Del Mar Downs Road. Solana Beach historian Jim Nelson and his wife, Kathalyn, head up the educational program, which covers the community’s entire history, starting from when the area was inhabited by Indians.

The museum, a restored period home, is indicative of the rugged lifestyle of the early 1920s, one room representing a parlor and the other a kitchen. The Nelsons have gone far and wide to track down antiques that would have been found in the original home, once inhabited by Sen. James West Stevens.

“It’s all hands-on and the kids can touch anything they want. We don’t have any display cases, no signs that say ‘Please don’t touch,’” said Jim Nelson. “Maybe we should have signs that say ‘Please touch,’ because visitors are allowed to pick up any utensil. If they want to pump water they can, or they can open the ice box to see what it looks like.”

When the historical society made the decision to restore the home about a decade ago, Nelson shopped for antiques from San Francisco to Apalachin, New York, where he was heading for a family reunion. He stopped at numerous shops along the way and packed a station wagon with various items. The museum has more than 400 antiques in it, about 40 of which were identified in a furnishing plan that was the product of years of intense research. About $40,000 has been invested into antique acquisitions, and most of that money was raised from sales of two Solana Beach history books written by Nelson: “Early Solana Beach” and its prequel, “La Colonia & Solana Beach.”

The museum contains a sink with faucets, a refrigerator, a gas stove, a washing machine with spin dryer, wall phones, a Hoover vacuum, an electrified sewing machine, a player piano and many other antiques.

Nelson said in addition to the trip, he received a number of antique donations and he visited a store in Oceanside once a month to check for items.

“One by one we had everything we needed but we couldn’t find a cabinet radio,” said Nelson. “I distinctly remember the phone call from the man at the shop when he said, ‘Jim, we finally got it. We got your cabinet radio.’ It had to be refinished, but that completed the whole furnishing plan.”

During the third grade Living History Program, the Nelsons dress in period attire and play the roles of Senator Stevens and his wife, Susanna (“Grandma Stevens”). The kids pretend they are coming to spend a week at the 10-acre Molly Glen Ranch, once located on the south slopes of Solana Beach in the late 1800s.

The kids split up, half going to the kitchen, where “Susanna” shows them about 25 chores they would have to do if they were growing up there, from making toast on the stovetop to operating a manual washing machine.

“The kids do a lot of pumping a cranking, from one thing to the other,” said Nelson.

The rest of the kids perform chores in the parlor, such as filling kerosene lamps, vacuuming, using a stereoscope and operating a 1903 phonograph.

After the kids switch rooms, they head outside to do sack races, learn croquet and play hopscotch. When they return to the museum, time moves forward several decades to around 1930, when Edwin and Jennie Stevens lived in the house. Former Solana Beach Mayor Margaret Schlesinger often plays the role of Jennie and local parent Wally Oliver plays Edwin. A handful of other locals volunteer their time to narrate Solana Beach’s history to the students of Solana Vista, Skyline, Solana Santa Fe, Solana Highlands and Carmel Creek Elementary Schools.

“The teachers love the program,” said Nelson. “We get glowing letters from them.”

Nelson has become an unofficial history expert on Solana Beach, although he’s far from a history major. He has a background in economics and engineering, but he was inspired to delve into history when he came to the city in 1995 and decided to attend a talk by the late George Wilkins about early Solana Beach. Wilkins had owned a garden supply and hardware store in the community since 1925 and could recount detailed stories about early life in the beach community.

“He had the closest thing to a photographic memory of anyone I’ve ever met,” said Nelson, who recounted Wilkins’ stories in the two books he authored. “He could describe the stores and families and could tell stories about them. It was fascinating.”

The Solana Beach Heritage Museum is not only enjoyed by local kids. It’s open to the public on the first and third Saturdays of each month from 1 to 4 p.m.

“It’s truly Solana Beach’s best-kept secret,” said Nelson. “We will open the museum by appointment for groups of one or more. Just give us a call and we will meet you there.”

To see the museum, contact the Nelsons at (858) 259-7657. For more information, visit