Laguna’s history dates back hundreds of years. Native Americans became the first inhabitants of Laguna. Attracted by the plentiful supply of fish and shell fish along the rocky coast, they fished from the seaside rocks and hunted deer in the surrounding canyons. Native Americans called this area Lagona (lakes) after the two fresh water lakes in Laguna canyon.
In the 1800’s, the Spanish titled the area “Canada de las Lagunas” (canyon of the lakes). Laguna continued to be known as Lagona until 1904. Mail bound for Lagona was often being delivered to Long Beach, so by special request, the name was changed to Laguna Beach (affectionately known simply as “Laguna”).
The first European settlers came in 1870 when they were allowed to live on the land without paying. They were given 160 acres of land with the agreement that they had to plant 10 acres of trees over a 10-year period.
In the early days, Lagona was a seaside resort where visitors had to stay in tents because there were no other accommodations. The area became a popular spot for people living inland. They loved the cool ocean breeze, the warm sand and the beautiful beaches.
The area was too rocky and hilly for agriculture so Laguna was slow to gain permanent residents. The Thurston Family was the first to arrive in 1870. They settled at the mouth of Aliso Creek in a small cabin. The Thurston’s planted watermelons and food to live on. They were practically the only permanent residents for 10 years.
Later in the 1880’s, families started to build summer homes and cottages in Laguna. By 1890, the beaches were filled with people fishing, sunning and swimming. If you had a good team of horses, you could make the trek to Laguna from Santa Ana down the dirt road that wound through the canyon.
Joseph Yoch opened the Hotel Laguna in 1889 in the same location it stands today. With a hotel in town, more vacationers would now travel to Laguna taking the train to the Irvine Station than the Rockaway Stage Coach to Laguna.
Though still not large enough to be called a town, by 1900 Laguna had become a thriving enclave. There were now 10 people listed as permanent residents, a general store, a postal service, and roads to get here.
Norman St. Clair was the first artist to arrive in Laguna in 1906. St. Clair had heard of Laguna’s beauty and came to visit and to paint. Upon his return to San Francisco, St Clair was so taken by Laguna that he elaborated about his experiences of Laguna with his colleagues and friends. Through his sharing and the sale of his paintings, St. Clair was instrumental in popularizing Laguna to the art community and vacationers of San Francisco.
By 1917, 40 artists were living in Laguna and in 1918 they formed the Laguna Art Association. Once artist came to town, Laguna was no longer the quiet little community it had once been. In 1932 a group of artists displayed their paintings in a vacant lot on Forest Avenue. This became the first Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts.
Laguna Beach is as much the art community that it was in the early ’90s. Laguna is the home of three art festivals (Festival of the Arts, Sawdust Festival and the Art-A -Fair) and the Pageant of the Masters, a live re-creation of classical and contemporary works of art staged using real people.