Chuck Hanson Recalls His Family’s High Times Long Before Hi-Time Opened

The cover story from the current dead tree edition details Hi-Time Wine Cellars from its 1957 opening through today. 

Many recollections come from Chuck Hanson, the store’s longtime wine buyer and brother of Fritz Hanson, the Hi-Time co-founder.

But 85-year-old Chuck also told us an amazing story that could not fit into the Hi-Time piece. It’s the one about the long, strange trip the Hanson family took to arrive in Orange County.

His father Ed Hanson survived a cross-Atlantic journey on a Swedish lumber ship that arrived in New York in the 1890s, a World War I stint that earned him American citizenship and a bubonic plague outbreak that wiped out a third of the population.

His wife Helen and their first five children lived 13 miles from Juno, Alaska, because the state gave out free 64-acre plots to homesteaders. The patriarch made money from the fish and mink he captured.

But with moose meat becoming scarce and tropical fruit nonexistent, the matriarch decided the family should move to a colony in Cuba she had read about. They loaded camping gear, a kerosene stove, a Singer sewing machine and the kids—spaced out every two years between the ages 4 to 12—in the family Dodge truck with no windows on the side and headed south in 1936.

Chuck Hanson, who was 6 during the trip, remembers seeing San Francisco’s uncompleted Golden Gate Bridge, which would not open for another year, sweating in the scorching 110-degree heat of the San Joaquin Valley and tasting the cold, pure orange juice at stands next to groves along the route. He figures the truck averaged about 25 miles per hour and that it took two days just to get up the Grapevine, whose road was so narrow in those days it could not accommodate today’s semi-trucks.

After the fake-looking orange groves of Redlands, the sand dunes of Arizona, the unending nothingness of Texas and the overnight serenade by the snorting pigs of Louisiana, the Hanson clan eventually reached a steam ship in Florida that ferried them to an area of Cuba where Ernest Hemingway was fishing. Chuck recalls seeing through the ship’s glass bottom Cuban children diving for silver dollars tossed overboard by wealthy passengers. The divers ignored the Hansons’ pennies and nickels.

The family arrived at the supposedly thriving colony on the Island of Pines that Helen Hanson had read about to find … nothing.

There were no people but there was a shack with a roof on it. The Hansons moved in, built two outhouses, scrounged for bananas, grapefruit and piranhas for meals and relied on rain or a river for baths. Transportation was acquired to get the kids to school: horses named Jack and Jill. Chuck Hanson still smacks his lips to the “delicious” school lunch of guava paste on soda crackers.

The family soon learned Cubans did not like Americans, so after sticking it out for a year they held what Hanson believes may be the first garage sale, selling everything they could not take with them and returning to Miami, where they had kept their truck. Then came the reverse trip that made the family among the first to cross the completed Golden Gate Bridge before settling in Washington state. Briefly, it turned out, because Helen Hanson, who’d just given birth to her sixth child (and Hi-Time’s future general manager) Harold, had another destination in mind: Hawaii.

Ed Hanson took a steam ship over first to get established for a few years, at times returning to join his boys on Alaskan fishing trips. Chuck says on one excursion his father tried to keep their boat from capsizing in high winds and waves near the harbor as townspeople watched from the cliffs. When the craft made it to shore safely, the crowd cheered … but then went silent at the sight of little Chuck, his older brother Edwin (a.k.a. “Doc”) and his oldest brother Fritz disembarking. The children were grabbed, hugged and given food by the relieved strangers.

The Hanson family members on the mainland had arranged cheap steerage on a ship in San Pedro bound for Hawaii to join Ed Hanson when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We were stuck in the United States and he was stuck there,” Chuck recalls of the months afterward.

Suddenly in need of an inexpensive place to live, Helen Hanson found a 10-acre peach farm in Beaumont, which she and her six children reached by jumping off a train, landing in soft sand and walking along Elm Street for a mile towing gunny sacks containing all their possessions.

After Ed Hanson was finally able to re-join his family, he got the fishing jones and moved everyone to the Orange County coast. Helen worked in one of Newport Harbor’s two canneries counting mackerel.

Chuck, who finished grammar school in Costa Mesa and grew to become a 159-pound tackle on the Newport Harbor High football team, says that after all those years bouncing around, the family finally found a permanent home in the area of southeast Costa Mesa and the Newport Beach border.

They have been there ever since.

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