Maritime Museum of San Diego
Oral Interview with
October 16, 2003
Interviewed by: Mark Allen
Interview conducted at Mr. Kettenburg's home
3225 Kellogg Sreet
San Diego, California 92106
Transcribed by: Joan M. Semler
Note that comments in brackets were added later by Tom Kettenburg
Mark Allen (MA): Paul, I just figured we could continue where we left off when we were talking before. We had been talking a little bit about your brother, George. I was curious – he seemed like he was so busy with his designing boats and such, how did he ever find time to court the woman who became his wife? Who was she and how did he date her?
Paul Kettenburg (PK): When he met her, her father was an army officer at Fort Rosecrans, an army doctor. She apparently was going to high school at the same time George was, and they met, and being out there at Fort Rosecrans they got acquainted and started to go together. Finally her father retired from the army and set up a doctor's office here in town. Her mother was in charge of the medical library in the medical-dental building which was downtown on the top floor of the medical building. Her mother kind of ran it I guess, and she took a fancy to George and thought that George would make a good husband for her daughter.
MA: Was her father quite so sure about George?
PK: Well, he kinda went along with whatever happened. He didn't argue with his wife, so she kinda kept things going, finally they married.
MA: Did George have a car when he went to high school?
PK: No, he didn't.
MA: They were at San Diego High, right? How did they get back home on Rosecrans? Trolley?
PK: The trolley went all of the way. The end of the trolley track was right there at the government gate, right at the foot of Kellogg, right where you turned off to come up here. That was the end of the trolley, so you took the trolley there to what's now down there by Von's, it ran back and forth there, and then the streetcar came over from Ocean Beach and met at that point, and went down along Rosecrans all the way downtown.
MA: It's a shame they've ripped out all the trolley lines and now they're putting them all back.
PK: That's a lack of foresight, I'd say. At that time Rosecrans wasn't even paved.
MA: Let me ask you more, 'cause I don't know anything about George's wife. What was she like as a person?
PK: She was a very pleasant person, she was not very aggresive. She never got involved in any of the business or social things. Her whole interest was in raising her two children.
MA: That would be Tom, no, your son is Tom. I was getting mixed up.
PK: George W., who is known as Bill Kettenburg now. He's really George W. the fifth. [formerly used name George W. Kettenburg III]
MA: I could see how one wouldn't want to carry that name around .......
PK: He does go by G. W. Kettenburg now in his banking and accounts and stuff like that, but he's always been known as Bill.
MA: His Mom, did she go sailing with her husband much, did she care for it?
MA: She just loved the man and not his work, huh?
PK: That's right. She never got involved in any of the social part of yachting, that I ever knew of anyway. In those days it was not nearly, it wasn't anywhere near the social goings-on as far as yachting. When you were sailing you were sailing, period. When you got through sailing you came home. It wasn't like it is now where all these yachting functions going on in connection with yachting. Not really yachting.
MA: Did it seem then like it was more just about the love of sailing? How was it different? Can you tell me more about that? It sounds like you were saying that the way the yachting scene was back in San Diego was different than it is now.
PK: Well, in those days the youngsters [like me] weren't involved nearly as much, and they got along alright. The wives were not involved in the yachting, the yacht club was almost entirely men, very seldom you saw any of the wives around. Even when I was first getting involved, when the San Diego Yacht Club was still over at Coronado, I'd have to go into the head and washroom, and all the guys were sitting around playing cards or something, and they'd always look around and say, "What are you doing in here?"
MA: Because you were a kid.
PK: Yeah. It was a gentlemen's club, really. It wasn't until along in the later ’30s and on up that the women became involved as they have been in yachting. When I was running around as a little kid, there weren't any women around the yacht club or any of the sailing operations.
MA: One thing that came up in a previous interview you did was describing the way that the yard worked in the Depression. I know you left to take a job back east about 1933, but you mentioned something in the interview about George keeping guys employed in the yard when there was no work, even putting them to archery practice. It just sounded fascinating to me. Could you describe what the yard was like during the Depression, from what you remember? The crash hit in '29 and people just stopped ordering boats, pretty much?
PK: Well, it didn't slow down until the early 30's here. In '29, '30 and '31 George was building the PCs, it was brand new and there was a lot of activity. He was building them for $1800, which is hard to believe now, but that's the way it was.
MA: How did that stack up with the price of a comparable boat back then? Was that just an incredible deal?
PK: It was pretty much comparable. The reason the people bought the PC was they liked the way they sailed and they liked everything there was about them.
MA: Was there any competition being built up in Los Angeles at that time or anywhere along the west coast to the PCs?
PK: That didn't come in until after the PCs started, then they started building the - can't think of the name – they were a boat about the same size.
MA: Where were these boats being built?
PK: They were being built in Wilmington, Wilmington Boatworks.
MA: Is that Wilmington in the L.A. area?
PK: Yes, L. A. harbor.
MA: Who was the designer of them, any idea?
PK: Gosh, that's a good question, I'm not sure.
MA: Did they get started doing the similar boats just because of the PC success?
PK: Yes, just because they were popular and George was selling PCs up in the Newport Harbor area, and some of the people up there decided that maybe they ought to have a boat to their own design, and they designed these other boats that were just about the same size, same accommodations. It was a good race between us, nobody went off and won everything. Can't think of the name of these boats, but they were around for years.
MA: Was Newport the first place outside of San Diego that Kettenburg started selling boats, or simultaneously starting in other places, 'cause I know they shipped some off to Hawaii.
PK: The people that had them, those are the boats that went to Hawaii. The Navy took them out for them. The tug took them out there and they got out there and won the races so outstandingly that the people out there decided that maybe they ought to buy them, so they bought them and the guys all came back and bought new ones back here.
MA: So there was actually no Kettenburg sales rep that went to Hawaii, there was just the word of mouth? So people were writing letters from Hawaii, or they were phone calling and saying, "Can you build us a PC?"
PK: Once these went out there, because the Navy took them out, the guys .......
MA: I still want to know how Joe Jessop or whoever talked them into taking the boats out there.
PK: Well, Joe Jessop had a lot of good connections with the Navy. He had all kinds of real good connections, and so he apparently talked them into taking four of the boats out there, and when they got out there the people in Hawaii decided they were pretty good boats, so they bought them and the guys didn't have to bring them back.
MA: There was no official sales apparatus or anything.
PK: No, nothing, it was just the owners of the boats on their own.
MA: Was the same true up in Newport, or was there somebody you had working for you up there?
PK: They didn't get really going in Newport until the end of World War II. Then we did have a fellow in Newport that was selling the boats up there.
MA: That was more in your area of business after you got back from working (in Chicago)?
MA: Now during that time when things started tapering off in terms of business for Kettenburg during the Depression, you found a job back east. Was that because there wan't enough work in the boatyard for you?
PK: Well, in the boatyard, by 10:00 in the morning we were all through with everything we had to do. During the Depression I had met some kids in high school from Chicago, and after the Depression their father went back to Chicago. [Tom Kettenburg believes Paul meant to say "after high school graduation."]
MA: I thought I would ask a little more about what it was like at the boatyard during the depression. You decided to go back to Chicago to join your girlfriend back there, and things had already dropped off to the point where you were saying that by 10:00 in the morning there was not a whole lot of work for anybody to do. That story you told before about George having you guys learn archery in the afternoons, can you tell me a little more about what the yard was like at that point, and did he keep the guys that were working for him working for him, or how did ......?
PK: Well, most of the guys that were there, I mean there wasn't anything else for them to do, whatever work there was to do they were there to do it, and those fellows that were involved in the early days, pretty much stayed with the yard right on through.
MA: How many guys did George have working for him at that point? Do you remember any of their names?
PK: Oh gosh, it wasn't over 5 or 6.
MA: They were all local guys? Were they specialized? Were they all carpenters?
PK: There were carpenters and painters, mainly, and it wasn't until later he got into the mechanical work. Of course, with the ways there they had boats come in that needed mechanical things, so they had to have mechanics. My Dad moved his machine shop, all that he had at the time here at the house, down there and they added on to it and made it into a real machine shop.
MA: Were they building some speed boats still in the early 30s and late 20s in the yard?
PK: Yeah. In the late 20s they were building – the last speedboat that they built here was in about 1928, and it had a Hisso [Hispano-Suiza engine] in it. They built various size boats. They were built as an individual project, each one. There was no production.
MA: And then the PC orders started coming in, so was it a family decision to set speedboat building aside?
PK: Whatever somebody wanted to buy. George was building PCs, and if somebody came in and wanted a powerboat, he'd build it. He'd find and hire people to work on it. He'd do the design work.
MA: Was there any kind of fad that sort of changed in there, because obviously all of the earlier boats that George was building were powerboats. Did you sense that people were getting into sailing more?
PK: What happened here originally was that he was building powerboats here in the backyard, then the yacht club came up and wanted him to build these four Sun boats. They were 22-foot sailboats. So he hired carpenters or whatever he needed to work on them here in the backyard. He built those, and then some fellow down at the yacht club decided he wanted a Star boat, so he came up and asked George to build a Star boat. So George built that boat, taking advantage of what he felt were the differences in the dimensions that you were allowed to build a legal Star boat. He felt that if he could build one he could build two.
MA: He sort of slightly modified from the conventional Star boat?
PK: It was still a Star boat within the plus or minuses you were allowed with the drawings, but it was still a legal Star boat. He built the first one and then went ahead and built the second one and nobody bought it. My Dad bought a set of sails for him and they put it in the water and he went out and decided to race it. I was his crew. So we went out there, and those 2 boats were so much better than the other boats, with the exception of Joe Jessop's. Joe Jessop was first in all the races and that other boat and us were second and third. We got sailing and got acquainted with the people who were doing the racing down there. About that time Dad had decided this is not the place to build boats, so he
bought the property down there for George and built the original building. He put in the ways, the dock, and everything there to make a boatyard out of it. [Tom notes that construction was in 1929.]
MA: And Gene Trepte actually built those things for your Dad?
PK: He built the building.
MA: Was he a family friend or just hired him?
PK: Just hired him, he was available. It was Walter Trepte, Gene's father. He started the business. I guess he was interested in boats. Anyway, he's the one that built the building there, the original tin building - wood frame and corrugated tin [galvanized iron]. George and I were sailing the Star boat so we got pretty well acquainted there. One day we were down there at the yard and Joe Jessop came in and was talking to George. He said, "You know, we're looking at bigger boats so our girlfriends or wives could be able to sail with us." He started telling George what they had in mind. They were talking about a one-design, a Swedish 30 [20?] square meter, maybe some of those boats, and George thought for San Diego he could build a better boat than that. [Tom Kettenburg notes that they were also talking about an "Atlantic Coast one-design."]
MA: Were you actually hanging around the yard that day? Were you working as a "go-for" then?
PK: I was doing whatever there was to do.
MA: Do you remember if they were just standing around chatting, or what?
PK: Yeah, George and Joe were just chatting and I was standing there, maybe I had been talking to George about something else, and Joe came by. He started telling George about the fact that the Star boats were not comfortable for what they wanted to do, so they were looking at these other boats. George, out of the blue, said "Well, you know it seems to me I could build a better boat for San Diego than those." Joe's comment was, "Well, if you want to build one why don't you build one, and we'll wait and we won't do anything until you get that built and see how it goes." They were in no big sweat, so they held off any further dealings that they had. George just out of the blue designed what became the PC.
MA: Did he sketch anything out for Joe at that time, or later on?
PK: What he did was carve out a model, an inch to the foot, with layers of wood that could come apart. He carved this model out and that was the design. When he got the model built the way he wanted it, took the layers apart, laid them out on the loft floor and made the measurements for the PC hull design.
MA: He basically shaved the wood until he got the proportions he wanted.
PK: I helped on that. He laid it all out and all I did was tack down the battens wherever he said to tack.
MA: It's a heck of a way to learn design.
PK: He got this PC built, got it in the water, my Dad bought him some sails. Dad was paying for it—George didn't have any money.
MA: Where was George living at the time?
PK: At that time he was living somewhere in the upper part of San Diego. [Mission Hills] He had rented a house up there. Then he rented a house down there on what is now Scott Street, a lot closer to the yard. That was in the ’30s.
MA: I don't know anything about what Joe Jessop was like as a person, since he was such an amazing character in the local area, was he just a huge forceful guy? Was he a little guy, big guy? What was he like?
PK: He was just a very gung-ho sailor. He was very friendly, he wasn't pushy or anything. He was interested in talking about anything he was interested in. Joe Jessop probably had a lot to do with how the interior of the PC was laid out; a couple of bunks, the cockpit setup, in the seat arrangement. I think Joe Jessop had a lot to do with that. As far as the hull and the rig, that was George's.
MA: Was Joe the kind of guy who lived and breathed sailing? Did he have other passions or pretty much this?
PK: He really was, he was the outstanding sailor in the San Diego area for quite a few years. I mean, nobody could touch him. Star boats and then he got the PCs, and then he went in to other bigger boats. Whatever Joe Jessop was sailing, boy, that was it. He was really an outstanding sailor.
MA: When George built the two Star boats, you couldn't sell either of them, right?
PK: Well, one of them sold. The second one, nobody came along and bought it.
MA: So you guys ended up sailing it and racing it. Was there a conscious decision on George's part or your part or your Dad's part that, you know, if we go out and go sailing people are going to buy our boats because it's such good advertising if you win. Was there a conscious decision, or it was just that you had a boat and we might as well race it?
PK: That was the whole thing about it. Neither George nor my Dad were promoters. They did what they liked to do and the people that were around there liked what they did. That was the whole thing because they didn't do any promoting in any way, shape or form. If somebody wanted to buy a boat they came in and ordered it. They didn't do any
advertising or any promoting. These guys came in from the yacht club to build a Star or
the Sun boat. George put the plans together and built the boats.
MA: Kind of a low-key kind of guy.
PK: Yeah, very low-key. He was not a promoter. Of course, he was very interested in boats and sailing, and as a result of the Star boat he got interested in sailing and so did I.
MA: Was that the first racing he ever did?
PK: Yeah. He had never done any racing like that. I was still just a kid. Kids in those days didn't sail like they do now. I had done a little sailing. George had built a little skiff for me so I could race one of the Portuguese down here in the skiff.
MA: How old were you when you had that skiff?
PK: I must have been about 9 or 10. I had that skiff and I beat the Portuguese kid in his boat, and somehow or other we got an idea to put a mast in it, got a sail, so I sailed it back and forth down here at the foot of Kellogg Street.
MA: Talking about sailing, and starting to race. That must have been something. Your first race and you start winning pretty much right away, like with the Star boat..
PK: We didn't win any races 'cause Joe [Jessop] was winning them all. We were maybe second or third or fourth.
MA: How big a field of other boats–10 or 12, or less than that?
PK: There must have been about 6 or 8 boats.
MA: So not a huge racing field but still enough to catch people's attention that you were starting to come in so well.
PK: Well, we got acquainted with all the guys that were sailing. Up until that time we had been doing pretty near all powerboats, so we never got acquainted with the sailboat people.
MA: A real different group, right, a whole different ball game.
PK: Yes, a whole different ball game. So once George got acquainted with the sailing group, then it became a whole different ball game, especically when he came up with the Star boat he built. The two of them were damn good boats. Everybody began to think well maybe he's got something there.
MA: Joe Jessop really kind of moved in a whole different social class from you all....a prominent jeweler’s family. Once that connection got established with Joe and you all, did you see him socially at all, did he invite you over to his house, or was there still kind of a distance?
PK: It was still the yacht club. Anything social between us was only at the yacht club. As far as I ever knew, there was never any social dealings with going to various homes and that sort of thing.
MA: I'm guessing you were pretty well off, the family, I guess, your father had done well in the utility, but was there a sense of any kind of class difference between you guys and most of the people in the yacht club, were you sort of the poor relations, or did you get treated as equals, or how do you remember it?
PK: My Dad was pretty much in with the group when the club was over in Coronado. My Dad donated a fairly good contribution to build the new club over at Coronado, the one they finally moved over here to Point Loma. That made him a life member of the San Diego Yacht Club. At that time he was able to transfer that to George, so George became a life member of the yacht club.
MA: I've never really been around yachtsmen except just in very recent years, but do you sense over time that there was any kind of shift in yachting, 'cause I've always been sort of prejudiced and thought of yachtsmen as kind of the really wealthy end of the community. Has there been a shift in your mind in how yachting was back then to how it is now. Obviously there's been a shift in more women and kids involved, but how would you describe it?
PK: Yachting in those days was strictly a group of people that were interested in doing whatever kind of yachting they were doing; sailing or powerboating or whatever it was. That's the reason they were members of the yacht club because they were interested in boating
MA: It wasn't social snobbery then?
PK: No social thing about it at all. As I remember it at that time, there were no social operations as far as the yacht club was concerned, just powerboating, racing. The San Diego Yacht Club had powerboats and that's how Dad got involved with it over there at Coronado. When they moved over here, the same thing. They had powerboat racing around what is now Shelter Island. It wasn't an island, it was a sandbar and only came out of the water at low tide. That's my first trophy there from a race around the sandbar. It had George's name on it 'cause he owned the boat, but I was the driver so ended up with the trophy.
MA: What year was that?
PK: That must have been about the middle ’20s.
MA: So you were a kid. That must have been pretty exciting.
PK: Yeah, I think I might have been 12. That race was probably '26 or '27 so I was probably about 13.
MA: Did you have some pretty envious schoolmates back then? How many other 12-year olds are racing powerboats. Were you real popular at school because of that?
PK: Well, living down here, most of my friends were kids of fishermen, so they were a fishing family, and that was pretty much the buddies I had. Their fathers were fishermen. There wasn't a lot of socializing.
MA: You didn't have a lot of girls hanging out with you because you raced the powerboat?
PK: No. Girls were the last things in our minds in those days, especically in my mind.
MA: You were more focused on boating mostly or cars?
PK: I got involved in antique cars back in the ’20s. I built the first Model T when I was in high school, and my Dad let me raise my age a year to get a driver's license so I could drive it.
MA: Can you tell me a little bit about that around-the-world cruise in 1930 that you all took a tramp steamer was it, or an ocean liner, out of San Pedro?
PK: Well, it was an ocean liner but it wasn't a cruise ship. It had about 200 passengers. The accommodations were beautifully done. It was a brand new ship. It was the Chichibu Maru. The Japs had built three of those ships and this was the third one, and it had two Burmeister-Wain diesel engines. They were double-acting diesel. They were about a 24-inch bore cylinder with a 60-inch stroke. They were big engines, about three decks from the center line of the crank shaft up to the cylinder head. It was in its first year of operation so they had a factory engineer from the engine company there teaching the crew how to run the engine.
MA: A German engineer?
PK: No. He was from one of the countries north of Germany, maybe Denmark. He spoke perfect English and he was a heck of a nice guy. His whole operation was to teach these Japs how to run these engines, and it was all done in English. I got acquainted with him about the first day out, 'cause he was riding with the first-class passengers and eating in the dining room and all that, so I got acquainted. I started asking him about the engines and he invited me to come along with him. I sat there with him while he explained to the Japs how to grind valves, how to do this and that. I got a helluva education. It took us about a month to go from L.A. to Hong Kong, with a stop in between. The ship was loaded with pig lead, gettin' ready for World War II. They loaded pig lead on in L.A. We went to San Francisco and we were there for 2 days, they loaded pig lead on up there for 2 days. When we went out of there the ship was low. So we went on over to Hawaii and then Yokohama. They spent 2 days there unloading, then we went to Kobe and they spent 2 days unloading there. When they got all of that pig lead out of there that boat was floating like a cork.
MA: You came back to San Diego about [December] 1943. I wanted to ask you about George. He died in 1952, right, of cancer? How long did he suffer from that? Was that a sudden thing or was that a slow ....?
PK: It was about a year. I've always felt it was caused by copper paint dust that he had breathed in.
MA: "Occupational hazard." During that year when he knew he was on his way out, was he still working in the yard during that year, or was he starting to go down real fast?
PK: He was mainly interested in passing the information on to those of us that were there in the yard.
MA: That would have been you, Bill, Morgan, Bill Kearns, and Charlie Underwood? When George knew he was going to die, was that about the time when you all sat down together and tried to figure out how the business was going to be run, or was that after George died?
PK: No, it was before George died. [First partnership agreement was drawn up in 1947, revised later.]
MA: Could you tell me about that, how you got together and formed the way the boatyard was going to be run.
PK: We got together and George decided to make the 5 of us partners.
MA: This would have been right about that time or earlier?
PK: Well, this was when he was getting into the problems with his cancer, so he set that up that the 5 of us were principal partners, and then there were about 3 or 4 additional people that were a step down. When he died it ended up just 5 partners who were running the whole show. "Bud" Caldwell was one that was in it. He's a member of the yacht club, has a PC down there. [Caldwell was never a partner.]
MA: Somebody I should probably talk to.
PK: He was very active in the organization.
MA: Was there anything formal, was there a sit-down meeting at some point, or was it all just kind of .......how did that transition work into 5 partners?
PK: The 5 partners and this other group, we all used to get together every once in a while when George was there, and even after he passed away we did. After George passed away I kinda became the lead partner.
MA: Was that an understanding that was established when George was still alive, that you would lead, or is that just how it naturally happened?
PK: It just naturally happened, I guess because I had been so close to George, with the name and everything. Bill, of course he was the only other Kettenburg, but he was so much younger. He was about 10 or 12 years younger than I. Still, I wasn't all that old at that time.
MA: Paul, I notice your voice is starting to get a little scratchy, so why don't we call it a day, if that's all right. Would you be willing to be interviewed again sometime?