The Life & Times of Fred Ashley – An Encinitas Legend. Encinitas Magazine October-November 2016 by Kyle Thomas (Encinitas Magazine Stories of Encinitas CA)
Encinitas Surfer Fred with his Tommy Lewis board painted by Fred, circa 1980 (left), and in 2016 at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum (right)
Fred Ashley Grew up in what was truly the “Golden Era” of Encinitas, riding horses, surfing, and beach parties, when the area was barely developed, sparsely populated and essentially cut off from the rest of the world, accessible only by a tiny two lane road called Highway 101. If you love stories of early Encinitas, at 87 years old, Fred is living history.
Growing up on Dianne Street at Neptune Avenue near the beach in Leucadia in the 1930’s and ‘’40’s, young Fred worked at his father’s Ashley’s Market in Rancho Santa Fe and spent much of his free time at his grandfather’s ranch in Leucadia, at the top of what is now Hillcrest Scenic Lane.
Fred Coutts Ranch House as Seen Today at the Top of Hillcrest Scenic Lane in Leucadia
It was a life of riding horses and hunting dove, quail, and duck in what was then the wild country of the Batiquitos Lagoon and into the hills of what is now La Costa. The big event, however, were the weekend coyote hunts conducted by grandfather Fred Coutts who raised and trained his prized hunting dogs for just this purpose. Here the Coutts Ranch typically kenneled close to 100 dogs and corralled a dozen horses.
Drawing by Fred Ashley of his Grandfather Fred Coutts in the 1940’s hunting at the Los Batiquitos Lagoon
In those days coyotes were a huge problem for the ranchers, killing their chickens whose eggs were an important commodity often accounting for 30% of a ranchers income. In regular attendance on these coyote hunts were ranchers from the surrounding areas, including the Luxes, Weigands, Dinks, Scotts and Bumanns, and Hollywood friends such as Leo Carillo and Bing Crosby, who both had nearby ranches, in Carlsbad and Rancho Santa Fe, respectively.
“The coyote hunt on the weekends was like the fox hunts in the old country,” recounts Fred. “Most all the ranchers in the area would turn out to hunt the coyotes. We’d meet at La Costa and El Camino Real. Everybody would pull in with their trucks and my grandfather would pull in with his old Model A with a box full of dogs in trailers. He’d let the dogs go down the quick, they’d get a scent, and boom… off they’d go chasing coyotes,” the ranchers in hot pursuit on horseback. “Sometimes we’d be chasing dogs all the way to the Del Dios Reservoir and clear to Del Mar and it could take two days to find them. It was quite an adventurous time”
The above photo was taken December 12, 1937.
Fred Ashley has found memories of the times he and grandpa Coutts spent with Bing Crosby, who his grandfather worked for training Bing’s race horses, building corals and exercise tracks and felling large eucalyptus trees on Bing’s Juan Asuna ranch in Rancho Santa Fe.
Fred likes to tell the story of the time his grandfather won a two-year–old racehorse in a cock-fight from Bing.
“Bing’s best horse, Liagroti sired a two-year-old that was running up in the fields and hit a chuck hole and sprained his ankle bad, and they were going to do away with it, and my grandfather said no, no!”
“He’d kid with Bing. They kibitzed a lot, and he said to Bing, ‘You’re always, talking, bragging you’ve got these fighting cocks. Well, I’ve got a couple that will kick your bird’s ass anytime! And Bing said ‘bring ‘em on over here!’ Grandpa bet two of his best pedigreed English Irish Setter bird dogs against that injured horse.”
When grandpa Coutts returned with his bird they threw the two birds into a circle with a thatched roof and Bing’s bird was killed immediately. “My Grandfather said, “Ah, I’ll be a sport about it, Bing. Throw another bird in. I’ll give you a second chance. My grandfather’s bird killed the second bird, and Bing just said, ‘Get that horse out of here!’
Fred at the time was only 10-years-old but was giving the responsibility of rehabilitating the horse. He exercised it along with the other horses along the south side of the Los Batiquitos Lagoon. Eventually, the horse’s ankle healed up and Fred began training it to race. They entered it in races at Del Mar where it won second and third place a couple of times and then the day came that the racehorse won 1st place and the horse was claimed and taken away by the new owner. “It broke my heart” Fred still laments. “Because I was a little kid and had trained it.”
Riding horses also came in handy for transportation to the La Paloma Theater. Fred and his buddy Walter Conrad would meet up at the pond now atop Leucadia Blvd, ride their horses into town, tie them up out back of the theater, go watch a double feature western and afterward ride off and play Cowboys and Indians on the way home.
San Dieguito High School and Encinitas’s First Surfers
Fred Ashley is a San Dieguito Union High School class of 1948 graduate. Here he played football as a fullback. His strong arm and ability to throw the football 80 yards earned him a sports scholarship to Colorado State University, but not liking the cold weather, Fred returned home after 1 semester to go on to play two years at Palomar Junior College as a quarterback.
In the meantime in 1947, already avid body surfers and ocean swimmers, Fred and his buddy John Largent and Angelo Rea decided they should learn to surf. Fred made his first surfboard in 11th-grade wood shop. An 11’6” hollow wood board with 4”x6 “ redwood side rails, and a plywood deck with a nose block and tail block, all put together with screws then shaped, weighing in at 130 pounds.
So, in the beginning, there were the three, and the three said, “We will surf Cardiff Reef, Swamis and Seaside,” and they were the first. Eventually, after teaching friends how to surf, there may have been 10 surfers in all of Encinitas. A crowded day at Cardiff Reef would be 4 or 5 out at the same time.
It’s no surprise of course that Fred realized lifeguarding would be the perfect job suitable for the beach rat that he was. While going to school, during the summers off, Fred Ashley guarded at Moonlight Beach along with John Elwell. Here he became a legendary part of the Moonlight Beach beach culture befriending and encouraging younger would be surfers such as Linda Benson and Rusty Miller.
In 1951 during the Korean War Fred realized that if he applied for submarine duty he would get assigned to Hawaii. During his four years stationed in Hawaii, his daily duties ended at 1:00 PM, which allowed him to surf every day at Waikiki and occasionally the North Shore with his surf buddy “Rabbit” Kekai, who worked as a civilian at the sub base and as Fred will tell you, “Was considered the father of hot dogging and one of the greatest surfers of the modern era.”
Though Fred Ashley never pursued a career in pro surfing, in 1968 Fred decided to enter the US Surfing Championships in Huntington Beach, where at age 40, he beat out 50 other surfers to win a fifth place trophy in the senior men’s division.
After the war, Fred Ashley went on to study at the Chouinard Art Institute for four years. It was here that Walt Disney was a board member and sent his young artists to be trained, and his experienced artists to teach. Fred spent time in Hollywood doing storyboarding for motion pictures and TV as well as being a staff illustrator for a San Diego advertising firm.
Fred Ashley was a familiar site to Encinitas locals of the day who would see him set up with his easel at Swamis, Cardiff Reef and up and down the coast, sketching and watercolor painting in his plein air style. Pretty much an early day version of our own Encinitas artist, Kevin Anderson, who also paints plein air around the same locations today. It isn’t surprising to hear Kevin Anderson state that artist Fred Ashley was an early inspiration in his life.
Fred Ashley at Cardiff Reef 2016
In recent years Fred Ashley has donated his original art to the SDA Foundation to be auctioned off to help raise money for student activities, for which he received a certificate of appreciation.
Kevin Anderson sums up Fred’s life quite eloquently, stating, “Fred Ashley took part in everything good about this area. He epitomizes the beauty of Encinitas and what Encinitas is about. He lived it to the best. Family history and all the best things that Encinitas had to offer, he lived it, and he’s still living it. He’s Encinitas. If I met anyone that’s Encinitas, that guy is Encinitas. Not only did Fred get to live that dream of Encinitas but he also thrived in that whole celebration, like beach parties, surf parties, he knew everybody, he painted pictures of the area. He epitomizes the best part of Encinitas. “
Today Fred Ashley is living a quiet life as an artist in the rustic backcountry of Rancho Santa Fe, surround by friends.