by Lindsey Pacela
photography by Vincent Matthew Franco
Huell Howser—it’s a name that you have probably heard quite a few times in your life if you have ever watched public television. Huell was an iconic TV star that created, hosted, produced and wrote the PBS series “California’s Gold” in 1991. But he wasn’t known for show alone. In fact, Howser would go on to host, produce and write 12 main series specials and other various specials on PBS.
He would take his viewers along with him virtually on his travels. Accompanying him on his expeditions was cameraman Luis A. Fuerte—and later Cameron Tucker, after Fuerte retired. Howser didn’t just document impressive sights throughout California, he also would capture lovely personal details about the locations and the people there. He had a way of putting every interviewee at ease. And it wasn’t just the interviewees who enjoyed being a part of the specials, it was his audience, too. His love for California and its many historical sites never wavered. Here is a look at how some of the places and organizations he visited are doing now.
The nonprofit California Coastwalk Organization has made it their mission to protect the California beaches from Oregon to New Mexico—some 1150 miles—promoting sustainable tourism and economic development since 1983. Huell went on one of their trail walks in 2003.
Every few months, Coastwalk sets up a volunteer walk where participants trek through beaches to forests in the summer and fall. Typically, participants camp out and bring their own camping gear. The organization arranges and pays for all campsites, itineraries and meals. Some hikes last a few days, others more than a week.
Former executive director Richard Nichols and his wife got involved in 1983 during the first walk. They had spent their whole lives exploring beautiful landscapes. “It was very low-key, and I thought it was going to be a one-time deal,” Nichols said. Since that first walk, they have had hundreds of volunteers who kept coming back year after year. In 1994, they hosted walks in all 15 coastal counties. To become a trail lead, volunteers just had to have been on a walk before. They followed a manual prepared for them, drew on support from previous leads, and would eventually pass their knowledge on. “We had people from all backgrounds. There were physicians, policemen, teachers and even a minister,” Nichols said.
But, the organization wasn’t just about cleaning up the coast, it advocated for education about how fragile the coast is and how people need to take care of it. “If you take someone to a beautiful place, that’s going to change they way they think about taking care of it,” Nichols said. “No doubt that the Coastwalk played a part in protecting the coast.”
An estimated 70 percent of the coastline is walkable, according to Hiking the California Coastal Trail, a guidebook written by Nichols and his friend Bob Lorentzen. With so much to stand for, the organization backed state legislation that would make some trails official state protected trails, and even got CalTrans involved in adding to the walkable coastline.
During the pandemic, Coastwalk had to downsize its staff, as social distancing and safety protocols made it difficult to even host hikes. “While many non-profits failed, Coastwalk remained afloat, due to the strong member support,” said Connie White, program director of California’s Coastwalk Organization. This year, Coastwalk is celebrating 40 years of service and has started building back again. They plan on commemorating the day with a guided hike on the Kortum Trail, beginning at Goat Rock Beach in northwestern Sonoma County on August 26. To learn more about this hike and many more, visit coastwalk.org.
Plenty of quirky places can be found in Claremont, including the Claremont Packing House, which Howser visited in 2007. Today, it is run by Jerry and Ed Tessier and the Tessier family under the Arteco Partners property management company. This company goes back years, and is known for their restoration of old buildings. The founder of the company, the Tessier brothers’ dad, came back from his service as a medic in Japan during World War II, where he had seen neighborhoods and temples burned to ash. When he returned to his hometown of Pomona, he was horrified to see that buildings he had grown up around were dilapidated and about to be torn down. In Tessier’s words, he had to, “save them from the wrecking ball.”
Over the next few years, the Tessier brothers began to take over the family business. Edward had a background in urban planning, and his brother in business—it was a perfect match. They found they had a passion for the creative arts community. When they found the Claremont Packing House in 2006—previously known as the Citrus Packing House—they knew this would be a very special project well past the reconstruction stages.
The building hosts a wide variety of businesses downstairs, with lofts upstairs. Since Huell’s visit, the downstairs Claremont Forum bookstore has remained. This store has a unique mission called the Prison Library Project. A portion of their earnings are used to send books and educational material to incarcerated men and women nationwide. But other Packing House businesses, such as Hip Kitty Jazz and Fondue Parlor, have left. In its place is a warm and intimate, evening-only, watering hole known as Whisper House.
Meanwhile, upstairs spaces in the Packing House are becoming more popular. “Oftentimes,” says Jerry, “they are underdeveloped and underutilized. They’re not popular for offices or for retail. Many have been dark for decades. But the demand for artist lofts is enormous,” The lofts are fully permitted for residential use. From built-in kitchens and bedrooms to bathroom and living spaces, the lofts offer quite a lot.
The Tessier family’s passion for the Packing House remains strong today.
“We spend as much effort on social infrastructure as we do on construction, and all those relationships between the communities matter. I think we’re fortunate that the communities responded as passionately to our work as we do,” Tessier said.
In the heart of Cal Poly Pomona lies the W. K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center with 30 acres of rolling pastures and some 70 horses to graze them. It is said that, as a child, Will Keith Kellogg (yes, just like the cereal) had always wanted to own and raise Arabian Horses. He would eventually achieve that dream when the center opened in 1925. In the years since it opened, it has served the community well. During World War II, the center became a facility for breeding horses for the army. In 1945 it was given to Cal Poly Pomona, where it would become the center for their School of Agriculture.
Huell Howser paid them a visit in 1993. Since then, the program has continued to grow and change.
John Lambert, executive director of the Arabian Horse Center, said that one of the most important parts of the operation is to breed quality horses. This year, the stables are set to have around 900 students. Before the semester begins, a schedule is established for each horse to ensure that they receive the best care possible.
Right before the pandemic hit in 2019, the center created the program Horses for Heroes. While it was paused temporarily, it has now come back and is flourishing. Students there are paired with horses to learn, groom, feed and even work with them on obstacle courses.
Some of the workers get to live-in for free, with shifts beginning around 4 or 6 a.m., and finishing around 8 a.m. Cheyenne Thayer, the student activity coordinator at the Arabian Horse Center, said that many of the students have a favorite horse. “I think we all love it when that special horse runs from across the pasture to meet us. I try to let those student workers ride their favorites at the end of the semester.”
More information about the program can be found at wkkelloggarabianhorsecenter.com.
Eventually, the horses do need to retire, and at the center, every retired horse is well cared for. “They gave us their whole lives, so it’s our duty to give them the best retirement,” Lambert said.
Howser visited many places and made many friends along the way, but one who stands out is Dali Yu, owner of The Soap Kitchen, in Pasadena. Howser visited Dali and her mom, Eva, in 2007. Dali started the business nearly 20 years ago with the help of her mom, hoping to create some of the best soaps around. After their visit from Huell, they dedicated a special bar of soap to him which they call “California’s Gold,” which has become a best-seller.
“I came up with the idea because whenever I made this particular flavor, I felt like I was making bars of gold,” she said. Dali had always been a big fan of Huell’s, and emailed him with what she called, a child-like enthusiasm. The day after she sent the email she received a call from Huell, himself. It took a while, but eventually the show was able to fit The Soap Kitchen into their schedule. Dali said he was kind and made everyone feel extremely comfortable.
Everything in the store is made in-house from scratch. While some of the equipment has been changed out—like the oil tanks—the process has remained the same. Only a few flavors have been discontinued. “In order to add new ones, we feel we should cut some. Otherwise we’d be like the Baskin Robbins of soap!” Dali said. Unfortunately, since the store’s lease will soon be up, Dali has decided to move their sales entirely online by late June. Their new workshop will still be in Pasadena, but won’t have a retail-like walk-in setup. Instead, Dali plans on exploring other ventures like hands-on workshops, pop-ups and more. And, she still has new flavors to come, including her personal favorite, Goji Citralyptus, made from goji powder and essential oils of lemongrass, eucalyptus, tea tree and peppermint. Dali said she can’t wait to make the official 100-pound batch before finalizing the name.
“I truly believe that Huell is one of the reasons our little soap shop has been in business for nearly 20 years,” Dali said. “Once people try our products, they’re hooked, and his show helped us reach so many people who probably would never have known we were here.”
Howser made it a point to air their show close to the holidays because he knew it would make a huge impact on the business. Their show ended up being one of the few that continued to air, hand-picked by Howser after he retired. To this day, Dali gets customers who visit The Soap Kitchen thanks to Howser’s California’s Gold episode.
Huell Howser died January 7, 2013, but not before leaving all of his images, texts and artifacts of his adventures to Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries. His legacy continues to thrive through the wonderful people and beautiful places he visited during his travels throughout California.
The Man Behind the Camera
“I would think, I gotta get a shot of this!”
Luis “Loui” A. Fuerte was reminiscing about the years he spent working with TV personality Huell Howser.
Fuerte had been working at KCET television when Howser asked him to be his cameraman for a new show he was working on called California’s Gold. “I worked with other producers before Huell, went out and shot stories, but I didn’t always know where it was going. With Huell, you kinda knew where the story was going, you could read him very well. I would maybe shoot two to three tapes for a show, but with other producers, it would be a few hundred tapes. Huell was easy to work with.”
Fuerte said that some of the stories he worked on with Howser were very physically demanding, but, as a young guy carrying a camera, he could handle it. Most of the time, he was the whole crew, handling editing, lighting and directing. “I loved what I did, knowing all the trades I worked in. I loved telling a story and making the person look good.”
Fuerte figures he visited hundreds of locations while working with Howser and other producers. “One of my favorites was the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, in one of the towers. Not many people get to do that. And the goldmines, too. It was scary, too, since they were blasting down there.”
Although he probably is best known for his work with Howser, Fuerte has worked in several other careers previously. At one time, he thought he was going to be a classical musician, playing the French horn. Later, he became a videographer for great operas.
Born and raised in San Bernardino, he knew early on that he wanted to share people’s stories, so working with a camera just made sense. To date, Fuerte has won five Emmys and countless awards.
He said that he knew it was time to retire when, upon turning 70, the long travels away from home finally got to him. He has published an autobiography Loui, Take a Look At This!, and loves speaking at universities about working in film. “I have been very blessed,” he said.