“The Birth of Atascadero:
May 18, 1960
“The Birth of Atascadero:
by Marguerite A. Travis
Edward Gardner Lewis
With thanks to Mrs. Mabelle Frandsen, Dr. Alice Reinholt, and Mrs. Grace Clemence for their assistance in editing and revising this story.
FROM DREAM TO REALITY 1913
Once upon a time, nearly fifty years ago, a young man dreamed a dream, saw a vision, did a lot of wishful thinking that one day bore fruit in action; and the dream became a reality.
Edward Gardner Lewis was born and educated in the older cities of the eastern states, and he was accustomed to the narrow, crooked streets, which seemed to follow the early paths of ancient cows, homeward bound, to sections of beautiful mansions in one part of the city and wretched slums “across the tracks,” to an atmosphere polluted with the smoke and fumes from tall factory chimneys. He was accustomed to all this, but had never liked it; and deep in his heart, cherished his vision of a community of pretty homes, each with its own green lawn and garden in a setting of tree-clad hills and fertile valleys, whose dwellers should have all the loveliness and healthfulness of the country with the conveniences and advantages of the city.
He beheld this vision with the eyes of unconquerable faith; and began to bend all his energies and all his powers of thought, of persuasion, of good salesmanship toward its ultimate realization. He brought all his eager enthusiasm and indefatigable determination to bear on the apparently insurmountable problems that arose, facing every lion in his path with dauntless courage and persistence.
It was a long, hard pull, with discouragement and opposition meeting him at every step; but he made it; and today, a tribute to the clarity of his vision and the indomitable will that drove him to its realization, we have his dream city, the community nestled in the green-bosomed hills of the far western coast, which we so proudly hail as “Atascadero the Beautiful, Queen of the King’s Highway,” the city of “Many Waters.”
How that dream came true, how that vision became reality, I can perhaps most easily tell you in the story of my own personal experience in helping to build this city beautiful, an experience which, multiplied 100 fold in the lives of hundreds of others from every part of this country and other countries of the world, laid the unique foundation of the community of Atascadero.
It was away back in 1909 when I opened the door of my Boston home one day to admit a little, old lady, who besought me to subscribe for the Woman’s National Weekly, a small, illustrated paper which seemed to contain a number of interesting articles. I gladdened her heart by giving her my name and the money for one year’s subscription. That was the beginning of my interest in Mr. Lewis’ dream city; for as time went on, I became acquainted with him and his plans and ideas through the pages of his little paper.
The Search for a Site
Mr. Lewis’ favorite idea, to which he referred most frequently, as the weeks went on, was his dream city, and before long there came an issue in which he announced his intention of starting out on a search for a site for the new community that would fulfill his vision
After traveling south, north, and west, he finally announced that in California he thought he would find the most satisfactory location, describing one or two attractive places, which he had inspected. Then, finally, came the day when he proclaimed the glad news that he had found a land of milk and honey, a great tract called the Atascadero Rancho, with 23,000 acres of rolling hills, green valleys, rippling streams (in winter) whence came the name of Atascadero: “Many Waters,” mountain canyons, and shady forests – everywhere the spreading branches of the great live oaks which dotted hills and meadows.
It seemed a veritable paradise to him, when, in his mind’s eye, he super-imposed upon its spacious acres miles and miles of winding roads, bordered with charming bungalows and taller mansions, even the most humble cottages possessing the charm of a scenic setting; and all built to suit the varied tastes of selected people from all parts of the world. He pictured also dignified public buildings, and one stately church structure, where Christian people of all sects and denominations might worship together in amity. Also he planned hospitable inns that should be a delight to the eye and provide comfort for the body, while the wide views to be surveyed from the broad verandas would serve as inspiration to the soul.
He bought the land on a “shoestring;” and then, through his paper, invited all would-be-dwellers in his paradise to send him advance payments on the land they wished to buy, to enable him to complete his payment on the tract and engage engineers to come and lay out the roads and building lots.
He worked the miracle of getting his enthusiasm over to them through the magic of printers’ ink, and the money began to pour in for him to pour out – on the making of scenic roads, the sinking of water wells in the river bed, and the installation of miles and miles of water pipe that followed the roads as fast as they were laid out, on the clearing of fields for the planting of orchards, setting out Bartlett pears, peaches of all varieties, cherries, apples, apricots, plums and prunes. All planting was to be supervised by an expert horticulturist that the trees might be well on the road to maturity when their prospective owners came to build their homes among them.
His motto was: “All the advantages of country life with city conveniences;” and he worked hard and fast to that end, thinking far ahead to solve all problems before they arose.
The Work Begun
After the tract of 23,000 acres was purchased from J.H. Henry in the spring of 1913 at an approximate cost of one million dollars, about a year and a half was devoted to most exhaustive surveys.
The large property was first surveyed for its subdivision to the greatest advantage, designing all main road arteries from the Civic Center to the most remote orchard districts so that, as far as possible, the in-hall of thousands of tons of fruit, when in bearing, would be downhill, and the light out-haul of empty trucks would be up hill.
The orchard tracts were laid out in areas of from three to ten acres, the roads carefully planned to connect all parts of the district with all others. The residential areas were carefully platted to give the greatest possible beauty and desirability to each lot, and the plan of the civic and industrial centers was developed on the ground selected for them.
These extensive and costly surveys and advance plans were carried out under the personal supervision of the most eminent experts of the Pacific coast, each a man of such outstanding reputation and experience that it was made certain, in so far as human intelligence could compass it, that the elements of chance would be eliminated in the successful development of the community.
The laying out of the orchards, the soil tests, determination of adaptability, and finally the actual planting of all orchard districts, was carried out under the personal direction of Professor E.J. Wickson, formerly dean of the department of horticulture of the University of California, a man whose textbooks on horticulture and agriculture in California are standard in the schools and colleges.
The engineering problems of roads and the water system were worked out under the personal supervision of Professor H.T. Cory, member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, formerly chief engineer of the laying out of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and widely experienced in the intricacies of such projects.
The designing of the Administration Building and Printery was entrusted to Walter D. Bliss of Bliss and Faville, well-known architects of California; and that of the great Atascadero Inn, department store and the school group to John J. Roth of Roth and Study, well-known architects of St. Louis, Missouri.
The platting of the residential subdivision was the work of L.G. Sinnard, formerly connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and a subdivision expert of high reputation.
Later the details of the bond issue authorized by the state of California for the completion of the extensive general improvements were worked out and directed by E.C. Seares, formerly a bank examiner, assisted by Attorney Louis Cohen and Judge J.M. Rothschild of San Francisco, and the law firm of Denicke and Young of San Francisco.
In 1914, when the work was well under way, Mr. Lewis announced, through his paper, that he was calling a convention, a big meeting of all those interested in his project. He was inviting them to come out and view the land, and see for themselves what its prospects were. He had prepared a veritable tent city for their housing, and there were cars on hand in which they might be taken about and shown the picture of their future home.
They came, several hundred strong; they saw; and they were conquered by the sheer beauty of what they saw -the hills and vales spread in golden sunshine beneath an azure sky. It was springtime in California, and the fields were like Persian rugs of rare coloring, made up of blue lupine, orange and yellow poppies, buttercups, pink paint brush, blue larkspur, shooting stars, yellow violets, and broad patches of snow-white meadow foam all bordered and infiltrated with green grass.
The visitors thronged the land sales office, asking prices on lots of various locations they had seen and especially admired. Many deeds were made out and triumphantly carried home to act as incentives for harder work and more careful saving until the time should come when the land owners could feel justified in disposing of their eastern property and starting out to begin life anew in beautiful, healthful Atascadero.
The Settlers Arrive
Another year rolled around, in which engineers, road makers, and tree planters had been exceedingly busy on the new project. Then, in early May of 1915, another tent city reared its white crest on the long knoll behind the ranch house which had become the Lewis residence and general headquarters for the promotion of Atascadero.
Letters were sent out to all land owners waiting for temporary housing to be ready, so that they might come in to build their new homes; and they came. From nearly every state in the Union, from Canada, England, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Island of Malta, until nearly a thousand tents were occupied by happy people, busy and enthusiastic over plans and discussions of details of the building of their houses on their own plots of land.
There was a good architect on Mr. Lewis’ staff, and many builders and contractors who had also been reading the Woman’s National Weekly, had come to get in on the ground floor of this tremendous building project. They brought their families with them, built permanent homes for themselves, and settled down to become permanent residents of the new community. There were insurance men here, too, at the start, offering protection for the new houses from the moment they were started.
It was at this tent city stage that I came into the picture. Under doctors’ orders to “go away, far away, to some place you’ve never seen, to be among people of whom you’ve never heard, where all interests will be fresh and new and have no relationship to the past,” I left New England ice and snow, and headed for sunny California, accompanied by my devoted mothers and my little year-old son. We came from Boston, one of the oldest cities in the country, to begin a new life in this prospective community, still “in the borning,” and my doctor’s prescription of “complete change” was certainly filled, to the limit.
There were all kinds of tents on that emerald hillside in early May, in a setting of golden poppies, blue, white and yellow lupine, little pink flowers that were new to me, all growing in the sunshine. And I mean sunshine – the “what is so rare as a day in June” variety, which was to continue every day for six months to come.
The tents were placed at regular intervals in long rows with streets between the lines, nearly a thousand tents in all, of various sizes according to their uses. The dwelling tents each held twin beds, kitchen table, four chairs, a screened door cabinet for food and dishes, an airtight, wood heating stove, gasoline range, and hooks on the wall for clothes hangers. Wood, cut in stove lengths, was placed on the doorsteps every morning early. The tents were all lighted with electricity.
Larger tents were used for stores, where residents could purchase their groceries and other needed articles. There was a large assembly tent, where public meetings of various sorts were held, and motion pictures shown. Another large tent housed the laundry room with set tubs and running water, hot and cold; ironing boards and flat irons, with an enclosed drying yard, open to the sunshine at the top. This tent was occupied every day by busy housewives making one another’s acquaintance cheerily as they worked together at the tubs or ironing boards.
The Church in the Canyon
The first concerted activity of the infant community was the organization of the Federated Church of Atascadero, an undenominational group open to Christian people without regard to creed or sect.
Long before the residents arrived to take possession of Tent City, details of the plan for one strong church for the community rather than several small, struggling ones of various denominations, had been appearing on the pages of the Woman’s National Weekly in letters from prospective Atascaderans.
This project was started in July 1915, by a group of tent dwellers, headed by a Congregational minister already resident there, with his family, Dr. Edward A. Berry, who became the first pastor of the new church.
The first service of the group was held in the “Stadium,” a natural amphitheater in the canyon at the foot of Pine Mountain, behind the knoll where the hospital now stands. The stadium was centered by a wide-spreading live-oak tree, around whose sturdy trunk had been built a wide platform. Chairs and a piano were placed on the platform, and electric lights were strung through the branches of the tree for use at evening services and other gatherings.
Membership in the church was open to all professing Christians who wished to join, and there was no formal creed to which they must subscribe, just the teachings of Jesus Christ as set forth in the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. The church had only one requirement, that members should accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and the Bible as their textbook of daily living.
The first service was held on Sunday, July 8, 1915. Some of the best remembered charter members were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. A.B. Cody, Mr. and Mrs. E.L. Vail, Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. A.M. Kendig, Mrs. M.A. Travis and her mother, Mrs. E.A. Willey; J.M. Appleton, Mr. and Mrs. D.L. Balderson, and the Misses Minnie and Mary Koenig, (Mrs. Harry Peterson and Mrs. Russell Pysher).
As soon as the church was on its feet and functioning, the women of the group proceeded to organize their working body, called at that time the “Guild,” and later the Women’s Council. They held monthly meetings at one another’s homes, planning various undertakings to raise funds for the expenses of the church. In later years, at the suggestion of Mrs. Edda Houchin, a series of seven Neighborhood Circles was formed, meeting separately once a month and coming together at the general Council meeting.
One of the most popular of the women’s undertakings was the sponsoring of the community Thanksgiving dinner, held in the temporary church building which Mr. Lewis had allotted them after the weather grew too cold for comfort at out-of-doors meetings. Turkeys, vegetables, and all the other ingredients of a real New England Thanksgiving dinner were brought in by the residents and cooked by the women of the church, and a “grand time was had by all.”
After the bountiful and very jolly dinner, which followed Dr. Berry’s fervent Thanksgiving invocation, with practically all the residents of the infant community seated around the long tables, an enjoyable program of music and recitations, with a few short speeches, was presented by the talented members of musical and literary circles in the colony.
The speeches were based upon the many causes for Thanksgiving, which the Atascaderans had at that time. Mr. Lewis and other speakers reviewed the progress and growth of the infant community. Appreciation of the advantages of expert direction and supervision was expressed by a number of the residents, as they announced their happiness in being a part of the great project of building Atascadero the Beautiful.
It was a memorable Thanksgiving Day, thoroughly enjoyed by all.
Social Groups Organized
The second group to be organized in Tent City was the Woman’s Club, first as a unit of the Woman’s National Republic, which had been founded by Mrs. E.G. Lewis; and later reorganized in my home as a member of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and also the national federation.
In the tent city, meantime, a busy and pleasant social life occupied the time of the women, who found the getting acquainted process a most interesting and engrossing pastime, in the absence of heavy household tasks.
The women came from so many different parts of the world and had such different habits and ways of doing things that one would hear at all meetings of club members or committees the familiar phrases: “Back east, we did it this way,” “Down south it was always like that,” and “In England it was always done in this manner.” Many unique and worthwhile ideas and plans were evolved out of the various suggestions, all differing in method but alike in objective, and the residents developed a delightful degree of tolerance for ways and means differing from their own.
They were all sold on the idea of using the spare time of tent lift in getting the various groups and more formal organizations well underway before they became immersed in the task of settling in their new homes. In addition to the church and the Woman’s Club, they organized a Boosters’ Club partly for entertainment and sociability, but mainly for the promotion of all activities for the development and up-building of the new community. In this connection, it soon became apparent that Atascadero had attracted some very fine talent in the fields of music and drama, and amateur plays and skits and most enjoyable musical programs became frequent occurrences, taking place in the big, entertainment tent.
The Woman’s Club started a number of study groups, too, which became increasingly popular. One of the outstanding personalities in the little colony was a learned professor, complete with Van Dyke beard and spectacles, from the island of Malta. This gentleman, Prof. Levanzin, had been brought to America by a scientific group in Boston, who had heard of his successful 40-day fasts and wished him to demonstrate such a feat in that city under strict observation.
At its conclusion, the professor had become interested in the Atascadero plan and had come out to California to look the ground over. It was his suggestion that we start a class in the universal language, Esperanto, which he would direct, and very popular his idea became – probably because of a great zeal for knowledge, though just possibly the professor’s funny little accent and flashing smile, with the courtly manners of southern Europe, had something to do with it.
He was a raw food fanatic, never touching anything that had been cooked; and while we common mortals dined on beefsteak and mashed potatoes, he would stroll around from tent to tent, meditatively chewing on a handful of nuts and raisins. One night later on, when we were settled in our homes, he came to our house just as we had reached the dessert course at dinner, and my mother offered him a piece of hot mince pie.
He started to refuse promptly, but as she held it out to him, he caught himself and gazed at it with great interest for a moment, finally condescending to accept the poisonous object. He ate it, too, every crumb, and later told Dr. Littlefield, across the street, that my mother made the finest French pastry he had ever eaten. Whereupon, the good doctor came over, quite perturbed, because she had never offered him any of her “wonderful French pastry.” Mother promptly assured him that she had never made any French pastry in her life and didn’t know how. The particular pastry in question was a remnant left over from a former baking and kept in the icebox until she used it for the mince pie. That was evidently the way to make French pastry.
The first programs of the Booster Club devoted to a detailed resume of the Atascadero plan and the progress made in developing it. Mr. Lewis reminded them that a long and exhaustive search and investigation of other properties in many states had assured him that the Atascadero site could not be surpassed. Since the days of Mexico’s ownership of California, the property had had but three owners and had been preserved almost intact from the original Spanish grant. J.H. Henry, from whom Mr. Lewis purchased it, had owned the tract for 30 years, using it only as a vast cattle ranch, untouched and unchanged by the hand of man.
Its climate, he said, was unsurpassable, – scarcely ever a hot night in summer, rarely cold enough for snow in winter, days soft and balmy as the South Seas, nights brisk and healthfully cold. Its splendid soil conditions were obvious in the forests of great live oaks and every species of shrub, wildflower and native verdure. Its very name, Atascadero, brought down for a hundred years from the Spanish word signifying abundant rainfall, springs, creeks and wet places, seemed to give assurance of a “promised land.” It seemed to have been preserved through the ages for just such a project as the establishing of comfortable homes, surrounded by every natural advantage, enhanced by many improvements, conveniences and comforts – the whole project based on a productiveness that would assure to the highest degree possible the successful accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln’s slogan: “the making of a comfortable living with a small piece of land.”
“The Rancho Atascadero was selected and purchased,” Mr. Lewis said, “because it possessed to the highest degree I found anywhere: marvelous climate, abundant rainfall, accessibility, (railroad and highway), best general soil types obtainable, beautiful topographer and superb sea beach easily accessible. There is no reason,” he concluded, “why we should have purchased the Atascadero property if a better one could have been found.”
Other club programs were devoted entirely to entertainment. I remember one most amusing blackface minstrel show, in which a number of us were taking part vociferously in songs, cakewalks, jigs and funny stories, when we were suddenly interrupted by the entrance of a huge (thanks to pillow stuffing) negro mammy, marching determinedly down the aisle, overflowing laundry basket on her head, calling loudly: “You Ferdilizer Jane, you come right this minute down off that stage and right straight home. Yo’ pappy am waiting fo’ you with a switch. It’s way past yo’ bed time. Come right along now, or I’ll be up there after you.” And our very best performer (now Mrs. Harry Peterson), came sweeping down the steps and out the door, clinging to her mammy’s amble skirts. You would never dream now that Mrs. D.L. Balderson could ever have looked so ample and voluminous in figure as well as skirts.
And as for speeches, orations and address – Mrs. Travis herself one night made a speech (most unusual occurrence), which was an impassioned plea to Mr. Lewis to stop his advertising for old people to come out and “add ten years to their lives” and for widows and orphans to come out and find life made easy for them. “Direct your advertising,” she begged, “to stalwart bachelors and well to do widowers, urging them to come out and take their pick of beautiful and capable widows and bachelor girls, (somewhat elderly), who would make them wonderful wives. Make your slogan “Atascadero, fair garden of prospective wives,’” she concluded. But the plea wasn’t impassioned enough, evidently, for the widow Travis is still the widow Travis and that was many long years ago.
All through the summer and fall, Carpenters were busy all over the wide area of the “Atascadero Estates,” building more permanent homes for those waiting patiently in the tents until the houses should be ready for occupancy.Many did not wait for that, however, but built their garages or chicken houses first, fitting them up for light housekeeping and moving in, finding there more protection from the hot sun of July and August than the cloth walls of the tents gave them.
Gardens were started, too, for all were eager to watch the rapid growth of vegetables and berries, of which they had heard in sunny California. Some, who thought all one had to do was to spade up a little ground, drop in a few seeds, water when they thought of it, and sit back and watch the garden grow, were disappointed. But those with some gardening experience, or those without it who took the trouble to ask questions of the experts provided and to read books and pamphlets and California farm papers which dealt with California gardening, were delighted with the colorful and sizable red and yellow tomatoes, green peas, beans and lettuce, scarlet radishes, golden yellow, bantam corn and other vegetables with which to enrich the diet of their families.
By the last of the year 1915 and the early weeks of 1916, a number of pleasant homes had been completed by the flock of carpenters and builders in the colony. The two largest public buildings, the Administration offices and the Press building, were nearly finished.
On the great, domed, Administration building constructed by the F.O. Engstrum Company of Los Angeles, four inscriptions were placed, one over each door high up on the structure. They read as follows:
1. (facing the highway) “The most valuable of all arts will be that of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.”
2. (facing creek). “For lasting happiness, we turn our eyes to one alone, and she surrounds you now, Mother Nature.”
3. (facing Press building). “Let us keep our faces to the sunshine, and we will not see the shadows.”
4. (facing west). “Great Nature, refuge of the weary heart and only balm of breasts that have been bruised.”
This great four-story building, which became a landmark up and down the coast highway, was to house all the offices of the Colony Holding Corporation, formed to take care of the business of promoting the Atascadero enterprise, land sales offices, the Atascadero bank, (organized later), the editorial offices of the Atascadero News, and at one time, the local branch of the county library. Its big dome room on the fourth floor was used later for social gatherings, lodge meetings, and the movie classes conducted later by a small motion picture company, seeking talent in this cosmopolitan community.
Little old Mrs. Nellie Miller, with her white curls around her smiling face, proved one of their most promising pupils, and later played an important part in the motion picture filmed in Atascadero. The B.H. Smith place now owned by D.H. Renton in Paradise Valley, appeared in one scene as an old people’s home.
The other large building was the two-story brick Printery, facing the highway but farther back toward the railroad than the larger structure. Its first floor was entirely occupied by the mechanical department, its big presses, linotypes, cabinets, paper cutter, tables and other equipment set on cement floors, with fire-proof doors all through the building.
The second floor was occupied by offices for the News and other publications to be printed there, together with the rooms devoted to the circulation department.
Running to the door of the big bindery and stock room in the north wing was standard gauge side-track from the Atascadero spur of the S.P. railroad, so that the thousands of pounds of paper to be used in the days to come, could be unloaded there from the car floor directly into the big building, as was the mechanical equipment as it arrived.
Later on, the walls of the entrance hall and giant staircase were beautifully decorated with elaborate murals, painted from local scenery by Ralph Holmes, noted artist of Chicago who came to make his home in Atascadero.
This building became, almost overnight, a hive of activity with a large force of employees. One issue of the News alone in early 1916 required 3600 pounds of paper, it was reported, and 35 pounds of ink.
Among the other buildings completed at this time were the homes of the E.L. Vails, (first one to be occupied), Dr. James Littlefield, David Barry, Frank Cole, Mrs. M.A. Travis, Rev. J.P. Erwin, Mrs. Emma Phillips, William Jones, Mrs. Mary Andrews, R.P. O’Connor, Miss Bessie Amsbury, Dr. C.A. Love and Mrs. Edith Clarke.
Atascadero made the front pages of Southern California newspapers early in June of 1916, when the Southern California Editorial Association accepted Mr. Lewis’ invitation to hold their annual convention and outing in the infant community of which they had heard various and varied rumors and reports, but about which they really knew very little. Judging by the long and enthusiastic stories, which filled their respective newspapers the following week, that state of ignorance was completely transformed during their stay in the colony.
The special train which brought the party of over 100 editors and wives or husbands from the south arrived at the old “Henry” station at eight o’clock Saturday evening, June 4, and was met by a small army of cars whose headlights dazzled the “city slickers” as they stepped off the train. As fast as the automobiles could be loaded, they whirled away to the Tent City awaiting them on the hill, lighted with electricity and a huge bonfire.
As soon as they had had time to stretch and take a long breath, each guest was taken to the stadium in the canyon, whose wide platform under the giant oak was the scene of a gay dance, in which the guests delightedly joined.
On Sunday morning, they were all taken to the stadium again to attend the morning services of the Federated Church of Atascadero, whose unique composition and constitution were explained to them by the pastor, Dr. E.A. Berry. The afternoon was devoted to rest and walks and auto rides over the 30 miles of good roads already completed. In the latter part of the afternoon, they were again taken to the stadium to listen to an address by E.G. Lewis, who told them in detail the story of his dream city, its origin and development, and his plans for its growth, purpose and scope.
On Monday morning, the convention sessions opened and the necessary business was conducted, followed by more rides and walks about the Estates. On Tuesday morning, early, the party started out in the Atascadero automobiles for the coast and spent the day at Morro Beach, enjoying the big clambake at noon, and a day of beach sports.
Wednesday, the convention sessions were resumed, while the ladies of the party were entertained at teas and programs given by Atascadero hostesses. The convention program closed with a farewell party at the stadium, beginning with a home talent musical program, with Mrs. Anna Van Brakle and Mrs. Helen Elwell as pianists. There was an address by Mr. Lewis with response by President Palmer of the Association, and the presentation to Mr. Lewis by the ladies of the party of a pair of cuff links.
An outstanding feature of the visit was the “extra” edition of the News, composed entirely by the visiting editors, with pen and ink as well as photographic illustrations of the good times they had enjoyed. There were cartoons by Virginia Murphy of the Long Beach Telegram, as well as a number of comments by the various editors, including the following: “I have seen Atascadero from Pine Mountain. If you would have the inspiration of great distances, of beautiful vistas of oak-clad hill and smiling valley, go there. You will see the happy place in which Mr. Lewis and his people have chose to ‘cast their lines.’ The Grand Canyon and Yosemite have their Inspiration Points; Atascadero has its Pine Mountain.” (J.F. Craemer, Orange Daily News.)
“My main impressions of Atascadero: Heavenly hosts, willing waiters, Charming Chauffers, captivating cars, salubrious scenery, royal roads, and artistic architecture.” (Virginia Murphy, Long Beach Telegram.)
Flower Seed Industry
One of the first industries Mr. Lewis had planned for Atascadero, judging its importance and chances of success y the experiences of other sections of the State, was the raising of flower seeds. So, in laying out the lots and streets of the new community, he had set aside the rich and fertile valley section on the west side of the highway, bordered on the west and north by Atascadero Creek, for the flower seed project.
The building lots in this area were each about an acre or more in size, to allow room for large flower gardens, and they were advertised as especially suitable for retired professional people, widows with small incomes, and others who were looking for light work they could do at home to augment their incomes.
I, myself, was one of the many attracted by that proposition. As a widow with a small income, and my mother and my baby son to look out for, I thought growing flowers for seed and reaping a harvest of gold dollars (all they used in California then), would be just the right solution to my problem. To be sure, I didn’t know anything about raising flowers. I had never grown so much as a geranium in a tin can, but what of that? In common with Mr. Lewis and his business advisers, I cherished the idea that anyone fairly healthy with good sense and a little muscle and backbone could grow a garden.
Well, maybe that was true. Maybe I just didn’t have good sense – or something. Because I had a garden, all right, and I raised flowers that were beautiful. But I didn’t harvest any gold dollars – or any other kind of dollars, from it. I certainly worked hard enough. Beautifully dressed ladies in summer silks and white gloves and shoes, who came to call upon me, sent by real estate men who told them I was a pioneer resident and could tell them all they wanted to know about Atascadero as a place in which to make their homes, were shocked to pieces as they picked their way daintily up the graveled walk to the house, to have a grimy-faced creature in coveralls not too clean, with a hoe over her shoulder, come running out of the garden to greet them, big hat falling down on her shoulders and weed-stained hand extended to shake their white gloves.
Yes, I worked hard and long. I had my ground properly ploughed and harrowed and watered. I put in vegetables as well as flowers, and I took the freely proffered advice of every passerby who stopped to tell me how wrong I was in planting something that way. If I was planting corn in rows, it ought to be in hills, and vice versa. My beans, an expert gardener told me, should have been soaked in water overnight and then placed carefully in a hole in the ground for another day, then taken out and planted, and they’d “grow like crazy.”
So I duly soaked my beans, dug a hole and buried them and put a stick to mark the spot. But alas! The next day, when I came out to exhume the buried treasure, the marked spot had disappeared. Or rather, the stick that marked it had. I dug furiously and long, all over the place. I could have got them all planted in the time it took me. No hole, no buried beans anywhere at all were to be found.
So, sadder and wiser, resolved to take no one’s advice after that, I bought more beans and just plain planted them in regular rows; and they grew and grew and brought forth a bounteous harvest. And a little while after they were planted, off in a remote corner by itself, sprang up a perfect forest of bean shoots, a bright, emerald isle, in an ocean of brown soil and weeds. It sprang up and flourished briefly, only to die down unfruitfully, choked by the close proximity of their kin.
The first summer of the flower seed plantations … in 1916 the whole flower seed valley, including the lots along Santa Ynez, Atascadero, Navajoa, San Andres and Curbaril avenues and Morro Road, was ablaze of color in sweet peas of every hue and shade. The seeds were planted in solid blocks of all white, all pink, all purple, all red, and so on, with rows of phlox or other flowers between to prevent cross-pollination.
A flower seed company was formed, which placed expert flower growers, the Routzahn brothers of Arroyo Grande in charge of all planting. Residents were all encouraged to attend their lectures and to call upon them for instruction when they had prepared their ground for planting. A heavy advertising campaign was started through the Atascadero News and by mail all over the country, and colorful seed envelopes were prepared at the Printery in which to send out the seed by mail.
The next summer, the valley was planted to big, double poppies which were even more colorful and presented a gorgeous sight stretching away for scores of acres. For sheer beauty and color, the flower seed plantings were a great success but as a commercial project, the story was not so good.
The Routzahn brothers were accustomed to growing flowers at sea level, with much fog and moisture in the air, making irrigation unnecessary. But in high and dry Atascadero, while the plants held out valiantly, with frequent cultivation, through the blooming season, they could not bring their seed to full maturity without water. This meant an extensive system of irrigation, which cut into the profits of the industry, making the company unable to complete successfully with the companies operating on the coast, using Japanese labor, and no irrigation.
The residents profited greatly, however, in learning to grow flowers in their own gardens for the beautifying of their homes, through the lectures and other instruction given by the experts employed. The lectures were given by several experienced gardeners in the community, sponsored by the public school system, which was giving lecture courses for adults in the evening.
There were also lectures on poultry growing, fur rabbit raising, fruit growing and general gardening. Mr. Corbaley, the gardener in charge of Mr. Lewis’ demonstration garden, was one of the first gardeners to speak, and M. K. DuMoulin was the first poultry man to share the results of his long experience. Axel Johnson, the first school superintendent in Atascadero, planned the lectures and other evening courses and secured the lecturers and teachers.
Harry Clarke was the musical director, planning many fine musical programs for the evenings, with such singers as Lillian Love, Lillian Vail, Mrs. Pearl Hull, Mrs. Harry Clarke, Hazel Kendig, Mrs. E. Wright Davis, Mrs. M.L. Gunn, Isabel von Brakle, Banks Kennison, J.H. Armstrong, Roy Wonderly, C.A. Love, Jr., Harry Peterson, with Mrs. Helen Lamson Elwell and Mrs. Anna von Brakle as pianists. In addition to evening concerts at the schoolhouse, these local musicians also presented most enjoyable programs at vesper services at the Federated Church on Sunday afternoons.
Another educational feature inaugurated by Superintendent Johnson consisted of long hikes and wild flower hunts along the creeks and up into the hills. One small girl brought in a bouquet containing 56 different varieties of native wild flowers she had found on one trip. The older boys, with one of the men teachers, took the longest hikes, once going up to the top of Frog Pond mountain, where there was no frog pond, but there was a magnificent view of the ocean on one side and the little hamlet that was Atascadero in the opposite direction.
Among the most interesting of the people who built the first homes in Atascadero was Miss Marian Devereaux of Salem, Massachusetts, whose colonial home was on the North highway near Del Rio road. She was a second cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne and also related to Daniel Webster’s family, and she had brought with her, with other antique furniture, a handsomely carved chair, which had belonged to Mr. Webster.
In April 1916, the school pupils of high school grades, escorted by their teacher, Mr. Harnely, walked out the highway to the Devereaux home to view these heirlooms from New England. Miss Devereaux showed them first a curiously carved bedstead, brought from England by William Hawthorne in 1628. The bed was solid mahogany, the posts surmounted by huge mahogany acorns as big as pineapples. In the same room there was also a dresser made of solid mahogany, with the original brass fixtures. Both relics had been saved from the great fire which once swept Salem.
A very old desk with secret drawers and many other interesting old pieces were shown the boys and girls by their hostess, who told their stories as she displayed them, making the visit a really educational event for the students.
It was also in 1916, a couple of months later, that the beautiful Carrarra marble group, “The Three Bathing Girls,” was unveiled and mounted in the parkway across the highway from the Administration building. This piece of statuary, one of the nation’s art treasures, made from one solid block of white Carrarra marble, had been the chief exhibit of the Italian government at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1903. It weighed 2400 pounds and was awarded grand prize at the Exposition.
The Italian government had paid $27,000 to the sculptor who created it, and the group was considered one of the finest works of art in this country when it was exhibited in St. Louis. So valuable was this marble group considered, that when it came into Mr. Lewis’ possession and was shipped to Atascadero as a gift for its Civic Center, the railroad, although the group was insured, charged one thousand dollars for transporting it from St. Louis to Atascadero. A photograph of this marble group appeared in the June 17 issue of the Atascadero News of 1916, side by side with a picture of the waterfall at Devil’s Gap, with the caption below them reading “Masterpiece of art and a masterpiece of nature.”
It was in 1916 that the tradition of Fourth of July at Atascadero Lake was started, with a big community picnic with basket lunches and swimming, boating and land sports for entertainment.
And in the same month, the Atascadero Federated Church held its first anniversary celebration on the Stadium platform where it was first organized. The program opened with instrumental and choir music, and the pastor, Dr. E.A. Berry, gave an inspiring talk on the great opportunity of the church in Atascadero, based on the text: “Behold, I have set before thee an open door.”
“It was an impressive and memorable service under the old live oak,” the News of that week reported,” and will go down in Atascadero history as one of the important milestones in our progress toward our ideal city of dreams.”
Never before, it was pointed out, had so many worshipers gathered together under a single tree, amid such beautiful and inspiring surroundings. Although the service was held at midday on the hottest day of the year, no one seemed uncomfortable in the shade of the mighty oak.
Late in 1915, it became evident that the money coming in at that time from the sale of property in Atascadero was not going to be sufficient or come in fast enough to pay for the building of all the roads needed, the laying of long enough water pipe lines, the construction of the public buildings needed and so on. It was decided, therefore, to have the Colony Holding Corporation, which had been formed to act as legal owner of the Estates put out a bond issue to raise the necessary funds.
After five months of preparation, a $1,750,000 deed of trust, covering the entire real and personal property owned by the Colony Holding Corporation, and securing the bond issue, was filed of record May 19, 1916 at the county seat, San Luis Obispo. The formal permit for the bond issue, dated April 26, was received from the Commissioner of Corporations at that time. The certificate of creation of the original bonded indebtedness was filed with the Secretary of State during the same week, and the Trust agreement providing for the supervision of the expenditure of the bond moneys signed by all parties was filed with the trustee, the Anglo-California Trust Company.
This bond issue called for a 6% first mortgage, 15-year convertible gold bonds of the Colony Holding Corporation; and a large amount of the bonds were subscribed at once, enabling the Holding Corporation to go on with their task of building a new community. Up to date, they had completed 60 miles of roads in the Estates, laid 21 miles of permanent water mains, with modern pumping stations and deep wells in the Salinas River bed, partially constructed two of the big Civic Center buildings, cleared, cultivated and planted 3000 acres of orchards already being sold to the prospective orchardists; – and there was much more yet to be done.
Two more large buildings of the Civic Center were started in the late summer and fall of 1916. The one structure was to be used as a mercantile building, carrying out Mr. Lewis’ idea of many stores under one roof, or a complete department store, including hardware, groceries and meat market; shoe store, drug store, men’s furnishings, dry goods, dress shop, and notions; with Atascadero Inn on the upper floor; and constructed by the F.O. Engstrum Company of Los Angeles.
The other structure, the first unit of the school, erected at this time, consisted of four classrooms, a principal’s office, a teacher’s room, and two lavatories.
The exterior walls were of ruffled-faced brick and the roof was covered with Imperial Spanish red tile. The building was so planned that all rooms opened directly outdoors, and in such fashion that more rooms could be added later – as they were – to make a hollow square with open patio in the center.
Previous to this time, the children had attended school in a temporary building of galvanized iron formerly used as mess hall for the workmen on the Estates. Church services, Booster Club meetings and other gatherings of various sorts were held in the same large room until better quarters were provided. The high school pupils were taught in the same building with the lower grades at first, until the rooms overflowed, and then they were moved to an upper floor of the Administration building until their own fine building on the hill was completed a few years later.
The latter part of 1916 in Atascadero was marked also by the institution of the Atascadero Chapter of Eastern Star, an event which was unique in that it preceded the institution of the local Masonic lodge which usually comes first. It was unique also in the unusually large number of state officers who assisted in the ceremonies of organization.
In September of 1916, when a large number of homes had been constructed and interest was centered on the landscaping of ground and parks, Leonard Coates of the Morgan Hill Nurseries was invited to come to Atascadero and give a lecture to the people on the trees, shrubs and other plantings best suited to the climate of this area.
Speaking first of shade trees for broad avenues, he recommended elms, plane trees (European Sycamores), black walnuts and black locusts. For narrower streets, he suggested silver or scarlet maple, locust, western catalpa, mountain ash, silver poplar, laburnum and tulip poplar. Evergreen avenue trees mentioned were acacia, California pepper, coast redwood, Monterey pine and Arizona cypress.
Speaking of shrubs, Mr. Coates said that for dark green effect in massing, nothing was better than English laurel with large, glossy, green leaves, five feet in height and diameter; Portugal laurel, Escallonia with crimson or white flowers, Eleagnus with purple fruits and Enonymus Japonica.
A grouping of brighter foliaged shrubs may be obtained, he said, from camphor, several Berberia, Coronilla with yellow, pea-shaped flowers, Toyon berries, Cretaegus, Crenulata with bright scarlet berries, Abelia, Polygala, Crimson Jasmine primulinium, with large yellow flowers, privet, bottle brush and Veronicas. A striking group of taller shrubs could be made from Pittosporums and evergreen cherry.
Deciduous shrubs which do well in this vicinity, the speaker said, were the Spireas, Deutzias, Weigelas, Syringa, Forsythia, Kerria and Althea. These require more root moisture than the evergreens, and should be well pruned after flowering.
The residents also found great pleasure in planning and planting their kitchen gardens, setting out large plots of strawberries, red raspberries, various sorts of blackberries and loganberries.
At this time also, Atascadero made her bow to the state in her very creditable exhibits at the upper Salinas Valley fair held in Paso Robles. All sorts of garden flowers, fruits and vegetables were on view, comparing most favorably with the exhibits of more experienced gardeners; and there were also fine collections of handwork, antiques and hobbies. The Printery, too, had a fine display of its work in the newspaper, magazine and job printing. Mention of the Atascadero exhibits was made in all the leading newspapers of California.
Many prizes and blue ribbons were awarded Atascadero exhibits, and not all for garden projects. Miss Helen Schreiber took first prize with her display of Blue Andalusians, which she had hatched from a setting of eggs from the flock of Mrs. D.L. Balderson.
Other prizes went to Dr. James Littlefield for his cauliflower of giant size, to Charles S. Cornelius for his brown Leghorns; to Miss Carrie Williams for her hand-painted china and pen and ink sketches; to Mrs. Isa Cross for ribbon and velvet flowers; Mrs. Frank Cole on tatting and other fancywork; Miss Mary Koenig for wood turning, hammered brass and tile work; Miss Burnsie Balderson and Mrs. Anna von Brakle for embroidered centerpieces; Mrs. Charles Cornelius for oil painting and watercolors, and several others for clever handwork.
It was in 1916, also, that the first need of a local hospital was felt, and the first steps taken toward that end. Arrangements were made whereby every employee of the Atascadero Holding Corporation, the Printery staff and every other industry in the community was asked to contribute a small sum monthly to the Atascadero Mutual Hospital fund.
The Holding Corporation donated a site and several temporary buildings for the first unit of the institution, which at first was to be equipped for emergency treatment in accidents and sudden illnesses only. The contributors to the fund were to elect a board of hospital trustees to attend to the hiring of a trained nurse to be on call under the direction of the local physician, Dr. Thurber, and to take care of all other details, advised by the doctor.
This was the first hospital service Atascadero had, and was the first step, which led later to the erection of the present structure called the Wm. H. Lewis Memorial Hospital, which now houses the Atascadero branch of the San Luis county general hospital.
It was in 1916, too, that the new Morro road was built, providing the first direct route from Atascadero to the sea. Prior to that time it had been necessary to drive way around by San Luis Obispo and out to the coast from there. The beautiful, scenic road was first thrown open to the public on September 30 of that year, for just a day or two, and then closed for further development. In later years, the route was changed and the grade made much easier.
This gave Atascaderans ready access, in a half hour’s drive, to one of the finest sandy beaches in the United States. It had also the virtue of belonging almost entirely to them, as the people of the southern part of the county preferred the more accessible Pismo Beach, directly on the highway, and those north of Atascadero had roads from Templeton and Paso Robles which led to Cayucos and other points north of Atascadero’s beach.
Many built summer cottages over there or took tents and camped out. It was even a common occurrence for parties to take hampers of food with them and go over and spend several days on the sands, rolling up in blankets in the soft sand dunes at night. At least, the sand seemed soft at first, but as the nights wore on, it grew harder and harder, which made for early rising and long days of beach sports. One camp house was put up for use of the younger generations, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were taken over in separate groups with their adult leaders, to spend weeks at a time in the bracing salt air. That part of the beach was named Atascadero Beach and became a permanent asset for the community.
The beach became a favorite goal for local boys with roaming feet, and parents whose sons failed to show up at suppertime always started out Morro road to look for them – and usually found them, wearily limping home, and very glad to be picked up. It was the favorite horseback trail, too, for those who had ponies to ride. But they didn’t often take their horses way through to the shore just to some of the many lovely campsites among the trees along the mountain road.
There were many beautiful places for picnics, too, along the road, one in a clearing where a sparkling spring swelled up, supplying plenty of water. Sometimes, there was plenty of poison oak, too, and disastrous were the consequences. But that was only sometimes, and people learned to keep their eyes open for that noxious plant when they were hunting picnic sites. Some happy people, too, made the wonderful discovery that they were immune to poison oak and could stay near it with impunity.
Mutual Water Company
One of the greatest attractions of Atascadero, especially to western people familiar with life in California, was the presence of plenty of water, for water is king in this great state. The community, like the rancho which preceded it, was named for its many waters, since the word “Atascadero,” means the place of water, the wet place, and Atascadero has many springs and creeks besides the Salinas River.
One of the first enterprises included in Mr. Lewis’ plans for the opening of the colony was the sinking of deep wells in the river bed, the installation of pumping plant and the laying of water mains up to the reservoir and the water tanks on Pine Mountain and then out over the Estates wherever roads were made. The first expense of this was borne by the Holding Corporation, which handled the financing of the promotion and building of Atascadero.
Later, as people began buying their lots and acreage and moving in, a Mutual Water Company, a non-profit organization, was formed, and the company’s stock was given to every purchaser of land, five shares going with every acre. This water company was not a public service company chartered for profit, but a mutual corporation for the service of the owners.
The bills sent to each resident, it was stated, were not for the water itself, but to cover the cost of maintenance of the pumping plant, mains, etc., pro-rated among the users and based on the amount of water used by each one – the amount of service rendered them by the water company.
This would have made for cheap water in the community if the service had been limited to a small, central area. But Mr. Lewis’ idea of city advantages with country beauty, made it necessary to lay the mains out through the thinly settled districts where there would be only one or two homes to a mile or two of water pipe. Much of the cost of maintenance and repair of those outlying mains had to be met by those who derived no benefit from them, and accounted for the bills being higher than had been expected.
The many long and winding roads that wound through the hills and valleys of Atascadero and out into the mountains were traveled by a great many good walkers and hikers in those early days before automobiles became as prevalent as they were later, and many walking records were made and broken. One of the best of them was reported of R.E. Fortney, here from Williams, Arizona, to look over his property in the community.
After walking four or five miles about the “close-in” part of the Estates, he started at 11 in the morning to walk to Morro Bay and back, over the new route. He reached the beach at four in the afternoon, enjoyed an invigorating splash in the ocean and a rest on the sand until five. Then he started back to Atascadero, arriving home at 10:45 in the evening, “just healthfully tired.”
He was especially pleased with the fine vegetable gardens and charming beds of flowers and shrubs, which he passed on his two-cylindered travels. Mrs. Lewis’ demonstration garden, for instance, had sweet corn 16 feet high, with the gardener standing on a stepladder picking the big ears. On Atascadero Avenue, he saw Dr. J.E. Littlefield holding up for inspection two giant cabbages like those with which he had taken first prize at the Upper Salinas Valley Fair a little while before.
An attractive arrangement of hardy shrubs in another yard consisted of a purple-leaved plum in the center of a circular bed, surrounded by four English Laurel, then by eight Golden Privet plants, and around them, 16 purple Berberias.
Politics and Parties
In November of 1916 came the first presidential election to be held in Atascadero, which contributed 280 votes to Wilson’s election for a second term. Hiram Johnson was sent to the U.S. Senate from California and Rigdon of Cambria was made state senator.
On Sunday evening of election week, Dr. Berry gave up his pulpit in the Federated Church to four laymen for a discussion of Christian Citizenship. The speakers were E.L. Vail, L.D. Beckwith, A.E. Johnson (school principal), and Charles S. Cornelius.
Mr. Beckwith also gave a talk a little later on the water supply of Atascadero, pointing out the remarkable feature of both the Salinas River and Atascadero Creek, in that they were “upside down” streams, having a constant supply of water underneath the surface when perfectly dry on top. Like the beds in some parts of Europe, which have the people underneath and feather beds on top, so the Salinas River has its water underneath and a sandy bed on top. The water supply was obtained for Atascadero by drilling wells beneath the river’s bed.
The watershed, which the river drains, he said, reaches for miles on either side, and all through the hills are little springs such as the one in Paradise Valley and those along Morro Road. The hills are like great sponges, holding quantities of water, which finds its way down into the river.
The wells sunk in the riverbed by the engineers were cased up and coupled together. During that process a heavy rain came, and the water down below rose to the top, completely engulfing the well drilling equipment and covering the wide river bed to a depth of six feet, showing the large amount of water carried by the river.
The water drawn from these wells by huge, rotary pumps driven by electric and gas engines was forced through a large feed pipe from the pump house to tanks on Pine Mountain 300 feet above the pump house.
The first appearance of ghosts in the new community of Atascadero was in October of 1916, when the Woman’s Club celebrated Halloween by entertaining their husbands at a ghostly party in Domestic Hall, one of the temporary buildings used for club meetings and the smaller assemblies. The long room was appropriately decorated with pumpkin-figured paper, broomstick-riding witches and black cats, while the lights were dimmed with red and yellow shades over the electric light bulbs.
The first ghosts seen were at the door to greet all arrivals, holding out cold and clammy hands to be shaken. As the guests entered the hall, ghosts handed each one a numbered slip inscribed with jingles adapted from Mother Goose to fit the occasion. Supper partners were found by matching numbers.
Sides were chosen, with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lindsay as leaders, and a Mother Goose contest was enjoyed, showing up a surprising amount of ignorance or loss of memory on the part of those present. Music was furnished by the community band, which was practicing in the adjoining building.
After a number of hilarious games and Halloween stunts, a long line of ghosts appeared, each carrying a pumpkin pie held high, and went gliding through the hall to the supper room, followed by the laughing, shouting guests. Tables were arranged in a hollow square and decorated with pumpkin colored streamers and runners, with black cats and witches scattered about the cloth. The pumpkin pies were placed on the tale by the ghostly hostesses, and with the doughnuts and coffee, which accompanied them, rapidly disappeared. The ghosts then speeded their departing guests with more clammy handshakes, which sent them off clapping their hands together for warmth.
Giant Oaks of Atascadero
The distinguishing feature of the local scenery, which first attracted Mr. Lewis in considering the Rancho Atascadero as a site for his dream city, was the number and size of the magnificent live oaks which dotted the hills and plains of the entire area. The neighboring city of Paso Robles had been named “Pass of the Oaks” in recognition of the great trees which spread their welcome shade in so many parts of the northern part of the county.
An outstanding example of such trees was the famous “Wonder Tree” on Portola Road, under which E.L. Vail, pioneer real estate man in the community, garaged his car while building his first Atascadero home in its shade. The tree was (and still is) 19 feet in circumference at the ground, and between 95 and 100 feet from the outer edge of its green canopy to the opposite outer edge. A peculiar thing about this tree is that its branches grown downward to the ground and then rise as though the giant were resting on his elbows. When Mr. Vail purchased his present place on Olmeda Avenue, he sold the Wonder Tree home to James Schee and his mother, Mrs. Florence Oviatt, who received many visits from admiring tourists who were being shown the “sights” of the new community.
Another remarkable tree, which has been mentioned before, was the great oak in the canyon at the foot of Pine Mountain, commonly called the Stadium, around whose stalwart trunk a wide platform wa