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Atascadero Colony days

May 18, 1974

Atascadero Colony Days

Property of Treasure of El Camino / Atascadero Historical Society

Written by William H Lewis

Original Printing: Wilkins Creative Printing1974

July 4, 1913 was a typical cloudless, warm summer's day on the Atascadero Rancho. In its century of existence the rancho had never experienced the activity nor the significance of this particular day. The Atascadero's third owner, the Honorable J. H. Henry, was to transfer the title of the 40 square mile property to Mrs. E. G. Lewis, representing the Women's Republic.

Special trains had arrived from San Luis Obispo and from Paso Robles. The mayors of those neighboring cities, as well as the state senator, were to speak at the ceremony. Three thousand people gathered for the festivities. They arrived by train, automobile, buggy, tally-ho, wagon and horseback. These guests were entertained by a concert band and singers, by daylight aerial fireworks, athletic contests, a Spanish barbeque, and the speakers.

The transfer of the deed to the 23,000 acre Rancho Atascadero, from Mr. Henry to Mrs. Lewis, and then to the County Recorder, was signaled by the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner," raising the flag high above a nearby hill, and by a great aerial bomb.

This was the birth of Atascadero Colony, however, the idea and the concepts for such a colony had preceded this day by several years. E. G. Lewis had been writing about a colony that would provide the resident with the best of both urban and rural life, based upon the use of the automobile. His articles published in his national magazines, based in University City, Missouri, generated enthusiasm for such a project in people in all parts of the nation. This encouraged Mr. Lewis to travel along the Pacific Coast in 1912 in search of a site.

In January, 1913, Lewis announced to his backers and potential residents that he had found a place that was exactly right for the colony - the Rancho Atascadero. This announcement and a call for funds was made in the Bulletin No. 1 of the Atascadero Colony. Lewis had taken an option for $500 to purchase the million dollar property.

In this bulletin Lewis gave his reasons for the selection of the Atascadero: topography, climate and rainfall, location on the main line of the railroad, on the main highway and halfway between the major urban centers of California, and proximity to the coast.

The transfer of ownership on July 4, 1913, to the Women's Republic, shortly succeeded by the Colony Holding Corporation, did not signal the arrival of any permanent residents. One of the unique concepts of the Colony was that development should be completed prior to the construction of the first private residence.

Mr. Lewis had experience in the development of fine properties. He had founded University City, near St. Louis, and this was the base of his many enterprises. University City, a city of beautiful buildings, was promoted extensively during the Exposition of 1904. Lewis brought some of his experts to California to assist in this new development.

Through the remainder of 1913, intensive planning and survey work was completed. The different phases of the work was directed by experts in their respective fields. All engineering was under H. T. Cory, a nationally famed engineer who had just previously mended the break in the Colorado River that created Salton Sea. Professor E. J. Wickson, head of the School of Agriculture of the University of California, directed a horticulture and agriculture survey, soil testing areas for orchard plantings. L. G. Sinnard, an urban planner for the Southern Pacific Company, directed the allotment of lands for industrial, commercial, residential and civic purposes. W. D. Bliss of the San Francisco firm of architects, Bliss and Faville, began design of the civic center buildings. John Fabian Sullivan was the general manager of the entire project.

In early 1914, a construction headquarters was completed. This included, shops, warehouses, equipment yards, dormitories and a messhall, all at the eastern end of the central plain adjacent to the railroad. Further south, along the rail line, a large lumber and planing mill was built and also a brick plant capable of producing 50,000 bricks a day. These plants supplied most of the material for the civic center buildings.

One thousand workmen were employed and, from camps in four locations in the Colony, went to work on the development of the 23,000 acre property. One hundred miles of roads were completed. Twenty-three miles of water mains were laid. Water tanks were erected on Pine Mountain and these were supplied from pumps in the Salinas River. Three thousand acres of orchards were planted, principally peaches, pears and plums. Cornerstones were laid and construction begun on the major buildings in the civic center. Some construction equipment was used, such as steam shovels, tractors and graders, but mostly the work was the result of the energy of men and hundreds of mules.

In April, 1914, the complete subdivision of the 40 square mile property, showing blocks, lots and roads with exact dimensions, was filed with the county board of supervisors and the county recorder. Almost one fourth of the area was reserved for parks and public open space. This included a generous reserve along the banks of all streams, one acre around each of the major springs, seventy acres at Atascadero Lake, the Administration and Civic Center Parks, and Pine Mountain, Stadium and other parks. Atascadero Lake was further dammed and an underground gravity line laid from several miles up Atascadero Creek to feed the lake and insure an ample water level for recreational activities.

Largest of the road building projects was the construction, by the Colony Holding Corporation, of a 17 mile road through the Santa Lucia Mountains to the coast. State Highway 41 generally follows the course of this road which provided Atascadero and all of the surrounding area with access to the sea. The Colony Holding Corporation bought a three mile strip of coast property from Morro Rock northward. The State of California has memorialized the fact that this area of coast was once an integral part of Atascadero Colony by naming a small portion at the north end "Atascadero State Beach".

The Colony Holding Corporation also purchased a tract of very rich land south of Santa Margarita Creek for the specific purpose of attracting truck garden farmers to live there and grow vegetables and berries for the Colony. The area was known as the Garden Farms.

Financing the purchase of this vast property and the large sums spent on its development came from potential residents. A steady flow of printed material was published and mailed from the two large printing plants owned by Lewis in University City. The Initial planning and development was for 10,000 residents.Before the first resident had built a home, 1,500 families were buying property and several thousand more had shown interest in doing so, all without having seen the Colony.

Prospective residents bought certificates for $300 which entitled the holder to share in one half of the profits of the Colony Holding Corporation and were applicable to the purchase of property.

In 1914, during the construction period, a tent city was built on the bench of land east of Headquarters House. This tent city was a complete community with accommodations for 1,000 guests, an. assembly tent, grocery store, dry good store, post office, land sales offices, laundry tents and a fleet of twenty seven automobiles to serve the guests. The purchase of five certificates entitled the purchaser, wherever he lived, to a roundtrip railroad fare to the Colony and a week's stay in Tent City. During this week the visitor might drive through the Colony and select his homesite and property.

During the latter part of 1914 and in 1915, many came to Tent City to stay. Their household belongings were warehoused in the industrial section and they began community life while awaiting the day when home construction would start.

The Colony Holding Corporation did not build homes, excepting in the Garden Farms, but did provide architectural services when needed. The new residents employed private contractors for their homes.

During the Tent City days, a large stage was constructed around an oak tree in the heart of Pine Mountain with benches up the nearby slopes. This was known as the Stadium and it was the site of many of the historical events of the community.

The Federated Church was born in the Stadium during the Tent City days. It was Mr. Lewis' thought that it would be costly for each Christian group in the Colony to attempt to build a church and employ a minister. Twenty-three Christian denominations joined in the establishment of the Federated Church of Atascadero. A minister was employed and services were generally held in the Stadium until the Community Building was completed.

The Atascadero Women's Club and the Booster Club each had its origin in the Stadium in Pine Mountain.

After home construction started, Tent City continued to be used by new arrivals and by conventions such as the Episcopal Ministers Convention and the Southern California Editors Convention. The latter were curious about the new development, were impressed with what they saw and went home to write glowing articles about the Colony.

By developing the Colony prior to the construction of homes, the cost of the roads, water-system, parks, schools, civic center buildings as well as the original cost of the 23,000 acres, was spread over all of the properties in the Colony. Orchard plantings, of course, were included in the cost of orchard lands. By this means, residents were to be free from future assessments for improvements and land speculation based upon subsequent improvement would be eliminated.

To the Colony Holding Corporation, the ideal colonist would be a person of some means, perhaps a semi-retired professional man who would invest in the orchards, seed farms or other enterprises of the community. It was not necessary for the owner of an orchard property, for instance, to understand the growth, care and harvesting of the fruit, as the Colony Holding Corporation provided those services as well as marketing the fruit. The cost of these services was to be deducted from the owners pro rata share of the profits of the harvest.

The first residents of Atascadero were from all parts of the United States and from a number of other countries. They were a suprisingly cosmopolitan group of people, many with talents in writing, music, dancing painting and organization. These talents were evident in the many community events of the Colony's early days.

At a signal that home building might begin fifty-seven homes were started and by 1917, two years later, there were 300 completed homes in the Colony.

E.G. Lewis had moved into Mr. Henry's new ranchhouse in 1913. Since all the early business of the Colony was handled there and in the surrounding buildings, it was known as Headquarters House and retained that name. Mr. Lewis made the estate into a showplace and entertained distinguished visitors to Atascadero. Ignace Paderewski was a regular guest. A series of terraces and a great circular driveway were constructed between the house and the state highway. South of Headquarters House a demonstration garden and orchard were planted. Lawns, formal gardens with fountains, a large greenhouse, a small zoo for native animals and facilities for chickens, turkeys, pheasants and pigeons were all nearby. The grounds contained many native California live oaks, white oaks and pines. The peach and cherry trees were bountiful in fruit. The peaches often weighed one pound each. North of the house, walnut trees were planted and on the terraces Italian Cypress grew to giant size.

In 1914 the cornerstone of the Administration Building was laid. The executive offices of the Colony Holding Corporation and its subsidiary companies were here. There was a sunken garden with a large fountain in its center west of the Administration Building and a similar garden east. The Administration Building now known as the Veterans Memorial Building, remains most certainly as one of the most impressive buildings on the central coast. The great rotunda rooms, one above the other, are a source of wonder to the visitor.

The Atascadero Grammar School was constructed south of the sunken garden to the east. It was in the style of the Administration Building with terra cotta brick, pillars and tile roof.

An opera house was designed for the eastern end of the sunken gardens, facing the Administration Building, but was never built as there were more pressing needs for the Colony.

The growth of Atascadero and thereby money for the great expenditures depended on a continuing flow of promotional material. This printing work had been done in University City but as soon as possible Mr. Lewis constructed a printing plant in Atascadero. This building, known as the Printery, was also of terra cotta brick and tile and was located northeast of the Administration Building.

The Printery was soon the busiest place in the Colony. About 125 persons were employed there. A number of rotogravure presses were installed which made the reproduction of pictures no more expensive than text. Atascadero, from its inception, was undoubtedly the most photographed community in the world. For instance, Bulletin No. 9, printed in rotogravure in the Printery, had 98 pages and about 550 pictures of Atascadero. As the Printery had the only rotogravure presses west of the Mississippi the plant was soon doing rotogravure supplements for west coast publications. In addition to magazine rotogravure supplements, the Printery printed a rotogravure section for the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and later for the Los Angeles Sunday Times.

A picture news magazine, the first of its type in America, The Illustrated Review, was started. This magazine contained pictures of current events, particularly of World War I and its effect on the nations, pictures of world leaders at work, a Hollywood and film world section, fashions and special features - all primarily pictures and captions. The Illustrated Review was a monthly magazine and its circulation very quickly rose to 600,000 copies an issue.

The Atascadero News was born in the Printery in 1916 and has continued unbroken publication since then.

A spur track from the Southern Pacific main line, originally built to bring material to the civic center for building construction, was now required to bring newsprint to the Printery and take out the various publications. Atascadero's post office became second only to Los Angeles and San Francisco in volume.

Another first for Atascadero was its shopping center, La Plaza. This building was 200 feet long and 100 feet wide, had four floors including the basement and the mezzanine. It had a large veranda, steps and colonnade facing its parking lot and Traffic Way. La Plaza provided the only shopping facility in the Colony. It contained a refrigerating and ice making plant, a bakery, baths, barber shop, billiard room, grocery, meat market, men and women's clothing shops, furniture store, tailor shop, electrical store, millinery shop, photographic supplies shop, information bureau, telegraph office, lunch counter, drug store, soda fountain, post office, and on the top floor the Atascadero Inn and dining room. All of these stores and shops were privately owned and the space was leased from the Mercantile Company, a sub­sidiary of the Colony Holding Corporation.

To provide all shopping facilities under one roof was a concept that has only recently been adopted in the large urban shopping centers. La Plaza was, in addition, a sort of social center for the community. During a leisurely shopping visit several times a week, one was apt to meet most other residents of the Colony. The only other private commercial business in Atascadero was a garage on the corner of El Camino Real and Traffic Way.

In the late Twenties, when the Colony Holding Corporation no longer existed and the community's commercial business was housed in shops and stores along El Camino Real, the entire La Plaza building was turned into a luxury hotel. Fairways of the present golf course extended across Atascadero Creek and up to the Inn. Atascadero Inn was a popular stopping place for the touring public as it provided first class accommodations just half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

East along Traffic Way toward the Salinas River was the huge dehydrating plant of the Caladero Products Company, a subsidiary of the Colony Holding Corporation. This plant was 426 feet long and 136 feet wide. It had been preceded by a pilot plant to establish the practical use of the dehydrating process. The pilot plant had won gold medals for its products at the state fair and proved to be the best means of marketing the agricultural products of Atascadero. At the peak of its activity the plant employed several hundred persons from Atascadero and the neighboring towns. The Caladero Products Company processed by dehydrating, canning and preserving, all of the output of the 4,000 acres of orchards and the vegetable and berry growers of Atascadero and the surrounding country. The United States government became interested in the process and gave large contracts for dehydrated vegetables and fruits to the company. The dehydrated food was used by our armed forces then engaged in World War I.

The money brought into the Colony from the Caladero Products was vital since the impact of the war had forced many property purchasers and potential residents to cancel their contracts and their plans for a home in Atascadero.

West of El Camino Real, opposite the sunken gardens, extended a mall, two avenues separated by lawn. The Community Building was built south of this mall on the banks of Atascadero Creek. Use of the Community Building was open to all residents of Atascadero but on Sunday this was the home of the previously mentioned Federated Church.

The Community Building contained a reception room, library, auditorium, billiard and pool room, gymnasium, lunch room, large swimming pool with lockers and showers, and club rooms used by the Masons, the Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and like organizations. Motionpictures were shown in the auditorium twice a week and this room was the scene of amateur theatricals, musicals, and dances. More than a thousand people could find entertainment in the Community Building at one time.

Crowning a hill at the western end of the mall and overlooking the civic center was the Margarita Black Union High School. The school was named for the first young student to lose her life in Atascadero, this as a result of an automobile accident. The high school was a handsome group of buildings dominated by a tall, campanile type clock tower. The auditorium was both beautiful and unusual, particularly in the size of the stage which was large enough for a basketball game.

South of Atascadero Creek and running west from El Camino Real in the center of the central plain was the road to the beach. The flat lands on either side of this road were early made vividly bright during the spring and summer months through the efforts of the Atascadero Flower Seed Company to establish a flower seed center in the Colony.

Passing Atascadero Lake this road, early known as Butterfly Drive and later as Morro Road, followed Atascadero Creek well into the Santa Lucia Mountains, up the eastern slopes of Frog Pond, reaching the summit north of that mountain .. The twelve mile descent to the coast followed Morro Creek through lovely country, much of it a part of Los Padres National Forest.

In 1970 the State of California published a detailed study of this road with many pictures taken during the days of its construction in 1914. This publication was an effort by the state to have the road designated a Scenic Highway, the first in San Luis Obispo County. This did not materialize because of objections of land owners along the western end of the road.

The Atascadero Beach Land & Improvement Company, another subsidiary of the Colony Holding Corporation, built a hotel, The Cloisters, on the beach. This hotel was about a mile north of the juncture of Highways 1 and 41. The site may be clearly seen today as it was on a raised parcel of land at the beach end of tree bordered San Jacinto Avenue. Several large cypress trees stand on the property.

The beach hotel was crowded with guests on summer weekends and holidays. A bus made the round-trip between the hotel and La Plaza in Atascadero. The three mile strip from Morro Rock northward, about 3,000 acres, was subdivided. A harbor was planned at the south end of the property near Morro Rock, which at that time was not connected by land to the mainland.

The Cloisters had a fine dining room, beach cottages in addition to the hotel accommodations, bathhouses, handball courts, and east along the hills, a nine hole golf course.

The area between the sand dunes and Highway 1 was planted with sweet peas. When the sweet peas were in bloom the color and fragrance were delightful. Few private beach cottages were built although E. G. Lewis had one, and rather than on the beach it was near the golf course near a grove of cypress.

This beach golf course was Atascadero's first. The second golf course was in the northeast part of the Colony and had native grass or sun baked earth fairways and sand greens. Atascadero's third golf course was an earlier variation of the present course around the civic center.

A hospital was built on a bench of Pine Mountain overlooking the civic center. This was the William H. Lewis Memorial Hospital, named for Mr. Lewis' father. It was a fine facility for a community of less than 2,000 persons. All of the employees of the Colony Holding Corporation and its subsidiaries had one dollar a month deducted from their wages for complete medical and hospital care. The hospital is now the Atascadero County General Hospital.

Atascadero had brief flirtations with large enterprises. Motion picture production was one and the Dobel Steam Car another. Perhaps, fortunately, the courtship of both failed.

Several toy companies became nationally known. The Dooley Doll Factory produced a Red Cross nurse and a Salvation Army Lass that were widely accepted. Another company marketed the Scary Ann and other wooden dolls that were publicized in the Illustrated Review and were sold nationwide.

The talent, enthusiasm and community spirit of the Colony days can be discerned in many early events. The description of one day will serve as an example.

Atascadero, on July 4, 1917, had about 300 homes and 1500 people and, notwithstanding, Atascadero invited the Governor of California, William D. Stevens, to come and participate in Atascadero's celebration of Independence Day.

Politically, the Fourth of July is an important day for a governor, a day to speak of, and be identified with, the virtues of America, usually before as many citizens as possible. Governor Stevens accepted the invitation and came into the civic center on his private train along the spur track that served the Printery. With the governor was a contingent of the national guard. A second train arrived loaded with visitors. At 10: 30 a.m. the governor was seated on a decorated reviewing stand at the rear of La Plaza along with other important guests.

A parade came first. It was led by the Atascadero Band in uniform and was followed by floats, mounted and marching groups from as far as King City, and by the national guard men who had arrived with the governor.

After the parade patriotic songs were sung and then Governor Stevens gave his Fourth of July address.

Following an outdoor barbeque, the guests went to the Stadium. Here they saw a pageant which portrayed scenes from California history. There were Indians and Franciscan Fathers, Spanish soldiers in metal breastplate and helmet, the pioneers and men of the Bear Flag Republic, and finally, the first raising of the Stars and Stripes over California. Nearly 200 persons were costumed and took part in this pageant.

As evening approached, the guests went out to Atascadero Lake. There the audience, seated on the lawns, watched the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, performed on a stage shaped like a boat, some feet out in the lake. The presentation included a chorus of 100 in addition to the principals and the orchestra. With a full moon over the lake this was an evening that the viewers would not forget.

At the conclusion of the operetta those who had the endurance and stamina returned to the Pine Mountain Stadium for a dance that lasted beyond this Fourth of July, 1917.

The number, size and scope of the events of this day would suggest that every person living in the Colony participated in one way or another.

What now remains in the Atascadero Colony of its early days? The climate, topography and generally the rural atmosphere remain the same despite growth of ten times over. The original subdivision of roads and lots over the 40 square miles remains. For a returnee after 30, 40 or even 50 years there is a sameness that is encouraging. Most of the orchards have gone.

The great dome of the Administration Building still looms over the sunken gardens and the downtown area, and it still draws the curious about the nature of such a building. Theoriginal grammar school-has been replaced. Most of the Printery remains.

The great shopping center, La Plaza, later the Atascadero Inn, burned to the ground in the mid 30's. The Caladero Products Plant burned down earlier. The hospital, with several additions, stands. The high school has one renovated building left from the original group, its auditorium was razed in 1973 to make room for a new building. Atascadero's third golf course continues a restricted and precarious existence across Atascadero Creek from the civic center.

The Cloisters, taken over by the army during World War II and then abandoned, was subsequently scavenged to the ground by those wanting doors, windows, lumber, piping, tiles and fixtures at no cost but the taking.

Even the site of Headquarters House has vanished. The great oaks, the cypress, pines and all the trees were cut down. The plantings and fountains removed. The house and its unusual surrounding buildings were deliberately burned down. The knoll upon which Headquarters House stood above its terraces was excavated away until the 10 acres were only slightly above the level of El Camino Real. This was done by Williams Brothers Company of Santa Maria in preparation for a shopping center which did not develop. A portion of the area is now occupied by the Safeway and Cornet stores, a large parking lot and a gas station; the remainder is wasteland.

The oldest structure in the Colony was the Estrada Adobe on upper Traffic Way. This building pre-dated Atascadero Colony by a full century and was the southern outpost of San Miguel Mission. The adobe had served many purposes during its hundred years and it was still in fair condition in 1916. Removal of its roof tiles proved almost fatal as successive rains have eroded the walls to a large degree.

The other still existing building that has stood from before the time of the Colony is Mr. Henry's original ranchouse. This is the home that he left in 1912, when his house, which became Headquarters House, was completed. The historic building is west and north of the downtown area and remains a private home.

A fine reflection of Atascadero's first years is that many of its handsomest homes, presently occupied by substantial citizens, are those that were built during the very early days of the Colony.

Many of the years following Atascadero's 'first decade of intense activity were years of semi-dormancy. This era included, of course, the deep and long lasting depression of the Thirties. E. G. Lewis had attempted to obtain money to meet heavy financial obligations in Atascadero through diverse ventures in oil, mining, and a tremendous undertaking in Southern California, the planned development of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The latter project was close to great success when Lewis once again became vulnerable to his old enemies in the United States Post Office Department. Now, in the fifteenth try, through an indictment on the charge of using the mails to defraud, Lewis was convicted and sentenced to a term in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island. Lewis was out on probation in the early Thirties but he became embroiled with the receivership of the Atascadero properties and was returned to McNeil Island to complete his sentence. (Lewis' arrival at McNeil Island and his activities while a guest there make an interesting, but not relevant story.)

During these almost dormant years certain events were notable. The Moran School, an exclusive boys school, purchased the Administration Building and the Printery and transformed them into the school's winter campus with its headquarters in Washington. Subsequently, and fortunately, San Luis Obispo County bought the Administration Building and the sunken gardens to the west and have maintained both in good condition.

The core of the community was split and the landscape severely marred by the construction of a freeway in the Fifties. The double-avenue mall became at that point a pedestrian tunnel under the freeway.

Much effort and considerable money was expended in an attempt to make Atascadero the poultry center of the coast. There remain some large chicken and turkey enterprises.

The Atascadero Mutual Water Company, which was incorporated in 1913 and received a deed to the Colony's water rights in 1914, alone remains of all the corporate creations of the Colony Holding Corporation. Each property owner becomes a proportionate owner of the water company.

A slow but steady growth since the depression days has brought the population past the 10,000 figure that was to have been reached half a century ago. The growth has accelerated during the past decade to the point where the residents must soon make firm decisions about the community's future. The Colony was spared the runaway growth that all but ruined many communities since World War II. The same havoc could still be wrought here through the lack of vigilance of the residents. Generally the citizens seem to prefer the basic life style, rural living with urban conveniences. But preference is not sufficient in this fast changing era, for such a life style must be continually preserved and protected.


This account of Atascadero Colony was written by a nephew of E.G. Lewis. As an observer of Atascadero, we believe that he has been in the unique position of being both close to the subject and far enough removed to be objective. The author came to Atascadero in March 1915, with his parents. His father was the general manager of the Printery. When the rotogravure presses went to San Francisco in 1923, the author and his parents went with them. He returned as a permanent resident in 1969. During all of the intervening years he was a frequent visitor in Atascadero. In 1938, he married a native Atascadero girl, a grand niece of Mrs. E. G. Lewis. Since his return to Atascadero, he has become involved in community activities.

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