Theosophy's Central Coast history

During the second half of the 19th century, a variety of religious groups and utopian communities were drawn to California.

April 27, 2013 

    If you are seeking a place to really “chill out,” the township of Halcyon might be just made for you.   The site was selected in 1903 as a place of special calmness, reflecting the word “halcyon’s” meaning in ancient Greek.

    During the second half of the 19th century, a variety of religious groups and utopian communities were drawn to California.

    Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91) created the Theosophical Society, a world-wide spiritual movement that linked the great avatars,  “bodily manifestation of the Divine,” from Krishna, Moses,  the Buddha, Christ and down through Hiawatha. She saw them as purveyors of ancient wisdom that help us to comprehend our higher selves, which are immortal.

    When Mme. Blavatsky died, her mantel was passed to   Dr. William H. Dower and Mrs. Francia LaDue.

    In 1898, Dower and LaDue were asked by the “Master of the Great White Lodge,” the “dwelling place of God and the Ascended Masters,” to found the Temple of the People in Syracuse, New York. By 1903, the Master directed the Temple to be relocated to the lower Arroyo Grande Valley in our Central Coast.

    The three-story Coffee T. Rice home still stands in the middle of a mobile home park along Highway One. It was bought by the Theosophical community and became the Halcyon Hotel and Sanitarium. Its proximity to a railroad depot on the Southern Pacific’s Coast Route attracted patients from throughout the United States.

    Dr. Dower specialized in treating alcoholism, drug addictions, nervous disorders, and tuberculosis. Dr. Dower employed the natural beauty and mystical qualities of the Oceano Dunes in his treatments. Patients were encouraged to take long walks in the dunes and along the beaches. There they could commune with the rhythmic forces of winds and tides.

    Dr. Dower’s involvement in tuberculosis treatment motivated him to purchase the first X-ray machine in Central California. He employed state of the art equipment, including electro-therapy and hydro therapy.

     The treatment facility for the tubercular patients was separated from the other wards.

Patients were placed in outdoor sleeping pavilions, with canvas roof covers that could be rolled back in good weather so that they literally slept under the stars. They were served healthy food and given light exercise.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that Dr. Dower achieved at least as high a rate of recovery as facilities like the famed Barrows Sanitarium in Los Angeles’ Elysian Park.

    Patients were treated without regard to financial status. This placed a heavy burden on the Theosophical Community. The community's magazine, The Temple Artisan, sought sponsors for patients, stating that $10 a month would support treatment for a person in recovery.

    The hospital's activities came to an end with Dr. Dower's death in 1937.

    The Temple Corporation continues to this day.

    On Friday, May 3rd at 6 p.m. Paul Ivey who teaches Art History at the University of Arizona, will speak about his new book “The Radiance of Halcyon” at the South County Historical Society’s wonderfully restored IOOF Hall, 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande.

Starting Wednesday, May 1st at 7:00 pm and again on Saturday, May 4th at 9:30 am, in the Serra Room in the Mission Office complex, I’ll be helping to present a series on the history of Mission San Luis Obispo.  The series continues every Wednesday at 7 pm through May 22nd and is repeated every Saturday through May 25 at 9:30 am.

    The talks are part of the Mission Museum’s ongoing docent training program and are free and open to the public.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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