Times Past

Great drought leads to great land grab in 19th century California

Special to The TribuneMarch 8, 2014 

TIMES PAST 3-9 Images: (1.)Edgar Willis Steele in 1883 (2.) José Maria Villavicencio adobe at the Corral de Piedra Rancho, c. 1920 courtesy of the Southwest Museum.

It’s a “land of little rain” until it rains.

In 1903, Mary Hunter Austin, a pioneer resident of Owens Valley, wrote a California classic that she titled, “Land of Little Rain.” It is one of my favorite books about California.

Its title states what is true for nearly three quarters of our golden state. We live in a land of little rain, until it rains and then we sometimes are confronted with torrential downpours as in 1938, 1940, 1969, 1978, 1983, 1995 and, for some areas, at the end of February.

But at the beginning of every rainy season, we are confronted with the paradox of the natural world. What if it simply continues to be very cold and windy? Or what if we have another heavy downpour as we recently had? The answer based on historical precedent is that we who are fortunate enough to live along this beautiful Central Coast must embrace changing weather as we accept change in every other aspect of our lives.

We might reflect on how changing weather patterns have worked to beneficial ends in times past. The Great Drought of 1862 to 1864 seemed an unmitigated disaster for Central Coast residents. Virtually all of the herds of mission-bred cattle and sheep were destroyed. The two rainless years killed as many as 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep.

Visitors to the area remarked that the sun-bleached bones of dead cattle were strewn over every hill and gully. The late afternoon sun created an almost blinding effect, as its light was reflected from the chalk-white carcasses in El Portrero de San Luis Obispo, the old mission pasture, now the Cal Poly campus just north of town.

Virtually all of the Californio families were ruined. The drought marked the real end of rancho days along the Central Coast.

Things began to look up within a year. Investors arrived in the county to buy up the bankrupt ranchos. In 1865, Joseph Hubbard Hollister, brother of Col. W. W. Hollister who had developed the California sheep industry at his famed San Justo Ranch in what is now San Benito County, bought the Chorro and San Lusito ranchos.

Lands once belonging to Quintana, Canet and Captain John Wilson in the Chorro Valley now served as pasture for Hollister sheep. The area later became Camp San Luis Obispo, and a portion of it is used by Cuesta College and the California Men’s Colony.

The following year, a still more significant change took place. Edgar Willis Steele and his brothers, wealthy dairymen who owned the Pescadero Ranch in San Mateo County, purchased 45,000 acres of land in the southern Edna Valley. They paid approximately $1.10 an acre for the Corral de Piedra, Pismo, Bolsa de Chamizal (Chamisal) and Arroyo Grande Ranchos, calling them “cow heaven.”

The rains had returned, the grass was tall and green and the price was ideal for these investors accustomed to the higher land prices of the Bay Area.

The Corral de Piedra proved to be something less than a bargain. The Villavincencio's title to the 30,911-acre rancho proved defective. The Steeles became involved in two decades of costly litigation over the matter and ultimately had to pay a $150,000 judgment — nearly three times the amount they had originally paid for all four ranches.

The judgment proved their financial undoing, but only after they had demonstrated that the Central Coast was indeed “cow heaven.”

To be continued.

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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