Times Past

"Blood sports" give way to more genteel pastimes in 1870s San Luis Obispo

Special to The TribuneMay 3, 2014 

“With each turn or gore of the bull, there is a universal shout and, unfortunately, the house in which I write is in the very plaza where the celebration is occurring.”

Aug. 19, 1867 was a noisy time on San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza. It was the feast day of St. Louis of Toulouse, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, our namesake and patron saint.

Today, the Old Mission San Luis Obispo community celebrates with a Mass and holds its annual La Mesa de Las Padres dinner on the Saturday evening nearest Aug. 19. But in the 1860s, traditions from California’s Hispanic era included the blood-filled sports of bull fighting and bull and bear baiting.

District Court Judge Pablo de la Guerra had ridden by stage from Santa Barbara to preside over the San Luis Obispo sessions of his court. His judicial district included all of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

He was residing in what is now Ann and Alex Gough’s Sauer-Adams Adobe on Chorro Street with a good view of the Plaza. The view could be shut off by drawing the curtains but the noise could not be suppressed.

So he wrote to his daughter at home in Santa Barbara, “This is written in the midst of the noise and uproar of the children, men, oldsters and ladies watching the bullfight.

“...It is four o'clock in the afternoon and up to now, the fiesta has not been bad. The church ceremonies have been the most splendid that San Luis Obispo has ever seen. Six priests participated in the mass. The church was really full of people who were all dressed up in their most colorful clothes.

“Your mother and Ramona have not spoken of another thing but the elegance of the mass and the gaiety of the event. “There are two dances tonight. I probably won’t attend either of them as I took a laxative because for four days I have not felt well, though today I am feeling better. Greetings to all, and I pray to God for your wellbeing.”

Such was the state of public entertainments in San Luis Obispo in the 1860s.

By the 1870s and 80s, our town became “respectable.” The wealth generated by the flourishing dairy farms showed. Monterey Street north of the plaza became the home to retail stores for the “carriage trade.”

The Sinsheimer Brothers boasted a new red brick building with an elegant cast iron storefront and iron shutters for protection against fire. The new Lasar Building, on the southwest corner of Monterey and Chorro Streets would host several upscale stores. The old H. Loobliner & Company on Court and Monterey streets, recovered from a devastating fire, looked like a new building with brightly painted shutters.

There would be no more bull fights or bull and bear fighting in San Luis Obispo. The once plentiful grizzlies, our state symbol, were nearly extinct. “Blood sports” were publicly disdained. Boxing events had to be secretly promoted at remote sites as far away as Reno, Nevada.

The new entertainments featured baseball for the boys and young men and church and school recitals for the young ladies. For holidays like the Fourth of July, there was the San Luis Obispo Military Band which is mentioned in newspaper articles as early as 1874. It is the probable ancestor of the County Band organized in 1881.

Frequently the band played at the baseball games, as this photo of the game between the San Luis Blues and the San Luis Elks during the mid-1890s indicates.

At this, the beginning of our summer season, we will be taking a further look at public entertainment over the last 150 years along the Central Coast.

Would you like to know more about the rich history of Mission San Luis Obispo? We will be holding docent training classes for newcomers and docents on Wednesday from 7-8:30 p.m. June 4 in the Youth Center, June 11 in the Parish Hall, June 18 in the Youth Center and June 25 in the Parish Hall. There is no obligation to serve as docents. For further information call 805-543-9611.

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