For years, it’s been a relatively quiet existence in the one-block burg of Harmony, about five miles south of Cambria on Highway 1. But now the tiny, historic town that’s been under new ownership since July is a veritable beehive of activity.
Alan and Rebecca Vander Horst of San Luis Obispo have big plans for their tiny town, including possible restoration of the historic postal service and participating in a new museum about the county’s dairying history.
He’s a Cal Poly agricultural business graduate and third-generation dairy farmer. The family returned to the area, rediscovered Harmony, saw its need for historical preservation and revitalization, and promptly bought the town.
“It’s no small task to rehabilitate an old dairy town,” Alan Vander Horst wrote in an FAQ for his little town, “so we are taking our time finding the right folks for the job.”
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Frasier & Seiple is the architectural firm, Matt Barcellos Construction is the contractor and Gardens by Gabriel handles landscaping.
“It’s a mammoth undertaking,” agreed Aarika Wells, Harmony’s town manager. “We’re booked up for weddings in May,” but the calendar’s blacked out till then to accommodate all that’s going on.
The FAQ continues, “not only can you host your wedding in Harmony, you can even rent out the entire town, should you so desire.” Chapel weddings can accommodate up to 60 guests, garden weddings can handle up to 100 and full-service rental of the entire town can provide for about 200 people.
Visitors to Harmony now will see lots of yellow caution tape around areas of reconstruction and renovation, including upsizing the historic patio and making walkways, sidewalks and other areas compliant with laws mandating ease of access according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Vander Horst said in a March 3 email interview, they’re reusing the historic bricks; reinstalling them after the ground is raised to a proper level. Wells said the level would need to rise 13 inches to be even with the foundation of the structures.
Another planned change, Wells said: Accordion doors are to be added on the south side of the main Harmony Valley Creamery Association structure, opening out onto the courtyard.
A visit to the site Thursday, Feb. 26, revealed that curtain had been drawn over the entrance to the now-vacant cafe. Its purpose? To keep bats out, Wells said.
Four workers were digging up the courtyard to rework the septic service.
A day earlier, Wells said, a crew of about 20 people had been on the site working.
Harmony Pottery Works remains open. Customers just have to walk through a corridor marked off by yellow tape to get there.
Vander Horst estimated the “renovation of the gardens and outdoor venue should be done by this May, and the newly remodeled restaurant and the Harmony Valley Creamery Dairy Shoppe” by this fall.
Artisans such as the Harmony Glassworks and Harmony Pottery Works “are staying here!” Vander Horst said in the FAQ, “and we hope more will join to offer classes and special events to visiting patrons.”
He said the town’s restaurant will change to an upscale, farm-to-table eatery, but the management, menu and final plans are not yet set. The FAQ sheet said, “Our vision is to open a restaurant that epitomizes Central Coast cuisine, celebrating and appreciating the abundance of the region.”
Former Harmony Café operator Giovanni Grillenzoni has closed that business and now sells après-theater sweets, coffee and wines at the Pewter Plough Playhouse, with plans to open soon for lunch and dinner.
“We will certainly miss his wonderful food,” Vander Horst said, “and we wish him all the success in Cambria! I know he’ll do very well as he certainly has a loyal following.”
Vander Horst had met previously with Brian and Abbey Lucas about Harmony’s restaurant plans. The town’s owner said he “sure likes them, but our timelines for getting started were too far off from each other. We have to go through the proper permitting channels with the county for a restaurant renovation and any new construction.”
He’s not disclosing the projected cost of the renovations. “All I’d say is that we are 100 percent dedicated toward preserving Harmony’s unique history and its glorious future!”
Post office and museum
Plans for the return of the post office and the dairy museum are in the fledgling stage, and nothing has been confirmed.
Post office: Harmony’s branch of the U.S. Postal Service suspended services in 2008 and closed in August 2011, much to the dismay of customers who loved having “Harmony” imprinted across their stamped mail, and people who rented the more than 100 postal boxes, some of whom came from other communities to get their mail, because they loved the idea of having an address in a town with such a meaningful name.
Negotiations with USPS are continuing, town manager Wells said, because Vander Horst is firm on wanting the right to apply the town’s seal on the mail, either as the official postal cancellation or elsewhere on the envelope or package.
There are a couple of options, Wells said, including having the town operate the post office, as it did for many years until the early 1980s, when Jeff Prostovich became the town’s official postmaster under USPS authority.
The museum: Mary Golden, executive director of Central Coast Natural History Association, had visited Harmony and talked to Wells earlier this year. In a January email to Wells, Golden confirmed their discussions, saying that in the 1970s, State Parks had planned a state dairying museum at Wilder Ranch State Park, but lacked funds to develop it. “Items collected for exhibit are now housed” at State Park collections in Sacramento.
“Roughly between 1880 and 1920,” Golden continued, this county “was the largest dairy county in the world. Even though California’s dairy industry started with the Steeles in the outer San Francisco area, the Steeles relocated their dairy to the Edna Valley” area of San Luis Obispo in 1922, where they currently have a “very fine dairy of 150 cows.”
Golden said, “There are currently three dairy history projects in the county that I know of: The Spooner Ranch House and Creamery at Montaña de Oro State Park,” which is Golden’s project, “the Octagon Barn in San Luis Obispo and the town of Harmony.”
According to Wells’ research, there was a creamery in 1869 in what is now called Harmony. A Harmony creamery “was purchased and developed into the Harmony Valley Creamery Association by M.G. Salmina in 1913, and it thrived for 50 years with a reputation for producing some of the finest butter and cheese in the state … the town’s buildings survived several incarnations as restaurants, galleries and, most recently, a recording studio.”
Golden said she hopes State Parks will “give or loan their collections to these three sites,” and that those sites develop exhibits of dairy/agriculture history together, to complement each other without duplicating any efforts or displays.
The exhibits could be marketed as a “dairy history trail.”
For details on the Town of Harmony, contact Wells at (805) 927-1028 or (888) 927-1028.