You know you aren’t in a safe town when the district attorney tells you that his father-in-law, a local hero, has to lock his horse inside the kitchen at night to prevent it from being stolen. That was the way it was in San Luis Obispo in 1853.
David Frank Newsom arrived in San Luis Obispo that year. He was down to his last few dollars. The local authorities found him to be a literate man who could handle legal and financial documents, so they quickly appointed him to the vacant county clerk’s office.
The county, like Mr. Newsom, was nearly broke. The only income from the office was derived from collecting fees for various and sundry official filings.
In 1899, Newsom described the situation in The Semi Weekly Breeze newspaper:
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“The first week I recorded a bond (sic: brand) and an earmark (for identifying cattle) for Mr. John Patton of the Chorro Rancho. Saturday night my washing was brought in and the bill just took (that) fee ... i.e., $2.50. The next week I had no washing to give out, but in addition to cooking did the washing. My shotgun supplied the meat and game for my table, but there was no business.”
Joaquin Carrillo, the district judge, lived and conducted most legal proceedings in Santa Barbara. The local justice of the peace had moved to Stockton. Hence there were no legal transactions, which normally generated fees for a county clerk’s wages: “My last dollar was gone and the receipts from day to day would not cover expenses.”
Newsom consulted with a fellow transplant from Virginia, San Luis Obispo county’s prosecuting attorney, William J. Graves. Graves advised him to hold on “... until (Romualdo) Pacheco (Jr.) took his seat as county judge and Don (Joaquin) Carrillo came to hold a term of the District Court, then there would be lots of business. I told him I was going into debt, and unless I found something to do, I should resign the office and leave the county.”
Graves made a suggestion:
“There was no place where a horse could be kept at night with safety ... Don Jose (de Jesus) Pico, his father-in-law, was forced to lock his saddle horse in the kitchen at night in order to prevent his being stolen. (Graves) suggested that I should build a stable and take horses to feed and care for ... at a dollar apiece for each night.”
Newsom’s problem was that he hadn’t a cent to his name. But he and Graves thought of a plan to construct a livery stable out of willow trees and tules. The tules were readily available in what is now Laguna Lake.
Miguel Avila gave permission to cut some willows at the base of Cerro Romauldo. Newsom borrowed an ox cart from William Streeter and drove the cart over the hilly slopes.
The oxen became frightened and started climbing the rocky ridges. Soon, “one wheel in the air, and then the other, while I hung on like grim death ... I felt secure knowing that cart, yoke and oxen were bound together as one machine. To upset the cart, the oxen must go with it.”
He found himself stranded, with the cart half-suspended in the air. The poor oxen were bellowing.
“The noise attracted the attention of Don Francisco Avila and some others who were on their way from the beach to San Luis Obispo. They came to the rescue, and soon stopped the oxen ... they kindly got myself and outfit down the hill to the poles ... which were hauled to the building site back of the Clerk’s office.”
That’s how San Luis Obispo got its first livery stable.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.