Three nurses from San Luis Obispo General Hospital went for a ride on a summery day in 1927. It was a rare treat for members of the nursing staff, who worked long shifts with little respite.
The trio decided to head for Pismo Beach, a lively entertainment center. As they passed the Pereira Ranch on South Higuera Street, one of the nurses said, “Let’s turn west on the dairy road.”
The nurses had to forgo the pleasures of Pismo Beach for an hourlong drive over a graded but rough and narrow road. They had to avoid crashing into five-gallon milk containers at the entrances to the dairy ranches that lined the road. I suspect that there were some complaints from her companions, but Isabelle “Granny” Orr usually got her way.
They passed the Horatio Warden Ranch. Granny later recalled that Miss Lizzy Warden had been one of her patients. By the time Granny retired as a public health nurse, virtually every resident of the Los Osos Valley would have had some contact with her.
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Finally, the trio arrived at Ferrell’s Store and Gas Station, now the Sweet Springs Saloon at the corner of Los Osos Valley Road and Ninth Street.
The Ferrells told Granny about the Old Duck Inn, which they had built but no longer owned.
It was a long building with a large hall, seven or eight bedrooms on one side, and a kitchen and dining room on the other. Duck hunters and fishermen chiefly used it. Largely abandoned, it was now owned by Walter Redfield, the developer of Redfield Acres in the township of El Morro.
One of the nurses looked at the inn, said “No thank you,” and hitched a ride back into San Luis Obispo. But Granny and a fellow night-shift nurse, Emma Olsen, decided to buy a sleeping bag from the Ferrells and stay in the inn.
All the windows and doors had been removed. Granny woke up to find an opossum staring her in the face.
Granny fell in love with the isolated paradise that was Baywood and Los Osos. You couldn’t get to Morro Bay from Baywood without traveling all the way back into San Luis Obispo.
A year or more later, Granny saw a small ad in the Los Angeles Times:
“Lots, $10 down and $10 per month.” Hollywood real estate agent Richard S. Otto had placed the ad.
Granny could have gotten the same lot for $1 down and a $1 a month a few years earlier from Walter Redfield. But by 1929, property values were booming just before the Wall Street crash.
And Granny was delighted with her four 25-foot lots where she built and spent most of the rest of her very full life.
Granny traveled to Richard Otto’s office on Hollywood Boulevard to make her final payment. As she was looking for the office number, Otto came down the stairs. He inquired who she was looking for. Granny said, “Richard Otto. I bought some lots from him, and I’ve never seen him.”
Granny was fascinated by Otto, the son of a New York banker. One of his biographers relates how in 1920, Otto traveled to a remote region of China to see if the powerful warlord Wu Pei Fu had sufficient credit worthiness for a huge loan. Otto declined the loan in Wu Pei Fu’s presence and lived to tell the tale.
In 1934, he became Upton Sinclair’s campaign manager in the historic and often vicious EPIC — End Poverty in California — fight for the governorship of California.
In 1940, he ran against former governor and then-U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson for the Senate.
Granny’s friendship with Otto was just one of many relationships with history makers that made her a superb guide to the past.
Note of thanks
I am indebted to artist and historian Joan Sullivan for her sharing her notes of conversations with Granny Orr. They often clarified matters.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.