Urban fires were the great fear of 19th-century America. San Luis Obispo’s fear of fires began when the tinder-dry building materials at our mission were torched in an American Indian raid in December 1776.
Fires became even more frequent during the early American period. Even the organization of volunteer fire departments did not allay these fears. A disastrous fire once broke out while the two competing fire crews were having a picnic.
In San Francisco in 1863, William Holdredge, a captain of a merchant ship, started the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company offering insurance against fire.
During the late autumn of 1885, a new gold-leafed window sign went up in the 700 block of dusty Higuera Street, Archibald McAlister’s “Lands, Loans, Rents & Insurance” office.
Businesses and private individuals seeking fire insurance and other land and building services could obtain them locally.
About this time, the D. A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau began issuing fire insurance maps for many of the growing cities of California.
A local broker could arrange for fire insurance for a home by giving its address to the insurance company. The company could quickly identify what the building was constructed from and what the local hazards were.
Today, historians and planners employ these now very old maps to determine what was on a building site many decades ago in times past. By 1901, the sale of insurance in San Luis Obispo was so common that coverage was required for a wide range of business activities.
By 1901, McAlister was asked by the town’s leading citizens to serve on the committee to “bond and secure options from which a site could be selected” for the proposed Polytechnic Institute, now Cal Poly.
McAlister became mayor of San Luis Obispo and his son-in-law, Ernest Vollmer, entered the business.
Vollmer, the son of a local grocer, was a graduate of UC Berkeley. But he had business experience that ranged to the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was seeking bright young men to represent the United States in consulates in the Far East.
Roosevelt sought the advice of UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. Vollmer, still an undergraduate, was offered a position as vice-consul in Tsingtao, China.
Vollmer said that he would not leave UC Berkeley without his degree. He was a few requirements short, but Wheeler granted him an early diploma.
Ernest arrived in the coastal city in time to see the just completed Germania Brewery, which still produces the famed Tsingtao beer.
Shortly after World War I, Archibald McAllister retired. The business was renamed Ernest Vollmer, Real Estate & Insurance. During the late 1920s, Pete Bachino entered the business.
From the 1930s on, Bachino became one of the all-time great sports boosters for Cal Poly’s teams. Tragically, he was among the 22 victims of the crash of a Curtiss C-46 aircraft carrying the football team in Toledo, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 1960.
By 1940, Vollmer’s interest increasingly turned toward land management and ranching. Vollmer shifted his full focus to ranching and noninsurance endeavors. Les Stockird became a partner and the firm became Bachino & Stockird.
In 1948, Harry Morris, a San Francisco-born field representative from the Hartford Insurance Company who had been coming to San Luis Obispo for nearly a dozen years, entered the firm.
Today, that business is known as Morris and Garritano. Last Friday, Morris and Garritano celebrated its 125th anniversary. Some of their clients are lineal descendants of businesses and families that sought insurance with Archibald McAllister during the late 1880s.
Next week, this column discusses how when war came, Ernest Vollmer and Pete Bachino were true friends to the Japanese- Americans.
Note to readers: I am having surgery at Stanford University Medical Center at the end of October and will be unable to do my annual Halloween Graveyard Tour.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.