Home & Garden

A haven of living history in Garden Fams

Melinda Forbes’ winter garden with calendulas on left, dino kale and red Russian kale on right. The back two floors of the original 1918 Garden Farms home were added on in 1980.
Melinda Forbes’ winter garden with calendulas on left, dino kale and red Russian kale on right. The back two floors of the original 1918 Garden Farms home were added on in 1980. TRIBUNE PHOTOS BY DAVID MIDDLECAMP; HISTORICAL PHOTO (BELOW) COURTESY OF THE JAN MAXWELL COLLECTION

Nestled between Santa Margarita and Atascadero is a one-of-kind independent community of neighbors called Garden Farms.

Developed in 1918 on land purchased from Santa Margarita Ranch, this was the first of E. G. Lewis’ proposed farm neighborhoods that would supply produce to Atascadero and its experimental dehydration plant on Traffic Way.

Families from across the country responded to the prospectus for the cultivated acreage with promised income, complete with a comfortable home, tool shed, chicken coop and water for irrigation. The “Class A” house with a 1.5-acre farm was $2,756, or a weekly mortgage payment of $2.65 for 20 years. The largest “Class E” home, including a garage and a 5.5-acre farm, was $6,916, or weekly payments of $6.65. The idealistic Lewis promoted the idea that, “The most valuable of all arts will be that of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.”

Construction crews built the first blocks of bungalow homes while crops and orchards were planted, and high hopes abounded. However, due to the recession after World War I and the cancellation of the government contract for the dehydrated produce, the income source disappeared. This first Garden Farm community was the only one ever built.

Although the original goal of small family subsistence farms near a city was not realized economically, the isolated location and emphasis on the land created an environment that encouraged a connected and cooperative community. From the beginning, neighbors worked together and helped each other, joining in planting, harvesting and construction.

That “spirit of the place is alive and well,” explains resident Jan Maxwell. “We are really a living history. We take meals when neighbors are ill, and have several annual community events, including a Christmas parade and potluck, caroling, craft sale in December, history day, salsa cook-off and more.” And rarely will you see a “For Sale” sign in Garden Farms.

When one neighbor, a father of three, suffered a severe aneurism three years ago that left him

paralyzed, the neighbors not only provided meals and child care, but they rallied together and held a fall festival to raise money for house alterations.

Lifetime resident Jack Robinson recalls that the ringing of triangular bells hung throughout the neighborhood roused the 1940’s volunteer fire brigade. A rolling cart with fire hoses was then manually wheeled to the nearest fire hydrant.

Today, Garden Farms neighbors all know each other, and get around to visit on bikes and golf carts while children still freely play under the bridge and along the creek. They share eggs, produce, recipes and ideas. The community has a self-appointed, acknowledged “mayor,” a monthly newsletter, a phone directory, Web site and its own water service district. Mayor Monica Becker

attributes the safe and neighborly atmosphere to the original owners and longtime residents, saying that, “when people look for a home here, they are also looking for something more — a neighborhood.”

True to its name, there are plenty of vegetable and flower gardens, orchards and animals thriving in Garden Farms today. With a high water table and rich riverbed soil, more than half of the residents raise their own vegetables. One house in five has chickens. Barbara Robinson grows peaches, while Becker harvests the walnuts from original trees. Jan and Jeff Maxwell have two greenhouses to start seedlings for plants to sell. Moms and kids still pick the once prolific berries growing in the creek bed for homemade pies.

As the Garden Farms Web site declares, “Garden Farms evokes a feeling of neighborhoods of years past. We are so fortunate to live here!”

Connie Pillsbury is a freelance writer who lives in Atascadero.

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