The sun was struggling to burn through the chilly fog on an early June midmorning as I stood on the south side of Main Street just east of Bridge Street in the East Village.
Visitors to Cambria were pushing sleepy-eyed infants in baby strollers, walking a hodgepodge of dog breeds, licking ice cream cones and sipping coffee in those ubiquitous white to-go cups.
My thoughts quickly transcended the predictable crush of tourists. Like an imaginary time machine, all the buildings vanished as my mind raced back into the pastoral, bucolic period when the first settler of European ancestry arrived here — a stone’s throw from where I stood.
It was 156 years ago (around 1860) when Jeremiah Johnson showed up from Michigan after first apparently considering tossing his hat into the ring of riches vis-à-vis the Gold Rush.
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Johnson today is credited with being the first person of European descent to settle in Cambria. Up Bridge Street from the very sidewalk where I stood, Johnson launched a livery stable on the left side of the street roughly north of today’s Easy as Pie restaurant.
The U.S. census listed him as a stable-keeper in 1867 — and as a saloon-keeper (his parlor was called the “Washington Saloon”) in 1870. Speaking of saloons, looking west on Main Street from my vantage point I tried to visualize the community in the late 19th century when there were five saloons in a two-block area of the East Village.
Those watering holes included what is now Mozzi’s and what was recently called Painted Sky — albeit in the late 19th century it was called “The Bucket of Blood” because of the fistfights and other violent shenanigans that went on there.
According to research into Cambria’s beginnings — presented by local writers Dawn Dunlap, Wayne Attoe, Consuelo Macedo and others — Johnson was the host of Cambria’s 1872 primary election of delegates for the Republican National Convention that was held in Philadelphia.
It should be mentioned that, unlike today’s political alignment, in the 19th century the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln, the progressive, anti-slavery party. And it is interesting to note that Johnson conducted the 1872 election of Republican delegates in his Washington Saloon.
Imagine Bernie Sanders surrogates or Donald Trump’s proxies conducting delegate selection in a tavern or bar. And imagine, too, that a year after Johnson began to set down roots in what is now Cambria, the bloody Civil War broke out more than 2,000 miles east of here, which would ultimately cause the deaths of 625,000 Americans.
The Chumash in Cambria
The fog was only partially burned off as I walked south to the end of Bridge Street that day and turned right on Center Street to the Cambria Historical Museum. The museum is a beautifully restored 19th century Cambria building (known to historians as the Guthrie-Bianchini House) that offers a vast amount of attention-grabbing information for those who wish to gain knowledge about Cambria’s past.
The building of Highway 1 (started in 1921 and finished in 1937) between San Simeon and Carmel is a museum exhibit that is worthy background for those who drive the iconic route with its stunningly gorgeous vistas unique to this part of California.
I doubt that many people negotiating the twists and turns of Highway 1 in their sports cars, sedans, RVs, SUVs and motorcycles spend time wondering just how it was built.
Nor is it likely that residents and visitors let their thoughts drift back to the original inhabitants of Cambria and the Central Coast — the Chumash and Plano Salinan Indians. As I sat on a white wicker chair behind the museum, perusing Attoe’s book “Images of America/Cambria,” I tried to block out the buildings, roads and autos and visualize the unmolested landscape that native peoples enjoyed.
Thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Franciscans in the 18th century — which brought deadly diseases to which native peoples had no resistance and placed much of the native population in bondage to build the missions — life was sweet and simple.
Local tribe members revered the Monterey pine forest and tended it like a garden, Attoe writes. The forest produced medicines, food and tools for the Chumash. They dined on edible roots, nuts and seeds, as well as the rich resources from the Pacific Ocean (including an abundance of abalone).
There were no elections to win delegates, no constitutions, no political parties with their nattering slogans and unattainable promises — and neither taxes nor terrorists. The noises in the air were from an unspoiled ocean slamming against the shore, the cry of birds, the singing of the wind through the pines and the thunder that precedes a welcoming rainstorm.
It’s hard to imagine the innocence, isn’t it? Erasing the noisy, dangerous and complicated modern world momentarily from one’s view and consciousness — like erasing a teacher’s printed instructions on a chalkboard at the end of a school day — is not an easy task.
But there are thousands of perfect untouched places along our coastline and in our hills and mountains. We need to go to those natural world places, sit quietly, and ease back to a peaceful time thousands of years before Jeremiah Johnson set up his livery shop on Bridge Street.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.