About the Colony

Lewis’ legacy is not that of a sinner

This week Atascadero residents celebrate the 96th anniversary of the founding of their city by Edward Gardner Lewis.

Unlike many other communities that began for a specific reason, such as a California mission for San Luis Obispo, the end of the railroad line in Templeton, Paso Robles or Santa Margarita, or shipping in Morro Bay and Avila Beach, Atascadero was artificially inserted between two existing cities, San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, in 1913 by Lewis.

To celebrate Atascadero’s past, you must understand the man who is responsible for the community. Although most refer to the early years in Atascadero as the “Colony Days,” Lewis didn’t like the word “Colony” and went to court to successfully change it to “The Estates.”

He filed the largest single subdivision map in the history of San Luis Obispo County in 1913. He divided the lots into big ones and small ones and planned for an elaborate civic center and thousands of acres of parks.

He wrote extensively about the importance of the quality of life. Sure, he wanted to sell land. Lewis was a natural-born salesman, whether it be a bug chalk to control roaches, cheap watches, magazines, a remedy to help you quit smoking, or land.

But with the purchase of land in his community, Lewis wanted buyers to have something extra. “Health is almost entirely a matter of right living, right environment, pleasant surroundings, proper exercise and an outdoor life in a kindly climate,” he wrote.

Planning for a community of 20,000 to 25,000, Lewis announced, “The ridges and skylines of the hills and mountains throughout Atascadero Estates have been reserved for parks, while large areas covered with great oaks, the banks of all streams for fifty feet on both sides and an acre surrounding all springs, have also been reserved for parks.”

Was he a saint or a sinner? A crook? A swindler? He ended up being sentenced to federal prison on charges of mail fraud in 1928. It took only five creditors from Seattle with claims of $8,000 to bring Lewis down and force him into involuntary receivership. Some say the same thing is going on today with the recent local financial “scandals.”

But a swindler doesn’t build something like Atascadero Administration Building and the other surrounding civic structures if he’s here just to “make a buck.” A crook doesn’t build a beautiful hospital and set up a $1-a-month deduction plan for Atascadero workers as a form of health insurance. A sinner doesn’t plan for senior housing, an opera house and beautiful public gardens and even a federated church for all faiths to worship together as one. Lewis lost more money than any of his creditors and died a very poor man. No court found that he’d taken any of the money for himself.

This week we celebrate one man’s dream to create a model city out of a former Mexican land grant cattle ranch.

Lon Allan can be reached at 466-8529 or leallan@tcsn.net.