About the Colony

Poet George Stirling's connection to Atascadero

Lon Allan
Lon Allan

Of the four quotes carved into stone above the four faces of the Atascadero City Administration Building, two are a mystery as to why they are there.

On the building’s side facing the junior high is “Let us keep our faces to the sunshine and we will not see the shadows.” It is signed “EGL.” That is, Atascadero’s founder Edward Gardner Lewis. He could easily have been the poster child for unrestrained optimism.

On the side facing the Sunken Gardens is a quote from President Abraham Lincoln, “The most valuable of all arts will be the art of subsistence from the smallest area of soil.” It embodies Lewis’ live-off-the-land idea he saw for the experimental colony he carved from a 23,000-acre cattle ranch on the Central Coast. He pursued that idea by purchasing a section of the Santa Margarita Ranch in 1919 to form the Garden Farms small-ranch concept.

But the other two quotes are from little-known California-based poet George Stirling. On the side facing West Mall are the words: “Great nature, refuge of the weary heart and only balm of breast that have been bruised.” And on the exterior wall facing Atascadero creek is written: “For lasting happiness we turn our eyes to one alone and she surrounds you now — Great Nature.”

Both quotes extol a love of nature on a higher plane.

Of all the people Lewis could have quoted, why Stirling?

The late Clay Goodrich often asked the same question. He loved the colony and was fascinated by the man who created it. Goodrich believed Lewis may have encountered Stirling at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Of all the places we can link with Lewis — Nashville, St. Louis, the hills of Wyoming in search of minerals, and the oil fields outside Taft — San Francisco remains unmentioned, at least by Lewis.

That doesn’t mean he hadn’t read Stirling’s works.

Stirling was active in the formation of the Bohemian literary guild in San Francisco and an artists’ colony in Carmel. He was friends with other famous writers that included Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and Robinson Jeffers.

By the way, Stirling was born the same year as Lewis, in 1869.

The poet carried a vial of cyanide with him for several years, eventually using it to kill himself in his room at the Bohemian Club in 1926, almost 10 years after his words were cast into the upper façade of Atascadero’s city hall.