Over the Hill

From holiday lights to city dumpsite

Richard Blake just wanted to do a good job of putting up the Christmas lights in downtown Paso Robles. He never planned to serve on the City Council, or ever dreamed of scouting for a city dumpsite.

The year was 1959. Paso’s population was maybe 6,700. Mr. Blake was in the plumbing business, and he was the Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas-lighting chairman.

He did something new. He had permanent, steel poles installed throughout downtown to string the lights on every year.

Other chamber officers liked his innovation. They suggested a second project in the downtown park — a living Christmas tree lane leading to a Nativity scene.

Mr. Blake liked the idea, but there was no money. The $1,500 budgeted for Christmas lighting was used up. But Barney Schwartz of KPRL Radio said not to worry. He said he’d broadcast a fund-raising campaign.

Sure enough, the public donated all but $200 of the needed $2,500. So he bought eight blue spruce trees and materials for the Nativity scene. He also hired a contractor to run underground electrical service to each tree.

Members of the art guild created the Nativity figures. Wards of the Paso Robles School for Boys built the stable. Paso Robles Van and Storage volunteered free off-season storage for the Nativity scene.

It was a success, and Mr. Blake got much of the credit. Mayor Vernon Sturgeon asked him to accept an appointment to a vacancy on the City Council. The council appointment eventually went to someone else, but Mr. Blake was appointed to the Planning Commission.

The following year, Mayor Sturgeon urged Mr. Blake to run in the City Council election. He won and was later re-elected twice before retiring from the council in 1972.

But it wasn’t all handshakes and compliments. By the late 1960s, the city dump was overflowing and Mr. Blake was assigned to find a new site.

He became unpopular in rural areas. Nobody wanted a dump as a neighbor. One rancher roared up in a jeep and berated him. Also many formerly acceptable dumpsites, such as canyons, were outlawed under new water-quality regulations.

Eventually a dumpsite found Mr. Blake.

He was contacted by the owner of 80 acres, nine miles east of the city. The city bought it, and now 40 years later it’s still the city dump, although it’s called the Landfill.

As for Christmas tree lane, the trees grew tall and were cut down about 20 years ago during a park redesign. The Nativity scene has long since been recycled or taken to the city dump.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.