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The town time forgot: When California Valley only had 21 residents

Far from jobs, on a little-traveled highway and with scarce water, California Valley never became home to the thousands of residents the developers hoped for.
Far from jobs, on a little-traveled highway and with scarce water, California Valley never became home to the thousands of residents the developers hoped for. Telegram-Tribune

The wind whistles across California Valley, as it has for eons.

There is so little erosive rain here that the signs of creep along the San Andreas Fault can easily be observed from the air.

Relentless sun and isolation are abundant.

Two solar plants have sprung up in the region.

As documented in a recent story, marijuana growers recently thought this was nirvana.

Except the soil is poor, water is scarce — and did I mention the relentless sun?

The region next door experienced a boom in 1878 when gold was discovered at nearby La Panza.

When the gold ran out, so did the 600 or so boomtown miners.

For many years, there were more streets than residents in California Valley.

The 17,000-acre community could contain both present-day Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, with 100 acres to spare.

Even eight years after it was subdivided and touted as affordable California living, you could count almost all the residents on fingers and toes.

Elliot Curry wrote this Telegram-Tribune story Sept. 28, 1968:

California Valley — eight years later

Ask almost anybody living in the 17,000-acre California Valley subdivision how things are going out there and they will probably say:

“Go see Jim Barron.”

Barron and his wife came to the valley six years ago and have made their 2 1/2 -acre rancho the No. 1 exhibit in how a retired couple can turn a semi-arid spot in the Carrisa Plains into an oasis.

On a gentle slope that rises from the valley floor toward the circling mountains, Barron’s home, called Rancho Buena Vista, has 60 almond trees, seven peaches, five apples as well as plums, cherries, prunes, apricots, a thriving vegetable garden, decorative shrubs, roses, peanuts and others too numerous to list.

California Valley was created out of the El Chicote Ranch and first offered to the public in 1960. Today, it is said to have 7,000 property owners. But only 21 of them are actually living in the valley.

What California Valley needs most to get it moving again, say the people who live there, is electric power.

Another big need is a few hundred more homebuilders like Jim Barron.

The PG&E power system serves the little community of California Valley clustered around the post office, but the line ends out near the airport, just about where the ranchos begin. Individual property owners who have sought service have found the cost much too high to even consider.

Those like the Barrons who now live on the land have installed their own generators, but this is not the answer for most people.

Power is needed to drill wells, to operate power building tools, to assure the use of refrigeration equipment, and to keep the pumps going. There are a few others like Jim Barron in California Valley, their places plainly identified as green spots in a gray plain, but not many.

Most of the 55 houses which have been built in the subdivision stand like lonely sentinels in the sun, visited only occasionally by their owners.

Mrs. K.W. Getchman of Santa Clara is one of the absentee owners who is working hard at making an attractive retirement home for herself and her not-yet retired husband.

He has a health problem which they hope the clear air of the Carrisa Plains will overcome. She usually spends a week at a time in the valley.

Mrs. Getchman takes a realistic view of turning a bit of dry cattle range into a garden spot. It’s no picnic, but she said not a word about giving up.

A thermometer in the breezeway of her home read 90 degrees, but the dry air was stirred by an afternoon breeze which made it quite comfortable.

It would be a good life, if there was power for the deep freeze.

The original land development and operating companies which sold the California Valley properties in a nationwide promotion have now been supplanted by a new management organization called California Valley Inc.

E.W. Poe, who came to the valley two years ago, continues as general manager of the project. Under his direction is the 20-room motel, the cafe, service station and sales office.

The general store is operated independently by Mr. and Mrs. George Simmons. Since Labor Day, the cafe and bar have been closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The community center, as planned and built by the development company, has had one important addition. This is the community building, which was built by the Community Services District and houses a fire station, county branch library, auditorium and recreation room.

The state Division of Forestry keeps a truck and driver on duty at the station.

Poe has developed one new feature near the community center which auto travelers may miss but which has delighted migrant birds.

An artificial lake.

Thousands of birds, some of them appearing very strange in this dry climate, flock around these waters, where the first start is being made toward developing a park.

Poe said a 2 1/2 -acre rancho sells now for $1,700 to $2,300.They originally were sold for $895 to $995 but in 1961 were raised to $1,295, $1,595 and $1,995 depending on location.

The promotional peak in California Valley was reached in May of 1961 when it was estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 persons attended a free barbecue there.

For many that was the big splash — the beginning and end of California Valley for most of them.

Jim Barron, however, came with a different objective. He came to plant trees and to watch them grow with the community.

It has been slow, but Barron is a patient man.

Give the valley some more like him and the great empty spaces would begin to fill up.

Also give Mrs. Getchman some electric power to get her deep freeze going.

A shady tree and a cool drink are the surest signs of progress which California Valley can offer.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp.

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