Photos from the Vault

Octagon Barn shares secrets of San Luis Obispo’s past

A historic photo from April 1, 1926, shows smoke from the Tank Farm fire billowing behind the Octagon Barn. The photo was taken by Thelma Irene Waldrum, who was 16 years old at the time.
A historic photo from April 1, 1926, shows smoke from the Tank Farm fire billowing behind the Octagon Barn. The photo was taken by Thelma Irene Waldrum, who was 16 years old at the time. Land Conservancy of SLO

The Octagon Barn, built in 1906, is a San Luis Obispo landmark and the only octagon barn in Southern California.

Hundreds of volunteers have put in thousands of hours to save the structure, and the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo is about to begin a $5.5 million upgrade to the facility that will make it accessible as a community center.

Over its more than 100-year life, the structure has carved out a special place in local history, and a search of the Daily Telegram of names associated with the barn turns up several articles.

One of the carpenters who built the barn had a marriage announcement in the Daily Telegram on Oct. 24, 1910. The paper was so small that marriage license notices ran on the front page.

“John R. Damaso, native of the Azores Islands, aged, 42, resident of San Luis Obispo, and Rosa Dutra, native of California, aged 23, resident of San Simeon.”

The barn was the home base of the Santa Fe Dairy from 1907-17. It was owned by Antonio Stornetta.

On Jan. 18, 1912, the Daily Telegram reported that Stornetta had hired an attorney to fight a charge by the state dairy inspector.

Analysis by the state and Cal Poly had found the milk to be “below standard.” Stornetta declared his innocence and had shipped samples to San Francisco; the farmer was willing to take the case to court.

The dairy remained in business for many years, so apparently the disagreement was settled.

The next year, a member of the Stornetta family narrowly avoided death when he was struck by lightning on Aug. 28, 1913.

Louis Stornetta was near City Hall on Monterey Street when he was attracted by the sound of a single tap of the bell that topped the building. At the time, San Luis Obispo’s City Hall was combined with the fire station.

He was struck by a shaft of lightning that scorched his left arm, burned 6 inches of the sleeve of an overshirt and undershirt, and left the arm paralyzed for two hours afterward.

Though he was knocked unconscious for five minutes and temporarily paralyzed, he was back to work at the Santa Fe Dairy later in the day.

Dairy work is relentless.

More than a decade later, another lightning strike would set fire to the Union Oil Tank Farm.

Betty Guthrie has shared a photo of the Octagon Barn dwarfed by the black cloud of smoke. It was taken by her grandmother, Thelma Irene Waldrum, who was 16 on April 1, 1926.

A century ago, calves wandered on what would become highway south of town.

On Feb. 28, 1917, the Daily Telegram reported that a calf was killed on the Pizmo road near the Stornetta dairy. Three men wrecked their car when a startled calf bolted into their path at the bottom of the hill. Injured were Santa Maria residents Domingos, Silviera and Garcia (the paper didn’t bother with first names). Dr. Stover patched up their cuts and scratches.

On June 5, 1922, the Daily Telegram noted that A. Stornetta, proprietor of the Santa Fe Dairy near this city, had bought a Reo automobile.

“The model purchased by Mr. Stornetta is of the very latest and complete in every detail of equipment and fixture. Reo ‘The Fifth’ is 30-50 horse power and is capable of going any place an automobile is known to go.”

The Octagon Barn was then base of the Home Dairy run by the Garcia and Pereira familes from the early 1920s to ’50s.

Dairy work must have been lucrative because the June 19, 1924, edition of the Daily Telegram reported that Mr. and Mrs. Garcia had traveled to Los Angeles to pick up their Packard straight 8 coupe — “one of the finest cars sold in the county during the past two years, the first straight 8 sold in the county … and is the acme of automobile building.”

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

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