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Cal Poly’s founder was a failure in many ways. But he had one big success

Cal Poly was established in San Luis Obispo in 1901.
Cal Poly was established in San Luis Obispo in 1901.

Myron Angel was a failure at many things, and San Luis Obispo is grateful for that.

His greatest success was the creation of Cal Poly.

But Angel’s get-rich schemes — including gold and silver mining, ranching, water development and railroad speculation — all fell apart.

“I mine for a fortune, but I write for a living,” Angel wrote about his career.

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A Southern Pacific freight train steams northbound past Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo circa 1907. Frank Aston Tribune file

He could always fall back on newspaper editing to avoid starvation, working at newspapers across Central California and Nevada. Later in life he found success as an author of a series of respected history books.

Angel dreamed big which got him in trouble. He almost bankrupted the weekly San Luis Obispo Tribune by launching an expensive daily edition. He had to be rescued by business manager Benjamin Brooks, who soon pushed Angel out of the editor’s chair.

Angel went on to edit the San Luis Obispo Daily Republic but when he quit after a few years, that newspaper quickly folded.

Angel did have an authentic sense of community and was active in civic groups.

When he married well and could retire from daily newspapers, he visited his childhood home in Oneonta, New York, in 1893 and was amazed at the transformation caused by building a state university there.

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Inspired, the 66-year-old Angel returned to the Central Coast with the idea to bring a state school to San Luis Obispo. He organized committees, made speeches and wrote letters.

Angel had a good relationships with other newspaper editors in town. Soon, Brooks, J.K. Tuley and George Staniford joined with other business and political leaders to push the school.

Decades later after Cal Poly was established in 1901, a spinoff campus was established in Pomona. The schools separated in 1966.

Had his get-rich quick schemes had worked elsewhere, Myron Angel never would have come to San Luis Obispo, or had the time to devote to founding an award-winning school that would transform the region, students and faculty.

Jerry Bunin wrote this article about the first two decades of Cal Poly, published in the Tribune on Dec. 27, 1999:

From high school to higher education

The Central Coast’s jewel of education, Cal Poly blossomed from meager roots

Cal Poly, which began at the dawn of the 20th century, has had a greater impact on San Luis Obispo County during the pas 99 years than any other place, person or thing.

The school attracted people to the beautiful Central Coast, produced numerous business and civic leaders, and became a leading employer.

But the school began as a glorified vocational high school when Gov. Henry T. Gage signed legislation March 8, 1901, creating California Polytechnic School.

Then-prominent county resident and historian Myron Angel is considered the “father” of Cal Poly. His speeches and news articles lobbied for a “normal” (teachers) school.

He supported the vocational school whose purpose was “to provide both sexes mental and manual training in arts and will fit the student for non-professional walks of life,” according to Morris Eugene Smith’s book, “A history of California Polytechnic College, The First Fifty Years, 1901-1951.”

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Nursing or home economics students at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in the early 1900s. The Tribune File

The legislature allocated $50,000 to buy land and construct and maintain buildings. Sixteen areas were studied before 281 acres at today’s site were bought for $7,709.

Leroy Anderson was the school’s first director when 15 students showed up for the opening day of class Oct. 3, 1903. Eight remained in June 1906 for the first graduation class from the three-year academic program.

The school initially offered agriculture, mechanics and domestic science classes and immediately adopted a philosophy that stressed practical application, now called “learn by doing.”

Students had to be at least 15 years old, eighth grade graduates and able to pass English, history and mathematics tests.

Girls studied sewing, bookkeeping and home nursing. Boys learned how to make cheese and butter, carpentry, masonry, gardening and algebra from a staff of 13, including a dormitory manager.

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Football players pose for a picture at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in the early 1900s. Front. left to right, they are Allan Bishop, Archie Cheda, Hollis Hyde, Henry Pezzoni, Valentine Droughard. Middle row, Francis Buck, Avery Kennedy, Nathan Lewin, Douglas Wood, Sam Cook and Eugene Steinbeck. Back Row, Gus Wade, Kent Knowlton, Carl Tout, Pierce (given name not known), Gred Grant. The Tribune

Room and board at the dorm cost $20 a month.

Athletic competition began in 1906 with the students losing a football game against the school staff.

When LeRoy Burns Smith was named director in 1907, there were 141 students, a 1,300-volume library and 310 acres.

By his departure in 1914, enrollment had grown to 194, the academic program had been expanded to four years, and his salary had risen to $2,600 a year.

The Student Body Association formed in 1909 and charged boys $1 per term. Girls were charged 50 cents.

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George L. Drummond poses for a picture at the wheel of a 1915 pickup truck. It is described as the first motorized vehicle (though it is marked 2) owned and operated by Cal Poly. Drummond family The Tribune

Between 1903 and 1913, the number of students studying agriculture dropped from 50 percent to 26 percent. Between 1908 and 1913, the number of students from San Luis Obispo grew to 46 percent from 30 percent.

Robert W. Ryder served as the school’s third director.

During his 1914-to-1921 reign, the school began college prep classes, instituted military training, added 625 acres and was partially accredited by the University of California.

Military training started on campus in 1916. Male students were issued rifles and required to wear uniforms between 8:15 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily.

The student population continued to grow through the decade until falling to 42 due to World War I. Cal Poly sent 147 students to “the war to end all wars.”

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