Photos from the Vault

A San Luis Obispo adobe’s link to the news

Rosa Butrón de Canet de Simmler adobe near the confluence of San Luis Obispo and Stenner Creeks on Dana Street in San Luis Obispo. Before the town had newspapers, legal notices were tacked to the walls.
Rosa Butrón de Canet de Simmler adobe near the confluence of San Luis Obispo and Stenner Creeks on Dana Street in San Luis Obispo. Before the town had newspapers, legal notices were tacked to the walls. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Try publishing with a hammer and nail.

In the 1850s and early 1860s, San Luis Obispo County lacked a newspaper. So to make legal announcements, lawyers used tools more suited to a hardware store than a courtroom.

Legal notices were tacked on the wall of one of the oldest houses in the county, the Rosa Butrón de Canet de Simmler adobe. It was also at times called the Waterman adobe. (To further confuse the issue, there was another Canet adobe near Morro Bay.)

The adobe was built in Mexico circa 1845. The house wasn’t moved, but the border was. One war later, in 1850, California was the newest united state.

The county’s first newspaper, The San Luis Obispo Pioneer, didn’t come off the press until 18 years later.

The adobe had another connection to newspapers — it was once owned by Mary Gail Black, a reporter at The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram in the early 1920s.

She began her second reporting job at 19 years old. In the variety of stories she wrote, she met temperance activists, bootleggers, a Ku Klux Klan parade, civic boosters and prostitutes.

With 28 saloons in town before Prohibition and a population of 6,000, there was plenty of action to report on.

A story by Jill Duman published April 1989 said the spirited reporter would greet passers-by with, “What do you know?”

After her reporting days, Black attended UC Berkley on a Phoebe Apperson Hearst scholarship and graduated summa cum laude, according to a summary biography written by Carl McPhee in 1988. Black was active in politics, supported feminist issues and was arrested in a 1977 protest at Diablo Canyon.

Mary Gail Black died July 30, 1989, at the age of 91.

Her adobe home had a damp, chilly atmosphere when I visited it in 1988 and seemed in need of repair then.

Raising funds has been a struggle, just as it has been for many historical adobe homes across the county. Major exceptions are the Dallidet and Dana adobes and the Price Anniversary House (not an adobe), which have active historical societies that solicit support.

Other historical houses need a sponsor.

Perhaps the county lawyers could shake out some spare change to support a restoration of the Canet.

David Eddy wrote this story for the Telegram-Tribune on Oct. 10, 1988:

Canet Adobe deal struck

The 150-year-old Canet Adobe in San Luis Obispo has seen as much history as any museum.

So it’s only fitting the the house will become one.

But not until Mary Gail Black is finished with it. Black, 90, has lived in the historic Dana Street adobe since 1927.

We didn’t have any money, so we got boards from the yard and put them down on the floors. Until 1942, that was it.

Mary Gail Black

A couple of years ago she decided to will the house to the city of San Luis Obispo. The house is an important part of the city’s history. In fact, she said the adobe was originally part of the grounds of the San Luis Obispo Mission.

But the maintenance costs on the adobe and the grounds were getting costly, so Black made a deal. She would leave the city the house now, and in return the city would pay the insurance, fix the roof and trim the trees. It will cost an estimate $8,000 this year.

That may seem expensive, but as Black said with a smile, “They seemed eager enough to do it.”

Black came to San Luis Obispo in the 1920s and worked as a newspaper reporter. She wrote a book about her experiences, “Profile of the Daily Telegram — A Story of San Luis Obispo from 1921-1923,” that was published in April.

A friend of Black’s, Mildred Waterman, bought the Canet Adobe a few years later, and Black helped her whip the house into shape.

The house was then a shambles, said Black. The wallpaper was falling down and some of the rooms had only dirt floors.

“We didn’t have any money, so we got boards from the yard and put them down on the floors,” she recalled. “Until 1942, that was it.”

Before they painted the house there were nail holes all over the exterior. The holes are a good indicator of how old the house is, said Black.

In the mid-1800s there were no newspapers in San Luis Obispo, so federal notices were posted on the front of the Canet Adobe.

“So-called historians have rebuked us because we painted over the nail holes,” she said.

Another interesting feature is the long arbor strewn with grape vines that leads to the front door.

There is one old barely-living grapevine that was originally brought from Spain by the Mission Fathers, said Black.

The Mission Fathers also planted a mulberry tree that is still alive on the property, she said.

The adobe’s 140-by180-foot grounds will eventually be used as a park, said city Recreation Director Jim Stockton. The house will be restored and used like the Jack House and Dallidet Adobe are now.

There is a beautiful grove of trees at the rear of the property, which Stockton once told Black is among the greatest in the city. The trees flank Stenner Creek. Only a trickle this time of year, the creek almost did away with the adobe during the floods of 1973.

At the flood’s peak, there was three feet of water in; the house. Others doubted the strength of the adobe’s walls, but not Black.

“A friend said, ‘I’m very nervous about that house — I don’t think it’s going to stand.’ Well it did. Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

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

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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