Our cool, clear, autumnal nights provide a perfect venue for seeing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in the horizon above our rolling hills and jagged peaks.
I experienced this in the fall of 1950. My father drove us from Morro Bay to Taft following the path of U.S. Route 466, which has segued into today’s Highway 46.
It was still daylight when we left Morro Bay, but by the time we got to Shandon we entered a bright moonlit night.
I had just seen Gene Autry’s 1949 movie, “Riders in the Sky,” in which he sang “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I had purchased both Autry’s and Burl Ives’ recordings of the song on 45 rpm disks. The rugged landscape of eastern San Luis Obispo County with clouds passing over the full harvest moon was a perfect stimulant for my 10-year-old’s imagination.
Our new Oldsmobile 88 had large expanses of windows. I could see so much more of the world outside than I could from earlier automobiles.
The clouds took on the shapes of the living spirits of the dispossessed Native Americans, ancient Spanish soldados, Franciscan Padres, happy vaqueros, proud rancheros, and cruel bandidos and their dead victims crying for revenge.
It was all too real. I wanted to blurt out my reactions to the panoramic drama. My parents shushed me so I didn’t wake my sleeping sister.
When we got to Taft, Uncle Otto asked if I had seen the ghosts of Frank and Jesse James. I said that I thought they were in Kansas and Missouri. Uncle Otto said, “Well, they were here right after the Civil War.”
Many residents of Taft were in awe of Dr. O.G. Hess who seemed to know everything. “Awe” can also mean fear and for my grandmother’s older brother, the dentist who kept a baseball bat next to his dental chair, fear was an appropriate word. Although a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he had morphed into a true frontier dentist.
If he said that Frank and Jesse James were here along the Central Coast, I believed him.
I had no basis for this belief other than my uncle’s declaration until I encountered the writings of Paso Robles author Angus MacLean in Western magazines.
That’s when those strange shapes in the clouds from my youth put on the flesh of reality.
MacLean’s research into Western folklore documented the presence of Frank and Jesse in this county. They mainly took refuge with their father’s brother, Drury Woodson James, the co-founder of Paso Robles, at his adobe home on the La Panza Ranch.
They occasionally came into the vicinity of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo to attend dances, but appear to have stayed out of harm’s way and avoided any run-ins with local law enforcement.
Writing under his pen name, Angus MacLean tells much of the story in his highly readable “The Ghosts of Frank and Jesse James and Other Stories” (San Luis Obispo: Bear Flag Books, 1987).
“A local busybody, having read the newspapers and having put two and two together, went to one local lawmen and excitedly explained that he was convinced the two young men visiting Drury James were in fact the outlaw James Boys wanted in the Midwest, and demanded the lawman do something about it.
“The lawman looked amiably at the busybody and drawled that he thought it would be a breach of etiquette to go and arrest Mr. James’ nephews while they were guests in his house, and suggested that Mr. Busybody go home and mind his own business.”
There is testimony that Frank remained on friendly terms with his California relatives, visiting with Drury’s family several times after he was released from prison.
The remains of the old James adobe still stand near the end of the La Panza Road as it merges with Highway 58. There have been many sightings of spectral horsemen riding in the moonlit sky over that adobe.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.