Times Past

‘Granny’ Orr’s Los Osos connection to California’s turbulent politics

Richard Otto in 1938.
Richard Otto in 1938.

“We had to avoid the five-gallon milk cans stacked along the 12-foot-wide road to Baywood-Los Osos.”

The road also led to a fascinating tale of California real estate and political history.

Isabelle “Granny” Orr described how she and two other nurses from General Hospital “discovered paradise” in 1927. That led her to encountering Richard Otto, a key figure in the turbulent history of California’s Progressive politics.

I just finished reading Lynette Tornatzky’s wonderful new book, “Los Osos/Baywood Park” (Arcadia Publishing). It brought back memories of how Granny helped us prepare a program for the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society (now the History Center of San Luis Obispo County) on that town in 1978.

Granny recalled how the trio arrived at Ferrell’s Store and Gas Station, now Sweet Springs Saloon at the corner of Los Osos Valley Road and 9th Street in 1927. They needed a place to stay for the night.

Charles and Emma Ferrell told the nurses about the Old Duck Inn, which they had built a decade earlier but no longer owned. The hunting lodge was a long building with a large hall, seven or eight bedrooms on one side and a kitchen and dining room on the other. Fishermen and duck hunters from throughout Central California used it for weekend adventures.

In 1927, mostly abandoned, it was owned by Walter Redfield, the developer of Redfield Acres in the township of El Morro, what is now Baywood Park.

One of the nurses took one look at the derelict inn and hitched a ride back to San Luis Obispo. Granny and fellow nightshift nurse Emma Olsen decided to buy sleeping bags from the Ferrells and stay at the inn.

There were no doors or windows. Granny woke up to find an opossum staring in her face.

Granny loved Baywood Park and Los Osos, a paradise so isolated that you could not get to Morro Bay from Baywood without traveling all the way back into San Luis Obispo.

In 1929, Granny saw a small ad in the Los Angeles Times: “Lots, $10 down and $10 per month.”

The ad had been placed by Richard S. Otto, then a Hollywood real estate agent.

Granny could have gotten the same lot for a dollar down and a dollar a month a few years earlier from Walter Redfield. However, by 1929, property values were booming just before the Wall Street crash.

Granny was delighted with her four 25-foot lots, where she built and spent most of the rest of her very full life.

Granny was fascinated by Otto, the son of a New York banker. One of his biographers relates how in 1920, Otto traveled to a remote region of China to see if the powerful warlord Wu Peifu, later described by Time magazine as the most powerful leader in Northern China, had sufficient credit worthiness for a huge loan. Otto declined the loan in Wu Peifu’s presence and lived to tell the tale.

In 1934, Otto became Upton Sinclair’s campaign manager in the historic and often vicious E.P.I.C. (“End Poverty in California”) fight for the governorship of California. Sinclair’s novel, “The Jungle,” depicted the exploitation of immigrants in Chicago and the scandalous practices of the meatpacking industry. By 1934, big business had labeled him “a dangerous socialist.”

In 1940, Otto ran against former governor and then-U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson for the Senate. Johnson was a leading spokesman for isolationism and joined with others in the Senate in obstructing Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to help Great Britain in the fight against Hitler following the defeat at Dunkirk. Otto’s voice in the Senate might have helped FDR after 1941.

Otto’s small red brick “tract office” was still standing at the corner of El Morro and Second Street in Baywood Park when Granny pointed it out to us in 1978. In 1983, I watched as it was demolished for a shopping center that was never built.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com