Times Past

San Luis Obispo’s religious history shaped by factor still in play today — drought

A painting of San Luis Obispo in 1862 by Edward Vishcer.
A painting of San Luis Obispo in 1862 by Edward Vishcer.

With the 150th anniversaries being celebrated this year by both United Methodist Church and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, it provides a good opportunity to look back at how a critical change in this region tells us a lot about its religious history.

After nearly three years of extreme drought, the rains returned in 1865, bringing new life to San Luis Obispo. The “dairy cattle boom” attracted hundreds of new families to a nearly empty pueblo.

Following the American conquest and statehood, older pueblos like San Luis Obispo remained Catholic. The “new towns” of the California Mother Lode — Sacramento, Stockton, Columbia, Mariposa, etc., were populated by a diverse population from across America. They quickly experienced the foundation of Protestant churches. But other than the King David Masonic Lodge, the Old Mission remained the only church in San Luis Obispo until 1867.

The cultural institutions of the town remained substantially Hispanic in character. Then came the “Great Drought” of 1862-65, which destroyed the herds of the huge cattle ranches and depopulated the county seat.

Marin and San Mateo county dairyman Edwin W. Steele was seeking inexpensive pasture land in June 1866. After the devastating drought, the rains had returned to the Central Coast. The green grass rose almost to his saddle bags as he traversed the Corral de Piedra ranch in the Edna Valley.

E. W. wrote his brother, George Steele, at Ano Nuevo in western San Mateo County: “This is cow heaven.”

He immediately negotiated with the drought stricken owners to purchase 45,000 acres for $1.10 per acre.

The Steele brothers brought 600 first register milking cows to their Edna Valley ranching operation. They hired experienced dairymen from Canton Ticino and other mountainous dairy regions along the new border between Switzerland and Italy. The recent Italian Risorgimento War of Unification had disrupted the traditional routes of commerce, and the younger sons of large dairying families were forced to emigrate. The green hills of the Central Coast seemed like a good place to settle.

There was also a large influx of Portuguese-speaking laborers from the overpopulated Azores Islands to the coast and valleys of California. The Steele brothers were instant beneficiaries of this hard-working and talented labor surplus. Their dairy operations soon employed several hundred workers.

The Steele brothers had begun making cheese in their Marin and San Mateo county operations. With the rich pastures near San Luis Obispo, they became the “cheese kings” of California.

Hundreds of dairy operations, large and small, soon followed their success. The whole county began to prosper.

Within a decade, good county roads to the north and south were laid out. A railroad connecting San Luis Obispo to what is now Port San Luis and, by 1882, south to Los Olivos, hugely boosted the regional economy.

A new business community developed in San Luis Obispo and following the coming of the railroads, Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande.

The Steele brothers, R. E. Jack, W. W. Hollister and Horatio and Lew Warden were Protestants, as were so many of the new businessmen, farmers and professionals who arrived after 1865. The new business community began transforming the small adobe tiendas (shops)and cantinas (bars)into larger clapboarded and brick and mortar shops along both Monterey and Higuera streets.

Families and churches were at the center of 19th century American life.

By the end of 1866, the Methodist and Episcopal communities had begun small meetings, some still in adobe structures in Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo.

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the 100th anniversaries in the first paragraph.

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 slohistory@gmail.com.

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