Times Past

The Central Coast pulls through in bad times. During WWI, navy beans did the trick

The “Bean Cleaning Tower” at Pacific Coast Railway’s warehouse that stood in San Luis Obispo from the 1914 until 1989.
The “Bean Cleaning Tower” at Pacific Coast Railway’s warehouse that stood in San Luis Obispo from the 1914 until 1989.

We are living in scary times.

We can take comfort in the fact that people often manage to muddle through the consequences of their worst mistakes.

One-hundred years ago in 1917, America became involved in a “total war” that had already killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and starved millions of civilians since it began in August 1914.

The Central Coast helped feed a world ravaged by war.

The recreated “tower” at the south end of the Pacific Coast Center at Higuera Street and Madonna Road tells the story of a boom for an often-ignored commodity, navy beans.

The tower is an approximate reproduction of the bean cleaning tower situated at the southern end of the Pacific Coast Railway’s warehouse that stood on the site until the end of the 1980s.

Longtime residents will remember the building as the E.C. Loomis Feed Company.

The bean cleaning tower was a very busy place during the “Great War.”

The First World War, which lasted from 1914-1918, brought new prosperity to the Central Coast, and most especially to southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.

The region’s transportation grid was especially dense in the South County. It was served by the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway constructed during the early 1880s. The Coast Route of the standard gauge Southern Pacific was completed in 1901. Both freight and passenger terminals were built at Oceano.

The state graded county roads, and after 1915, the state motor way that became Highway 101 made it possible to drive from San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria in a little over an hour’s time.

The Pacific Coast Railway’s very existence was threatened by the coming of the Southern Pacific in 1901. The “Espee,” however, was mainly interested in long-haul service, and so the produce and seed growers of South County communities continued to rely on the “PC.”

The “Great War” placed enormous strains on the American economy.

The major portion of the fighting took place in Western Europe’s industrial and agricultural heartland. The Western Front running through France and Belgium crippled Europe’s industry and specialized agriculture. On the Eastern Front, Tsarist Russia fought Germany and Austria-Hungary cutting off Europe’s customary backup supply of cereals from the “bread basket” of Ukraine.

The U. S. literally had to feed and clothe a continent at war. It did so at considerable profit to its businessmen and farmers as farm commodity and manufactured items prices soared.

In the days before refrigeration was common, dried navy beans provided the most versatile emergency food source.

The Pacific Coast Railway warehouses at San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria and Orcutt added bean cleaning towers. These devices sifted off dirt and stones from the picked beans through a series of sieves.

The price of cleaned navy beans, which was subsidized under war emergency measures, rose from 11/2 cents a pound to nearly 30 cents a pound.

Previously untilled pasture land was quickly turned to bean production.

The fields just beyond the San Luis Obispo Lighthouse at Point Buchon and patches of open land among the Eucalyptus groves of the Nipomo Mesa were quickly filled with bean fields. Farmers could reap as much as $10,000 to $15,000 per crop with several crops a year.

The wartime windfall was unprecedented and brought a massive influx of money into the local economy that transformed cities from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus 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.