See how SLO has changed (and hasn’t changed) since the 1880s
The “Great Blizzard” of 1888 struck an unprepared Atlantic Seaboard on March 12. For 36 hours, New York City was cut off from the rest of the nation. Transportation was paralyzed. Homes and tenements ran out of fuel for heating. Four hundred people froze to death.
By that time, the great California land boom was over. Sales were slipping in the recently founded town of Pasadena. A Board of Trade was created to stimulate tourism. Author and sportsman Charles Frederick Holder was the most outspoken “booster” on the board. He sought to develop a theme that would attract tourists from as far away as the East Coast.
The antithesis of a blizzard became Holder’s strategy. He and Dr. Francis F. Rowland proposed an early January festival to the members of the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club. The main activity of the festival would be an outdoor parade, displaying Pasadena’s idyllic climate.
The Rose Parade has done yeoman service for California boosters over the decades. Those who saw the San Gabriel Mountains gently basking in the sun on a 27-inch screen, with 35-below-zero weather outside their windows, understand the parade’s continued success story.
The Rose Parade has never been entirely rained out. It nearly happened in 1934. An unprecedented 12.86 inches of rain fell over the Los Angeles Basin in a 48-hour period. The rainfall measured 6.21 inches on New Year’s Day. The weather intimidated half the bands, so they chose to perform from inside their buses.
Will Rogers, the legendary humorist on stage, movies and radio, was a Southern California booster. He knew how to put the correct “spin” on the excessive precipitation in “the land of sunshine.” The Oklahoma-born cowhand wrote to The Los Angeles Times: “Us old settlers [that have been here five or ten years] never saw anything like it. We are so tickled to see rain out here that we put on a big parade in honor of it.”
Arthur Brisbane, another “Californiaphile,” was the Hearst newspapers’ lead columnist during the 1920s and ’30s. He often traveled by train to San Luis Obispo. Taxicab company owner Steve Zegar would meet Brisbane at the Southern Pacific Depot or at William Randolph Hearst’s special siding near the Cal Poly Campus. Zegar would then drive Brisbane from San Luis to “the Chief’s” La Cuesta Encantada.
The trains carrying Hearst newspaper staff normally left Los Angeles or San Francisco in early evening. That way the staffers could get in a full day’s work, arriving in San Luis Obispo about midnight.
Weather allowing, Steve would usually drive an open-top Packard or Cadillac touring car. The route to San Simeon stretched over 50 miles of narrow, windy road with dozens of gates across the road as the vehicles drove between dairy and cattle ranches.
Brisbane got a real opportunity to see the land when there was adequate moonlight. Brisbane wrote that “as you motor 50 odd miles along the Pacific from San Luis Obispo to the San Simeon Ranch, the moon” moved from left to right, from rock formations to the beautiful sea.
After 1933, he became more politically conservative to suit “the Chief’s” anti-New Deal sentiments. He wrote in his nationally syndicated column that the Central Coast was “a land of no poverty, having been settled by Swiss and Portuguese immigrants long ago. The Swiss are dairymen. The Portuguese do general farming, both work hard, hence no poverty.”
Brisbane’s column was denounced by hundreds of Hearst’s advertisers who were based in the frigid Northeast and Midwest where unemployment was high.
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.