Times Past

Cal Poly’s 1st director proved ‘skillful’ — especially when it came to bulls and heifers

Dr. Leroy Anderson, Cal Poly’s first director, circa 1904.
Dr. Leroy Anderson, Cal Poly’s first director, circa 1904.

LeRoy Anderson, Cal Poly’s founding director, had a lot to do during the summer of 1903.

In early August, the opening day of the first class was only a month away. Nevertheless, with all the details of opening a brand-new school, Anderson, a noted 1897 Ph.D. from Cornell in dairy science, was still involved with bulls and heifers.

He was also a product of a Victorian upbringing. This genteel teacher didn’t like to discuss the basics of stock breeding in front of women.

Anderson’s mission at Cal Poly began June 30, 1902. He had a year to recruit faculty and put the new campus into operation. He spent several months touring agricultural schools in the East and Midwest.

He also married and brought his new bride to live in the yet unfinished dormitory. The couple shared the facility with Polytechnic staff. By the end of August 1903, they were joined by a group of students, including teenage boys who paid $20 a month for room and board.

Isabel Anderson soon became “the matron of the establishment,” dealing with matters ranging from sunburn to the embarrassing issues of a young boy’s homesickness.

Despite his busy schedule, Anderson, true to the Cornell tradition of practical science, was never far removed from bulls and heifers.

On August 6, 1903, he wrote to Captain M. F. Taylor, a resident of San Simeon who was related to a pioneer Cambria-area ranching family.

Taylor was superintendent of the San Simeon Agency for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company that operated wharves from San Diego to Puget Sound, including the Harford Wharf at what is now Port San Luis. It was the parent company of the Pacific Coast Railway. This narrow gage linked the San Luis wharf with the county seat and towns as distant as Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Los Olivos. The PCSC had a bit of local clout.

The Cal Poly director had a bit of unfortunate news to report to Captain Taylor. It seems that the captain had brought several heifers to the campus. He wanted them bred to one of the prize bulls from Cal Poly’s nascent dairy herd. Afterward, the heifers were driven up the coast. But there had been a serious mistake.

Due to poor fencing, shortly after the prize Poly bull had “serviced” Taylor’s heifers, a bull of inferior stock from the neighboring Anholm Ranch had broken through the fence and engaged with the heifers.

Anderson wrote asking that Taylor pardon his delay in informing him of the accident, observing, “I would have told you all about the breeding of the heifers in my first letter but did not like to dictate some of the information to my stenographer who was new to me.”

Anderson enclosed a bill “which need not be paid if the heifers do not prove with calf.”

Such distractions notwithstanding, Anderson proved to be a skillful administrator and remained as Cal Poly’s director until the autumn of 1907.

UC Berkeley’s Dean of Agriculture, E. J. Wickson, served as one of the trustees for the new Cal Poly campus. He was given the assignment of finding a director for the school. He was well acquainted with Anderson, having hired him along with A. R. Ward and E. W. Major to create a “dream team” in dairy science for Berkeley.

Wickson wanted Anderson, his protégé, to get some administrative experience at Poly before bringing him back to Berkeley.

Anderson left San Luis Obispo in 1907 at the invitation of University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. His new assignment was to establish the University Farm at Davis.

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 slohistory@gmail.com.
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