Times Past

SLO’s housing crisis isn’t an old problem. People even rented ‘chicken coops’ during WWII

Newly arrived lumber at Pacific Coast Coal Company Lumberyard across from the Pacific Coast Railroad Warehouse at near the present intersection of Madonna Road and Higuera Street, circa 1911-12.
Newly arrived lumber at Pacific Coast Coal Company Lumberyard across from the Pacific Coast Railroad Warehouse at near the present intersection of Madonna Road and Higuera Street, circa 1911-12. Courtesy of Young Louis, now in the Bennett-Louis Archives

“I’d even rent a chicken coop.”

Eleanor Brown recalled desperate wives of soldiers training at Camp San Luis Obispo during World War II. They knew that Camp SLO was the final stateside training site before disembarking for overseas destinations.

The decision to help build affordable homes for the county’s workforce recently agreed to by the county board of supervisors addresses a historic problem. There’s seldom been any surplus housing in our region.

The initial population boom in San Luis Obispo County began with the cattle boom in 1849 to 1862. People from around the world rushed into the Sierra Nevada seeking gold. California didn’t have enough food except the vast herds of former mission era cattle in the so-called “cow counties.” SLO was the northernmost of these counties and closest to the Mother Lode.

San Luis Obispo became a center of that trade, where cattle drives began and where ranchers returned with bags of gold. Between 80 to 100 new adobes were built during this period by the few remaining missionized Native Americans who were familiar with adobe construction. Without a substantial supply of timber or a sawmill, wooden buildings couldn’t be built.

The “Great Drought” of 1862-65 destroyed the herds of cattle. Most of the aging mission neophytes died in typhus and cholera epidemics that accompanied the drought. As a result, little if any new housing was constructed until after 1870. Yet a vibrant new economy was created when the rains returned in 1865. Edgar and George Steele moved their high-quality milking herds here from San Mateo here. The “dairy boom” began in earnest.

By 1887, the Board of Trade boasted that SLO had surpassed even Marin County as the “banner (dairy) cow country” of California. The drought had shrunk the county seat to under 200 residents. With the “Dairy Boom,” it grew to 5,000 in a short period, creating a terrible housing crisis.

That crisis was resolved when cut lumber for framed wooden houses became available through a syndicate led by John Harford of the lumber firm of Schwartz, Harford & Co., the Goldtree Brothers and A. Blochman & Co.

Lumber milled from the Redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains was shipped to Mallagh’ s Landing (nearby Pirates Cove), the People’s Wharf near today’s Avila Wharf and to Harford Wharf at Port San Luis.

Within a decade, the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. constructed the Pacific Coast Railroad connecting SLO, Arroyo Grande, Los Berros, Nipomo, Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Los Olivos, bringing building materials to the otherwise isolated Central Coast. The housing shortage was largely alleviated.

The Great Depression, 1929-40, brought an end to many proposed building projects. When the construction of Camps San Luis Obispo, Roberts and Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) began in 1940, there wasn’t enough housing for the workers. Following the construction of the camps, families and civilian workers flocked into our region.

And yes, some new residents lived in “chicken coops.” In 1982-85, some of the volunteer field workers on SLO’s city Cultural Heritage Commission reported that potentially historic homes had been defaced by what seemed to be the addition of “chicken coop” like structures.

I pointed out that these “structures” were a very real part of our history recycled and made reasonably habitable during a time of material shortages to meet the World War II housing crisis.

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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