Times Past

Early SLO politician a ‘California Progressive’ despite reputation

Louis F. Sinsheimer and unknown constituents in a campaign for reelection as mayor.
Louis F. Sinsheimer and unknown constituents in a campaign for reelection as mayor. Courtesy photo

“You have insulted the finest human being that I’ve ever known.”

Fred Righetti, a founding trustee of Cuesta College, didn’t mince words with me. I gave a talk at the Madonna Inn 40 years ago and quoted an anecdote that Tom Nolan — a founding member of Cal Poly’s Political Science Department — told me about the most famous mayor in the history of San Luis Obispo, Louis F. Sinsheimer (1919-1939).

When Nolan first arrived in San Luis Obispo, Sinsheimer had been out of office for more than 10 years, but Nolan wanted to talk to him about the “future of San Luis Obispo politics.” The interview took place as Sinsheimer faced his roll-topped desk at the back of the Sinsheimer Store that is now Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica.

Nolan said that Sinsheimer listened to him briefly before rolling his chair around to face him, saying, “I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but I still have influence in this part of town and I want it kept the way it is so that my dog can sleep next to my car on Monterey Street.”

Several of Righetti’s friends later explained to me that Sinsheimer helped the Righetti family survive the Great Depression and that there were many facets to this colorful figure in San Luis Obispo’s past. In the more than 35 years since I began writing this column, I’ve come to recognize Sinsheimer as a uniquely San Luis Obispo individual.

Sinsheimer called himself a “California Progressive,” following the path of future California Governor Hiram W. Johnson and, to a certain extent, Theodore Roosevelt. Critics have labeled Johnson and Roosevelt as “WASPS of the Old Stock” for their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, anti-immigration bias.

Sinsheimer was born to a family of German-Jewish immigrants. He was noted for assisting immigrant groups. When San Luis Obispo’s J. J. Andre store overextended credit to its Portuguese-Azorean clientele, J. J.’s son, Peter Andre, recalled how Sinsheimer restocked the Andre Store. Sinsheimer worked with Ah Louis and his sons in trying to quell anti-Asian movements in San Luis Obispo.

When the Old Mission burned in March 1920, Sinsheimer immediately contacted the pastor, Father O’Flynn, to organize a rebuilding campaign that eventually led to La Fiesta de las Flores. When the Ku Klux Klan held a rally here, Sinsheimer worked in the background to make association with the Klan a sign of “dishonor.”

The family of Tameji Eto called Sinsheimer in the middle of the night, saying the FBI had arrested their father after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was being taken by train through San Luis Obispo en route to a prison camp. He had only light cloths for the December journey.

Sinsheimer immediately opened in the store, telling the distraught Eto family to take whatever they needed for their father. As I learned of these amazing contradictions, I tried to apologize to Righetti.

Former SLO City Councilman John Ashbaugh and I will speak on “SLO Jewish History: Visionaries, Leaders, and Community Builders” in Cal Poly’s University Union, which will be moderated by Abby Lassen, from 9:45 to 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Ashbaugh’s summation of the career of Sinsheimer is spot on: “Over his quarter-century of service to SLO, Sinsheimer did more than any other individual to build a durable economic base and public infrastructure that still serves us today: A major university where he served among its first trustees, a progressive ‘reform’ charter that assured clean municipal government, our water and wastewater systems that are second to none.

“He can also be considered our first ‘green’ elected official. On his death in 1951, he was eulogized as ‘the greatest exponent of the idea that San Luis Obispo is a way of living rather than a city.’”

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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