Times Past

SLO’s first ‘green mayor?’ Louis F. Sinsheimer certainly had a unique way of doing things

Shinsheimer Bros. Store with one of the first cast-iron facades in California on Monterey St. in downtown San Luis Obispo, circa 1925.
Shinsheimer Bros. Store with one of the first cast-iron facades in California on Monterey St. in downtown San Luis Obispo, circa 1925.

In my distant memory, a 1945 visit to San Luis Obispo and the jet age are strangely linked.

Sewing fabrics were scarce by the end of the war. My maternal grandmother’s friends heard that the Sinsheimer Store in SLO still had a good selection. My grandfather had business in San Jose, and on the drive up from Long Beach, we stopped at the store.

We’d just attended a demonstration of the new jet engines at Cal Tech. Dr. Robert Milliken, Cal Tech’s president, had arranged for a very small jet engine to be suspended from a wire and travel the length of several hundred feet. This 4-year-old misunderstood. I assumed that all jet aircraft had to have a wire tether.

I was thoroughly charmed with Monterey Street and its very old appearance in contrast to all the art-deco-Moderne buildings I’d grown up with. But the inside of the store from the wood flooring to the cases of penny candy made my eyes pop. What really impressed me was how the store took the customer’s money and placed it along with a receipt in what appeared to be a small canister that was then sent by wire to a mezzanine overlooking the store.

Within several minutes, the customer’s change was returned. I had seen this method of taking money and returning change via a vacuum tube in Bullocks, Buffum’s and May Co. but had never observed it done over a wire. I stood in wonder as they whirred overhead, finally asking, “Grandpa, are those canisters jet propelled?”

Today, I wish that I had seen and could remember then former SLO Mayor Louis F. Sinsheimer, who to my thinking bridged two eras in our county seat’s history. John Ashbaugh has written a compelling account of San Luis Obispo’s longest serving mayor (1919-1939), “Louis F. Sinsheimer: San Luis Obispo as a ‘Way of Life,‘” in “La Vista: A Journal of Central Coast History.”

Ashbaugh argues that this lifelong member of the Sierra Club, slow growth and street tree advocate was our “first green mayor.” While Sinsheimer clearly fits into what I often called our county motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he also believed in necessary public works.

He created our first modern water system in Reservoir Canyon in 1909 and our first wastewater reclamation program. He kept the gas lights on city streets because gas was cheap, and it provided jobs for young men like Charlie Cattaneo. But he didn’t want things that went beyond a “pay as you go” basis.

As a young man, he had witnessed the results of the crash of the Southern California land boom in 1888. So, when the California legislature passed L.A. County Counselor Everett Mattoon’s bill of 1925, Sinsheimer resisted its temptations to take on bonded indebtedness during the late 1920s.

The bill promised funding for the construction of needed public works for local governments. When the Depression hit in 1929, dozens of California communities were forced into default on the Mattoon Act Bonds. The Mattoon Act was repealed in 1933 but continued to wreak its havoc on communities for many years.

But not SLO, thanks to the mayor.

Sinsheimer stayed in office for 20 years. A photograph of Reservoir Canyon taken for a contest by amateur photographer Al Rhodes, a future County Superintendent of Schools, revealed that Sinsheimer sold the city’s water chlorinator in Reservoir Canyon to another town and replaced it with a hand operation manned by Jay Call, who poured an occasional retail glass gallon bottle of Clorox into the system.

The public was astounded. Sinsheimer argued that the chlorinator was more technology than the city needed and that the sale had returned a profit to the city coffers. Besides, the mayor added, his decision provided a job during the Depression.

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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