Times Past

Dan Krieger: World War I meant prosperous times here

The gruesome deaths of millions, bodies forever crippled by poison gas, high explosives and machine gun bullets, famine in German occupied Belgium, the worldwide pandemic of the Spanish influenza and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

These were the legacies of what was then called The Great War, now called World War I.

On each Nov. 11 — this year falling on Wednesday — we celebrate Veterans Day. The date was originally set to celebrate the armistice that ended the World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

The Great War of 1914-1918 brought unprecedented prosperity to the Central Coast. The local newspapers were filled with ads from San Francisco-based food wholesalers stating, “We are always ready to buy beans!”

Thousands of acres of heretofore idle or pasture land had been converted to U.S. government-subsidized navy bean production.

The Edna, Los Osos and Arroyo Grande valleys became bean fields for a war-ravaged Europe. In the days before refrigerated shipping was common use, dried beans were a life-sustaining commodity.

Mining prospered

Cinnabar, copper and chromite mining industries in our region were revived by wartime needs.

Cinnabar, the ore from which quicksilver or mercury is derived, is found in substantial quantities in the Franciscan sandstone layer of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Mercury was a principal ingredient in munitions manufacture. The production of quicksilver in the Santa Rosa and Pine Mountain districts near Cambria boomed during the early 1870s, but had fallen off badly.

By December 1915, 1,400 feet of new ore facings (drifts or veins) had been completed by Chinese laborers at the Cambria Mine. At the Oceanic Mine, tunnels were dug as much as 3,000 feet below the surface.

This revived interest in mining brought good times to Cambria.

The level of recovery was reflected by residents donating thousands of dollars to Herbert Hoover’s Belgian War Relief and, after America entered the war in 1917, large war bond sales.

The average price of homes rose dramatically. On Sept. 27, 1918, the Morning Tribune listed a six-room house in San Luis Obispo for $2,500. A 10-room-furnished house was listed at $3,750.

These prices were nearly double what they had been just three years earlier.

The Morning Tribune also headlined that the El Monterey at Monterey and Osos (later renamed the Obispo Theater, it burned in December 1975) was to have a new pipe organ costing more than $10,000.

Ed N. Kaiser, the manager, remarked that this was “some money to invest in the moving picture business during these times ... but that they wanted ‘some music box’ ” and believed “that the new pipe organ will prove very pleasing to the patrons of the theater.”

The Tribune observed that the purchase had brought our community into the national headlines: $10,000 was a lot to spend on some moving-picture music.

While England, France, Germany and especially Belgium were on near-starvation rations, local residents ate well. Victory gardens and home canning were promoted by the Department of Agriculture.

The Farmer’s Cash Store listed “Fancy Roast Coffee” at 30 cents a pound and “Royal Roast” at 25 cents.

The residents of Western and Central Europe were making do with coffee substitutes, made from cereal grains.

Postum, first marketed by C.W. Post’s Postum Cereal Company in 1916, was the American equivalent. Marketed originally as a healthy, caffeine-free alternative to coffee, Postum was considered a “patriotic gesture.”

I recall Postum from the coffee-rationing days of World War II. Even at the age of 5 as a “privileged” coffee drinker because of asthma, I knew that Post made great Grape Nuts, but his “coffee” was a wartime sacrifice.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.