Isabelle “Granny” Orr of Los Osos regarded the “gilded cow chip” as the greatest tribute that a daughter of Texas could ever receive.
I once asked Frank Martinez, a past-president and co-founder of Cuesta College, about his most indelible memory of his years at the school.
He recalled a story involving a truly unforgettable character, “Granny” Orr, a retired public health nurse and resident of Baywood Park.
Granny was trying to raise money for a new branch library in Los Osos. Every Saturday, she sold plants in front of the Los Osos Market. She wanted to collect cow chip manure from the fields surrounding the new Cuesta campus in order to fertilize the plants.
The cows were there because Camp San Luis Obispo had leased grazing right for up to 70 head of cattle to Dick Nock and Col. Robert Nimmo’s Double N Ranch. When Granny Orr crossed the barbed-wire fence, she was told by the MPs that she was trespassing.
Anyone who knew Granny Orr understood that she didn’t comprehend the meaning of “no.” She called the commandant of the Sixth Army at the San Francisco Presidio and eventually made her concern known to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Granny once told my wife, Liz, and me that LBJ called her his “fellow Texan.”
In any case, with approvals from “on high,” Granny descended on the campus with a number of network television crews.
Frank and then-Cuesta President Merlin Eisenbise looked out their window at the array of media. Soon, they joined in with shovels and buckets, collecting cow chips for Granny Orr’s library fundraising project.
The Rotary Club of Los Osos presented Granny with a gilded cow chip to honor her accomplishments on behalf of the library.
She played a vital role in the first major project that Liz and I did in researching San Luis Obispo County history.
In 1978, Liz was elected the vice-president for programs, and I was named president of the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society. We proposed to the board that our first program deal with the history of Los Osos and Baywood Park.
Eleanor Brown, a board member and newfound friend, called us to say, “You had better consult Granny Orr.”
I had seen Granny at her table outside the Baywood Market and near Carlock’s Bakery when we lived in that community from 1971 to 1973. She seemed to know most of the customers. She would call out to a familiar face, “Come over here, young’un!”
After Eleanor Brown’s phone call, Liz and I became two of the “young’uns.” We discovered that Granny used the term for almost everyone, some of whom were older than Granny.
“Young’un” was probably a combination of Granny’s Texas roots and her nearly 40 years in nursing. Granny became a nurse in 1917, during the First World War. She started at St. Paul’s Hospital in Dallas and then specialized in public health and obstetrics at Washington University Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Mo.
About that time, she married and moved to California. In 1927, her husband died, and she moved to San Luis Obispo to work at the county-run San Luis Obispo General Hospital.
One day, while traveling to Pismo Beach with two other nurses, one of the nurses asked, “Where does that narrow road just south of San Luis Obispo go to?”
Granny didn’t know. She didn’t like unanswered questions. So instead of driving on to the lively resort town, the trio turned right onto the road less traveled.
Half an hour’s driving brought them to the tiny community of Baywood Park at the southern tip of Morro Bay.
More on Granny Orr later.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.