Times Past

Dan Krieger: SLO has been transformed, but city’s foundations live on

‘Monterey Street was called the Devil’s Wash Board it was so rough. The other streets weren’t much better.”

Our San Luis Obispo city streets might be showing some wear today. But road conditions in the 1920s and ’30s were unbelievably bad.

“Traffic bumps came naturally in those days. Mayor Louis Sinsheimer didn’t want to strain the city’s budget by maintaining streets that were part of the state highway system.”

While much of the town — including its roads -— has been transformed since the 1920s and ’30s, in some cases the past lives on unseen, according to the recollection of a longtime resident.

Nearly 20 years ago, 90-year-old William Tardif of Paso Robles wrote me recalling life during the “ ’20s and ’30s.” Many of the places Mr. Tardif refers to can still be seen.

“The San Luis city fire station was in the middle of town below the old city hall. The siren was sounded at noon and was called ‘Ferdinand.’ People who walked by as it sounded got a hearing loss!”

The firehouse/city hall in the 900 block of Higuera Street was torn down in the ’50s to make room for Charles Shoes. Owner Ken Porche has preserved the old concrete-block city “lockup” behind his store. This wonderful old juzgado serves as his storeroom for thousands of pairs of shoes.

“Ferdinand” was sold to the Tulare County town of Earlimart in 1951. He was still “bellowing” at noon every day and to signal emergencies when I stopped for coffee a few years back.

“Across the street was the J.C. Penny store, where you could buy an up-to-date suit for $23, or you could buy your attire at Green Brother’s Clothing at a little more. The Bee Hive Restaurant on Monterey between Chorro and Morro streets was the place to get a good meal and all the gossip.”

The old J.C. Penny’s has been seismically retrofitted and dressed up as Ross Dress for Less.

“If you wanted to fill up your car with gas, you drove out to Stowe’s service station across from the Southern Pacific roundhouse.”

The foundations of the roundhouse can still be seen near the tracks above Roundhouse Street off Santa Barbara Street, not far from Miner’s Hardware.

Mr. Tardif continues: “Gasoline was 16 cents and the best oil was 35 cents. They filled your car with gas, checked the oil, washed your windshield, checked your tires, and if they knew you, told you a lot about what was going on around town.

“Gilmore Gasoline came to town and erected a station on Monterey, doing a land office business. Everyone enjoyed their jingle in their ads. Remember the one that went, ‘If you use Gilmore gas, there isn’t a car on the highway you can’t pass?’ Then their lion roared in the radio ads.

“North of town, situated at what was known as Death Curve, runaway trucks leaving the Cuesta Grade made things exciting as they roared by. One truck didn’t make it and plowed through Gilmore Station, almost hitting the attendant who was sitting in a chair in front. They closed down the station shortly thereafter.”

The old, winding, high-curbed 1915 concrete highway can still be seen snaking its way up the center of Cuesta Canyon.

“If you wished, you could go around the next bend to the Last Chance roadhouse for drinks and dancing, a very popular place for us young people to have fun.”

The Last Chance epitomized the times.

Like other Prohibition era roadhouses, it subsidized its cheap food through the sale of illicit drinks. I was given a snapshot of the Last Chance with dozens of cars parked along the road.

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