Times Past

Dan Krieger: Rise of the Hollister family in San Luis Obispo County

Hollister Peak is one of the “Nine Sisters” or “Morros,” a chain of volcanic plugs that run inland from Morro Rock to Islay Hill.

We pass its 1,404-foot-high majesty as we drive to or from Morro Bay on Highway 1. Its ridge resembles the back of a stegosaurus, towering above the Chorro Valley and the ocean.

Bishop Peak is 154 feet higher, but because Hollister rises up so close to the highway, it stands out as the dominant precipice of our region.

It only became Hollister Peak in 1884 when it was named for a family that greatly influenced the course of our region’s history.

The padres and soldados at Mission San Luis Obispo called it Cerro Alto, Spanish for high hill.

It was a landmark for the surrounding Rancho San Luisito with its herds of cattle. In 1841, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado granted that rancho to Judge Jose Guadalupe Cantua.

The San Luisito was closely linked to the adjoining 3,176-acre Rancho Cañada del Chorro. About 1800, a small adobe was built on a rise above Chorro Creek. By 1830, the adobe was enlarged as a residence for the overseer of the Chorro and San Luisito ranchos.

In 1845, Gov. Pio Pico granted the El Chorro Rancho to John Wilson and James Scott.

Capt. Wilson died in 1861, and the title to the ranchos passed into the hands of his two sisters.

The great drought of 1862-64 greatly devalued the land. Scarcely a drop of rain fell until the middle of winter in 1865.

The herds of mission-era cattle that comprised the wealth of the ranchos died of thirst or starvation. Sheep, however, could survive on lands no longer fit for cattle.

William W. Hollister came to California from Ohio in 1852 at the height of the Gold Rush. Food prices were at a premium.

Hollister and his younger brother, Hub, decided to drive sheep from Ohio all the way west. Once they got their herd to the top of Tehachapi Pass, they formed what became one of the most important partnerships in the development of California.

They joined with their sister, Lucy Brown, the widow of a wealthy businessman, as well as Thomas and Benjamin Flint and Llewellyn Bixby in purchasing the nearly 35,000-acre San Justo Ranch surrounding the present-day town of Hollister.

In 1855, Hub and Will Hollister entered into a partnership with Albert Dibblee to purchase land in the Goleta Valley.

During the Civil War, the price of wool rose. The Hollisters needed an agent to sell all the wool produced at the San Justo and Goleta ranches.

A New York employment agency sent them Robert Edgar Jack, who married into the Hollister family and became a major landowner in San Luis Obispo County.

You can visit R.E. and Nellie Hollister Jack’s elegant home, given to the city of San Luis Obispo by their son, Howard, in 1972. It’s located in the 500 block of Marsh Street.

The rains returned to Southern California in the winter and spring of 1865. There were great bargains to be had in purchasing land.

Hub Hollister’s wife, Ellen, arrived in San Luis Obispo in May 1866. She placed a deposit of $5,000 for the Cañada del Chorro property. The sale was finalized on July 25, 1866. Ellen added eight more rooms to the Cantua adobe and made it her home.

She traveled to San Francisco and met with Romualdo Pacheco Jr., Capt. Wilson’s stepson, to arrange the purchase of the adjoining San Luisito Rancho for $5,000.

On July 23 and 24, members of the Hollister family gathered at the adobe, now a centerpiece of Cuesta College’s campus, to celebrate the 145th anniversary of the Hollister presence in our region.

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