Times Past

Baron abandoned Atascadero ranch to fight in World War I

Baron J. H. von Schröeder, owner of the North County’s famed Eagle Ranch, departed for Germany with his family during WWI.
Baron J. H. von Schröeder, owner of the North County’s famed Eagle Ranch, departed for Germany with his family during WWI.

The “notorious Baron” abandoned his spectacular North County ranch to fight on the barren steppes and marshlands of Poland.

The guns of August 1914 quickly evolved into the most costly war in human history. The European powers were running short of soldiers. England, France and Germany began to call home men of military age living in the United States.

English lassies sent their laddies off to war with choruses of, “Oh, we don’t want to leave you, but we think you ought to go, for your King and your country, they both need you so...”

Baron J. H. von Schröeder, owner of the North County’s famed Eagle Ranch, heard a similar call from the Lorelei of the Rhine. He and his family departed for Germany.

On Feb. 2, 1915, the San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune announced that Atascadero’s colorful Baron Johann Heinrich von Schröeder “now sleeps in ammunition wagons.” This was a double entendre, perhaps, recollecting reports of the Baron’s alleged sexual escapades in elegant San Francisco and Marin County hotels.

Baron von Schröeder’s notoriety had been greatly enhanced by a libel suit against The San Francisco Call 14 years earlier. The newspaper’s reporting of the baron’s conduct at the Hotel Rafael had been a circulation booster for The Call, especially in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo in 1900.

The “war of words” trial even called the Baron’s sometime friend, sugar millionaire Klaus Spreckels, to testify.

The influence of the San Francisco-based media was a relatively new phenomenon, following the completion of the Southern Pacific Railway connection from “the City” to San Luis Obispo in 1894. Any mention of a San Luis Obispo County connection in the San Francisco papers attracted a readership.

The baron had purchased the Eagle Ranch at the southern end of the yet to be founded Atascadero in 1882. He was about to marry Mabel Donahue, a socialite from a prominent San Francisco Irish-American family.

He intended to create a beautiful country estate for her in the rugged foothills. He named the ranch for an eagle he had captured near the falls on Atascadero Creek.

The ranch itself attracted attention. The baron imported 200 acres of the finest French prune trees, creating what Santa Barbara historian Yda Addis Storke described in 1891 as “the largest prune orchard in the world.”

The baron was promoted to major, commanding a company on the Eastern front, fighting the Russians in what is now Poland.

The Eagle Ranch was seized as “Alien Property” when the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917.

The war had begun on a note of optimism by all parties concerned. The generals and leading politicians promised that the hostilities would be concluded by Christmas 1914. By mid 1915 everyone except the generals and the politicians knew that it would be “a long, long road to Tipperary.”

Lt. Richard T. Vachell, in the army of Great Britain, was the son of our county’s most famous English resident, the novelist and playwright Horace Annesley Vachell, and grandson of our region’s greatest land developer, Chauncey Hatch Phillips. Lt. Vachell was killed in the north of France on Aug. 1, 1915.

His father, in his 1937 autobiography, “Distant Fields,” wrote: “[Richard] was engaged to be married to his first love, whose engagement to another man had been broken off.

“He expected to be gazetted a captain and a flight commander.... He was killed, not knowing he had been gazetted a captain.”

There would be many more deaths in Europe. Thousands of American lives would be lost before it was over.

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