Times Past

The drought-resistant Father

An Edward Vischer drawing of the Casa del Paso de Robles, the old farm building of the Mission of San Miguel in 1864. By then, it was the sheep and goat ranch of James Blackburn, co-founder of the city of Paso Robles.
An Edward Vischer drawing of the Casa del Paso de Robles, the old farm building of the Mission of San Miguel in 1864. By then, it was the sheep and goat ranch of James Blackburn, co-founder of the city of Paso Robles.

The current drought in San Luis Obispo County would not have bothered Mission San Miguel’s Father Juan Cabot. He was among the first Europeans to recognize the potential of the region.

The Franciscan padres, for all of their otherworldliness, knew how to cope with the unpredictable environment. Father Cabot was a prime example of such a “doer.” He knew how to build with readily available materials such as local stone and adobe. He was acquainted with the methods for both collecting and dispersing water.

Like Junípero Serra, Cabot (1781-1856) was born on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, which has a climate very similar to that of coastal California. Most of the year, it is a land of little rain. But when rains come, you need to be prepared to deal with them.

The villages of Majorca resemble what the mission pueblos must have looked like: churches, homes, shops and warehouses constructed from a combination of mud brick, fired brick and stone with fired tiles for the roofs.

Water was brought to the villages in ditches and aqueducts, then stored in cisterns. But the buildings were also designed so that water doesn’t set at the base of the soluble adobe walls. Instead, it is allowed to pass around or underneath structures.

Cabot was part of a third generation of Spanish Franciscans in California. Father Presidents Junípero Serra and Fermín Lasuén had laid out the beginnings of the mission system.

Cabot was a hands-on builder.

He served at San Miguel from 1824 to the time of secularization in 1834.

He often traveled into the San Joaquin Valley as far as the present town of Visalia. He urged Father President Vicente Francisco de Sarría to authorize the establishment of a second chain of missions near the San Joaquin and Kings rivers.

No mission was ever founded in the Central Valley, but Cabot baptized dozens of Tulareños on these trips, and a significant number of the valley natives at Mission San Miguel.

Father Cabot was a man of impressive talents. The Massachusetts trader Alfred Robinson wrote that Cabot was “a tall, robust man of more than 50 years (in 1829), with the rough frankness of a hardy sailor celebrated for his good humor and his hospitality.”

Robinson also noted that Cabot suffered from rheumatism. The cold, foggy climate of the upper Salinas Valley exacerbated his problems.

Father Cabot coped with his physical infirmities through therapeutic bathing. He constructed a shelter house and a place for bathing over the sulphur springs at Paso Robles.

Many of the other mission friars prohibited full body bathing because of its association with the Indians’ temescal ceremony. They disapproved of the combination sweathouse/ bathing ritual because it involved mystical instruction by a shaman. Father Cabot realized that bathing was necessary to alleviate the suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

The therapeutic mud baths would later be instrumental in the development of the town of Paso Robles.

In 1827, the new Mexican governor of Alta California, Jose Maria Echeandia, demanded that Father Cabot make a report on missionary possessions. He wrote of the adobe house and rancho with its 800 head of cattle, horses and breeding mares by the beach at San Simeon, the sheep ranch to the south at Santa Ysabel, the barley ranch at San Antonio, and the wheat ranches, with large adobe houses at Paso del Robles and Asuncion (modern Atascadero).

Much of his report describes poor lands to the east, or rolling ridges to the west without permanent water. It was a feeble effort to convince the governor not to take the “poor” lands from missionary control.

What shows through in Cabot’s report is that despite a fairly harsh environment, the mission at San Miguel had become what the world would regard as a virtual paradise.

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