Times Past

How the tiny town of Harmony got its name, maybe

A sign inviting people to the small town of Harmony off Highway 1 in 2006.
A sign inviting people to the small town of Harmony off Highway 1 in 2006. Tribune archives

It once had a former toilet planted with roses and a sign proclaiming that Rudolph Valentino had used the toilet in 1926, only months before his death.

Despite such singular fame, the town of Harmony is among the most bypassed tourist sites in America. Hundreds of thousands of cars and buses speed by the Caltrans District 5 sign installed in December 1974 showing an elevation of 175 and a population of 18. In a region noted for a growing population over the past four decades, Harmony has remained at 18 for 41 years.

To find out why the static population is officially proclaimed to both the northbound and southbound lanes of busy Highway 1, you’ll want to read Debbie Soto’s “Living in Harmony: The School, Creamery and Town.”

Debbie is married to fellow historian Robert Soto, who comes from one of the oldest Hispanic/Mexican settler families on the North Coast. She wrote her history of Harmony with the assistance of Allan Ochs, the prodigious researcher at the History Center.

Debbie Soto’s book deconstructs Highway 1 folklore of a vicious battle between local dairy farmers over the location of the cheese factory/creamery, writing: “A close examination of local newspapers from their beginnings in 1868 to 1875 does not reveal any Old West-style shootout or Hatfield-McCoy-like feud in the Harmony area.”

She documents the grievances of dairymen trying to deliver their milk to the Excelsior Cheese Factory in 1877. They had to leave the newly graded County Road between San Luis Obispo and Cambria and pass through private land to get to the cheese factory. The owner of the land, Robert Perry, not thrilled with having as many as 50 heavily-laden wagons cross his land, sometimes denied access to the dairymen.

About 50 of the dairymen petitioned the county Board of Supervisors on June 26, 1877. The supervisors eventually approved an easement for the route across Perry’s land. The easement was in turn abandoned in favor of the present Harmony Valley Road.

The petition may have resulted in the name “Harmony,” but as I cautioned my Cal Poly students involved in research, “always wait for the other shoe to drop” before coming to a conclusion. Soto suggests the name may have resulted from the fragile resolution of the “killing of James Yates Stewart by George Cocke (two well-respected men in a domestic dispute) in the Morro Creek area in August 1874, a year before Harmony School District was established . . .”

Soto will be premiering “Living in Harmony: The School, Creamery and Town” at a special book signing on Saturday, Dec. 19 from 2-4 p.m. in the parlor at the Cambria Historical Museum, Burton & Center Street, Cambria.

And yes, as Hearst Castle historian Taylor Coffman has confirmed, Pala Negri and Rudolph Valentino stopped at “the little red house” by the Creamery in 1926 while they were traveling either to or from William Randolph Hearst’s newly constructed “La Cuesta Encantada.”

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Here’s another holiday gift for someone interested in the fascinating history of our region.

I just received two copies of a book that I ordered some months ago. I was not involved in its production but was intrigued by the idea of inviting communities to bring in historical images for scanning. The result yielded a collection of photographs far beyond that available for my 1988 “San Luis Obispo County: Looking Backward into the Middle Kingdom.”

The Tribune newspaper partnered with local historical organizations and its readers to produce “San Luis Obispo County: The Early Years.” The heirloom-quality coffee table book has an amazing number of high quality photographic images of San Luis Obispo County from the 1870s to 1950. It’s available for $44.95 plus tax and shipping from the Pediment Group at: http://www.pediment.com/products/san-luis-obispo-county-early-years-history-book.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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