Times Past

How two men — and the mission — kept the KKK out of SLO

The Mission encased in clapboard with the New England style bell tower, circa 1920.
The Mission encased in clapboard with the New England style bell tower, circa 1920.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1 here.

An early guide book for motorists touring the California Missions Trail stated that poor restoration practices had turned Mission San Luis Obispo into an “ugly New England Meeting House.”

Shingles replaced the varnished tile roof and clapboard covered the deteriorated adobe walls.

After the Mexican government expelled the Franciscans in 1834, the local population had removed many of the roof tiles for their own use or for sale as brightly painted “souvenirs” of the mission.

Without these tiles, the adobe rapidly deteriorated. The support beams began to rot so that the heavy Peruvian bells could no longer be enclosed in the arched campanile over the entrance. They had to be moved to a separate “New England style” bell tower in the Mission Garden.

In 1875, Father Appolinarius Rouselle was forced to hire William Evans, a skilled carpenter from Kansas, to reface the outside walls of the mission with clapboard.

What a strange merging of Mediterranean style adobe with Yankee clapboard milled in Redwood City and shipped to Port Harford (now Port San Luis)! But it kept the building dry and permitted its continued use as a church for a growing parish.

Unfortunately, the dry wood both inside and outside the church provided fuel for fire. Poorly wired lighting fixtures may have led to the nearly disastrous fire of March 27, 1920.

Louis Sinsheimer, the mayor of San Luis Obispo, announced a campaign to raise $70,000 to “Save Our Mission.”

The funds were sufficient to put the church back in working order with a new roof, but architectural experts said the clapboard had to be removed and the adobe walls reconstructed to ensure the building’s permanency.

The church was barely operating through a hodgepodge of repairs. The 50-year-old Mission School operated by the Immaculate Heart Sisters, who had come from Spain in the 1870s, was falling down. The parish financial reserves had vanished.

In 1925, a new threat to the Catholic, Jewish and all nonwhite members of our community erupted when the Ku Klux Klan held a parade featuring ominous hooded horseman along Monterey Street, a giant rally at the Civic Auditorium and a flaming cross at a nearby ranch.

Sinsheimer, who was Jewish, met with the newly appointed pastor at the Old Mission, Father Daniel Keenan. Sinsheimer wanted to prevent the Klan from getting a toehold in San Luis Obispo as it had in cities in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Father Dan wanted to rebuild the Mission School and restore the mission itself. The two men agreed that saving the mission could be a unifying symbol in healing our community.

With the mayor’s support, Father Dan founded La Fiesta de las Flores in 1925. He fully understood the potential of “mission mania” as an attraction in the age of the automobile.

The two men understood the power of radio. They put announcements on KFI and KECA in Los Angeles and KGO and KPKO in San Francisco. The automobile made it possible to drive from the Los Angeles area or the Bay Area for a weekend event on the Central Coast:

“Five big fat beefs have been fattened to their prime condition and will be cooked to the queen’s taste. Luncheon will be served under the massive oaks which surround the grounds.”

Perhaps the oaks provided protection from the rain which struck the Mission Gardens during the second half of the barbecue, because the Sunday meal was a success despite the dampness — 4,000 guests were served.

And the profits went to repair the church and build what is now Mission College Preparatory High School.

The Great Depression delayed the removal of the clapboard and the rebuilding of the iconic five-arch bell tower until 1934-36.

Sinsheimer and Father Dan provided a community alliance that caused the Ku Klux Klan to give up its efforts along the Central Coast.

They shared a vision that foresaw events from Poly Royal to the Mozart Festival, now the Festival Mozaic.

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.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune