Times Past

Performances illuminate Central Coast history of theosophy in Halcyon

The Halcyon Hotel and Sanitarium in 1915.
The Halcyon Hotel and Sanitarium in 1915.

Long before the Manson gang, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and the suicidal San Diego-based Heaven’s Gate gave a deadly name to religious millenarian groups, utopian communities were drawn to California.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91) created the Theosophical Society, a worldwide spiritual movement founded in New York that linked the “bodily manifestation of the Divine” from Krishna, Moses, the Buddha, Christ and down through Hiawatha. She saw them as purveyors of ancient wisdom who help us understand our higher selves.

When Madame Blavatsky died, the society underwent a reorganization with several splinter groups forming.

Dr. William H. Dower and Mrs. Francia LaDue founded a branch called the Temple of the People, which in 1903 moved to the lower Arroyo Grande Valley on our Central Coast.

The community emphasized learning and a scientific approach. It had the best private library on the Central Coast aside from William Randolph Hearst’s collection at San Simeon.

The three-story Coffee T. Rice home, which now stands in the middle of a mobile home park along Highway 1, was bought by the Theosophical community and became the Halcyon Hotel and Sanitarium, attracting patients from throughout the United States.

Dr. Dower specialized in treating alcoholism, drug addictions, nervous disorders and tuberculosis.

Patients were encouraged to take long walks on the Oceano Dunes and along the beaches to commune with nature.

Because of Dr. Dower’s involvement in tuberculosis treatment, he purchased the first X-ray machine in Central California and employed what was then considered state-of-the-art treatment, including electrotherapy and hydrotherapy.

The treatment facility for the tubercular patients was separated from the other wards. Patients were served healthy food and given light exercise, and they slept in outdoor pavilions with canvas roof covers that rolled back in good weather.

Patients were treated without regard to financial status, placing a heavy burden on the Theosophical community. The community’s magazine, The Temple Artisan, sought sponsors for patients, stating that $10 a month would support treatment for a person in recovery.

The hospital’s activities ended with Dr. Dower’s death in 1937.

Six years ago, Jan Scott, the curator of collections at the South County Historical Society’s Museum, began a highly successful experiment in “the museum as theater.” Jan has a rich background in theater and an insatiable curiosity that’s at the core of all good research.

Jan introduced herself to Eleanor Shumway, the Guardian in Chief of the Temple of The People. Eleanor allowed Jan to peruse all the early documents, including diaries and letters. Jan recalls that “after three hours of wading through book after scrapbook after letter, I hadn’t even really made a dent. I asked if I might return?”

Eleanor “got up from her desk, walked to a drawer and pulled out a set of keys. ‘This will get you in downstairs, and this is the key to my office. Come whenever you like.’”

Jan has written a reader’s theater script that is “a mix of history and theosophy concepts. Halcyon is more about an energy, a shared vision. As one researches old writings, it always goes back to the ‘feeling’ of the place.”

Performances of the one-hour show begin Saturday, June 25, at 2 p.m. and run every Saturday through July 23 at the IOOF Hall, 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande. It’s free, and doors open at 1:30 p.m.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.