Times Past

Santa Margarita is home to one of the largest remaining Mexican land grants

Henry Chapman Ford’s watercolor of the ruins of the Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.
Henry Chapman Ford’s watercolor of the ruins of the Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.

Santa Margarita was once famous for vaqueros, bears and a circus. Today, it’s home to several excellent wineries, restaurants and lots of good people enjoying life in a small rural town.

It’s also home to one of the largest surviving Mexican land grants, El Rancho Santa Margarita de Cortona.

The rancho began in 1787, when missionaries in San Luis Obispo were attracted by the excellent water table that they needed for raising field crops.

They built an “assistant mission,” the Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona, on the site.

The asistencia prospered for more than 30 years. But after 1830, resources at Missions San Luis Obispo and San Miguel began to contract in part because of the demands of land “squatters” from New Mexico.

A group of these “squatters” settled in the Pozo region, causing concern over the Santa Margarita region for the padres who wanted to protect the land for the Salinan tribe.

In December 1833, Father Luis Gil y Taboada traveled up the Old Padre Road over the Cuesta Grade. He wanted to celebrate Mass for the neophytes who were engaged in planting the winter grain crop at the asistencia.

At the foot of the altar in the asistencia chapel, he suffered a violent attack of dysentery and began vomiting blood. Father Juan Cabot was summoned from San Miguel and administered last rites before Father Luis died Dec. 15, 1833. His remains were taken to San Luis Obispo for burial.

At the right base of the sanctuary in Mission San Luis Obispo, you can see the inscription commemorating Father Luis’ burial site. He was one of the last of the Spanish Franciscans.

Joaquín Tomas Estrada, who lived from 1815 to 1893, the son of the Alcalde of Monterey, José Raimundo Estrada, and Josefa Vallejo de Alvarado, was the half-brother of Juan Bautista Alvarado, the governor of Mexican California, 1836 to 1842.

In 1841, Joaquín was granted the 17,735-acre Santa Margarita by acting Gov. Manuel Jimeno during Alvarado’s illness. Joaquín took possession of herds of cattle that grew into the tens of thousands. These cattle brought a premium price for feeding hungry miners during the gold rush.

Joaquín became famous for his opulent lifestyle. Don Joaquin even brought a circus to his rancho for the entertainment of his guests.

He invited friends and relatives from throughout the state to come to Casa de Estrada. The party lasted for two weeks. For 12 consecutive nights, the circus gave a show.

But by 1861, Joaquín was forced to sell his beloved rancho because of his lack of knowledge of a money-based economy.

The modern history of Santa Margarita begins when Gen. Patrick Murphy purchased the ranch from Joaquin for $45,000. Murphy laid out the original plans for the town of Santa Margarita with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1889.

Murphy built an office for a Wells Fargo Stage stop and U.S. Post Office on the ranch, which operated from 1867 to 1883.

The recently published book, “Santa Margarita,” by Cheri Roe and the Santa Margarita Historical Society is among the best volumes I’ve seen in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

It’s profusely illustrated with clearly reproduced and well-captioned images depicting the Native American presence to the construction of the Santa Margarita Lake/Salinas Dam in 1941.

My 1959 French-made Simca Ariane car, with its sewing machine-sized engine, broke down on Cuesta Grade in 1961. I was delighted to identify a few of the bars and restaurants that Tom Ogren, my future brother-in-law, and I visited while waiting for Harry’s Garage, located at the east end of Santa Margarita, to repair the engine.

The book is available at the Santa Margarita Historical Society Museum behind the 1907 jail at 9630 Murphy Ave. in Santa Margarita. It’s also available at the SLO County History Center at 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo and at many booksellers.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. 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.