HISTORY IN
    
THE COUNTY OF
          SAN LUIS OBISPO
 
Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
      www.historyinslocounty
.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

"California Pastorale" 

Chapter 2 of Joseph D. Grant's book

Redwoods and Reminiscences,

published by
Save-The-Redwoods League
and
The Menninger Foundation, 
San Francisco, 1973, 

and

posted here with the kind permission of

the Save-the-Redwoods League

@Permission required for reprint, sale, or commercial use.  
Contact Save-the-Redwoods League at www.savetheredwoods.org 

[Please note:  The timeframe described in the following excerpt is the 1890s.  --Lynne Landwehr]

            "As I ranged the beautiful coast country of central California, I fell more and more in love with Arcadia as it then was….I bought a ranch near San Luis Obispo—the venerable mission town which takes its name from St. Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse. Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the little city slumbers at the base of picturesque cerros--pyramidal peaks, strangely cleft, which suggested a bishop's mitre to the pious padres who first ventured here.  The ranch was in San Luis Valley, southwest of town, partly enclosed by a dilapidated adobe wall which had been built almost a century before by Indian converts under the benign gaze of Padre Junipero Serra and his brown-robed Franciscan brethren.

           "In and around San Luis were many descendants of the proud old Spanish families that had held the land for generations. They were notable for their courtly hospitality and superb horsemanship….Some of the caballeros, at fiesta times, appeared arrayed in colorful costumes such as had been worn by the men of California under the sway of Spain and Mexico. Crimson, azure blue, green, or yellow were their jackets, adorned with gold and silver braid; and with what an air they flaunted immense leathern chaparejos (or “chaps”), sombreros and red sashes.

"When I was at San Luis Obispo , the great change in the California countryside was taking place. The ranchos were being subdivided. The easy-going, hospitable rancheros, lords of thousands of acres and many herds, were giving pride of place to the Anglo-Saxon. I am glad to think that I took part—indeed I was part—in those joyous days of barbecues, rodeos, twanging of guitars and mandolins, another forms of entertainment. It was difficult to leave the old adobes. Your horse was turned loose in the caballada. If you wanted a fresh mount, the best of the bunch was at your disposition.

            "Round about San Luis there were some youthful Englishmen—mostly “younger sons”—who had come out to this new country to make their fortune as rancheros. Foremost among them were the three brothers Vachell. The Vachell “boys,” as they were called, owned land in San Luis Obispo County—one ranch near Arroyo Grande, another at Creston, and a third near San Luis (the former Frank McCoppin[1] ranch) next to my own acres. The eldest of the three brothers, Horace Vachell, was a very close personal friend. We had hog-killing times.[2]  We shot quail and ducks together and drank—happily not to excess—sheepherder’s delight.

            "All three carried England to California. Following the staid traditions of the homeland, they would appear in formal dress for dinner, even on the rancho. The Vachells were of ancient family. When I first visited them, I was astonished to find upon the walls of their California drawing room portraits of personages whom they knew as friends….

            "Horace was the father of polo west of the Rockies —the first to play that splendid game, which caught on at once. He imported a smart black-and-yellow dogcart in which he drove tandem—which reminds me of a comment made thereupon by the leading physician in San Luis Obispo. Horace was driving a pair of blacks, in brown and brass harness, down the principal street, when the leader tuner around, and then lay down!  I heard afterwards that Horace had taught this horse certain tricks. This lying down was one of them. When the horse got up, the traces were crossed, and the 'pet' began kicking. Finally, order was re-established, but the doctor, an amused onlooker, remarked portentously: 'It takes a lot of trouble to be an Englishman.…'

            "The Vachells tried to introduce steeplechases, but our vaqueros preferred a dash along the hard brown sands of Pismo Beach. We had clam chowder parties galore. Looking back I recall regretfully that I dropped in on the tail of the fun. The Hispano-American patriarch was passing….

            "Other Englishmen joined the Vachells. They never chose to fly their own [British] flag on a gigantic flagstaff which had been given to Frank McCoppin by Senator Stanford. The cowboys might have riddled it with bullets; so they flew instead Old Glory.

            "One young Englishman with the Vachells trained his pony to carry a fishing rod under its tail. Passing through Arroyo Grande on his way to the estuary, where the steelhead were running, he was held up by some teamsters who demanded an explanation. “In England ,” replied the Britisher solemnly, “all our horses are trained to carry umbrellas where I have put my fishing-rod.”  The drinks, it was decided, were on the teamsters.

            "I recall some of our 'beanos' as the Vachells called them. A wonderful brandy punch was concocted by an Irishman, the barkeeper of the Olive Branch Saloon. It was a delectable drink, nectar after a long day in the saddle, compounded of lime juice, sugar, ice, green tea, brandy—with a top-dressing of rum—to be sucked slowly through a straw. May Dolan rest in peace!

            "Of the three brothers, Arthur Vachell remained in California for forty years  He lived and painted at Carmel, where he made many friends. Both Guy and his brother Horace married Californians, two sisters, the daughters of C.H. Phillips, who was one of the first to set about the subdivision and sale of the big ranchos. Horace began to write novels in 1890. His first success, both in America and England, was The Procession of Life. He left California—after seventeen years, in 1898. The two novels, Brothers and The Hill, were written in England about seven or eight years later. Both were best sellers.

            "It is gratifying to me that I have been able to maintain contact with him in the later years. Several times I have been his guest at his delightful manor near Bath—an ancient estate where the title to the land goes back to 800 A.D….When last I was there, I found the author, Horace, managing the house, and the artist, Arthur, supervising the construction of a beautiful sunken garden.

            "Horace Vachell has been so kind as to dedicate to me one of his best books, A Woman in Exile, which has a partly Californian setting—attesting, as do so many of his novels, that his life in the Golden West opened a rich vein of literary material which he has worked with distinction.

            "A family of Irish descent, which had great land holdings north of San Luis, was the Murphy family. Instead of a single Spanish grant, theirs were three grants adjoining—the Santa Margarita, Asuncion , and Atascadero ranches—each a princely domain.

            "A typical ranchero of those pastoral days was Pat Murphy,…known from San Francisco to San Diego as Don Patricio; and he spoke Spanish with an endearing and disarming Corkian brogue![3] The governor of the State had made Don Patricio a general of militia; although he had no military training whatever; and, as a young man, I was never able to make up my mind how to address this hidalgo; so I called him General up to noon time. After a Spanish meal, it was in order to treat him as an authentic grandee of Spain. In the late hours, when he was opening what we then called a 'basket' of wine, invariably champagne, I was genially encouraged to call him 'Pat.'  I can see him now with sharpest definition: a sturdy man of middle height, with the most polished manners, particularly when addressing the ladies. He must have kissed the Blarney Stone. He kissed the hands of all the ladies, and, had in hand before them, expressed his ardent wish to kiss their feet. About him, when he came to town, hung a staff of parasitical gentlemen, most of them ready to lick the dust from his boots. He paid for everything in royal fashion. Automatically, when he entered the bar of the old Cosmopolitan Hotel, all and sundry leaped to their feet, saluted the 'chief,' licked their thirsty lips, and awaited the royal command: 'Gentlemen, you will drink a glass of wine with me.'  On such occasions, enterprising saloon keepers collected empty champagne bottles duly charged to 'His Excellency' as full. He paid all such bills without question. We shall never see his like again.  

Illustration from Myron Angel's 1883 History of San Luis Obispo

            "Pat was a bluff, powerful man. I shall never forget one occasion when he came to my room at the hotel in San Luis Obispo at 3:30 o’clock in the gray of a summer morning, thundered at my door, hurried me into my clothes and literally kidnapped me by main force. We were going, he informed me, over to his Rancho Santa Margarita for a fandango and fiesta. As usual, he was dressed in fine broadcloth, and beneath his wide black hat clustered long locks slicked with bear grease. A big white polar bearskin robe was thrown into his equipage. He had a span of mustangs hitched to a light buggy, and he whipped them up to a runa2way speed. We swirled through the grandeur of Cuesta Pass at a dead run, and my companion was talking incessantly all the way over.

            "As we came down from the Santa Lucia Range into the upper spurs of the SalinasValley, we saw the hacienda, and roundabout it a most animated scene—the preparations for the great fiesta which was to last all day and a night. Beeves were being barbecued over great wood fires in the open. Native Spanish-Californian women were busy tossing tortillas, and stirring great ollas wherein were bubbling frijoles and chile con carne, and these were being served steaming hot. Yes, and there was aguardiente aplenty.

            "The scene is brought back by a passage out of Vachell’s book The Procession of Life, which describes a rodeo upon just such a rancho, "Beneath three splendid live oaks, an ancient Mexican was busy preparing the Barbecue. A deep trench was filled with glowing embers, and against the trunks of the oaks leaned a score of long willow spits upon which the choicest morsels of beef were impaled. A keen nose might have detected the fragrance of salsa, that savoury sauce, cunningly compounded of tomatoes, chiles, and onions, and a keen eye would have marked many bottles lying cool and snug at the bottom of a pool in the creek that bubbled past the corrals. The creek lay to the right of a small plain encircled with gently rolling hills, and down these hills the cattle were being slowly driven. The shrill cries of the vaqueros mingled with the lowing of the cows and steers, and these pastoral sounds floated harmoniously to the ears of the guests. 'This,' said one joyously, 'is California.'"

            "A feature of these fiestas was the guisado, or Spanish stew, so easy to make over a campfire, and more easy still over a stove. Here is the recipe:  Fry in butter to a golden brown slices of an onion, add several sliced tomatoes, and sliced green chiles, being careful not to use the hot variety (which indeed would make the dish too hot for Anglo-Saxon consumption), salt well and add a cup of ordinary stock. Put into the saucepan cold chicken, game, or beef, and let the whole simmer for about two hours. Before serving, add one tablespoonful of Worcestershire Sauce. This is a dish fit for a king, and an intelligent child can make it.

            "As part of the festivities, there was a bullfight in a corral, in which el toro, stomping and breathing fire, for a long time held his own; and there were roping feats by vaqueros, bronco busting, and other spirited events. Within the corrals was being enacted a vivid demonstration of the truth of that Wild West couplet,

'Never was horse that couldn’t be rode;
             Never was man that couldn’t be throwed.'

            "We were greatly thrilled when we heard that a famous matador from Madrid had consented to give an exhibition of his supreme skill and sang-froid. He undertook the feat known as la silla. Seated in a chair at the center of the ring with arms crossed, smoking a cigarette, with his back to the bull, this hero, so we were told—would await the charge of an already infuriated bull!

            "But—and I, for one, don’t blame him—at the supreme moment the man’s nerve failed him. As the bull charged, as he heard its thundering advance, he leapt from his chair, raced to the palisades and nimbly vaulted over them. Everybody laughed—and applauded. What would have happened to him on the Plaza de Toros of Madrid?  Afterwards, under the kindly ministrations of the laughing vaqueros, he acknowledged, 'I am old, too old, but senores, life is still sweet to me.'

            "Strains of the music of Castile and Catalonia—now languorous, now lilting—floated on the air. There was dancing of la jota and el bolero grande; and the carefree merrymaking, in which young and old joined alike, made the little hill-circled valley re-echo with laughter and song. There was no unnatural restraint, for I was probably the sole gringo there—the only one to whom Spanish was not the native tongue.

            "Such a grand fiesta lasted all night. Enchanted as I was with the brilliant scene, my eyelids were heavy; my throat was parched. It has been said of those Gargantuan meals that if one blew breath into the air after a full cargo, sparks might set alight the bunchgrass. Perhaps the caloric of the cooking and the aguardiente supplied the strength which wrenched me from the clutches of Don Patricio. I picked out one of the hobbled horses, and before I got under way, the inhospitable beast tried to buck me out of the saddle!  I rode into Paso Robles at an early morning hour—foundered.

            "Never shall I forget that scene at the Rancho Santa Margarita—for I had resurrected the patriarchal life so swiftly passing, a true presentment of California before the gringo came."


[1] Frank McCoppin (1834-1867): First Irish-born mayor of San Francisco, who owned property in San Luis Obispo County.

[2] hog-killing times: an old expression meaning times of great enjoyment.

[3] Corkian brogue: The accent typical of the city of Cork, on the south coast of Ireland.

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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.
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