By Tom Modugno of Goleta History
At the far west end of Goleta the Tecolote Canyon winds down from the uppermost reaches of the Santa Ynez mountains. The canyon descends rapidly into a pastoral valley and down to a beach that has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years.
But this page will focus on Tecolote Canyon specifically.
From the coastal plain to the mountains, Tecolote Canyon has served as a comfortable home to humans for at least 10,000 years. The Chumash being the first recorded people, but vague remnants of previous civilizations have also been found. The villages were on the ocean bluffs and along the Tecolote creek near the ocean, seeing as that was their main food source. But they surely hunted and gathered well up into the canyon.
When the Spaniards arrived and built a mission at Santa Barbara, they used the Tecolote Canyon coastal plain for a livestock pasture, but they didn’t make much use of the canyon areas. Around this time is when the name Tecolote Canyon was coined, Spanish for owl.
The first individual to claim ownership of the Tecolote area was an Irishman named Nicolas Den. In 1842, Den was granted the Rancho Los Dos Pueblos, a huge chunk of land that ran from the Slough on the east and almost all the way to El Capitan point on the west. From high in the foothills down to the ocean. He made his home in the Dos Pueblos canyon and he used the coastal plain at Tecolote creek as grazing land, but not much mention was made of the Tecolote canyon during his ownership.
In 1861, an improved County Road was built roughly following the old El Camino Real, the original path connecting the California missions.
At Ellwood Canyon the road took a sharp turn to the north in order to negotiate a very steep hill at Tecolote Canyon. The road stayed like this for over 50 years. Read more about this on my page The Tecolote Cut.
After Nicolas Den passed away, his family fell into financial hard times and began selling off pieces of their massive ranch to avoid bankruptcy. This man, W.W. Hollister, worked out a deal to buy up portions of the Dos Pueblos Rancho with the Den family lawyer. Hollister was so enamored with the Goleta area that he told several of his friends like Ellwood Cooper, Dr. Winchester, and Major Shelton Sturges that they needed to come buy some of this beautiful countryside.
Major Shelton Sturges was a distant relative of Hollister from Ohio. Sturges came from a very wealthy family that owned banks, a variety of businesses and lots of land. After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, he was enticed to go west by the new transcontinental railroad and by Hollister’s recommendation. Sturges came to Goleta and bought 1,000 acres at Tecolote Canyon in 1876. His three sons ran the ranch while the Major was busy with other business dealings.
Tecolote Canyon was a small investment for Shelton Sturges. He was busy back in the Midwest, building a huge mansion at rural Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Many of the wealthy from Chicago followed his lead, turning the small lake into an exclusive resort.
With the financial strength of the Sturges family inheritance, they quickly turned the Tecolote Canyon into a successful cattle ranch. They built a ranch house about 2 miles up the canyon and he put his three sons in charge of running the ranch. After a few years, he sold it to his sons for $20,000. Not long after that, in 1883, two of the sons moved on to other out of state ventures, leaving Harold Sturges the lone family member at the ranch.
We found this want ad from 1884. Evidently there was an abundance of fallen trees on the Tecolote Ranch and Harold missed having the assistance of his brothers!
Harold Sturges was a respected member of Goleta society, and his Tecolote Ranch was a picturesque setting for events. This notice was from an 1886 horticultural event.
Sturges’ ranch hands occasionally drove the cattle down across the highway to the beach area to graze and he also raised hogs, which were sometimes allowed to forage on the beach. Sturges fenced off the beach area to keep the public out and enjoyed it for picnics, clambakes and barbecues and he fished for trout and hunted ducks in the marsh at the mouth of the creek. Sturges also built a pier at Tecolote beach in the 1880’s primarily to ship lumber, but he surely used it for fishing.
Unfortunately for the Sturges family, this tenacious lawyer from San Francisco would soon become the owner of their beautiful new ranch. Shelton Sturges had been led astray by Col. WW Hollisterwhen he was convinced to buy the Tecolote Canyon despite a cloudy title. The Den family children hired Thomas Bishop to get their land back because their father’s will had not been followed as written. After years in a bitter court battle that ultimately killed Col. Hollister, the Sturges family lost ownership of the Tecolote Ranch without any compensation. In 1887, Thomas Bishop became the new owner as part of his pay for the case and he named it the Tecolote Land Company.
In 1891, Tecolote Canyon made the news when a man was killed in a traffic accident. He was heading to his home at Dos Pueblos Ranch and coming down the backside of the the steep Tecolote hill when he lost control of his wagon. When he reached the sharp curve at the bottom of the grade, his wagon flipped, and he was crushed underneath it. Soon after, the road was straightened out to avoid more accidents.
This is the Sexton Family and friends from Goleta enjoying a picnic at Tecolote Canyon in 1892. These Sexton folks really knew how to enjoy their neighborhood, seems like they were always doing fun stuff! There are lots of photos of them camping at the Goleta Slough every summer.
In 1893, a one room schoolhouse was built on top of the hill that the county road climbed at Tecolote. The new owner Thomas Bishop donated one half acre for the school to be built on.
Circled on this map was the location of the Tecolote school.
Tecolote school had 9 grades and served the area for about 40 years until the Ellwood School was opened around 1930. The building remained on top of the hill until 1949, when a rancher named Billy Woods bought it and moved it to Las Varas Ranch. Looks like a happy group of kids!
Upper Tecolote Canyon had plenty of thick and scenic oak forests, as seen here in 1895. This big eight horse wagon was probably used for transporting wood. The lower canyon had plenty open land for barley and lima bean crops that Bishop rented out to local farmers.
Bishop began planting lemon orchards on different parts of the ranch. He also formed the Tecolote Water Company which built dams and water tanks, greatly expanding his growing operation. In his 39 years of ownership, he changed the Tecolote Canyon from a cattle ranch to a successful lemon producer.
This map from 1900 shows the boundaries of Mr. Bishop’s Tecolote Ranch, all 941 acres. Notice FarrenRoad winding along the western border. Also notice some unnamed squares above Tecolote Ranch. Goleta Blacksmith Jim Smith recalled a family staking a homestead claim at the back of the Canyon and perhaps one of those unnamed squares was their spot. Access to their claim was very difficult, however, and when their son was bit by a rattlesnake, he died before they could get him out to help. They dropped their claim and left soon after that.
In 1901, the railroad finally completed their coastal route up the Gaviota Coast. Massive cuts and fills were required on every creek up the coast, and the Tecolote creek was no exception. To allow easy access to the coast from the upper canyon, local artisan Tom Pollard crafted this beautiful sandstone tunnel that still is just as beautiful today.
If you can see past the graffiti…..
Enter this refined gentleman, Silsby Spalding. Contrary to popular belief, he was not an heir to the sporting goods family. Born in Minneapolis in 1886, his family moved to California when he was ten years old and in 1906 he entered Stanford University. Spalding left Stanford at the end of his sophomore year because he was offered a position one of the largest banking houses in the United States, where he was soon promoted to manager of the Los Angeles office. Later he was an executive in the blossoming oil industry working with Edward Doheney. Silsby became the first mayor of Beverly Hills, the president of the Los Angeles Aero Club and an accomplished yachtsmen. Possibly his biggest claim to fame however was naming humorist Will Rogers as the honorary mayor of Beverly Hills.
Spalding married into wealth with one of his bosses daughters, Caroline “Carrie” Canfield. Her father had pioneered oil exploration with Doheny in Los Angeles and helped start the Beverly Hills neighborhood after attempted oil wells there brought only water. Silsby and Carrie had been living in this cozy little Beverly Hills cottage called “Grayhall” for about 10 years when Silsby decided they needed more room to play.
So in 1926, Spalding purchased the Tecolote Ranch and began transforming it into a world class ranch property known for its purebred cattle, horses, walnuts and citrus.
The Spaldings and their young daughter Deborah lived in the Sturges family’s modest ranch house while they built their showplace of a mansion further up the canyon. You can tell by the look on Silsby’s face, this little casita will not suffice! This old ranch house was demolished in 1951.
To design their new ranch house, the Spaldings hired architect William Mooser, who had just finished designing the Santa Barbara County Courthouse! The courthouse and Spalding’s Hacienda are the only two Mooser designed buildings in Santa Barbara County. In the early 1930’s construction began on the Spanish Colonial Revival style Tecolote Ranch Hacienda.
So authentic was the Spanish Colonial Revival design, they chose to use reclaimed roof tiles from Mission La Purisima in Lompoc. With the devastating 1925 earthquake still fresh in their memories, the seven-bedroom house was built on a foundation 45 feet deep and set on shock absorbers to help ride out any future earthquakes.
In Owen O’Neill’s 1939 book, History of Santa Barbara County, the Tecolote Ranch is proclaimed, “one of the most attractive and successful ranches” in the county. He then lists that Tecolote Ranch had 150 Hereford cattle, 22 stock horses, 10 mares, 3 thoroughbred race horses, 60 acres of lemons and oranges, 70 acres of walnuts, 20 employees, and a small avocado orchard, with 32 different varieties of avocados! O’Neill also states that the ranch has thousands of visitors every year.
The home was, and still is, a showplace of Architectural and natural beauty. Keeping true to its Spanish roots, he built lovely gardens and courtyards. But in addition to the visually pleasing design, the house had a lot of safety features.
Local artisan Jim Smith and his crew spent three years making decorative wrought iron doors and grills that were bolted to all the windows.
The bars on the doors can be seen here, making it look almost like a jail. Additionally, the property was surrounded by a massive wall, spiked along the top with broken glass bottles. A brand new steel and barbed wire fence was built on both sides of the coastal property as well, to keep the public out.
Inside the house there were secret passageways leading to secret rooms.
All these safety features could be due to a couple of things- During the construction, Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy was kidnapped from his home and held for ransom. Surely this was concerning to an extremely wealthy family.
But probably more to the point, his wife Carrie’s mother had been shot dead by a former employee on the front steps of their mansion when she was a young girl. Surely a traumatic event that haunted Carrie for the rest of her life.
Additional security was provided by a Spanish style gatehouse that was built near the entrance to the canyon. Today it serves as the neighborhood center.
Spalding was a wild west enthusiast and an avid horseback rider. He was close friends with humorist Will Rogers and several famous western artists, like Ed Borein. This photo from the 1928 Fiesta parade shows Spalding, Rogers and Borein, left to right, in their finest Fiesta apparel.
He loved all things Old West and amassed an impressive collection of unique saddles, tack, wagons and art.
At his new hacienda, Silsby made sure there was plenty of room for his extensive collection. Possibly the finest collection of western tack in the country, he had silver saddles encased in glass housings with their silver bits, paintings in grand frames, massive doors with iron locks and studs and magnificent chaps and other tack adorning the walls.
Notice the artwork along the top of the wall. Famous western artist and close friend Ed Borein painted a series of early California scenes on spruce panels with India ink. When the Spalding family sold the Tecolote Ranch, Samuel B Mosher moved the collection to his Dos Pueblos Orchid Farm.
Another very special piece of art in Silsby’s collection is this detailed diorama of a stagecoach by another famous western artist Joe De Yong.
This pristine wagon with the Tecolote Ranch logo painted on it is a work of art in its own right.
Most of Spalding’s collection is now on permanent display at the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum.
Spalding’s favorite Stetson is also on display at the Museum today.
Their daughter Deborah was also a horse enthusiast and Silsby built her a private seven stall stable for a birthday present.
The Spalding family enjoyed the good life in the Tecolote Canyon and they spent a fair amount of time at their private beach, today know as Haskells. Silsby was a yachting enthusiast and he contemplated building a marina at his private Tecolote beach. While that never happened, he did build a beach house near the ocean and it became a social center for friends and family.
Silsby fancied himself a conservationist and he was very protective of the natural beauty of his Goleta ranch. But when oil was discovered right next door at Ellwood in 1928, he put his conservative ways to the side.
In order to maximize profits, the Spalding split their coastal property in half and deeded half to Carrie in order to facilitate the construction of 2 piers.
The Spaldings leased their beach out to 2 different oil companies and reaped the profits. Two piers were built, and the formally serene beach setting was transformed into a busy, noisy and ugly industrial zone, seen here in 1930. The Ellwood oil operations brought great wealth to the Spaldings and to Santa Barbara County, but it also brought the attention of international antagonists.
On February 23rd, 1942, a submarine from the Japanese Navy attempted to bombard the Ellwood oil fields. We cover this story extensively on our page Attack on Ellwood. While the Japanese attack did very little actual damage, it did great psychological damage to the American people. Two shells struck the Tecolote Ranch, one exploded in the orchard, and another was a dud.
The dud was found by the Tecolote Ranch foreman, disarmed, and put on display in the Hacienda as a souvenir of the Attack on Goleta.
An interesting side note for surfing enthusiasts: Silsby had a custom surfboard made to keep on his yacht! Made from white pine and mahogany with a Spalding vulcanized rubber deck patch for traction, he had an R inlayed on the deck for his yacht name, Ramona. The board was built in 1930 by Fellows & Stewart, a shipbuilding company in San Pedro.
Silsby Spalding passed away in 1949.
After that, Spalding’s wife Carrie split her time between the ranch and her Beverly Hills home. Their daughter Deborah was married with children, and they lived at Tecolote full time raising cattle, walnuts and alfalfa. In 1959, Deborah and her family moved to Hope Ranch and sold the ranch to a pair of developers from Los Angeles named Irwin Harris and Roy Steele for just under one million dollars.
Harris and Steele had big changes in mind for the old Tecolote Canyon and they got right to work. They drew up elaborate plans to develop the canyon all the way back to Spalding’s hacienda. On the beach front property they envisioned a beautiful marina, or in Spanish, an Embarcadero. So the Tecolote Canyon became Rancho Embarcadero….on paper.
Their imaginary marina was a big selling point and this fancy diorama got the public real excited. Look at all that parking for Pete’s sake!
Right off the bat, the would be developers faced some resistance from their neighbors, One example being the city of Santa Barbara objecting to the harbor plans.
Undaunted, Harris and Steele continued to hype the sale of 628 lots with fancy flyers, catchy slogans and detailed maps. Their over the top advertising methods were very similar to those used by John Williams nearly 100 years earlier, right up the road at Naples.
They were making real money selling a dream that had no real plan. The lots they were selling had no legal description and the marina was just a diorama, nothing more. Absolutely no work was started down at Haskells, not even the parking lot. Nonetheless, a vigorous advertising campaign was in full force, utilizing the brilliant slogan, “Have Fun in the Sun on 101”.
Perhaps another omen of the bad things to come, a construction worker was killed on the property in 1961. ( They had a 70 year old guy digging a trench? )
What the developers lacked in morals, they made up for with connections. Their new neighbor in Winchester Canyon, Senator Jack Hollister, was very interested in Harris and Steele’s plan to build a yacht marina. He enabled them to create the Embarcadero Municipal Improvement District, or EMID. This gave the developers incredible power and the ability to sell bonds to investors to raise money for public infrastructure. And sell they did. The old gatehouse for the Spalding Ranch security became a sales office for the Embarcadero’s Royal Oaks Development, featuring one acre residential lots.
Harris and Steele were the controlling officers of the EMID, and they were embezzling faster than they were building. They sold millions of dollars of bonds and took out multiple loans for the harbor, plus a shopping center, a riding club, a school, a park and a tennis club! Of course, all of this was included in their advertising literature, but all that was actually completed was the Grand Entrance.
Eventually reality caught up with Steele and Harris and their house of cards collapsed on them, putting the whole project into bankruptcy. Overpaying contractors and demanding kickbacks was just one of the ploys they used to embezzle thousands of dollars. From 1962 to 1966 the dishonest duo were in and out of jail cells and courtrooms.
They were initially convicted of 33 felony counts and sentenced to state prison, but after years of appeals and legal wrangling, they ultimately paid only small fines and were on probation for a few years.
The Tecolote Canyon was closed for a year and a half and became federal property while bankruptcy proceedings sorted things out. Legal subdivisions were drawn up and sold to repay the Embarcadero investors.
There were no finished streets or driveways, just 25 partially built homes. Hugh McCormick was appointed to sell parcels and Mario Galetti, who lived in the foreman’s residence in the upper ranch, was kept on as the ranch heavy equipment operator.
This aerial from 1965 shows the state of the canyon at that time. Dirt roads and lots of unfinished homes.
This ad was seen in the Los Angeles Times in 1966, trying to sell any or all of the property and it worked. Many of the subdivided lots were sold and all the remaining raw acreage and the beachfront property was purchased for $4,400,000 by Maxwell Rubin who then sold to Wallover Incorporated.
Car caravans mostly from Los Angeles came to the Tecolote Canyon to see the 25 partially built homes. An additional 11 homes were built by 1964 and they were slowly sold to private individuals. In 1965 the Embarcadero Property Owners Association was formed and by 1977 another 37 homes had been finished. This view is looking down at Vereda Galeria.
Wallover kept McCormick and made him project manager, overseeing new construction and the planting of hundreds acres of avocados. Wallover invested millions of dollars into the property for water wells, trees and architectural plans for 152 beach front condominiums that were never approved.
This map from 1970 shows the streets of the Rancho Embarcadero neighborhood. Homeowners were allowed to access the backcountry behind the gate on Vereda Leyenda until 1974.
In my humble opinion, the 1970s were the prime years to live in the Tecolote Canyon. There were still many empty lots and plenty of open space for kids to run wild and enjoy the natural beauty of the canyon. This was taken in front of our house at the end of Vereda Leyenda with my sister and I showing some friends her tired old horse, Robles.
I will always cherish my years spent exploring the wonders of the Tecolote Canyon and the creek that ran through it with my loyal friend King. (Notice how they managed flood control back then. Every year the aforementioned Mario would drive his bulldozer down the creek, clearing the brush and rocks and doing extensive damage to a multitude of living things.)
Rancho Embarcadero today consists of 177 one acre lots. Also within the EMID boundaries are a 900 acre avocado ranch, a 20 acre parcel maintained as a park and a beachfront parcel currently the site of the Bacara. It is still one of the most beautiful and unique places to live in the Santa Barbara County with a close knit neighborhood. And it has quite an interesting history….
Special Thanks to Tom Peterson and the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum.
Sources: Walker Tompkins, Norma Jean Roden, John Wiley, Jon M. Erlandson, Goleta Valley Historical Society, Santa Barbara Library, Edson Smith Collection, icollector.com, Montecito Magazine, Mark Lewis, Bonhams.com, Deadbell.com, Santa Barbara Carriage Museum, Politicalstrangenames.blogspot, Findagrave.com, The Deborah Spalding Pelissero Family, Los Angeles Examiner, Los Angeles Times, Newspapers.com, Owen O’Neill,