The History of Vista del Mar School

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The History of Vista del Mar School
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By Tom Modugno of Goleta History

Driving up the coast on the northbound 101, just before the massive Mariposa Reina oil facility, this old Spanish style building sits.

Today, this quaint little structure is the home of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, but it was built in 1927 to serve as the Vista del Mar Union School.

Longtime locals remember an old fighter jet parked beside the school for years and some have fond memories of playing on the aircraft. We’ll get to that later, but let’s start with how this school came to be in such a beautiful location.

In 1926, three one room schoolhouses were combined to make the Vista Del Mar Union School District. The powers that be chose this location since it was centrally located between the 3 schools.

The schools that were combined were the Orella School, the Las Cruces School, shown above, and the Alcatraz School, that was right across the highway from the present site.

During the construction, classes were held temporarily in a building donated by the Tidewater Oil Company. The beautiful new school was opened for class in 1927.

Built by Hans Skytt of Solvang, it sat on a four-acre, ocean view parcel, deeded from the Hollister family. The style was Spanish with a red tile roof.

Several small houses were built around the school for employees, that are also still there today.

The Vista Del Mar School served kids well, from El Capitan, out to the Ranch and up to Las Cruces for decades.

But in 1959, it got even better.

Early in 1959 the school’s principal, Warren Binzley, was at a cocktail party at Vandenberg AFB. Mr. Binzley casually asked a General Wade if it would be possible to get an out of service airplane to put on their playground.

 The General said maybe, if Binzley could get a veteran’s group as a sponsor…. The Goleta Amvets stepped up and an F-86 Sabre jet fighter was located in Tuscon, Arizona. It was taken to Vandenberg and demilitarized before it was ready for delivery to the school.

The Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron from El Toro volunteered to deliver the 6,800 pound plane to the school, one half at a time.

A second chopper brought in a crew of technicians and landed in a nearby field. They made the event a training exercise for the men.

The delivery was scheduled on a Friday afternoon and the little school was brimming with anticipation. Several journalists and photographers from local newspapers were on hand to record the event.

Notice the students watching from behind the fence as the soldiers tend to the delivery. The crew went to work on the jet immediately.

The jet was reconstructed on site by the Air Force crew, as the whole student body watched excitedly.

Late that same Friday afternoon, Captain Barnes ceremoniously handed over the keys of the cockpit to a beaming Principal Binzley.

The original cost of the jet was $500,000, but now it was a piece of playground equipment.

The F-86 was placed right in the middle of the playground, complete with cockpit, controls and instruments.

The children were thrilled.

It did not have an engine, guns, rockets or bombs, but that didn’t make it any less appealing to the youngsters.

It was a hit!

Such a hit, in fact, they had to build steps up to the cockpit after one eager kid fell and broke his arm.

Class pictures taken on the jet wings became a tradition.

Class pictures taken on the jet wings became a tradition. Shown here, the class of 1986.

The unusual playground structure gave the little school some fame for years to come.

The jet was visible from the highway, so lots of random visitors stopped to check it out. Many were sincere aficionados of military aircraft….

 And others were just vandals, that wanted a piece of the old warbird. Locks were eventually put on the cockpit to keep people from stealing bits and pieces.

Which brings us to the motivation for this page. The old F-86 made quite an impression on some youngsters. This young man’s life was definitely influenced by that airplane on the playground. Mark Tautrim started at Vista del Mar School in 1960. (His mother, Luzena  Erro, was in the first class to graduate from the Vista Del Mar School, and his daughter would be in the last.

Young Mark was so moved by sitting in the cockpit of that Sabre Jet, he went on to become a pilot at the young age of 22. This skill helped him land a great job on a huge ranch in Northern California, with lots of airplanes and a grass runway! Read an amazing story Mark wrote about the jet here. It was this story that motivated us to do this page.

We mentioned the Tidewater Oil Company earlier. They had been on the Gaviota Coast since the 1890’s, and as their operation changed hands through the years, it continued to grow.

By 1972, the oil plant was bigger than ever and still growing, creeping closer to the school. The red arrow shows Vista Del Mar School.

By 1986, it was nearly surrounding the school, and Chevron had plans for further expansion. It became undeniable. Concerns for the children’s health and safety forced the school to be closed after nearly 60 years in its primo Gaviota location. After the closure, contaminated soil was found very near the former schoolgrounds.

Chevron quickly built a temporary modular school a mile down the coast while they figured out where to build a permanent replacement. They spared no expense to try to make up for the displacement, providing the school with a science station complete with computers, a big deal in 1986. They also built a soccer field with a running track around it.

After over 6 years of negotiating and political wheeling and dealing, a site was secured near the old town of Las Cruces, north of the Gaviota pass. Built and paid for entirely by Chevron, the $20 million Vista de las Cruces School opened in 1992.

The former school and surrounding land was given back to the Hollister family, and the stucco, red-tiled building sat empty and useless, slowly falling into disrepair.

In 2004, the Gaviota Fire burned 7,500 acres in the area, destroying phone and electric lines to the now abandoned building.

The popular F-86 was repossessed by the government and taken to McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento where it was repainted and put on display. Years later it was restored again. Here is a link to that story, with tons of great photos and info.

The beautiful old school sat abandoned and forgotten for 20 years, a victim of vandalism and a camp for trespassing transients.

In 2006, the Hollister family donated the building to the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute, dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing marine animals. They continue their good work in the old school building to this day.

Vista Del Mar was unique in that they had so few students, they became like a family.

Dennis Kittle, shown here, still speaks highly of the wonderfully unique experience teaching there was.

And the education those kids got left a lifelong impression.

Ruthie Holman sent us this class photo from 1968. She loves remembering her days at Vista Del Mar.

Generations of local kids got a great education in a beautiful location at Vista Del Mar School on the Gaviota Coast.


Tom Modugno is selling holiday calendars highlighting Goleta's beauty and charm. Order yours here!

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GKE Nov 04, 2019 01:24 PM
The History of Vista del Mar School

My mother, Millie Ebersole, was the school secretary at Vista Del Mar throughout the 1970's. She loved every minute there! She always felt blessed to be working in such a beautiful place. The small class sizes and friendly faculty made everyone feel like a close-knit family.

a-1572898376 Nov 04, 2019 12:12 PM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Great article Tom. I am glad that the building is now being put to good use. It is a pretty building on a glorious site.

LCP112233 Nov 04, 2019 10:29 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

What a great article! Thank you. And thank you Chevron for the opportunity to give my children a first class education. I agree that VDM should have been more conservative with their spending, and had a little more forethought about the future of the school.

Bodyboarder73 Nov 04, 2019 10:14 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Cool! At one point in history their was a truck stop at Gaviota too. I think it was still around in the 70's or 80's before I moved here in 90.

tagdes Nov 05, 2019 07:58 PM
The History of Vista del Mar School

It began more of a restaurant, with it upstairs and general store downstairs for the campers at Gaviota. Their sign was well known locally...."Cold Steaks and Warm Beer". In the later seventies after the below mentioned lack of oil worker customers it was taken over by the Sunburst Farms local mini empire along with Flores Flats, their back county ranch, their 2 health food stores and beautiful classic wooden schooner, often seen off of Stearns wharf.

LCP112233 Nov 04, 2019 10:31 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

The truck stop, restaurant and gas station were off and on throughout the years. It is a tough place to run a business.

w scott Nov 04, 2019 09:18 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Very good information, One small tidbit is that may have been overlooked is that one of the conditions of when the Hollister family deeded the property to Vista Del Mar School, is that if it ever stopped being a school, the property would revert back to the Hollister's. Point Arguello Lighthouse has similar restrictions, (If it ever stopped being used as a light house) it would revert back to the Dibblee's and Hollisters .

EastBeach Nov 04, 2019 09:10 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

I've always been impressed by the "entry" and arched wooden door at the replacement Vista De Las Cruces school ... looking at these old photos of Vista Del Mar, it looks like the architect replicated the entry, door, and balcony! Enjoyed Tautrim's story.

euvnairb Nov 04, 2019 07:53 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Thank you for the pictures and the amazing story! I was always curious about the history of the building driving past it on the 101 and now I know!

rustydad Nov 04, 2019 07:48 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Great article Tom. Unfortunately the 'rest of the story' is not so happy. After Chevron and Exxon moved onto the Gaviota Coast with their billion dollar projects local property taxes soared and Vista Del Mar School District became one of the wealthiest schools in the country. Unfortunately instead of saving money for the day when the oil would run out they spent most of it, paying teachers and consultants exorbitant salaries, field trips across the country, and god only knows what else. Now with Chevron pretty much mothballed and Exxon shut down waiting for a new pipeline to be built tax money has declined. Still though it is roughly three times the State average per student. But once used to feasting cutting back seems like famine. So presently the Vista Del Mar School Board is considering "merging" with the Buellton School District. In essence dissolving the Vista Del Mar School District and busing the kids the extra 15 miles to Buellton, mothballing the 20 million dollar school that Chevron built. Sad.

rustydad Nov 04, 2019 12:56 PM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Yes, the boundary between Santa Ynez High School District and Santa Barbara High School District is along El Capitan Creek. It was logical when Santa Barbara only had the one high school campus in downtown Santa Barbara. But when Dos Pueblos High School was built the boundaries became way out of wack. By law the grammar schools must be within a single high school district. Changing the boundaries now would mean that the taxes from the oil facilities would go to Santa Barbara High School District and Goleta Elementary District. Santa Ynez would take a huge hit on their revenue and no longer would be a 'Basic Aid' district loosing millions a year in income. The end result is that kids that should go to school in Goleta go to Santa Ynez and ride a bus for an hour longer each day. In an effort by Buellton School District to 'capture' the one and a half million dollars a year that the Vista Del mar School District gets in property taxes they may be opening up a huge can of worms concerning district boundaries.

a-1572896797 Nov 04, 2019 11:46 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

The sad irony that the kids living on the Gaviota coast will get bused to Buellton when the districts merge. A lot of the students are direct descendants form the founds of the Vista del Mar School. My $0.02 is that they'd be better off re-drawing the district boundaries so the kids on the South side of the Gaviota tunnel go to Ellwood elementary school and GOV Junior High. Most of the Gaviota kids go to DPHS already.

PitMix Nov 04, 2019 10:30 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

A more cynical view is that Chevron is willing to be helpful in return for the good publicity they get to offset their fossil fuel activities. But you can't look a gift horse in the mouth, can you?

a-1572885857 Nov 04, 2019 08:44 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Curious how a marine wildlife sanctuary can operate at an old school on the mountain side of the 101? It's all based on sea water pumps operated by Chevron. The company leveraged an existing cooling pump to also circulate fresh ocean water to/from the Vista del Mar facility. the service is provided at no charge. Chevron is a pretty good neighbor once you get to know them.

a-1572883188 Nov 04, 2019 07:59 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

I can remember when many in the community fought hard to keep Chevron out. They were a shady bunch. They came, they destroyed, and then they left. Look what they did to the restaurant that was there. They established a boycott, made sure none of their workers ate there, and they pulled all kinds of tricks to shut them down. Eventually it worked and that iconic stop along the 101 shut down. Good riddance to Chevron and their cronies who brought nothing to our County. Keep this in mind when thinking about Cat Canyon.

patrick Nov 04, 2019 07:01 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Thanks for sharing. I’ve always wondered about that school. When I was growing up down south, I remember many parks that had similar aircraft functioning as play structures. Can’t imagine that happening now.

TWOSCOOPS Nov 04, 2019 06:21 AM
The History of Vista del Mar School

Mr. Tom Modugmo: Brilliant review of the history of Vista Del Mar School. Chevron replaced the school for $20,000,00, and added computers! That's great community involvement and good to know. And the jet being secured for the school playground? This school and location must have had some kind of great reputation to get so many people to do such generous things for the school. Thank you for choosing us at Edhat to know all this and experience good positive feelings! I'm always daunted at how to get photos to Edhat, you must have magic to get so many photos included.

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