Way Back When in June 1917
By Betsy J. Green
A heat wave, the likes of which had not been felt here for half a century, struck Santa Barbara 100 years ago this month. Temperatures on the coast topped 115, and up in the mountains, the official temperature hit 128! Hundreds of people here slept on the beach to escape the heat. In Carpinteria, people slept on the beach with their household possessions -- because it was feared that the whole town would burn. Up in Ojai, that was exactly what happened. In other news, cowboy artist Ed Borein was making a name for himself in the art world, and the Channel Islands were in the news again. All quotes are from Santa Barbara’s “Daily News & Independent” or “Morning Press,” unless I tell you otherwise.
Forest Fire Overwhelms Ojai
It began with a heat wave that scorched the land for several days, and wilted the folks of Santa Barbara who could only rest in the shade or go to the beach for solace. “In the hope of getting some relief from the unusual heat of the night, many persons decided to go to the beach, and towards midnight, entire families were on their way to where they expected to get relief. It is estimated that several hundred persons slept on the beach sand last night.” These were the temperatures in Santa Barbara according to the U.S. Weather Bureau:
June 15 - 105
June 16 - 105
June 17 - 115
The temperatures were even higher away from the coast. Up in the Santa Ynez mountains near the Los Prietos ranger station, the temperature reached 125° in the shade on the official thermometer! At a barbeque there, “instead of using fire as a means of cooking the meat, large flat stones, heated in the sun will furnish the heat. With the temperatures 125 degrees in the shade, the stones became intensely hot, cooking the meat in a few minutes.”
The Ojai fire started on Saturday, June 16. “The fire broke out early today in the brush in Matilija canyon … burned west into Wheeler canyon, and then along the heavily brush-covered mountain ridge to a point within two miles of Ojai. … Practically everyone had fled from Ojai at 9:00 tonight … hundreds of men were fighting the flames. … The Western Union telegraph operator at Ojai … reported … that the depot at Ojai was on fire, and that he was leaving his post. … The temperature in Ojai today reached 128°. … A special train left [Ventura] over the Southern Pacific Railroad at 9:30 tonight carrying men to aid in fighting the forest fire which is threatening the village of Ojai. All of the physicians in Ventura have been summoned to aid in the relief work, it was announced.”
Around the same time, another fire destroyed about a dozen homes in the hills of Carpinteria. “This fire started … in Toro Canyon … For a long time, the situation was about hopeless. There seemed little that men could do but try to avert calamities, and simply wait for the time when the wind might do down, or so shift that the conditions would become easier. … There was an abandonment of the homes in the old town of Carpinteria. … Many Carpinteria people spent Saturday night on the beach. Convinced that there was every chance for their town to be burned before morning, the residents carried with them to the sands, all the household goods they could move. Automobiles, push carts, horse-drawn vehicles, and baskets were used to get furniture, clothing, bedding, and valuables to the beach.”
Image: Santa Barbara Morning Press, June 17, 1917
The blaze left much of Ojai in ruins. “As the fire approached Ojai, the real drama began. Fine country homes, some of them owned by wealthy easterners, were swept away, and fields of grain, and orchards were wiped out. The danger to the town became apparent, and a dramatic exodus began. Mostly in automobiles, the 1,000 inhabitants of the place hurried to Ventura, and Santa Paula, where they were cared for by the Ventura branch of the American Red Cross. In two hours, only a brigade of fire fighters was left in the menaced town. … The residence section of Ojai was destroyed. … There is no pressure water service in the town, and only buckets, hoes, shovels, and wet sacks were available for the fight.” (Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1917)
A newspaper as far away as Missouri reported on fire-devastated Ojai. Image: Cape County Herald, July 6, 1917
An estimated 50 square miles around Ojai was incinerated. “A haze of smoke which turned the sun scarlet, and made the shadows a reddish brown, hung over Ojai all Sunday. The heat in the whole burned district was intense. The wind blew from the mountains to the sea, and carried heat, smoke, and dust down the Ventura highway to within a mile of Ventura …. Today the burned homes in Ojai outnumber those standing by two to one. Only in the undamaged business section of town is there a half block free from ruins.”
The fire spared Santa Barbara, but our town was buffeted by the hot winds. “In Santa Barbara, a dust storm prevailed Saturday night, such as has never been known in this city before. The winds whipped papers from billboards, lashed numerous American flags … into shreds, and drove the finest dust into dwellings and stores, no place being too securely closed to prevent the particles from sifting through.”
Finally, on Monday, June 19, there was some good news for both the Ojai and Carpinteria blazes - “Forest Fire is Under Control.” According to Robert W. Cermak, author of the 2005 book, "Fire in the Forest, A History of Forest Fire Control on the National Forests in California 1898 - 1956,” "The Carpinteria Fire burned 20,000 acres, while the Matilija-Wheeler Springs Fire blackened 28,420 acres, and destroyed most of the town of Ojai." [By way of contrast, according to Cal Fire, the 2009 Jesusita Fire covered only 8,733 acres.]
Many Heroes to Thank
Many of the valiant firefighters were not named. “The promptness and willingness to serve, which marked the way in which men came forward to fight the forest fires, was inspiring. They went at their task with a will. After long hours of battle with the flames, they came back bruised and blistered and tired, only to return to the work after a short rest. That was the big thing -- they went back. … All the men, constabulary members, forest rangers, ranchers helping a neighbor, and volunteers from the city and nearby country, did a work of which they can well be proud today. They did not flinch at their task, but worked with a will, and stopped only when near exhaustion.”
Forest Ranger Jacinto Reyes was one of the heroes of the Ojai fire. Image: courtesy of Los Padres National Forest Archive
One man in particular was named. Jacinto Reyes, the first Hispanic forest ranger in the Los Padres National Forest, saved the lives of more than a few firefighters. A group of ranchmen were fighting the fire in thick chaparral, when suddenly the wind changed and the flames rushed toward them. “Suddenly we saw Reyes, who is a gigantic man, start through the brush, swinging his heavy brush knife in one hand and an ax in the other. He never paused, and he never struck twice. At every blow, he sheared brush as thick as a man’s arm, and tough as hickory with single blows, and the others crowded behind him through the path he opened up to safety. It was a marvelous feat of strength and dexterity. For Reyes to have faltered but once would have cost the lives of the men behind him.” (His name lives on in the Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway, a 38-mile segment of Route 33, and Reyes Peak. Both are north of Ojai.)
And there were female heroes as well, such as the young women who manned the telephone switchboards and routed the frantic calls from people and firefighters. “Under all this strain, the telephone girls did nobly. At times, their voices were weary, but they were polite even when enduring abuse for conditions over which they had no control.”
And the “Los Angeles Times” reported that one resourceful woman “stuck to the task of feeding the firefighters until she was forced to flee for her life.” Another opened her home and made it a first-aid headquarters. And yet another “drove an automobile from the danger zone into Ventura, and went back again with a load of ice to sustain the firefighters.”
Of course, people were not the only ones affected by the inferno. There were reports of many rabbits and rats fleeing the fires. One cat in Carpinteria had a field day. “A few days after the fire, the Z.U. Lescher cat proudly laid on the front lawn one early morning, seven large-sized mountain rats that were doubtless driven into the valley by the fire. The next morning, 14 more were in the same place displayed with proud purrings and other high-brow cat ceremonials. The day following, 11 fresh victims to feline prowess, adorned the lawn, bringing the total up to 32 in three days.” Twenty-five bee hives were also destroyed in the Carpinteria fire.
Special Effects on the Cheap
Hollywood directors rushed to the area to capture scenes of smoke and firefighters. Image: Photoplay magazine, January 1918
Back when movie makers did not have the budgets to stage their own natural disasters, they took advantage of real-life disaster scenes, and wove a plot around them. “Following the army of firefighters, came an army of motion picture companies from Los Angeles, and these latter are busily engaged working on the details of fire scenes, rescues, and firefighting using the actual actors in the thrilling scenes of the past week for their dramas. A dozen scenarios are being worked out in different locations, and men who never saw a motion picture camera until three days ago are becoming quite blasé in leading roles under a withering blast of curses from sweating directors.”
(You may recall that movie makers also took advantage of the big flood in Santa Barbara a few years earlier and filmed scenes in Oak Park. See page 12 in my “Way Back When: Santa Barbara in 1914” book.)
It’s Graduation Time Again
This June, the 1917 edition of Santa Barbara High School’s “Olive and Gold” yearbook was “the most ambitious literary production ever undertaken [in Santa Barbara, that is], … a volume of 200 pages.” It was dedicated to the 12 students who had previously volunteered to fight in the Great War in Europe. I tracked down a copy of the 1917 edition of “Olive and Gold” at the Santa Barbara Genealogy Society’s Sahyun Library at 316 Castillo Street.
The cast of “El Capitan,” the class play at SBHS this year. Image: Olive & Gold, 1917
And down in Carp, the first class of students was graduating from Carpinteria’s three-year-old Union High School -- all three of them. “Graduates will be admitted to the State University without examination upon application.” (Carpinteria Valley News, June 1, 1917)
The Corn Crisis!
Forget corn on the cob this summer, the fighting in Europe meant that the United States was feeding half the world this year. Prices were up, supplies were down, and that meant (ominous clink of empty glasses here!) -- a shortage of whiskey. “Not a single distillery in the country is manufacturing whiskey … The general manufacture has been stopped by the great advance in the price of corn.” Fortunately, it was estimated that warehouses in the U.S. had a three-year supply.
What would an Irish funeral be without an ample supply of spirits? Image: New York Public Library
Ed Borein - an Urban Cowboy in the News
“Death Canyon, Arizona,” one of Edward Borein’s sketches in his New York show. Image: New York Sun, June 17, 1917
Although Borein was not a resident of Santa Barbara yet, [spoiler alert - he would settle here in 1921], he was already attracting attention this month in his adopted home of New York City where his sketches were featured in a New York art gallery. A New York paper and “Sunset” magazine both ran long articles about him this month. “Borein is the cowpuncher translated into art. … He puts into his pictures, the accumulated treasure of more than 30 years of experience and keen observation. … At night, after the day’s work was done, and his fellow-workers were taking their ease, he would labor with his pencil and paper trying to sketch some picturesque figure or reproduce some vivid pictorial impression.” (Sunset magazine, June 1917)
And now, 100 years on, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum has opened its newest gallery dedicated to the art of Ed Borein.
Mosey on over when you get a chance and take a gander at the 70+ sketches and paintings done by one of Santa Barbara’s most popular Western artists. Some of the items in the gallery will only be on display until August. More info here.
Dishing the Dirt on Our Streets
A visitor from Salem, Massachusetts, was not impressed with the state of State Street in our fair city, and said so in her hometown newspaper when she returned back home. “State Street, the main thoroughfare of the town, has unattractive shops, dirty sidewalks, and uncared for yards and lawns.” Ouch! And our local paper concurred. “The eastern critic who objects to our dirty streets is not the first one to complain. … One step toward improvement is within reach of the merchants and shopkeepers, and that, also has been proposed before. It is reform within the place of business in the matter of sweeping. It is quite a common practice to carry the litter from the store to the gutter; and as the streets are cleaned chiefly during the night, there the sweepings remain to be scattered with every little gust.” Yuck!
A 1920’s photo of the Octaviano Gutierrez adobe on De la Guerra Plaza shows the dirt street at that time. Image: Santa Barbara Public Library [Spoiler alert - This adobe was later replaced by the City Hall that we have today.]
“S&H Green Stamps Are Legal”
I had no idea that there was ever any controversy about S&H (Sperry & Hutchinson) Green Stamps. The stamps, which go back to the 1890s, were given by storekeepers to people who paid cash (“cash and carry”), rather than running up a tab and paying monthly. Apparently, some people considered that the stamps were a form of gambling, and tried to stop the practice. In Washington, D.C., for example, the S&H Company was taken to court. The judge ruled that, “there is no element of chance, no appeal to the gambling instinct, or anything by which the morals of the community may be affected.” (Los Angeles Herald, January 14, 1910)
An ad for Lear’s Dry Goods (clothing) store at 822 State Street. Image: Santa Barbara Morning Press, June 13, 1917
Fast forward 100 years, and now S&H Green Stamps have finally morphed into gambling, and there are S&H Green Stamp slot machines in various casinos.
The War at Home
This image ran in the local paper two days before the big draft registration. Image: Daily News & Independent, June 4, 1917
On Wednesday, June 6, the shops in Santa Barbara closed for the day so that young men of draft age could register their names for the selective service lottery. The movie theaters remained open and showed footage of President Wilson announcing our entry into the war in Europe. More than 4,500 men signed up in Santa Barbara County.
The mayor announced that firecrackers would not be permitted to be sold or used on July Fourth this year. This was “a desire to conserve powder for war purposes, and to leave no opportunity for the usual Fourth of July noise being a cover for depredations against the peace and dignity of the nation or community.” I guess that also ruled out the time-honored Santa Barbara tradition of dynamite on a raft out in the channel on July 4.
Sabotage? Was it the discovery of a pile of TNT under a Montecito bridge that led to this announcement? “Workmen engaged in removing an old bridge on Sheffield Drive, Montecito, yesterday uncovered a cache of dynamite … having been carefully concealed under the sill. … No explanation has been found for the presence of the explosive.” Yikes!
Mission Towers Copied
An Episcopal missionary bishop by the name of Charles H. Brent visited the Santa Barbara Mission this month and told a reporter that he had visited our fair city way back in 1899. He said that “he was so impressed with the old Mission towers, that when his cathedral was built later in the Philippines, he asked the architect to adopt that portion of Santa Barbara’s old monastery for the Manila church. Thus, it happens that the Episcopal cathedral in the Philippines so much resembles the Santa Barbara mission.” [Spoiler alert - Alas, that cathedral in Manila was destroyed during World War II.]
The towers of the old Episcopal cathedral in Manila were inspired by the towers of the Santa Barbara Mission. Image: Bay View Magazine, February 1908
Sirens, Hillbillies, and Imps
Films and filming were in the news again this month. Out on Santa Cruz Island, a cast of 66 actors and actresses were filming “Sirens of the Sea,” featuring a bevy of beauties adorned with shreds of seaweed and not much else (remember, we were still in the days before movie censorship). In the words of one movie poster advertising this film, "As long as men love women, the posters of 'Sirens of the Sea' will crowd your theatre. The female form in all its divinity enhanced by marvelous natural scenery." Another ad gushed, "’Sirens of the Sea’ is the most alluring, seductive, eye-feasting picture of beautiful women ever put on any screen. Diving Venuses -- water sprites -- seaweed-clad sirens -- dancing houris -- all the lure and loveliness of the female form divine."
Image: Motion Picture News, January 12, 1918
In contrast, “Flying A” starlet Mary Miles Minter was grunging it up in the hills near Santa Cruz (the city, not the island) with a bunch of hillbillies for the filming of “Melissa of the Hills.” The Santa Cruz mountains were a stand-in for the hills of Tennessee where the movie was supposed to take place.
Actress Mary Miles Minter poses with fellow actors in the Santa Cruz mountains. Image: Sunset magazine, March 1918
Back on State Street at the Palace Theater, Santa Barbara folks could view “The Bottle Imp,” a movie based on a tale by Robert Louis Stevenson. The film starred Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who portrays a Hawaiian fisherman. According to Wikipedia, “Hayakawa was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent era of the 1910s and 1920s. He was the first actor of Asian descent to find stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. His ‘broodingly handsome’ good looks and typecasting as a sexually dominant villain made him a heartthrob among American women during a time of racial discrimination, and he became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood.”
A movie poster for “The Bottle Imp.” Image: Paramount
Part of “The Bottle Imp” was shot at the Gillespie estate in Montecito. This estate is now called “El Fureidis.” It was used as a location for several movies in the 19-teens, as well as the 1983 film “Scarface.”
Part of “The Bottle Imp” was filmed at the Gillespie Estate in Montecito. Image: Library of Congress
Grab Your Popcorn!
In other movie news, local audiences were oohing and aahing about the undersea adventure movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” that was showing at the Potter Theater this month. This was one of the first underwater films people had ever seen. “You will see the fascinating life in the mighty deep, that for thousands of centuries, has been denied to the sight of the peoples of the earth. You can’t afford to miss it,” read the ad in the local paper.
Image: Daily News & Independent, June 4, 1917
The theater had a special Saturday matinee for school kids, and sponsored an essay contest. “The prize will be one dollar bill for the first prize, and fifty cents for the second and third best essays. … The rules of the contest are simple, and merely call for the child to write in a concise manner, the names of the things that he or she saw … during the running of the film.” You can also enjoy this movie on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPttwFF407A
Shipping Disaster on the Channel!
The news of the disaster was splashed across page one. Image: Daily News & Independent, June 13, 1917
Unfortunately, this was a for-real disaster, and not a special-effects disaster made for a movie. June gloom was said to be the cause of the accident that made headlines here. About 7:30 in the morning, near Anacapa Island, a 417-foot steamship named the “Governor” T-boned a Coast Guard craft called the “McCulloch.” The “McCulloch” was a 219-foot revenue cutter that patrolled the coast in search of smugglers and other ships involved in illegal activities. When the collision occurred, both ships were said to be traveling at a high rate of speed. “The passengers aboard the ‘Governor’ were at breakfast when the crash came. The big ship trembled … and the passengers were thrown violently to the floor. Deck officers struggled with men who attempted frantically to rip down the life preservers. A number of passengers tore at the fastenings of the lifeboats. The bow of the ‘Governor’ struck the ‘McCulloch’ amidships on the port side. A big gap was torn in the smaller boat. Lifeboats were dropped from the ‘Governor.’ One man was hurt as the crew of the cutter scrambled into a lifeboat from the sinking vessel. Every man was aboard the ‘Governor’ when the cutter sank beneath the waves.” The local paper noted that this was the first disaster that had happened in the Channel in a long time.
The 219-foot “McCulloch” sank off Anacapa Island about 30 minutes after the collision. Image: Library of Congress
[Spoiler alert - the “Governor” was itself rammed by a freighter off the Olympic Peninsula in 1921, and sank.]
String ‘Em Up High!
I’ve written before about the proliferation of auto purloiners (car thieves, that is). Yet another one was stolen this month, and folks around our fair city were getting all revved up about it. In fact, some hotheads were thinking that it was time to put the pedal to the metal. “The auto thief is … attributed in large measure to the leniency of the courts in letting off the thieves on suspended and light sentences. In the old days, the theft of a horse was followed by a lynching bee or a heavy penitentiary sentence. … Too much law and too many lawyers.” Car thieves beware!
A Poetry Contest -- About Cars
The local car dealer at the Mission Garage, who was selling a new model of the Oakland Sensible Six, sponsored a poetry contest for local youngsters. A number of school children submitted entries that were printed in the local paper. One of my favorites was from 11-year-old Dorothy Edmondson of Oak Park:
The Oakland Six motors are the best there are.
And artillery-type wheels are used on this car.
Of finest pressed steel, the frame is made.
The tires are Fisk, of the highest grade.
A man is particular what car he picks.
If he’s wise, he selects the Oakland Six.
Has a nice ring, dontcha think?
Numerous local kids penned poems about this car. Image: Motor World Wholesale magazine, November 14, 1917
The Tuberculosis Tizzy
T.B., also called consumption way back when, was one of the leading causes of death 100 years ago, and antibiotics were still decades in the future. Physicians were not sure how to treat it. Arsenic was tried, as was sleeping outdoors. (This was a time when many homes had sleeping porches -- usually on the second floor. You can still see some of these in Santa Barbara.) People knew it was contagious, and patients were often advised to stay in sanitoria until they were cured.
So when a tuberculosis sanitorium was proposed to be located in Mission Canyon near Tunnel Road on the Alta Vista Ranch, just about everybody in Santa Barbara was opposed -- mostly because it was feared that it would affect tourism. The sanitorium would include patients from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. One paper wrote, “The supervisors from Ventura are well pleased with the site, it is said. Why shouldn’t they be? They are making Santa Barbara the home of all their residents who are ill with tuberculosis.” Another wrote, “The city’s tourist business would be ruined.” Alternative sites that were suggested included Goleta and Ojai. The matter was not resolved by the end of June, so you’ll have to wait for future editions of this column to find out how the matter was resolved.
Watch for my column on the first Saturday of every month.
Mark your calendars!
I will be presenting the first in a series of programs at the Santa Barbara Central Library to celebrate its centennial. My slideshow - The Library and the City, 1916 & 1917 - will cover some of the highlights of life in Santa Barbara as the library was being built. Sunday, June 11, 3-4 p.m. in the Faulkner Gallery. Free, no reservations necessary. Stop by and say “hi.”
The library celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Image: courtesy of John Fritsche
Click here for more information about other programs celebrating the library’s centennial.