During our early morning walks, my 90-year-old neighbor and I often chat about our childhood experiences of growing up on farms in northern Santa Barbara County. One day during our conversation, she mentioned how her family would visit friends in Casmalia, and all would go to the beach for the afternoon. As we talked about Casmalia, she said she had not been there in decades and wondered what had happened to the town.
Since the only thing I knew about Casmalia was that the first Hitching Post Restaurant was located there, I thought I would do some research. I discovered a fascinating history that has been greatly influenced by outside forces over which the local residents at one time had little control.
Casmalia is located southwest of Santa Maria and just north of Vandenberg Space Force Base. It has a population of 144 people, down from 1,500 at its height in the late 1800s.
Today, Casmalia is off the beaten track, but that has not always been the case. Over the last 150 years, Casmalia has played a prominent role in California history, having periods of great prosperity, followed by periods of hardship and devastation. I hope you find its history as enjoyable as I did.
For over 10,000 years, the Chumash Indians lived along the Casmalia Creek in Shuman Canyon. However, once the Spanish arrived and constructed three missions in the area — Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, built in 1772; La Purisima Mission, built in 1787; and Santa Inez Mission, built in 1804 — life changed.
Most of the Chumash were forced to relocate to the missions. Cattle from La Purisima Mission roamed the countyside, and early Californians following the El Camino Real traveled through the area.
Once Mexico gained its independence from Spain and secularized the missions in 1840, California Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado granted 8,841 acres to Jose Maria del Carmen Domínguez and Antonio Olivera. The grant extended along the Pacific coast from Point Sal and Rancho Guadalupe to the north through the Casmalia Hills to Shuman Canyon and Rancho Jesús María to the south, which also encompasses present-day Casmalia.
The rancho was successful once cattle and sheep became valuable during the gold rush and the Civil War, sparking the need for food and clothing. However, in 1863-64 the cattle and sheep were wiped out by a devastating two-year drought. The local ranchers suffered significant losses. Much of the original land grant was split up and sold to settlers moving into the area. The disastrous drought was followed by periods of rain, and the cattle and sheep pastures became grain farms with plentiful harvests.
In 1871, a wharf was built at Point Sal, five miles west of present-day Casmalia, to carry the grain by ship to San Francisco and Los Angeles. From 1872 to 1873, Point Sal was briefly the largest shipping destination south of San Francisco. In 1877, however, the wharf was destroyed by rough seas and was never rebuilt due to development at other nearby ports.
Meanwhile, a stage line that connected San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1861, successfully ran from the Dana Rancho in Nipomo through Foxen Canyon and Los Olivos to Santa Barbara. When the stage line changed routes in 1877 and ran through Guadalupe, passing near Casmalia to Los Alamos and Los Olivos, it helped bring settlers to the Casmalia area. Oil was then discovered in Orcutt and brought oil crews to Casmalia, which prompted the opening of the town's first school to accommodate the new settlers' children.
Later in 1880, Chute Landing was built near the old Point Sal Wharf location and brought wagons carrying grain from the Santa Maria Valley through Casmalia on their way to the coast. This was a boon for Casmalia. However, in 1882, when the Pacific Coast Railway reached Santa Maria, Point Sal and Chute Landing were no longer needed. Farm produce could now be transported by rail from Santa Maria to Port Harford in San Luis Obispo rather than by horse to Chute Landing through Casmalia.
Casmalia disappeared from the scene until 1896, when the Southern Pacific Railroad built tracks from San Luis Obispo through Casmalia and housing was needed for the railroad workers and their families. That same year, Casmalia's first post office opened, and the town's population grew to 1,500. While the railroad ran through Casmalia from 1901 to 1937, H.H. Heller established Casmalia Hotel with a thriving restaurant, bar and 11 rooms to accommodate the oil field and railroad workers.
In 1920, Paul and Olivia Veglia, immigrants from the Piedmont area of Italy, bought the Casmalia Hotel. Olivia Veglia was a fantastic cook, and she served Italian, home-cooked, family-style food to hotel guests and customers. Paul Veglia died in 1932, and for the next nine years, Olivia Veglia continued to run a successful business. Once liquor prohibition was repealed, the hotel bar was reopened. The hotel became the central location for oil, railroad and Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Space Force Base) workers to meet and socialize. There were pool tables, player pianos, card tables and a wood stove where everyone could gather around and share stories.
In 1944, Olivia Veglia died and her son, Mario, decided to change the restaurant into a steakhouse, giving birth to the world-famous Hitching Post Restaurant. It was the first oak wood barbecue restaurant in the area. Mario Veglia took on two partners, Boyd Wyse and Julio Zaragoza. Together, they tore down the hotel rooms and renovated the restaurant.
In 1952, The Hitching Post was bought by brothers Frank and Victor Ostini. Frank Ostini did all the cooking behind the pit, while Victor Ostini bartended and worked in the kitchen. In 1957, Victor Ostini sold his share of the restaurant to Zaragoza, one of the former partners of Mario Veglia. At the time, there were no menus and only one dinner was available — an 18-ounce steak along with a salad, beverage and ice cream for dessert. The complete meal cost $3.75.
In 1967, Frank Ostini bought Zaragoza's portion of the restaurant, and it has remained solely owned by the Ostini family ever since. Frank and Natalie Ostini had six children — four boys, and two girls — all working in the restaurant at one time or another.
In 1977, Frank Ostini died, and his sons Bill and Frank Jr. took over the restaurant's operation. In 1986, Frank Ostini Jr. opened a second Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton. This restaurant became an instant success, with many new customers finding a delightful dining experience. Then, in 1988, the Hitching Post in Casmalia caught on fire. Many people feared the Ostinis would not reopen. Still, five months later, on Aug. 3, 1988, the doors were open again for business. The Hitching Post remains Casmalia’s main attraction today.
Hazardous waste landfill
The Casmalia Resources Hazardous Waste Landfill was a 252-acre disposal facility located in the hills near Casmalia until its closure in 1989 after the EPA discovered that dump operators were permitting a higher level of waste on-site than allowed.
During its operation, 4.5 billion pounds of hazardous waste from up to 10,000 individuals, businesses and government agencies were dumped on site. It opened in 1973 as a dumpsite for waste products generated by small-scale oil and agricultural operations. The facility later expanded to accept hazardous wastes like PCBs, solvents and pesticides. Approximately 40,000 gallons a day of toxic liquid waste were sent to Casmalia in the 1980s.
By 1985, over 50 truckloads a day of toxic waste were being dumped in Casmalia. Respiratory diseases and other ailments began to surface among residents, and Casmalia Resources was identified as the likely cause of these health issues. The facility was temporarily shut down and cited for numerous violations, including spraying liquid, toxic waste onto nearby hills to speed up the chemical evaporation process.
A public demonstration against the dump took place on Aug. 12, 1985, as 70 townspeople blocked the entrance to the dump. The protest consisted of piling hay bales on the road to prevent trucks from delivering toxic waste shipments. Eleven people were arrested.
In the summer of 1988 at a public hearing in Santa Maria attended by 300 people, a group of 72 local physicians expressed concern over health problems in the area, citing an abnormally high percentage of miscarriages, stillbirths and respiratory diseases. They attributed these health problems to the Casmalia Resources facility.
As state and federal agencies were considering the dump's future, another public hearing was held in Orcutt. A large group of demonstrators shut the meeting down. Nevertheless, the demonstration worked, and the permits for Casmalia Resources were not approved. The facility was subsequently shut down in 1989.
After the dump's closure, the former Casmalia Resources property was managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. A large area surrounding the dump had significant soil and groundwater contamination, and Casmalia Resources was declared a Superfund site. Superfund sites are polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations. Plans for containment of the site were put into place, and a long-term management plan was approved. Today, the site has a lake with ducks swimming in it and three grassy sloping terraced hillsides covering more than a dozen former landfill sites.
One can only imagine what those green terraces looked like and smelled like before they had been covered and allowed to go to grass. This is a real success story of civil demonstrations and actions by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Today, Casmalia has a post office, general store, and of course, the Hitching Post Restaurant. It is mainly a farming and retirement community, with the median age being 68 years old. It is a modest community, with an average household income of $50,787. Yet, it is a friendly, tight-knit community that is proud of its history and its role in the development of California and the Central Coast.
Learn more about Santa Barbara County's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale with these 26 stories
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