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Literary Corner

Nipomo – A microcosm of California history | Judith Dale

  • Updated

My family recently adopted a Labrador retriever puppy from a family in Nipomo, a town just across the Santa Maria River in San Luis Obispo County. I had not been to Nipomo in decades since Highway 101 moved from Thompson Avenue to its current bypass location in the 1960s. So I was amazed at how big Nipomo had grown.

In the 2020 census, Nipomo’s population was 18,176, up from 16,714 in 2010 and 12,626 in 2000. That is a 44% increase in 20 years.

Nipomo is primarily an agricultural town — and a very prosperous one.

The estimated per capita income in 2020 was $34,975, up from $18,834 in 2000. The median household income is $82,543, with just 9% of the population below the poverty level. The state poverty average is 11.8%. The median house or condo value in 2020 was $596,716, up from $186,500 in 2000 — a 320% increase. Clearly, the town is on the upswing. It has a large commercial district, three elementary schools, a junior high, high school and a public charter technical high school. Of the people over age 25, 82% have a high school diploma and 25% have a bachelor's degree or higher.

History of Nipomo

The Chumash lived in the Nipomo area for 9,000 years before the Spanish arrived. (The name Nipomo means “foot of the hill” in Chumash).

In 1769, the Portola and Fr. Crespi expedition was charged with establishing missions along California's Central Coast. Missions were established in Santa Barbara, Solvang, Lompoc and San Luis Obispo, with the El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) connecting them. The road ran through what was to become Nipomo.

The founder of present-day Nipomo was William G. Dana of Boston. He was a sea captain who came to Santa Barbara in 1825. When first arriving in Santa Barbara, W.G. Dana opened a store and hunted sea otters for their fur. However, as the sea otter population declined due to overhunting, he turned to cattle ranching. In 1828, he married Maria Josefa Carrillo of the prominent Santa Barbara Carrillo family.

Maria was the daughter of Carlos Antonio Carrillo and granddaughter of Jose Raimundo Carrillo, who was part of the Portola expedition. In 1829, Dana and his father-in-law built and launched the first seagoing vessel on the West Coast and christened her "The Santa Barbara." This was a few miles north of Santa Barbara at Hill's Rancho, now the town of Goleta, which got its name from the Spanish word “Goleta,” meaning schooner.

Skybox teasers

Restoration work on the Dana Adobe is shown while in progress in July 2008.

In 1837, Gov. Juan B. Alvardo granted Dana the Rancho Nipomo Land Grant of 37,888 acres. The Danas moved to the rancho and in 1839 moved into their newly built home, the Dana Adobe. Chumash natives built the Dana-Carrillo home, which had a New England design but was built with local products such as adobe, wood, leather and tar.

The Dana Adobe represents a combination of Native American, Mexican and European-American ingenuity. Today, the home is a museum and is a monument to the multiculturalism of our area. The house has many different meanings to many different people and stands as a symbol of the cultural complexity of our history.

The rancho raised cattle, mainly for their hides and tallow, which was shipped out of Hartford (now Port San Luis) to countries worldwide to make shoes, soap and candles. When gold was discovered in California, the meat became valuable as food for the gold miners. This added even more to the Danas’ fortunes. They used the profits to import goods from around the world. The Nipomo region became a trade center for both exports and imports on the Central Coast. It was the main center of agriculture and industry within a 100-mile stretch of the California coast for many years.

Rancho Nipomo supplied missions Santa Ines, La Purisima, San Luis Obispo and neighboring ranchos with many of its products. Among the outlying buildings on the ranch were a soap kitchen, where the tallow produced in stock-raising was used; a room provided with looms for weaving coarse cloth for clothing, serapes and blankets; a turning lathe and furniture factory; and a blacksmith shop, where agricultural implements were made. A plow was invented at the rancho that significantly improved the ability of surrounding farmers to cultivate their crops.

The Dana Adobe served as an essential stop for El Camino Real travelers between San Luis Obispo and Mission Santa Barbara. The family was known for their generous hospitality and lavish fiestas. Travelers were always welcome and were given food and shelter for as long as they wished to stay. In addition, the adobe was a stagecoach stop. It became the exchange stop for mail between San Diego and San Francisco. This was the first mail route in California.

122121 Nipomo 1936

Migrant agricultural workers lived in pea picker tents in Nipomo during the Great Depression.

In 1846, U.S. Capt. John C. Fremont and his 300 soldiers stopped at Rancho Nipomo on the way south to capture Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The Dana family hosted a massive barbecue for the troops. In addition, Dana gave Fremont supplies, 40 head of cattle and 30 horses. Dana also gave Fremont valuable information for his trip south, including urging him to stop at the Benjamin Foxen Ranch. This proved good advice as Foxen's son guided Fremont over the San Marcos Pass to capture Santa Barbara.

The Danas had 21 children, 13 of which lived into adulthood. Many of the sons were educated at Santa Ynez College. They went on to be both state and county government officials. After the deaths of William Dana in 1858 at the age of 61 and Maria Josefa Carrillo Dana in 1883 at the age of 71, the Nipomo rancho was split up among the children. Most subdivided their parcels and sold farms to settlers coming to California.

In 1882, the Pacific Coast Railroad came through Nipomo on its route from Port Hartford (now Avila Beach) to San Luis Obispo, and continued to the Santa Ynez Valley. With the introduction of the railroad, property values increased, and farmers had easy access to markets around the world via ship. As a result, Nipomo became a boomtown. By 1887, there were two hotels, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a school, a hardware store, feed stable, real estate offices, three saloons and even a newspaper called the Nipomo News.

Nipomo's excellent soil and climate, in addition to rapid transportation, allowed farmers to grow specialty crops such as beans and peas to sell worldwide. This change from cattle and wheat required more labor, so Japanese and Filipino workers were recruited. In the 1920s, the federal government banned immigration from abroad. Workers were permitted to come from the Philippines as it was a U.S. territory, so they were not subject to the anti-immigration laws. However, the most significant influx of farm labor was due to the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and the Great Depression.

The Dust Bowl and Great Depression

In the 1930s, severe dust storms swept across the Midwestern states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas. These storms, years of drought and the Great Depression devastated the lives of people living in the Dust Bowl states. Three hundred thousand people living in these states packed up their belongings and drove to California where farm labor was needed. Many were lured to Nipomo to pick beans and peas.

NOTE: The Dust Bowl was the greatest manmade ecological disaster in American history. At the beginning of World War I, the government encouraged farmers to grow wheat. The land was cheap, and farmers plowed millions of acres of virgin land. They removed the native grasses that held the soil in place. Then, the rains stopped. Crops withered and died. Winds carried the topsoil away, resulting in massive dust storms. The dust choked the life out of livestock and people alike. Newspapers called the area a “Dust Bowl."

In 1930, the population of Nipomo was 1,812 residents. By 1934, the population was estimated to be 10,000. Many were stranded as they came to Nipomo to pick peas, but early spring frosts killed the peas for several years, so there was no work. The people had no money to move on — they were stranded. A huge migrant farmworker camp then was developed in Nipomo.

The federal government finally intervened in two ways: first, sending Dorothea Lange, a photographer, to document the hardships the migrant farmworkers were facing. In Nipomo, Lange came across Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old widow with seven children. Cleo, Florence's husband, had died of tuberculosis in 1931. In 1936, Florence, her children and her new companion, Joe, drove to Nipomo to pick peas. Due to the frost, there was no work, and the car had broken down. Joe walked to town to fix the car's radiator. Florence remained in the camp. That was when Dorothea Lange saw her and took her famous photographs, the most famous of which is "Migrant Mother."

Secondly, President Roosevelt's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided funding to build facilities, such as schools and bathrooms to meet the needs of the migrant farmworkers living in the camps. Also, welfare agencies, both government and private, stepped in to help people with food and shelter. These, indeed, were desperate times.

Finally, World War II and new social and economic policies brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression. California benefited from all the Midwest immigrants as they went to work in the wartime factories and provided much-needed labor on the farms, orchards and ranches. California boomed during and after World War II, in no small part due to all the "Okies” as they were called, even if they were not from Oklahoma. They were honest, hardworking people who only needed a chance.

Today, Nipomo is a bustling, prosperous city, still grounded in agriculture.

The Dana Adobe has been fully restored and is now a museum, thanks to the Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos (DANA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation, restoration and operation of the Dana Adobe, which has been designated a California Historical Landmark.

As you drive north on Highway 101 and pass Nipomo, remember its fascinating history. Think about all those past migrant families living in their cars or tents. Reflect on how far the town and our society have come and how fortunate we are today.

28 stories about Santa Barbara County's history, landscape and traditions | Judith Dale

Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of columns from Judith Dale highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast.

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

top story
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The area around Guadalupe has evolved through many stages — from Chumash villages, to Spanish rule under Mission La Purisima, to a Mexican land grant, an immigrant farming community, a railroad town, and a modern agricultural city.

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We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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