A Walk Through Old Summerland
Excerpt, Mary Holzhauer
Reprinted by Jim Witmar, summerlandsite.com
A Walk Through Old Summerland
The small community of Summerland has gone through many phases since it was first established back in 1889. In the beginning the land was part of the Ortega Ranch, purchased by Henry Lafayette Williams in 1885. Williams, a former Treasury agent, planned to raise pigs and farm on the 1100 acre parcel that stretched from near today's Sheffield Drive in Montecito east to the Toro Canyon area. Williams soon ran into financial difficulties, however, and decided to take advantage of the advent of rail service to the Santa Barbara area. The Southern Pacific Railroad was laying tracks north from Los Angeles and would cross the ranch near the beach. He decided to build a town next to the rails and sell lots.
But it was not to be an ordinary town. Williams and his wife Katie were Spiritualist, a religion popular at the time, and they wanted to make the town a Spiritualist center, where believers could build homes or come for short periods to attend meetings. They laid out the town in a grid pattern, with small lots, measuring 60 ft. x 25 ft. that sold for $25. These were suitable for the tents of visitors, but if building sites for homes were needed, buyers could purchase them in blocks of four or more.
In 1887 the first train passed through the ranch on its way to Santa Barbara and in 1889 Williams and the early settlers dedicated the town, calling it "Summerland", the name of the Spiritualists' heaven. For a few years the Spiritualists continued to come, and many built homes and started businesses. Land was donated for the construction of a "temple" where they could gather socially and for séances, where mediums contacted the spirits of their relatives and friends who had "passed over". People from the surrounding area called the town "Spookville" and rumors of strange activities spread.
But the tranquility was not to last. In 1890 a large deposit of natural gas was discovered. It was tapped and piped to many of the homes for lighting. The town's children often played baseball after dark, since they could easily light the street by tapping pipes into the ground and lighting them. The gas was followed in 1894 by discovery of oil. A man drilling a water well found oil in the excavation and soon may of the townspeople were drilling. Then piers were built into the ocean, derricks erected on them, and Summerland had the first offshore oil field in the Western Hemisphere.
Oil brought new people to town, anxious to make their fortunes or just to find jobs in the new industry. Hotels and rooming houses were built and saloons were popular gathering spots, to the dismay of the Spiritualist. Many of them left during this period although the temple continued to be active until the 1950's. Residents in Montecito hated the look and smell of their small neighbor to the east; wells and other related facilities were sabotaged including those of J. Paul Getty, who joined the drilling community for a short time.
The oil boom lasted only about ten years or so, and then supplies began to dwindle. Drilling did continue, though, until the 1920's. Eventually the ocean tides and storms destroyed many of the wells and the field was abandoned. The depression years were hard on Summerland. Jobs had dried up with the oil and the lack of a dependable water supply kept the town from expanding. After World War II some new homes and apartments did appear, but residents called the town a "small wonder" since housing was inexpensive but most had wonderful ocean views.
The 1960's and 70's saw an influx of free spirits, hippies and artists drawn to the inexpensive living available in Summerland. Also in the mix were a number of surfers, who migrated north from Southern California beaches, established shops and built surfboards. Stories from this era reflect an easy-going, party-like atmospherewhile the older generation protested the loud parties, abandoned cars and boats, and the general deterioration in property values. The 80's saw a big change, as more water became available and a building boom followed. The still relatively inexpensive land values attracted developers and large new houses rose up on the hillsides, taking advantage of the views. The trend has continued and today Summerland is a more upscale place, with antique stores, art galleries and restaurants lining the main street.
Summerland has a rich and colorful history, and all who experience the town still see it as a "small wonder".