People, Places and Things

Montecito’s Spanish Hamlet

We’ve decided to walk each and every street in “the city limits of Montecito”, and this week we set out to explore one of the most fabled and fascinating areas of town. Modernly, there are two “villages” in Montecito – the Upper Village near San Ysidro and East Valley Roads and the Lower Village along Coast Village Road. The granddaddy of European villages in Montecito, however, is “Spanishtown”, a hamlet that thrived for over 100 years near what is now Parra Grande Lane and East Valley Road.

This hike began at what became the heart and soul of Spanishtown – Mount Carmel Church. We hiked from the church westward on East Valley Road to Sycamore Canyon, and then backtracked to Parra Grande Lane. We wandered up Parra Grande to Riven Rock Road, headed east to Hot Springs and then back down to Mt. Carmel Church. It was a short hike, but full of local history and rich childhood memories for both of us.

Mount Carmel Church is such a spectacular Montecito location that it begs it’s own story. On the morning of our hike we stopped by to take a few photos and wound up meeting some of the kind stewards of the church, who graciously showed us around. For the purposes of this story, we’ll whet your whistle with just a few of the photos from our memorable stop at Mt. Carmel.

Following our hike, we researched Mt. Carmel Church to learn more about this beautiful Catholic Church, and this is what we found: The area in and around what later became known as Spanishtown was very attractive to the early missionaries due to its year-round plentiful water and steelhead trout. So attractive was it, that Padre Serra and others in the Spanish provincial government had discussions about establishing the mission in that area. Ultimately however, it was decided that the present-day site of the Santa Barbara Mission was more desirable due to its proximity to the Presidio and the Chumash peoples living in their nearby villages, and the mission was founded in 1786.

Seventy two years later, on July 16, 1856 a father from the SB Mission arrived in Montecito to hold a special mass for the residents of Spanishtown. The service, held in an open field, celebrated the founding of Mt. Carmel Church. The cornerstone for an adobe building was laid on February 28th of the following year, and in1859 two prominent local families, the Dominquezes and the Juarezs donated the land for the church.

Three decades later, in the late 1890’s the adobe church was too small to accommodate the growing parish, and a wooden structure supplanted the old adobe. In 1936 another local family, the Cudahays, donated the necessary cash for a newer and larger church. The architects proposed a Pueblo Indian style adobe, and the present-day church was constructed.

Leaving Mt. Carmel Church, and heading west on E. Valley Road, we came to the intersection of E. Valley and Hot Springs Road. East Valley is also known as Highway 192.

We are including the two following maps to help illustrate the vitality and energy of this area in the early days, and orient you to this original Montecito neighborhood.

In the 1780‘s, after concluding their military service at the presidio, Spanish soldiers were awarded small parcels of land in lieu of wages while in service. Several soldiers elected to take their parcels in an area of Montecito that was rich in natural resources. As a result, a little village known as Spanishtown (which probably appeared very European in nature), sprang up along the banks of Montecito Creek. This little settlement of homes and businesses grew as others joined, adding to the community.

The first map above was created by David Myrick for his book “Montecito and Santa Barbara Volume I” . We have modified the map to highlight the church, places of commerce and the community buildings along the tiny stretch of roadway. In its heyday, Spanishtown boasted 3 dance halls, at least one bordello, several restaurants, a blacksmith shop, several saloons, an inn, a boarding house, a cigar/liquor store, a painting shop/studio, a Chinese laundry, a print shop, a world famous attraction (the giant grape vine), a jail, a grocery store, a co-op grocery, and a billiards room. Further up Parra Grande Spanishtown residents and visitors frequented the Don Jose Lorenzana adobe dance hall, a magnificent structure that still stands today.

The second map is one we photographed from a Sanborn Insurance map book of Montecito. We recently purchased the book from an online auction and are thrilled to have a record of Montecito properties dating between 1918 and 1956. This is the 1956 version of what had been Spanishtown. (Note the 2 buildings in the lower left of the photo – 106 & 110 E. Valley Rd. – they have recently been renovated into housing for Montecito firefighters)

As we made our way along E. Valley Road on the early Sunday morning, we noticed several groups of parishioners leaving their homes on foot to attend mass at Mt. Carmel Church. As the bells tolled, we saw women with small children dressed in their Sunday best, in tow. We remarked at the traditional flavor of this scene, while noting how perilous the journey was for these families. The roadway along that stretch of E. Valley is very narrow, with almost no shoulder, and only minimal visibility for drivers. We feared for the devoted church-goers as much as we feared for our own safety as we navigated this dangerous and well-traveled part of Montecito. Our hats are off to the various groups in Montecito who are working toward creating safe and efficient pedestrian pathways. We sincerely hope that before long a path will be added to this historic area that will make foot travel safer and more attractive.

The first of the old Spanishtown remnants that we came to was this private residence. We believe it was previously the home of Jose Romero’s billiards hall.

Next we passed one of the three entrances to “La Parra Grande”, the estate that was home to the “world famous” giant grape vine. It was owned by a number of colorful people, one of the notables being Milo Potter, local hotelier and owner of Santa Barbara’s Potter Hotel. In earlier years this entrance (probably the service entrance) was smaller and less obvious than it is presently, but over the years larger cars and delivery vehicles necessitated an enlarging of the gates.

As luck would have it, on the morning of our hike, a white Rolls Royce drove by the Potter Estate gate, evoking the magic of a bygone era.

The grand estate had three entrances that we passed on this morning’s hike – the one on E. Valley shown above; one on Parra Grande shown here.

And this, the main entrance on Hot Springs Road.

Past the gates that Milo Potter built on E. Valley Road, the next architectural landmark that caught our eyes was a small building we believe may have been part of the rooming houses at the Weeping Willow Inn. We spoke with one of the present-day owners of the property who was gratified to hear that Spanishtown has once been a very vital part of Montecito.

Which brings us to the steps of the Weeping Willow Inn, on of Montecito’s first commercial hospitality ventures. Both an inn and a restaurant, the inn was a destination for travelers from far and near. Owned and operated by one of the Sanchez sisters, Guadalupe Cota was the resident proprietor of the establishment until her death in the early 1930’s. The inn was an integral part of Spanishtown’s many celebrations and was well known for its fine dining as well as its comfortable lodging accommodations. The first of these two photos shows the abandoned building, circa1970’s or 1980’s; the other shows the steps as they were on the day we took our urban hike in this part of Montecito.

As mentioned above, some of the buildings that has once been a part of Spanishtown, have recently been renovated. They are the buildings referenced on the Sanborn Map, marked as 106 & 110 E. Valley Rd. Referred to by some as the “Sanchez Compound”, the buildings have more recently become housing for Montecito firefighters. They are located directly across from Parra Grande Lane and consist of what had been one of the three Sanchez sister’s (Viviana Romero’s) Grocery Store, the legendary Alameda Saloon and another building that perhaps served as a dance hall, a barn or possibly a private residence.

These roadside mailboxes stand at what would have been a very lively part of the Spanishtown village during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

In that part of Spanishtown, a gravestone marks the resting place of Margarita McGary, the daughter of Viviana Sanchez and her husband Pedro Romero, however it’s not certain that Margarita is in fact buried in that spot. There is much local lore regarding the lives and deaths of the residents of Spanishtown, and Margarita’s is among those whose history is uncertain. Another inhabitant of Spanishtown during that era was Joaquin Murieta, a bandit so notorious that he was spotted all over California on any given day. Legend has it that in 1853, while eluding the sheriff and his men, Joaquin holed up in a modest little building in Spanishtown, successfully evading capture. Historians differ on whether Joaquin was a real outlaw or simply a fictional character who captured the imaginations of the local townspeople, but either way, he has a place on the history of Montecito’s original village.

As we made our way westward along the narrow and perilous road toward Sycamore Canyon, we passed Montecito Creek, the primary water and food source for both the European settlers and Chumash peoples before them. Steelhead trout were plentiful in the creeks and were historically a main staple in the diets of those living in that area . Modernly, efforts are being made to protect and foster the native fish populations in the creeks of Montecito and Santa Barbara. We noticed these “people” seem to be quite vigilant in their supervision of the nearby creek and its inhabitants.

We stopped to snap a photo of the roadway along EastValley Road, looking toward Sycamore Canyon. We later discovered what we believe is an exact or nearly exact view of the same roadway, taken when Spanishtown existed. We are unsure of the identities the man and the children pictured, but would sure love to know the answer to that question…

Further along East Valley Road we passed a tree that seems to defy efforts to contain it, some unique architecture and an old farmhouse dating back to the 1800’s. We were sad to see that the hedge around the old home has grown up so high that it’s nearly obscured it. It’s a house we can recall regularly driving past and admiring for many years. We’re happy to see that it’s been preserved and restored, and that it apparently serves as a cozy home to its lucky inhabitants…so we won’t complain too bitterly about our inability to admire it fully.

Our hike took us backtracking along East Valley Road, and back to Parra Grande Lane. And now…(drum roll) for the star of the show, the “parra grande”, which is Spanish for large vine. This photo is in David Myrick’s book “Montecito and Santa Barbara Volume I” and has a photo credit to the SB Historical Society. It shows Louisa Dominguez, the daughter of the woman who planted the grapevine about 90 years earlier.

(As an aside – For anyone interested in the history of Montecito, David Myrick’s books, Montecito and Santa Barbara Volumes I & II are a must-have.)

The parra grande has a very romantic tale, and one that makes it even more magical than it appears to be in the photo. The story goes something like this: Back in the first years of the 1780’s, a beautiful young girl by the name of Maria Marcelina Feliz was living with her family in Los Angeles. Maria had occasion to meet a handsome young man, Jose Dominguez, whom she instantly fell madly in love with. Maria told her parents of her love for Jose, and his love for her, but her parents were not happy. They had been quite wealthy prior to suffering a sudden financial setback, and although no longer enjoying a lavish lifestyle themselves, they intended to marry off their lovely daughter to a wealthy Spaniard; and it seemed that Jose Dominguez did not fit the bill. As a way of separating the two lovebirds, Maria and her family suddenly departed Los Angles for Santa Barbara, were they relocated to Spanishtown. Unbeknownst to her parents, Maria and Jose had met in secret the night before her departure, and Jose gave Maria a grapevine cutting in the shape of a riding crop. Maria took the cutting, and a promise from Jose that he would find and marry her in two years time if he had been successful at creating a personal fortune for himself and her, his future bride.

When she arrived in Spanishtown, Maria is said to have planted the grapevine cutting, visiting it daily as a symbol of hope and a place of prayer for the safe and speedy return of her Jose. The years passed, and on the eve of her intended wedding to a wealthy but unpleasant man selected by her parents, Maria’s prayers were answered. Jose had arrived in Spanishtown, just in time to present himself and his rather large fortune to Maria and her parents. Maria’s parents quickly agreed to the engagement of Maria and Jose, and in 1785 the couple were married, when Maria was reportedly a girl of fourteen years.

Over the course of a lifelong marriage, Maria and Jose Dominguez had fifteen children, scores of grandchildren and even great -grandchildren. They remained living together in their home in Spanishtown until Jose’s death and later Maria’s death in 1866. The Dominguez family was one of several that made up the very fabric of Spanishtown, as they lived and worked in the small village.

The parra grande eventually grew to cover an arbor that was more than 5,000 square feet, and offered shade to the outdoor dance floor that it covered. It was also the source of up to 8 tons of grape yearly, which were used to produce some of the the earliest local wines, and provide income to the Dominguez family. As word of the huge grapevine spread, visitors came to see the natural marvel. It’s rumored that visitors were made to pass through two separate “whisky shops” before reaching the vine, and that the purchase of a “refreshment” from the shops was mandatory.

Ultimately, the grapevine began to suffer, and in 1875 it was cut down. Michael Sarver, the owner of the vine and its surrounding property, arranged to have the giant grapevine cut into several sections and shipped to Philadelphia for the 1876 World’s Fair. For 25¢ visitors could see the famous California grapevine and pose near it for photographs. So popular was the massive grapevine that Mr. Sarver made plans to turn it into a traveling attraction, however he went bankrupt and died suddenly before realizing his plans.

The property that had once belonged to Jose and Maria Dominguez had had several owners over the centuries, one being Milo Potter, the owner of Santa Barbara’s magnificent Potter Hotel. The Potters used “La Parra Grande” as their personal residence for many years. Modernly the estate has been split into several parcels, but the main entrance on Hot Springs Road, above Mt. Carmel Church still bears the Potter’s mark.

But back to Parra Grande Lane… as we hiked up Parra Grande we saw a number of interesting things along the way, including old stonework & ironwork, old buildings and interesting landscaping.

At the top of Parra Grande is a grand old adobe, that dates back to the Spanishtown era. Don Jose Lorenzana owned the property and the building, known as the Lorenzana Dance Hall. The legendary dance hall was used during many local fiestas until 1886 when Sr. Lorenzana sold it. The adobe now sits on what is the southwest corner of Parra Grande and Riven Rock Road. The home seen here is still an adobe, however, like many other local adobes, once the Yankees began acquiring them, it was Americanized with typical American architectural features.

At the top of Parra Grande Lane, where it intersects Riven Rock Road, there’s an unusually large unimproved lot. The field is so lovely in its natural state…

As we made our way down Hot Springs Road and back to our starting point near Mt. Carmel Church, we couldn’t help but think about the lives of the many inhabitants who had lived in the little village of Spanishtown, back when grocery stores, dance halls, bordellos, saloons, bandits, and grizzly bears were a part of the everyday life. We wished that the flood of 1914 had been kinder to the residents of the little hamlet and are disappointed that so many of the quaint buildings of the era have disappeared with time, but we’re also very grateful to have grown up seeing the remnants of the old village. We’re also happy to see the preservation and use of some of Spanishtown’s original buildings today.

Remember to save the date for the 2nd Annual Urban Hike Invitational!

Like last year, we’ll take a New Year’s Eve Day wander, with Santa Barbara’s celebrated local historian and stand-up comedian, Neal Graffy. Last year’s hike coincided with our final “official” hike of the SB City limits, and therefore included a bit of pomp and circumstance. This year, there will be no ceremonious pageantry, just celebration and no doubt some shenanigans as we explotre the streets of the Funk Zone. Neal will narrate a fascinating walking tour of the area, and we’ll visit some of the lesser-known spots in the Zone. We plan on starting at 2:00 p.m. and ending at about 4:00 p.m., which will be just in time for some well-deserved refreshments. As soon as we determine our exact starting place and route, we’ll let you know what we have planned… But for now, save the date and plan on joining us for a few hours as we say goodbye to 2012 and head into 2013.

As always, we encourage you to go out and explore the neighborhoods, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all expect the unexpected.

About Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright

We are two "fifty-something" year olds who are lifetime residents of Santa Barbara. Together, we have decided to walk each and every street within the City limits of Santa Barbara just for the fun of it. Peter is a dentist, and Stacey is a long-time County employee who helps the elderly without family to look after them. Read more

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