Driving up the coast from Goleta, just before Gaviota State Beach, you may notice this rock wall surrounded by pine trees off to the right.
It doesn’t look like much today, but these are the few remnants that are left of a grand plan that just wasn’t meant to be.
These old iron gates are all that stand between the modern world and an area of valuable local history.
This stretch of the coast has been the location for a gathering place and rest stop since the 1800’s.
With the completion of the first county road through the Gaviota Pass around 1860, more and more folks started making the trek up the Coast.In 1875, the Dibblee and Hollister families built a wharf at Gaviota beach they called Port Orford. The 1000 foot wharf was used to load merchandise onto steamships.
It was also a great place to take the family fishing.
It was around this time that Miguel Burke built an adobe close to the mouth of the Gaviota Canyon that was known as the Gaviota Store and Hotel. Notice the wagon on the left, the small child perched on the steps, and the sign that reads, “Liquors and provisions”.
The Gaviota store and hotel served as a stage stop for the line from Las Cruces to Santa Barbara. Miguel Burke also served as the Wharfmaster of the Gaviota pier.
Around 1915 the Hollister Estate Company built a new store at Gaviota. The operation of the store was leased out to Frank Newland and it was like a headquarters for the Hollister Ranch. It was the main supply drop off for the ranch and many other nearby residents. Since it had the only telephone around, it was a very important place.
A small house was built behind the store for the manager, similar to this one.
Otto and Walter Buhn took over the store in the 1920s, and they ran it until 1944 when Newton Moffat took the lease over. He ran it until the late 1940’s, and was followed by a couple more merchants. Given that it was the only commercial venture for miles around, it became a little bit of everything for everybody.
It was a grocery store, clothing store, gas station, dance hall, telephone exchange, post office, an auto court for weary travelers, and a dance hall on Saturday nights. Additionally, they had a restaurant that offered a commanding view of the Santa Barbara Channel. A one stop shop not only for travelers, but for the cowboys, ranchers and railroad employees that lived in the vicinity.In 1949, when the highway was widened, the store moved its entrance from the front to the side. Heavier traffic meant more truck transit, and the Gaviota store became a very popular truck stop. Big rigs were always seen parked on both sides of the freeway, at all hours of the day.
This was the location of the Gaviota Store for seven decades, just off the freeway.
The Refugio Fire in 1955 nearly destroyed the Gaviota Store. Started by a spark from a generator wire on a Refugio ranch, it raged for 10 days and was one of the largest in the county’s history, burning from the San Marcos Pass to the Gaviota Pass. The fire jumped the freeway near the store, causing its evacuation. Traffic was stopped on the 101 and the railroad. Long lines of people waited to use the telephone and when the power went out, food from the store’s freezer was cooked for the exhausted firefighters. Fortunately, the store was spared, and again it proved invaluable as a community center.
It may have had the most expensive gas around, but it also had a warm and friendly atmosphere where everyone was welcome and you could get good down-home cooking served by friendly local ladies. An old screen door banged out an announcement whenever a patron passed through, and the squeaky old wooden floor escorted them throughout. The gas station was a classic grease pit with a couple mangy looking dogs lying around and some equally mangy mechanics relaxing in the shade. Like something you might see on route 66 in Oklahoma.
The large south facing windows showed customers the traffic conditions, but beyond that was the million dollar view of the Santa Barbara Channel. In the winter, the store offered a warm and cozy safe haven complete with homemade chili and fresh brewed coffee. In the hot summer months it was a refreshing stop for ice cream and cold drinks.
While the Gaviota Store was a popular truck stop, local surfers were also regular customers before and after their forays into the Hollister Ranch. Nothing hit the spot better when you’re all surfed-out than a basket full of burger and fries at the counter of the old store. In the 1960’s, interesting interactions often took place at the lunch counter between old school redneck truck drivers and long haired hippy surfers….a real melting pot of California cultures.
In 1968, the Hollister Ranch and surrounding areas were sold to an Orange County Corporation called the Macco Construction Company. They had some real big plans and their first move was the demolition of the Gaviota Store in 1970.
It was a tragic ending to a local landmark, well before it had outlived it’s usefulness. The store and the surrounding eucalyptus grove were torn down, and local residents mourned the loss of their historic gathering place.
The Big Plan was to be called The Gaviota Coast, the first time that name was used in this area. Seventeen miles of pristine coastline would be the location for a sprawling community, featuring a huge RV park, single family lots, swimming pools, restrooms, teen centers, nurseries, laundry mats, a recreation pier with boat launch and plenty of shopping. The most unusual attraction was to be a clear plastic tube, large enough for a person to walk upright in, down to the beach and into the waves. Periscopes would be in place to view the sea life at varying depths. -I am not making this up…
The former Gaviota Store was located on a 44 acre parcel they named the “Gaviota Village”, that was to feature a large motel, a 100-foot light house and a museum. This ad showed distances to a variety of populated areas.
The first phase of their project was the construction of a restaurant/store and a service station. Little did they know, that would be as far as their grand plans would get…
The developers, in their infinite wisdom, opted for a Cape Cod style, just like you see on the opposite side of the continent! This did not go unnoticed by the locals.
There were informational paper place-mats in the dining room that touted, among other things, a “historic” lighthouse that was yet to be constructed. And it never was.
The new restaurant was built further north, off the freeway.
Fortunately for the locals, the huge development was not meant to be. The parent company of Macco Construction went into bankruptcy, and the acreage was sold to a bank, later to become the Hollister Ranch as we know it today.
After the Gaviota Village plan was denied, the restaurant went though several owners, including Sunburst Farms, an organic farming commune popular in the 1970’s.
Former employees have fond memories of working at the restaurant. One former waitress described it as, “like being part of a spicy gumbo soup that didn’t have a recipe. The characters were numerous and varied and always changing. There was a hodge podge of people working at the restaurant and an interesting mix of characters stopping in for coffee, a meal or drinks.”
Yes, this roadside diner served alcohol and every driver who drank was on the freeway in a matter of seconds to resume their journey.
One of the owners featured an extensive Sunday breakfast buffet for dirt cheap, a desperate attempt to draw people the 30 miles away from Santa Barbara. It worked and people came, but he was losing money with every pancake and slice of prime rib he sold.
Another promotion offered was the “Friday Night All You Can Eat Chicken Dinner” with live music, performed by local musicians such as the legendary “Quemada Bob”.
Another attempt to bring in business was a series of freeway signs luring travelers into the Gaviota restaurant. The most famous of which was a comical “Warm Beer and Cold Steaks” sign that got a lot of attention.
Another owner took over the restaurant and tried to change the warm-beer-cold-steaks reputation to a more upscale, destination-type restaurant. That angle also failed.
Near the end of it’s run, Native Americans angered by the building of a house on ancient burial grounds behind the store, stuffed abalone guts in the air venting system. At least that was the rumor, the truth was some disgruntled employees that hadn’t got paid in a while did it. They could never get the stink out of the place. Soon thereafter, it closed for good.
A local ranger who visited the shut down building in the late 1990’s described it as eerie and rat-infested. Reportedly, in its later days, transients lived there. The store mysteriously burned to the ground in 2002, leaving only the foundation, a few small charred trees, two dozen pine trees, a cracked, weedy asphalt driveway and a spectacular view.
There are still remnants of the fire today.
And an ornate rock wall is the solid reminder of an attempt to change this amazing stretch of coast forever.
The ruins of a massive money making enterprise lay quietly soaking up the coastal sun.
Mother Nature has a way of making even the biggest mistakes beautiful again.
Exploring further, there are still remains of the original Gaviota Store, with dangerous open pits lurking in the tall grass. It is not open to the public.
Over the years, the locals have taken back the Gaviota Village.
In 2008, the Trust for Public Land purchased the 43 acres that were to become the Gaviota Village and made them part of the Gaviota State Park.
The $2.85 million sale, funded by various federal and local agencies, guarantees that the land will forever be protected from future commercial development.
State Park officials say the area may be opened for future hiking trails. If so, the public will be able to enjoy the same fantastic view that diners enjoyed at the original Gaviota Store, forever.
Sources: Wendie Kruthers, Santa Barbara Genealogical Society, Hollister Ranch-it’s history, preservation and people by Nancy Ward, Jeff Kruthers, Gaviota Land, Merlyn Chesnut, Walker Tompkins, UCSB Special Collections, Jonathan Weisberg, Sally Saenger, oldgas.com, Bob Drury, Brad Bayley, Bob Hazard, www.mehosh.com, Michael Burke