Driving up the coast on the northbound 101, just before the massive Mariposa Reina oil facility, this old Spanish style building sits.
Today, this quaint little structure is the home of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, but it was built in 1927 to serve as the Vista del Mar Union School.
Longtime locals remember an old fighter jet parked beside the school for years and some have fond memories of playing on the aircraft. We’ll get to that later, but let’s start with how this school came to be in such a beautiful location.
In 1926, three one room schoolhouses were combined to make the Vista Del Mar Union School District. The powers that be chose this location since it was centrally located between the 3 schools.
The schools that were combined were the Orella School, the Las Cruces School, shown above, and the Alcatraz School, that was right across the highway from the present site.
During the construction, classes were held temporarily in a building donated by the Tidewater Oil Company. The beautiful new school was opened for class in 1927.
Built by Hans Skytt of Solvang, it sat on a four-acre, ocean view parcel, deeded from the Hollister family. The style was Spanish with a red tile roof.
Several small houses were built around the school for employees, that are also still there today.
The Vista Del Mar School served kids well, from El Capitan, out to the Ranch and up to Las Cruces for decades.
But in 1959, it got even better.
Early in 1959 the school’s principal, Warren Binzley, was at a cocktail party at Vandenberg AFB. Mr. Binzley casually asked a General Wade if it would be possible to get an out of service airplane to put on their playground.
The General said maybe, if Binzley could get a veteran’s group as a sponsor…. The Goleta Amvets stepped up and an F-86 Sabre jet fighter was located in Tuscon, Arizona. It was taken to Vandenberg and demilitarized before it was ready for delivery to the school.
The Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron from El Toro volunteered to deliver the 6,800 pound plane to the school, one half at a time.
A second chopper brought in a crew of technicians and landed in a nearby field. They made the event a training exercise for the men.
The delivery was scheduled on a Friday afternoon and the little school was brimming with anticipation. Several journalists and photographers from local newspapers were on hand to record the event.
Notice the students watching from behind the fence as the soldiers tend to the delivery. The crew went to work on the jet immediately.
The jet was reconstructed on site by the Air Force crew, as the whole student body watched excitedly.
Late that same Friday afternoon, Captain Barnes ceremoniously handed over the keys of the cockpit to a beaming Principal Binzley.
The original cost of the jet was $500,000, but now it was a piece of playground equipment.
The F-86 was placed right in the middle of the playground, complete with cockpit, controls and instruments.
The children were thrilled.
It did not have an engine, guns, rockets or bombs, but that didn’t make it any less appealing to the youngsters.
It was a hit!
Such a hit, in fact, they had to build steps up to the cockpit after one eager kid fell and broke his arm.
Class pictures taken on the jet wings became a tradition.
Class pictures taken on the jet wings became a tradition. Shown here, the class of 1986.
The unusual playground structure gave the little school some fame for years to come.
The jet was visible from the highway, so lots of random visitors stopped to check it out. Many were sincere aficionados of military aircraft….
And others were just vandals, that wanted a piece of the old warbird. Locks were eventually put on the cockpit to keep people from stealing bits and pieces.
Which brings us to the motivation for this page. The old F-86 made quite an impression on some youngsters. This young man’s life was definitely influenced by that airplane on the playground. Mark Tautrim started at Vista del Mar School in 1960. (His mother, Luzena Erro, was in the first class to graduate from the Vista Del Mar School, and his daughter would be in the last.
Young Mark was so moved by sitting in the cockpit of that Sabre Jet, he went on to become a pilot at the young age of 22. This skill helped him land a great job on a huge ranch in Northern California, with lots of airplanes and a grass runway! Read an amazing story Mark wrote about the jet here. It was this story that motivated us to do this page.
We mentioned the Tidewater Oil Company earlier. They had been on the Gaviota Coast since the 1890’s, and as their operation changed hands through the years, it continued to grow.
By 1972, the oil plant was bigger than ever and still growing, creeping closer to the school. The red arrow shows Vista Del Mar School.
By 1986, it was nearly surrounding the school, and Chevron had plans for further expansion. It became undeniable. Concerns for the children’s health and safety forced the school to be closed after nearly 60 years in its primo Gaviota location. After the closure, contaminated soil was found very near the former schoolgrounds.
Chevron quickly built a temporary modular school a mile down the coast while they figured out where to build a permanent replacement. They spared no expense to try to make up for the displacement, providing the school with a science station complete with computers, a big deal in 1986. They also built a soccer field with a running track around it.
After over 6 years of negotiating and political wheeling and dealing, a site was secured near the old town of Las Cruces, north of the Gaviota pass. Built and paid for entirely by Chevron, the $20 million Vista de las Cruces School opened in 1992.
The former school and surrounding land was given back to the Hollister family, and the stucco, red-tiled building sat empty and useless, slowly falling into disrepair.
In 2004, the Gaviota Fire burned 7,500 acres in the area, destroying phone and electric lines to the now abandoned building.
The popular F-86 was repossessed by the government and taken to McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento where it was repainted and put on display. Years later it was restored again. Here is a link to that story, with tons of great photos and info.
The beautiful old school sat abandoned and forgotten for 20 years, a victim of vandalism and a camp for trespassing transients.
In 2006, the Hollister family donated the building to the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute, dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing marine animals. They continue their good work in the old school building to this day.
Vista Del Mar was unique in that they had so few students, they became like a family.
Dennis Kittle, shown here, still speaks highly of the wonderfully unique experience teaching there was.
And the education those kids got left a lifelong impression.
Ruthie Holman sent us this class photo from 1968. She loves remembering her days at Vista Del Mar.
Generations of local kids got a great education in a beautiful location at Vista Del Mar School on the Gaviota Coast.
Sources: Lompoc Record, Santa Maria Times, Santa Barbara News Press, “the Gaviota Land”, Merlyn Chesnut, Santa Ynez Valley News, Jeff Kruthers, Walker Tompkins.
Very Special Thanks to Mark Tautrim, Guner Tautrim, Bruce Brownell, Dennis Kittle and Warren Binzley.
Categories: Goleta History