San Luis Obispo old buildings share city’s unique past

The top of the Anderson Hotel

If you peer through the window at the Anderson Barbershop in San Luis Obispo, you’ll glimpse into an era that existed long before apps, drones and smartphones. But while the faded barber pole, wooden chairs and antiquated radiator seem fixed in another time, the expression “if these walls could talk” applies to the shop’s unique history.

Old buildings in San Luis Obispo aren’t just interesting to look at — they also house memories that play a vital part in the evolution of the community.

While the 160-year-old city has many historically significant buildings and monuments, here’s a quick look at some of the more interesting, easy-to-find ones:

ANDERSON BARBERSHOP, 954 Monterey Street

In the 1930s, the road to San Simeon wasn’t so easy to navigate. So celebrities invited to visit William Randolph Hearst’s estate would often stop over at the Anderson Hotel, which had a large lobby and the convenience of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The Anderson Barbershop, owned by Levi Bond, was located at the bottom of the hotel. There Bond’s son, Courtney,carried an autograph book, in which he collected signatures of some of the famous guests who stopped by for haircuts.

Today Courtney Bond’s autograph book (owned by his son, Alan) reads like a guest book of former A-list celebs that rolled through town, including Clark Gable; Marlene Dietrich; H.G. Wells; Jack Dempsey; Walt Disney, Harpo Marx; the Three Stooges and Joan Crawford.

While the hotel, built by Jeff Anderson in 1922, now houses apartments, the barbershop remains, quietly adding to its history.  

AH LOUIS STORE, 800 Palm Street

In 1861, a Chinese immigrant named Wong Ong arrived in San Francisco, en route to his permanent home in San Luis Obispo. There, Capt. John Hartford dubbed him Ah Louis and enlisted Louis’s help in recruiting laborers to build a railroad route over the rugged Cuesta Grade.

The store Louis opened catered to many of those Chinese laborers, offering items like salted duck eggs, sea cucumbers and dried abalone. The building also served as a bank, a supply center and employment office in the thriving Chinatown area.

Ah Louis died in 1936 at the age of 94, but his store is a reminder of the Chinese workers who helped connect the north and south ends of the county.

CARNEGIE CITY LIBRARY, 696 Monterey Street

In the final 18 years of his life, Andrew Carnegie, a Scotsman who became a wealthy American industrialist, gave 90 percent of his fortune to charities — more than $350 million. (That’s close to $8 billion by today’s standards.) In the early 1900s, those gifts included 1,681 libraries he commissioned throughout the United States.

In 1905, a Carnegie-gifted library was built in San Luis Obispo. For 55 years, the Carnegie served as the city’s library. In 1956, after the library outgrew the building, the historical society moved in. The building was damaged by heavy rains in 1995, but it was retrofitted between 1998 and 2001.

Today it houses the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, which features a research room, collections and publications.

RAILROAD DISTRICT, 1011 Railroad Avenue

Those celebrities that visited Hearst often arrived at the Southern Pacific Railroad Train Depot, where Hearst guests would be escorted in a cab driven by Steve Zegar. Decades later, it’s likely that the railroad district looks even better than it did then, with many restored buildings.

Some of the highlights include the Spanish Colonial-style depot, completed in 1942 and restored in 1988. The Southern Pacific Freight Warehouse, built in 1894, has since been restored and made into the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum. And the water tower, built to service trains during World War II, still stands among palm trees, not far from the tracks.

DEL MONTE CAFE, 1901 Santa Barbara Avenue

Looking like a building you might find with a train set, the Del Monte was built for $600 around 1920 (dates vary) as a barbershop. After that, it became the Del Monte Grocery, which it remained for many years. But eventually, time caught up to the building, which was later condemned.

Luckily, it was rebuilt, with a vintage exterior that fits perfectly with the railroad district. Since 1981 it has operated as a cafe featuring historical photos, rounded booths and bar stools that channel its soda fountain era.


In 1769 — years before the United States declared independence — a Spanish expedition led by Gasper de Portola became the first Europeans to see the San Luis Obispo area. In 1772, as settlers began to suffer from starvation, missionary president Junipero Serra decided to have a mission built in San Luis Obispo, partly because of the ample food supply — namely, in the form of grizzly bears.

Today, the mission, restored during the 1940s, marks the center of town. Still a working parish, it features artwork that pre-dates the building, having survived fires, floods and earthquakes.

While the grizzlies are long gone, bronze bear statues outside the mission serve to remind visitors what drew Europeans to San Luis Obispo.






Celebrate Independence the SLO Way

While others celebrated a new country’s independence in 1776, things were not so celebratory in San Luis Obispo County.

Still 74 years before California would join the Union, much of the state was becoming part of the Spanish empire. Meanwhile, in SLO County, tensions arose between missionaries and Native-Americans. At one point, according to local history accounts, the Native-Americans shot flaming arrows at mission buildings, setting the padre’s quarters afire.

Luckily, the mission, founded four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, is a much more peaceful place today,which is, of course, cause to celebrate. (We recommend Friday night’s, during Concerts in the Plaza.) And since California is now in its 166th year as a state, we can happily join the rest of the country in the July 4th celebrations.

Here are a few ways you can celebrate this weekend:

* Baseball, Hot Dogs and Fireworks. There’s no need to limit yourself to one day of fireworks. After Sunday’s game pitting the San Luis Obispo Blues against the Menlo Park Legends, a fireworks show will be featured at Sinsheimer Park. So it’s sort of like the first day of a July 4th double-header. Game starts at 6 p.m.

* The Parade. Twice a year, the tiny town of Cayucos gets a little nutty: On New Year’s Day, it’s the site of the annual Polar Bear Dip, usually attended by up to 3,000 people. On July 4, even bigger crowds flock to the town for its zany parade, which begins at 10 a.m.. Featuring streets decked out in red, white and blue, crazy costumes and loads of people enjoying summer, it’s a photo opp times a hundred. There’s also a sand sculpture contest beforehand (5-8 a.m.) and fireworks at the pier at night (9 p.m.). 

* The Rockets Red Glare. The most popular Fourth event in the county is, of course, the fireworks at the Pismo Beach pier. If you’re not a fan of large crowds — and there will be large crowds — you can find spots a little farther from the pier that aren’t as packed with people. But if you’re okay with crowds, there will also be plenty of food vendors and live music at the epicenter. The day’s festivities begin at 10 a.m., with fireworks starting at 9 p.m.

* Pie in the Sky. Typifying the American way of life, small towns are probably the best place to be on July 4.  And Cambria is a small town with loads of charm. This July 4th, enjoy live music, kids games and a pie eating contest before night time fireworks at Shamel Park. 



The San Luis Obispo Blues: 70 Years of Baseball

The 1950 San Luis Obispo Blues

When World War II concluded, Sandy Leguina, owner of a local tire dealership and tune-up shop, recruited a group of veterans coming home to play baseball in San Luis Obispo. The team originally called itself the Merchants, but George Baker, then the sports editor at the Telegram-Tribune, suggested the Blues — not for the type of music you’ll find at the Avila Blues Fest this weekend — but because the name seemed more colorful and matched the team’s blue lettering and stockings.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates trained in Paso Robles  from 1924-34, the county now had a traveling home team to root for. And in June of 1946, the Blues defeated the Los Angeles Cubs, another semi-pro team, in its first ever game. 

Friday the team, composed of collegiate players, begins its 70th year when the Blues host the Santa Maria Packers at Sinsheimer Stadium.

With the nearest Major League teams four hours away (we won’t mention parking or the price of Dodger Dogs), the Blues offer a fun summer alternative at $8 per ticket (kids 12 and under are free). Players use wooden bats, just like the pros (not those ping-sounding aluminum bats college players use). And, by the way, several Blues players have actually gone on to the Big Leagues. Current Major Leaguers who once played for the Blues include Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, former first-round draft choice C. J. Cron, an infielder with the Angels, and World Series veteran Matt Garza, a pitcher with the Brewers.


The Blues logo

Blues players join the team after their college season ends, playing through early August. The team is one of 12 that competes in the California Collegiate League, which includes the Santa Barbara Foresters, Conejo Oaks, and the Santa Paula Halos.

Unlike Major League parks, the concessions are affordable, with barbecue grub cooked up by the Rib Line. Each game also features fun, kid-friendly promotions between innings. General admission includes stadium seating, or you can bring your own.






Do the SLO County Bucket List

The Scarecrow Festival is held in Cambria every fall.

It’s like Lincoln said: It’s not about the years in your life — it’s about the life in your years.

Which was probably what those guys were thinking when they made “The Bucket List,” a movie about two dying men who want to live life to the fullest before they “kick the bucket.”

Since then, the Bucket List has become a bit of a phenomenon, with people creating their personal before-I-die to-do lists. Typically, those lists include grandiose items, like Visit the Pyramids or Ride an Elephant. But there are many more attainable Bucket List items right here in San Luis Obispo County.

Have you ever ridden a trolley in San Luis Obispo? Driven an ATV in the Oceano dunes? Attended the Scarecrow Festival in Cambria?

Even if you’ve done those things, chances are there are many more things you haven’t done. Here are some other SLO Bucket List items you might consider:

1.) Visit the James Dean memorial in Cholame. In one of the most notorious premature deaths in pop culture, Dean crashed his Porsche here in 1955. Today a memorial marks the spot near the historic Jack Ranch Cafe, which features Dean memorabilia and some of the best burgers in the county.

A tree swing outside the Port San Luis lighthouse offers a relaxing place to catch stunning views.

2.)  Tour the Port San Luis lighthouse. Built in 1890, the lighthouse offers a glimpse into history — and stunning views of Avila Beach. Docents will tell you all about the restored house and the beacon that once provided sailors a guiding light.

3.) Find a bald eagle. There are various places in the county where you’re most likely to find the symbol of America, including Santa Margarita Lake. These birds are always impressive to see — but especially in the wild.

4.) See a movie at the Fremont Theatre. This is an easy one, yet everyone has to do it. From the vibrant deco lights outside to the historic mural on the ceiling inside, this is a classic place to see a movie.

5.) Attend a Blues game. Major League teams are four hours away from San Luis Obispo, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch a fun game in town. The semi-pro Blues — celebrating its 70th year this season — features top college players. Many former Blues players have gone on to the big leagues.

6.) Take photos of the wildflowers in the California Valley. In the spring, the Carizo Plain becomes a pallet of colors, thanks to an array of gorgeous wildflowers. While this place is generally remote, when flowers are in bloom, you’ll likely see a share of painters and photographers.

Thousands flock to the Cayucos Pier on New Year’s Day to plunge into the chilly waters.

7.) Do the Polar Bear Dip in Cayucos. Sure, it’s not as cold as a polar dip in, say, New York City or Chicago. But would you want it to be? Every New Year’s Day, thousands gather in Cayucos for this fun family event, featuring a variety of crazy costumes.

8.) Do every Hearst Castle tour. William Randolph Hearst wasn’t perfect. And his San Simeon abode suggests he had a penchant for excess. But what a place. An art museum with a view, it has been a part of the state parks since 1954. While the main tour is the most popular, each one offers a fascinating look at historic California and opulence most of us will never experience.

There’s almost always surf somewhere in San Luis Obispo County.

9.) Take up surfing. If you haven’t tried it, you can start with baby steps, riding in the friendly whitewater. Plenty of rental shops are available in Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and Cayucos.

10.) Take a selfie on the San Andreas Fault. Hey, we all have our faults, right? This one just happens to cause a whole lot of destruction from time to time. Located not far from the James Dean Memorial, this is a hub for seismic research. And, one day, experts predict, it could be a hub for The Big One.

11.) Visit the Madonna Inn restroom. Because of the famous waterfall urinal — that was Alex Madonna’s idea — the men’s room at the restaurant might be the one men’s room  frequented by both men and women, often with cameras in hand.

12.) Stick a piece of gum on Bubblegum Alley. It’s a gooey San Luis Obispo tradition.

One of the many peaks you can hike in San Luis Obispo County.

13.) Hike Bishop’s Peak. Actually, San Luis Obispo County has several great peaks you can hike. But make sure you know which ones are legal to climb.

14.) Visit the Monarch butterfly grove in Pismo Beach. This is an easy stop, and yet it’s gorgeous, featuring tens of thousands of butterflies, both cluttering in trees and fluttering in the air.

15.) Visit a local cemetery and learn something about someone buried there. Cemeteries always tell you something about the community they’re in, representing tragic endings and — as Honest Abe would appreciate — lives well lived.


The Man Who Loved Trees

Gilroy Gardens founder Michael Bonfante always loved trees—especially BIG ones. He found them to be both calming and inspiring. In the 1970s, while still managing the family supermarket business, Michael opened his own nursery to grow and sell big trees. About that same time, he began thinking about building a park that would inspire young people to appreciate the beauty of trees.

Over the years, Michael travelled the globe to visit other public gardens. After working through lots of conceptual ideas and running the numbers, he realized that he would need to add rides to his tree-themed park to attract enough visitors and make his vision a reality. 

As he continued to refine his plans, Michael learned about the ailing “Circus Trees” in nearby Scotts Valley. These whimsically grafted sycamores, box elders, ash and Spanish cork trees were originally grown by Swedish immigrant Axel Erlandson starting in the 1920s. Although they had gained some notoriety over the years (even appearing in a 1957 Life magazine article), the “wooden wonders” had suffered after Erlandson’s death. So, in 1985, Bonfante engineered a rescue operation. He carefully dug up the trees, hauled them on trucks through the Santa Cruz mountains, and lovingly transplanted them on his park grounds. 

In 2001, Bonfante Gardens opened to the public. Now known as Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, the park features over 40 fun family rides and attractions and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But Michael’s passion for nature remains evident in every detail at the park. He required that “anything manmade gives way to nature.” So pathways wind around large boulders, and all the rides were designed to fit around the trees (instead of the other way around!).

Today, visitors arriving at the park are greeted by ten of the original Circus Trees in Dixie Cup Plaza, including “Double Hearts,” “Picture Frame,” “Revolving Door,” and “Spiral Staircase #1.” The park’s signature “Basket Tree” is the centerpiece of Main Plaza and is also featured in the Gilroy Gardens logo.  Michael’s personal favorite, this fascinating specimen was shaped from six American Sycamore trees, all carefully grafted together to resemble a woven basket.

Throughout the park’s 26 acres, guests encounter other remarkable Circus Trees, including the “Four Legged Giant,” “Arch,” “Zig-Zag,” and “Oil Well.” The park’s newest attraction, Water Oasis, even features the “Mini Zig-Zag,” a baby Circus Tree grown and grafted by Michael Bonfante himself!

The Circus Trees continue to attract a lot of well-deserved attention, but they are actually just a very small percentage of the 10,000 trees found throughout the park’s 26+ acres. The most planted tree in the park is the Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). These trees are the tallest in the world and can grow as tall as 364 feet.  One of the largest trees at Gilroy Gardens is the Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) located behind the Red & White Stage on the edge of Coyote Lake. The Artichoke Dip ride was built around a massive Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), the only tree in the park that remains in its original location. 

Different themed gardens throughout the park highlight different kinds of trees from around the world. Claudia’s Garden (named for Michael’s wife) features a variety of conifers and Japanese Maples. The Rainbow Garden ride winds through several animal-shaped topiaries. And the Monarch Garden greenhouse is home to unusual tropical and sub-tropical trees, including the Triangle Palm (Neodypsis decaryri), Sausage Tree (Kigelia pinnata), and New Zealand Christmas Tree (Metrosideros excelsus).

Staying true to Michael Bonfante’s original vision, the park includes a number of interactive learning exhibits where children—and their grownups—can learn more about trees and the environment. More than just another theme park, Gilroy Gardens remains a remarkable testament to one man’s vision and enduring passion for trees.

Learn more about Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park here.