Much to my surprise, being a land baron is no guarantee of being financially successful or secure. At least, that was the case in the 1800s in Santa Barbara County, as I discovered while researching the setting of my new novel*.
The local history of land ownership goes something like this: without individual land ownership, the Chumash indians lived and thrived for thousands of years, until a few centuries ago when the Spanish and Mexican conquistadors arrived. These interlopers – eventually joined by the 800-pound bully of the U.S. government – stole land from the Chumash and then from each other. The scant few surviving Chumash scattered to live in hiding, deep in the mountains and back country.
The various interlopers gifted and sold huge swaths of land as ranchos, in exchange for favors, bribes, service rendered, and money. By the late 1800s, some ranchos had changed hands many times – sold, subdivided, and sold again. Farming and ranching have never been easy ways to make ends meet.
Consider the Rancho Ortega. The first documented owner was one Apolonia Zuniga, who fell on hard times and sold his rancho to a Santa Barbara doctor and rancher who sold to two Englishmen, who raised sheep on the rancho but no profits. During this time, on the rancho and nearby, various men dug for oil with disappointing results.
In 1883, the Englishmen sold the 1,049-acre Rancho Ortega to Henry Lafayette Williams (photo; Santa Barbara Historical Museum). He paid $17,000 ($16.20 per acre). Another business venture left him with less cash than he expected, so he made good on the rancho purchase by borrowing some money and giving the former owners a hefty note for the rest.
That was a lifelong pattern for Williams, who had an amazing instinct for being in the right place at never quite the right time: he would take a gamble, prosper temporarily, succumb to debt, take another gamble. But I’m jumping ahead of his story.
Williams was born the son of a financier in Ohio in 1841. He joined the Union Army just in time to fight under General Grant in the battle of Shiloh. A 19th-century biographical sketch asserts, “They were in the three day’s fight at Stone River, where one half of the regiment was lost, and were also in many small skirmishes. Mr. Williams, however, did not receive a scratch, although his clothing was many times pierced with bullets.”
After the U. S. Civil War, he married his childhood sweetheart Katie and job-hopped from government pay agent to coal salesman to special agent for the U.S. Treasury to copper mining entrepreneur; from Ohio to Pennsylvania to Arizona to Rancho Ortega.
The rancho came with cattle but he sold these and bought pigs. Heavy rains in the next winter decimated his pig population and washed out his lemon orchard. After that, he diversified crops and enlisted his whole family to help out. For example, his father dried apricots, his mother and aunt sewed bean sacks. All this wasn’t enough to make ends meet. He had to borrow from a fellow rancher to pay interest on the original note that got him the rancho.
Briefly, he enjoyed a thin financial cushion from the sale of some pigs. His accounts looked to finally move into the black when he devised a new – as always, complicated – partnership to sell most of the rancho at a big profit. Alas, that deal fell through and when he tried to sell more pigs, they went rogue and eluded capture. He bank-mortgaged the rancho and got into yet another complicated partnership, this time to convert part of his rancho into a town with its own railroad stop. In Southern California, land sales were booming, thanks to railroad expansion and more.
Williams platted the easternmost sliver of his rancho – about 100 acres – into blocks with lots measuring 25 feet by 60 feet, and began to sell the lots in this new town which he called Summerland.
The town may have started as a way to pay debts, but its development took an unexpected swivel from debt reducer to utopian community. It may be that Williams was the only one in his town-building partnership with this intention.
Summerland. The name was probably a tip-off. Although, like other key pieces of Summerland’s lore, the origin of the town’s name is today uncertain. Modern-day articles speculate but the intention isn’t confirmed in documents from the town’s early days.
Anyway. The town was likely named after the summer land, which, according to some spiritualists, is an interim world where spirits first stop after death.
The spiritualist movement was widespread during Williams’ time. It included intellectuals and academics and professionals as well as ‘plain’ folks. They all depended on mediums who claimed to contact the dead during seances. Some spiritualists sought to use scientific methods to understand what happens after death. Some wanted to improve humanity. Some simply yearned to connect with dead loved ones: interest in seances spiked after the Civil War and again after World War I.
Williams’ beloved wife Katie was a spiritualist and she got him interested in the movement, at least for a while. He was inspired to write letters to his deceased brother and father. And he began to invite settlers to his new town with newspaper advertisements like these:
Wife Katie had been ill for several years and died shortly before the launch of Summerland’s spiritualist colony. Williams soon remarried, and his second wife was not a spiritualist. Still, the whole town attended the wedding; and, for a couple years, Williams continued to lecture and write about his uplifting ideals for the new town. In addition, he became known for his kindness and flexibility when settlers needed help with the costs of joining the colony.
He seemed remarkably comfortable with mixing spiritual and material concerns, such as in this speech to spiritualist conference attendees:
We can render a double service: assist in the development of higher, stronger mediumship, and help poor spirits out of darkened conditions. The angel-world has seleced this locality in which to perform this beneficent service, for in no place I have ever visited or read of can be found its equal in natural advantages accessible by both railway and steamship.
Even while he was welcoming spiritualists, he attracted speculators looking to exploit Summerland’s resources. The speculators were encouraged by Williams, which set the colony members to complaining: about the gas and oil drilling in their streets; about the new, nasty smells that earned their town nicknames like Smellerland and Stinkville.
After a brief surge in popularity, Summerland’s lot sales slowed, then stopped. Now, spiritualist colonies rarely lasted more than a few years so it’s not definite that Summerland’s colony would have persisted, even without the oil and gas drilling. Certainly, the colony’s founder lost interest in attracting more spiritualists. As Williams wrote to one of his bankers in 1894:
I have had a big load of debt to carry. I started a town which invited a lot of cranks to it who have fought me in every way possible, until I have been forced to abandon the idea upon which the town was founded in order to get rid of them. The recent discovery of oil in the town is going to create some excitement and demand for lots and land, this with the early completion of the gap in the S. P Ry [Southern Pacific Railroad] making or placing my property on its main line will enable me to pull out nicely within the next 18 months.
He must have held mixed feelings about the speculators, as well. Williams loathed drinking and when he established Summerland, he forbid – upon forfeiture of your land! – the sale of alcohol and saloons, which he called criminal education schools. Such restrictions might be palatable to spiritualists. But did Williams try to make teetotallers of the oil drillers, too? I’m guessing that he did not, because there don’t seem to be news stories of civil unrest in Summerland during those years.
Despite years of false starts and drilling strikes that didn’t amount to much, Williams remained enthused about Summerland’s gas and oil prospects. He was the first to try to cement a claim stake into Summerland’s shifting beach sands. Meanwhile, he joined yet another complicated partnership, this one intending to run an electric train between Santa Barbara and Summerland. That project installed some power lines before it fell apart.
Life continued to be rough for Williams, financially. He had long been defensive about colony terms and prices. And now he began to sue people for harming his town’s prospects, beginning with a libel lawsuit against a publicly unhappy lot purchaser.
His own oil drilling did eventually bring him prosperity, for a time. But then his health failed him, and he died at 57, on the downslope of one his endless repeating cycles: restless optimism spurred by bold innovation undercut by debt-driven haste leading to limited success and blustery chagrin.
Endless repeating cycles. That’s my opinion and I don’t presume to understand anyone well enough to proclaim such claims as fact. I have read what little writing survives, by and about Henry Lafayette Williams, and my reading has jumped me to many conclusions…
… And has left me feeling considerable affection and respect for the man. In fact, I discovered that I could not write a novel* set in the early days of his town, without making Mr. H. L. Williams a character in it. And when I came upon this obituary, it broke a piece of my heart.
* My new novel is The Summer Land, an historical drama from a supernatural time. Here’s a thumbnail description:
1891. A runaway boy happens upon a mysterious young girl, all on her own with amazing powers. He brings her to Summerland, California, so that she can learn to live safely around people and he can hide from his past. Summerland is a brand new town, a spiritualist colony attracting many kinds of seekers, including psychic investigators, oil speculators, the recently deceased, and these two stray children in need of a family.
Currently, you can get The Summer Land from Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara, from Amazon, and from your preferred ebook store on-line.
Over the next couple months, copies will be trickling into other stores and libraries.
[This post pulls from numerous historical sources, listed in the bibliography at conclusion of The Summer Land.]