Central City, California

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Date: About 1875 to about 1882
Location: Central City, CAmap
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As Benjamin T. Wiley was the first man to settle on a quarter section of homesteader land in the Santa Maria valley, his manner of doing it is of interest, showing two leading traits of his character very plainly.

Hearing of government land ready for preemption or homesteading in the northern part of Santa Barbara county, he came down and looked it over. Satisfied of the land, he made sure of the title by having the county surveyor, Mr. Norway come from Santa Barbara and survey the section he intended to take. Mr. Norway’s work he sent to the state surveyor, who approved the county surveyor’s findings, whereupon Mr. Wiley filed on four quarter sections, one for himself and one for each of three friends, William Lovell, James Handy Harris, and Joel Miller.

Mr. Wiley’s next move was to secure some lumber for a house. This meant a hard trip to Port Harford, as Port San Luis Obispo was then called, as John Harford owned the land for the port.

His friends came promptly to live on their quarter-sections and Mr. Wiley, seeing the prospects of a baby in Mr. Miller’s family, made Mr. Miller build a house with the lumber he had bought and hauled more from Port Harford.

For himself, Mr. Wiley dug a cave in the river’s bank and made it his home for about a year, finding it very fine in the dry season but damp and uncomfortable when the rains came. Thomas Handy Miller was born in a house, however.[1]

The valley and its river were already known as "Santa Maria" and were referred to as such in travelogues and other newspaper writings of the time. The villages of Guadaloupe and La Graciosa already existed, nestled among the ranchos in the valley and surrounding canyons. As this new village grew it became known as Grangeville, then Central City, and was laid out in 1874 by the founding fathers. At that time there were two merchandise stores owned by Miller and Lovell, and James McElhaney, respectively. Thompson and West, authors of The History of Santa Barbara County compiled in 1883,[2] have sketches drawn of several of the first wooden buildings in the early 1870’s. These idealistic images may seem quaint or smack of manifest destiny now but they are, in most cases, all we have to illustrate this time and place. - JH

McElhany's Hall and Stores

Those were busy times. The land was being cleared, plowed and planted. Wooden buildings were being constructed. There were times when the head of the household went out into the hills hunting deer and wild game to keep food on the table for the family.

“There were constant dust storms; coyotes raided the chicken coops; wild horses trampled the crops and ate the grain; grasshoppers sometimes came and stripped the fields; grass fires were a menace to unprotected farm houses and at no time was there ever enough water.”[3]

Along with the hardships suffered were also happy times such as picnics and celebrations on special days for important events. Picnics were enjoyed during the days of good weather; barbeques became famous up and down the coast; and range cattle became big business.

Miller and Lovell constructed the first building on the corner of the northeast section of land settled by Issac Miller. This was in 1872. The first “in town” post office was located here with Fugler as postmaster. Mail was brought from Suey crossing with O. Miller appointed as carrier. The post office was known as Grangeville. There were no stagecoach deliveries in town, and all the mail was ridden in by appointed carrier. Watt Rodenburg settled on the southwest corner of the “four corners” which made up the village. But he was killed in a hunting accident before 1870. Larkin Cook, brother of R.D. Cook, took over his holdings but also died early. His son did not stay in the area but went on south. John Thornburgh was known as the founding father when he came in 1871. He bought out the Cook holdings and stayed with his projects for nearly a decade.

First Methodist Church 1878

Mr. Thornburg(h) had come to the Central Coast area for his failing health. He had suffered with asthma most of his life, left Indiana to come to Iowa, and eventually came to the Santa Maria Valley where his health improved. He was known to most as “grandpa” or “judge”. His mercantile business and the post office were run for several years after 1871 under the names of The John Thornburg Company, then The Farmer’s Union, and The Grange Store. But the village was still called Grangeville until 1875.

Thornburg’s generosity was proven when he also donated the property on which the First Methodist Episcopal Church was built to serve the community as a place of worship. The building was located on what later became Church and Lincoln Streets. John Thornburg died soon after at the age of 83. More later about the church and the part it played in most of the early community activities. The first religious society was the Methodist Episcopal organized under the pastoral charge of D. Haskins on May 7, 1873. This meeting was held at Fleisher’s Hall on the northeast corner of Broadway and Main Streets. Officials that year were Lorenze Blosser, Sam Blosser, H.W. Connor, Ellen Lockwood, Thomas Nance, Cal Oakley, Henry Stowell (1826-1905), Martin Tunnel and Abigail Bryant.

Rapidly many changes were taking place in the early 1870’s. Isaac Fesler had begun the settlement of the northwest corner. He came from Linn County, Missouri, by wagon train in 1865. He had settled first in Sonoma County, then Sacramento. He arrived in the Santa Maria Valley with his family in 1869. He gave his land at four corners to the Kaiser Brothers whose mercantile store carried on for a few years and was later sold for bank property. Fesler also gave land for the Pacific Coast Railroad right-of-way. There are descendants of all these families still living in the area.

Residence and Ranch of Isaac Miller. Note on the left background the southwest corner of Isaac Millers property was the four corners of Central City. To the right the narrow gauge steam train of the Pacific Coast Railway, making this illustration dated after April 22, 1882, when the railway construction was opened to this point. The distant hills form the promontory of Point Sal.

Isaac Miller, who settled the northeast corner, may have been the first to plant fruit trees. He had a large part of his land devoted to orchard, and was successful selling the fresh fruit and dried products as well until all was lost by lack of rainfall and an excessive dry spell. His other town venture, the Miller and Lovett Store, became Kriedel and Fleisher Merchandise.

Rudolph Cook, who settled the southeast corner, was born in Ohio, 1832. At eighteen years of age he left in 1850 and moved to Quincy, Illinois, and the next year drove an ox team across the plains to California. He farmed in Sonoma County until 1855, then returned by steamer to St. Louis, gathered a herd of cattle and once again headed west. He remained in the cattle business in Sonoma until 1860, then sold out and moved to Solano County.

In 1869, Mr. Cook came to Grangeville, and did much to help the town grow because by trade he was a carpenter. He established a blacksmith shop and livery stable at the corner of Main and Broadway, where as one of the founding fathers; he donated a part of his land for the village. His residence was built at the corner of what later became McClelland and East Main Streets. It was here the festival was held for raising funds for the Pleasant Valley School. Joel Miller, brother of one of the founding fathers, Isaac Miller, was the teacher. We all called him Uncle Joel. They named the district Santa Maria, after the valley, but the town itself was still called Grangeville. There were about 40 scholars on opening day.

All four corners were forming the village center and a strip of land 120 feet wide was donated for the street. Many reasons have been given for laying such a wide street but most likely seemed to be so there would be sufficient room to turn a six horse team. Others say the width was necessary because of the many fires that plagued the area in the days when there was no fire department. Runaway fires could easily jump narrower streets. There probably is an element of truth to each of these popular theories.

In the 1870’s merchandise and other necessities were hauled in wagons from Port Harford near San Luis Obispo. Exports were taken there, or to Point Sal to be shipped from Chute Landing. Going to Port Harford could take four or five days during times of severe weather conditions. The Santa Maria Valley was a broad expanse of flat unbroken land with virtually no trees, and the prevailing winds from the coastal area had uninterrupted sway. Wagon trails were full of chuckholes and wheels often got mired down too deep to move in the drifting sand. During the rainy season Port Harford was completely inaccessible when the Santa Maria River was on a rampage.

The families in the immediate four corners area consisted of the Miller, Cook, Fesler, and Thornburgs together with James McElhaney, from Arkansas; John Prell from Germany, who had become a citizen of the United States in 1863 and settled in Central California in 1868 and built the first home here (this was his claim); Thomas Wilson from Scotland who emigrated to the United States and became a citizen in 1857; the Charles Bradley family from Derbyshire, England, who landed in San Francisco on November 9, 1868, and made their way to Grangeville soon after to settle here; Joseph Lockwood who became postmaster; and the G.W. Battles family who took up land later on the east side of the village and was prominent in recording colorful stories of the early days; and a few others including Ben Turman.[4]

Dr Charles Shaug became a neighbor to Fesler, Wiley and Harris in 1870 when he took over the property of Wm Lovell, who had departed for Guadalupe. Dr. Shaug was widowed and had a practice in San Luis Obispo. He brought his five children with him. He was soon married to Anna Cox (Lloyd) in 1871 but died 7 months later. Anna continued to live on the property and shortly thereafter her son, Alvin W. Cox obtained land to the west of her property. Mr. Cox later became the first Mayor of Santa Maria, serving from 1905 to 1912.

Most of the other families lived on the farms on the edge of the town such as the Cary Calvin Oakley family from Tennessee, the William Smith family from England, the Martin Luther Tunnell family, southerners of French descent arriving in 1868, the Francis Marion Bryant family from Maine and then Minnesota, and the Joseph Trott family from Minnesota, just to name a few of the earliest who settled to work the land, in the years before 1870.

The first settler child arrived in 1868. Her name was Nancy and she arrived November 16, 1868 and was born to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Holloway. Mrs. G.W. Battles was present at this birth. Six months later Thomas Handy Miller was born on May 17, 1869.

The first wedding in Santa Maria Valley proper was performed by Judge Holloway on December 22, 1871. The bride was Rebecca Miller.

These early pioneers were determined and ambitious people and they had a dream that finally was beginning to materialize. Central City boasted a population of nearly 300 inhabitants by 1880. Progress had been continuous since 1867 when Benjamin Wiley put down his roots here. The structures they built during those early days were crude, but they served the purpose and the town continued to grow.

The Bryant family finally reached the Napa Valley in California in the late summer of 1865. It encompassed lands with rolling hills, land that could be farmed successfully. It was near enough to the coastal ranges to be nearly ideal climate-wise and many years later would become prime country for wine grapes. But in the mid 1860’s crops were potatoes and corn and Francis Bryant worked a 160 acre claim. Other pioneer settlers stayed in Sonoma County and Solano County to farm who would eventually come permanently to the Central Coast area. Water was plentiful and the earth rich and yielding.

However, Napa Valley did not satisfy the Bryants for a permanent location either, and four years after their arrival there, they decided to move further south and west. In the spring of 1869 they left the area and headed for Central California where they heard talk of a new village starting to build. There were tales of rich lands to farm and ideal climate to support good crops. The Bryants also wanted better educational facilities for their children who all needed to go to school and Emmet in particular wanted a different way of life from farming for his life’s work.

When they reached Grangeville on the Central Coast in 1869 there were few settlers here, but with a promise of a meaningful future for all of them, they finally put down their roots permanently in this area. Frances Bryant again bought up 160 acres of land, made improvements, built buildings, dug a well for water, and continued to farm the rich soil which was the occupation he knew best. He continued successfully until his death in 1872.

Kriedel and Fleisher Merchandise.

Miller and Lovett’s Merchandise Store on the northeast corner was sold out to Samuel Kriedel and Jonas Cassner in about 1879 and for a short time it was Cassner and Kriedel. Later that year Marks Fleisher from Austria came to Central City and bought out the interests of Cassner, and the firm continued as Kriedel and Fleisher General Merchandise. They dealt in all kinds of goods generally sold in a country store. They were Wells Fargo agents and also did business for several insurance companies, as well as acting as agents for the purchase of all the heavier agricultural machinery. Their stock of goods was generally $12,000 to $15,000. They also sold grain and wool.

Central City Hotel.

The upper floor of the early wooden building was used as a Masonic Hall. A large warehouse adjoined and protected the heavy goods. In the same block on East Main Street other buildings included were The Central City Hotel owned and managed by John Albert Crosby. This small one story building contained a dining room, kitchen, and only four bedrooms. This soon became inadequate and by early 1883 he had added rooms until there were twenty. Other businesses in that block were a butcher shop owned by Hertig, a restaurant managed by Smith, and several saloons.

By 1880 Goodwin and Bryant Mercantile and Post Office had located on the southwest corner. T.A. Jones and Son owned a cabinet shop in the same block on South Broadway. They sold some hardware, tin goods, as well as coffins and cabinets. There was also the Sedgwick House which was a meat market owned by Charles Sedgwick and the music hall. The Santa Maria Times started in 1882 in a wooden building, and the McElhaney Hall was used for a meeting place.

On West Main Street on the north side was the Santa Maria Market. Other stores included the Eagle Drug Store owned by Dr. E. Simmons, Newman’s Harness Shop, proprietor, Henry Able, and The Boots and Shoes Shop owned by Elizah Smith. The Santa Maria Hair Dressing Saloon (yes, it really was called a saloon) was also located on Main Street together with the Morris and Utley Millinery Shop.

In 1875, when Reuben Hart put his roots down permanently, he almost immediately saw the need for a water supply for Central City. He was the first to attempt a solution to the problem and when his blacksmith shop no longer needed constant supervision, he built a feed mill that was operated by steam power.

Hart Blacksmiths.

The town was piped and into these pipes the water was pumped by steam power from an 85 foot well and an elevated tank. Everything which was a part of his business enterprises occupied the southeast corner of Main and Broadway Streets.

Mr. Hart also started a lumber yard, again the first, and then enlarged the complete water works system. The mains were extended from time to time and improved, and the production of water was conducted as a private enterprise. He charged the residents a flat rate per month for water used. Unfortunately, some of the people became careless and hoses were left running all night causing the tank to become very low by morning.[5]

Too Much Name

San Luis Obispo Tribune

14 Jan 1882

By 1874 Grangeville was surveyed and by the following year, 1875, the town site map for the Central Coast town was recorded at the County Seat in Santa Barbara. The name then became Central City. It was said that the proprietor of the hotel, John Albert Crosby, suggested the name to attract visitors.

It didn't take long for the neighboring towns to take exception to this pretentious name for the little town. In 1875 the San Luis Obispo Tribune commented and then in 1882 ran a pointed article titled "Too Much Name" that pretty well summed it up. Central City became Santa Maria in 1882 according to the Santa Maria Times dated April 22. It stated the United States Post Office Department was having trouble with the old name. Mail meant for this steadily growing village in Central California was being sent to Central City, Colorado.

But the new name quickly became a portent of the changing times as the railroad arrived in town that same year. The town's very first newspaper "The Santa Maria Times" Santa Maria (Central City) was published on the 22nd of April, 1882 with the front page news that the last spike was driven to complete the San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria Valley Railroad was complete to Central City at five minutes to five o'clock on Saturday afternoon. But the Times finally dropped the "Central City" subtitle from the newspaper in August of the following year. Mr. Crosby's hotel did continue to use the name, however.

The map below showing the sections of public land available to homesteaders, was surveyed by Santa Barbara surveyor W.M. Norway and recorded in 1869. At that time the public lands were fitted in between the ranchos which were in the process of being patented after the Mexican treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo marked the transfer of land to the US on 2 Feb 1848. The Mexican Rancho grants were honored by the US under the treaty. The Homestead Act of 1862 ensured that the public lands in the Santa Maria Valley would soon be developed although more than half the available sections were cash sales, according to the GLO/BLM records. There were some disputes over rancho borders during this time and one cost the homesteaders their claims in the nearby village of La Graciosa.

A desolate scene confronted the early settlers of the Santa Maria Valley. This scene, likely from the 1860s near the river, shows stacked lumber, possibly for a house. Photo courtesy of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society.

The April 29, 1938 edition of the Santa Maria Times published this list of the first settlers:

1867 B.T. Wiley, Paul Bradley, Joel Miller

1868 J.G. Prell, H.C. Sibley, Thomas Wilson, G.W Battles, John Edgar, Charles Bradley, John Cambel, J.J. Holloway, Thomas Holloway, William Holloway

1869 J.H. Harris, Isaac Miller, ___ Way, Tom McCulla, Ben Turman, John Hunt, ____ Keller, Frank McNeal, Martin Tunnell, Pat McCurdel, John Carner, W.S. Adam, Alex Adam, F.F. Fugler, R.D Cook, Isaac Fesler, M.P. Nicholson, James Mahoney, Jake Gettner, General Taylor, Pat Moore, C.C Oglesby, John Sherman, F.W Blosser, Thomas Blosser, Wat Rodenberg, Frank Cook, Morris Flynn, Judge Henley, F.M. Bryant, Martin Stephens, W.W. Stillwell, Rollin Battles, John Gunning, John Houston, Jo Lewis, ____ Kennedy, _____ Wallace.


  1. The story of Ben Wiley, written by Susan E (Haslam) Lincoln in 1928 and published in the Santa Maria Times 29 April 1938 Pioneer Edition. List of settlers.
  2. History of Santa Barbara county, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers by Mason, Jesse D; Thompson & West. 1883
  3. "This is Our Valley", Vada F. Carlson, Westernlore Press, 1959 - Santa Barbara County (Calif.) - 286 pages
  4. History of San Luis Obispo County and Environs, California: With Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men and Women of the County and Environs who Have Been Identified with the Growth and Development of the Section from the Early Days to the Present Annie L. Stringfellow Morrison, John H. Haydon
  5. "Where Pioneers Dwell" Family History by Jane Harris Sahyun Library Catalog - Santa Barbara Genealogical Society

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Hi Jim, this page looks great! I like how you linked the founder's names to their profiles. Very informative.
posted by Alison Andrus