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Judith Dale: W.W. Hollister – Goleta Valley's forefather
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Judith Dale: W.W. Hollister – Goleta Valley's forefather

From the Series: Get to know the Central Coast a little better with the help of Judith Dale series
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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception.

Due to the difficulty of proving ownership and the great drought of 1864, cattle ranchers were desperate to sell their land at very low prices. The Hollister/Dibblee partnership bought over 100,000 acres and owned all the land grants around Point Conception, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

Currently, the Hollister Ranch runs along our Gaviota coast and is a unique, privately owned subdivision. It is comprised of 136, one-hundred plus acre parcels covering 14,400 acres. Approximately 90 homes have been built on Hollister Ranch since 1971. There have been ongoing court battles between the public and the private Hollister Ranch landowners over access to the beach and prime surfing spots.

California law allows public access to all land below the mean high tide line, and many surfers, divers and fishermen access the Hollister Ranch beaches by boating or walking in from Gaviota State Park on the east and Jalama County Park on the west. Currently, there is no public access by land, as all 14,400 acres are privately owned and controlled by the Hollister Ranch Association.

Traveling to California

William Wells Hollister was born on Jan. 12, 1818, near Hanover, Ohio. He inherited his father’s nickname, Colonel, even though he was never in the military. When he was 15, he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, although his health prevented him from going full time. After his father died, W.W. Hollister, with his eyesight failing, left college without graduating, and went into farming and merchandising.

In 1852, Hollister sold his farm and purchased 300 head of cattle and joined a wagon train full of gold seekers headed for California.

Upon reaching California, he sold his cattle at a huge profit and returned immediately to Ohio and prepared for another trip to California. During his first visit, he recognized an opportunity more glimmering than gold. California was flooded with hungry gold miners, and they would pay top dollar for meat of any kind.

In 1854, he hired a crew of 50 men and along with his brother, Joseph Hubbard Hollister, and his sister, Lucy A. Brown, led the first large transcontinental sheep drive, bringing 10,000 merino sheep from Ohio to California. The journey west was a 15-month adventure that involved drought, blizzards, Indian attacks, poisoned water holes, prairie fires and disgruntled helpers. His final destination was Monterey, but he decided to let his flock rest and wait out the winter in the mild climate of the Goleta Valley.

Colonel Hollister leased grazing land in the Tecolotito Canyon from Nicolas Den, an original Mexican land grantee. Hollister fell in love with the canyon and surrounding area, which is today the area around Goleta. He swore that he would retire in this canyon one day, and he kept that promise, but it took over 10 years to accomplish.

Although only about a thousand sheep survived the trip, Hollister was able to make a considerable fortune when wool prices spiked during the Civil War, as well as selling meat to the gold miners. After selling the sheep, Hollister and some partners bought a ranch in San Benito County, northeast of Monterey, and created the San Justo Ranch. It became a thriving sheep business and the partners prospered and Hollister became a millionaire.

In 1861, Hollister and his business partners had a disagreement and dissolved their partnership and divided up the land. Hollister got all the land west of the San Benito River. The city of Hollister is named after W.W. Hollister and is located on a portion of his former ranch. Hollister is located northeast of Monterey and is the San Benito County seat. Currently the city has a population of 35,000 and is a rural farming community.

In 1862, at the age of 45, Hollister had a midlife realization that he should start a family. He married 21-year-old Annie James from San Francisco and built a beautiful mansion on his sheep ranch. However, he never forgot the beautiful land in the Goleta Valley. He subdivided and sold his San Justo Ranch. The sale of lots netted him nearly half a million dollars. The Colonel came back down to the Goleta Valley to finally buy the canyon of his dreams and all of the Gaviota coastal land grants mentioned above.

Arriving in Goleta Valley

In 1862, moving down to the Goleta Valley, Hollister learned that Nicolas Den, the owner of the Tecolotito Canyon land that he had fallen in love with 10 years earlier had died. (Note: Tecolotito Canyon is presently the land between Glen Annie/Storke Road and Los Carneros Road).

Den’s will stated, “that no property could be sold until the youngest of his children was of age”, and that wouldn’t be for another 10 years. Charles Huse was the Den family lawyer and he assured Hollister this “flaw” in the will was nothing to worry about. The Colonel offered them far more than market price, and the cash-poor Den family agreed to the deal.

Hollister bought 5,100 acres for $10 an acre. Despite warnings of the clouded title from his advisers, the Colonel was in love with the canyon. He made the purchase and his dream had come true.

Hollister named his new ranch after his wife and called it “Glen Annie.” He wanted to make it a national showplace. He built barns, shops, a carriage house and a mansion for his wife on a knoll overlooking the Goleta Slough. He imported many rare trees to plant around the mansion, some of which are still visible from Highway 101 today. Three of Goleta’s streams ran through Glen Annie, and the incredibly fertile virgin soil was soon covered with walnut, lemon, lime and orange trees. Hollister and his wife hosted many social gatherings at their beautiful ranch and soon the couple were the social elite of the area.

When canyons to the west of his Glen Annie farm became available, Hollister encouraged his friends to buy them. A fellow horticulture enthusiast, Ellwood Cooper, bought the next canyon over. Hollister’s physician, Dr. R.F. Winchester, bought the next canyon to the west. Ellwood, Winchester Canyon and Glen Annie are names still with us today.

By the late 1860s, Hollister was living his dream, but the 1870s would be full of problems. His sister, who was his business partner, and his wife did not get along so Hollister had to build an additional mansion for his wife. He fathered a child with another man’s wife, which became a public scandal. Due to his numerous affairs, his wife began to drink heavily. He was sued by the daughter of Nicolas Den, claiming that the sale of the “Glen Annie” land was illegal due to Den’s will. The lawsuit drug on and it took its toll on Hollister’s health.

Additional bad luck struck Hollister when he accidentally ate strychnine poison that was used to kill gophers on his ranch. Winchester saved his life from the poisoning, but in his weakened state, he caught a fatal case of pneumonia.

W.W. Hollister died on Aug. 8, 1886.

Four years after his death, the vicious 14-year court battle finally came to an end, with the Hollister estate losing ownership of their beloved Glenn Annie Ranch. Annie was ordered to move out of her mansion, and within an hour of her departure, a mysterious fire broke out and burned the building to the ground. She had been overheard saying that, “No Den would set foot in her house," but there was no concrete proof she set the fire intentionally. And so ended the reign of Hollister and his Glenn Annie Ranch.

This article is just a small part of W.W. “Colonel” Hollister's story. There are many books written about him available at our local libraries, including the book I recommend: "Hollister Ranch: It’s History, Preservation and People" by Nancy W. Ward.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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