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Shirley Contreras: City government in Santa Maria started in 1905
Heart of the Valley

Shirley Contreras: City government in Santa Maria started in 1905

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The history of Santa Maria’s city government is a history of pioneers who settled in the valley, and laid out the streets of a little town that was destined to become the largest trading center in the northern part of Santa Barbara County.

When time came to incorporate and to elect a group of city officials, pioneers were voted into office. Throughout the early years of incorporation, it was the early settlers, or their children, who guided the city’s government.

During the latter part of the 19th century and up until Incorporation, Santa Maria city and valley were under the jurisdiction of the Seventh Judicial District. A justice of the peace and constable were in Guadalupe with a similar pair serving in Santa Maria. The sheriff and his deputies aided in enforcing the law.

Joel Miller, who was the first teacher at the Pleasant Valley school, the oldest educational institution in the district, was also one of the first justices of the peace here. S.E. Crow, once a superior court judge in Santa Barbara County, presided at the justice court of Santa Maria from 1882 to 1886.

Other prominent pioneer justices serving before incorporation included Madison Thornburgh, W. P. Kemp, W. T. Scott, L. K Morgan, W. H. Baker, W. O. Laughlin, E.H. Wise, I. N. McGuire and L. J. Morris, with some still serving in that capacity in the early 1930s.

Early constables in Santa Maria and Guadalupe included W. P. Kemp, W. Lierly, Fred Abernethy, J. Miner, A. V. Righetti, Henry J. Morris (brother of Judge L. J. Morris), R. O. Walker, Matt Jessee, M. D. Sanchez, R. J. Blosser and G. L. Blosser.

However, when the 20th century rolled around, Santa Maria was becoming too large to be handled only by a judge and constable. In 1905 there were almost 3,000 people living here. The old board sidewalks were becoming macadam strips, forerunners of the present concrete walks. The community began to assume the air of a municipality, and with it came additional problems that could only be dealt with by a city government.

At a special election held on Sept. 12, 1905, residents of this little town voted to incorporate, and the rest is history.

For trustees (now the city council), they chose Alvin W. Cox, Sam Fleisher, Reuben Hart, Emmett T. Bryant and William Mead. John E Walker was elected clerk.

The first regular meeting of the board was held at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1905 with all members, and City Clerk Walker, present. Their initial work was concerned mostly with getting the necessary machinery of city government into motion.

Cox was elected president of the board and Thomas Preisker, father of supervisor C. L. Preisker, became the city attorney. Working under Section 852 of the state act providing for municipalities, their work was cut out for them.

At their first regular meeting, held on Sept. 21, 1905, Ordinance No. 1, regulating liquor licenses, was passed and ordered published in the Santa Maria Times.

At their next meeting, on Oct. 2, the trustees denied two petitions to open saloons, appointed Matt Jessee to the position of “Night Watch” (night patrolman), and awarded the office of Pound Master to Joseph Spriggs.

As time passed, other ordinances were presented to the board, one setting regular meeting dates for the board, one for accepting a corporate seal, one for stating the amount of bonds for officers, one to impose, establish and regulate license taxes in the new city in addition to one providing regulations for the enforcement and penalties thereof, one for the registration and licensing of dogs and one for the fixing of salaries of officers and employees of the city.

The city clerk was given a monthly stipend of $45; city attorney, $35; night watch, $75; city marshal, $50 plus “five percent of all taxes and license taxes collected.”

Santa Maria’s first speed law, to prevent fast riding or driving and to keep animals off sidewalks, was introduced and given its first reading at the third regular meeting of the board.

The first special meeting of the trustees was called by Mayor Cox on Oct. 24, 1905, to consider the licensing of merry-go-rounds and to give the city marshal additional instructions as to the duties required of him.

It wasn’t long before the pioneer trustees learned that the bi-monthly sessions of the board could be unpleasant. One of their first clashes with the local citizens arose over the application of business licenses. Merchants had a difficult time reconciling themselves to this fee. Some of them practically refused to pay the license and a flood of protests engulfed the board for several “warm” meetings.

Eventually, the individuals were satisfied in one way or another, resulting in today’s Santa Maria tradesmen seldom registering a complaint about his or her business license that is not justified.

Emmett Bryant resigned from the board in April of 1906, and William C. Oakley, always interested in politics, took his place, and remained until 1908 when R. J. Stephenson took his place.

Oakley returned to the board in 1912, was elected by his fellow trustees to the office of mayor in 1918, and served in that capacity until January of 1920, when he resigned.

George Black, successor in 1906 to Walker as clerk, was a member of the board from 1908 to 1912.

In 1912, when the electors placed Oakley in office again, along with Black, A.F. Fugler, C.W. Smith and the veteran Reuben Hart, Hart resigned during this term and Ernest H. Gibson was appointed in his place. Gibson successfully ran for trustee in the next two elections, while Fugler and Smith remained in office until 1920.

Other Santa Maria “dads” in the second decade of the 20th century were George Trott, 1916-18, A. H. Froom and M. M. Purkiss, the latter two elected in 1918.

As you readers will agree, the history of the city government is too long to appear in one or two columns. Therefore, you can expect additional columns to appear now and then.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.


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