As the nation’s men donned uniforms and abandoned their hometowns to fight the war in Europe and the Pacific, the nation’s women donned uniforms to support them from the homefront. American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) organized units throughout the nation. Locally, there were units in Carpinteria, Goleta, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Responding to the needs of a wartime California, the State AWVS, headquartered in San Francisco, sponsored training institutes that helped locals set up Field Workers Corps, War Bond Drives, Canteens and a multitude of other programs ranging from Victory Gardens and Canning to Child Care and Button Brigades.

The Santa Barbara Unit was the first AWVS unit to be organized in California and included women from both Montecito and Santa Barbara. Their first office opened in August 1941, and they moved to 22 East Canon Perdido Street in July 1942. The Santa Barbara Unit also operated a Welcome House at 1010 Chapala Street, an Employment Guidance center at 256 East Canon Perdido Street, and a Canteen at 413 State Street. The Junior AWVS helped headquarters by running errands and filing in addition to carrying out special projects.

Welcome House & El Faro Club

Because of the proximity of so many military installations and institutions, the AWVS opened the Welcome House in 1943. It served as a refuge, rental bureau, information center and waiting room for servicemen and their families. Staffed by eight women seven days a week, it was open 13.5 hours a day. In addition to finding housing, they helped organize a servicemen’s wives club to provide mutual support for those women who were so far from family and friends.

Their efforts were appreciated as the following letter from Catherine V. Farrell of Montclair, New Jersey reveals: “Thanks to you for the splendid aid you gave my mother and me. On September 10, we arrived in Santa Barbara from New Jersey to see my brother, whom we had not seen in three and one-half years. Through your kind assistance, we got a room opposite Hoff Hospital and were able to stay there until after my brother’s was just like being at home. To travel 3,125 miles to find another home is a rare accomplishment. This is but one of the many ‘thanks’ you deserve in your efforts to help.”

During the war years, the military, like the nation, was segregated. To provide for all the nation’s soldiers, the Santa Barbara AWVS established El Faro Club for African-American servicemen. Mrs. Beatrice Taylor of 303 East Montecito Street was chairperson of the organization, and 15 junior hostesses entertained the men at dancing and games. Assisting Mrs. Taylor were Mrs. Nettie Butler, Mrs. Corrine Stevens and Mrs. Leora Talbert. El Faro Club was located at 727 Garden Street at El Faro School, which had been founded in 1939. Besides providing entertainment and refuge for African-American soldiers, the Club participated in war bond sales and sold more than $2,000 worth for the Fourth War Loan Drive. El Faro Hall survived the war and existed until the early 1950s.

(The AWVS subtly promoted universal brotherhood by honoring many ethnicities in its photographs. Note the two African-American soldiers in the Canteen photo and the last names of the three Junior AWVS girls.)

The Canteen

The Santa Barbara Unit of the AWVS was featured in the April 1944 edition of Woman Power, the monthly magazine of the California AWVS. PFC Joe Weitzenkorn, of the Camp Cooke News, contributed the following article on the ”goings on” at the Snack Bar at 413 State Street.

One Sunday morning recently at the Snack Bar of the American Women’s Voluntary Services at Santa Barbara there occurred a crisis. The day before, a record horde of 1,260 sailors, soldiers and marines, like an army of devouring ants, had swept the counters and larders clean. The AWVS faced its busiest day with three loaves of bread, ten cookies, and a solitary bottle of milk. Yet, on that day, with every store in town closed, the canteen refilled its icebox and shelves, brought in cakes and cookies, fruit juices and milk and coffee, and made thousands of sandwiches.

How was this small miracle accomplished?

There is really only one answer: By the determination and animation of a group of people that inspired an entire community. On that morning in question, the AWVS called up dozens of private homes and asked for food.

Contributions began to pour in. By 11 am the canteen had served over 300 members of the armed forces and continued to serve all day until closing at 11 pm. Not one man in uniform went away hungry.

This is why the AWVS of Santa Barbara has such an enviable record of achievement among social groups serving the armed forces. That is why – where it really counts – they stand very high indeed in the hearts of the enlisted men of the armed forces.

The proof is in the pudding and there’s a lot of pudding. For one thing the G.I.’s pour into the Snack Bar every day at every hour, not just to eat, although that’s what attracts them primarily, and they hang around for hours. Why? There aren’t any girls to dance with, and to be frank, the women who serve them, although invariably gracious and charming, are usually old enough to be their mothers.

The boys just like the place, that’s all. There’s something about the atmosphere of the funny little joint that hits them right between the left ribs. They write letters, read magazines, play the drums or the phonograph, gather at the piano and sing, or just plain sit in a vague sort of gemutlichkeit. And they don’t forget the place when they leave it.

Take a look at the bulletin board. It’s filled with poetry, pretty bad most of it, but sincere and heartfelt and written by boys near and far as an expression of their gratitude to the women who were kind to them when they were hungry or drunk, lonely or blue, or broke and confused and desperate.

No one gets turned away at the canteen, no one is rebuked, and no one gets turned over to the M.P.’s unless it’s a bad case. Take, for instance, the soldier who tried to steal one of the girls’ pocketbooks. It was in the back dressing room and he was caught redhanded.

Did the woman who caught him raise a hue and cry? On the contrary. She said in a low voice, “What would your mother think of that?” and the soldier was so ashamed he almost fainted. The woman, sensing the boy’s misery, kept him with her all day, took him to dinner, lent him some money and sent him on. The next day he returned the money.

Another soldier came in AWOL and broke. They lent him money and he went back to camp and returned it. Soldiers with distracted wives run in with baby’s bottle to be heated. The AWVS warms them. They take care of drunks; listen to their troubles, they wash, mend, sew, and press their clothes.

They’re like a collective wife and mother to the army....

And in return the women of the AWVS get – gratitude. But the real stuff.

None of this, “Oh, yes, thank you very much, I’ll come again.” Genuine, unmistakable gratitude like letters from the lonely South Pacific and poems from sailors and guys who go behind the counter and wash dishes and Coast Guardsmen who come down en masse to paint the place and electricians who shoot in from the naval base to fix a lamp. That’s when you know you have been doing something the right way, the way of the Educated Heart.

The Aftermath

When the war ended and the men were mustered out, the need for the AWVS Canteen evaporated and the “funny little joint” that had provided a safe haven for lonely servicemen closed its doors. The post-war Baby Boom, however, swung those doors wide open with the establishment of the Bo-Peep Baby Laundry in 1945-46. Pampers and a declining birth rate in the 1970s washed that business out, and Fred’s Cycles moved in, followed by the Santa Barbara Bagel Bakery in the 1980s. Today, 413 State Street houses Zeño Mamúe, a Peruvian restaurant.