This month, the first of three Montecito Fire District firefighters and family will move into the former Sanchez Compound in Old Spanish Town. Steeped in history and lore, the three board and batten redwood homes were acquired by the Fire District when it became apparent that Montecito was perilously under-protected because 50% of its rescue personnel could not afford to live close by.

Native oaks and sycamore trees mingle with exotic palm trees and myoporum to shade the .75-acre compound. Gravel paths meander around stone-edged beds of ferns, and elephant ear philodendron climb the ancient trunks of trees, providing a lush, tropical aspect. Montecito Creek gurgles along the western border, secured in its path by stone and concrete walls.

The old structures have received new foundations, the old post and pillar supports being both outmoded and decrepit. New plumbing and a general sprucing up have prepared this cozy historical enclave of homes for the next generation of tenants.

The Wild, Wild West

Old Spanish Town, which lies along East Valley Road between Sycamore Canyon and Hot Springs Road, is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Montecito (behind the Chumash village of Salaguas, of course). The 1772 Royal Regalamentos for the presidios directed that land be allotted to immigrants and retired soldiers to encourage settlement of the area. The prime lands were near the presidio, but the presidio commander only offered the lower ranking soldiers small parcels of land in the grizzly bear-infested wilderness of Montecito.

Over the years, a cluster of Spanish families established a small, self-sustaining village alongside Montecito Creek. Here they built adobes, farmed, tended livestock and raised their families. Few of the original adobes remain for once wood became available, it became the material of choice. American schooners would off-load cargoes of northwest redwood in the shelter of Fernald Point and the tide would carry them to waiting customers. Such a system required large heavy planks that would not disintegrate in the surf so the early houses of Spanish Town were clad in wide boards whose seams were often hidden by wooden battens. As families increased in size, wood frame additions were added to the simple adobes and the original mud structures melted into the earth from which they had been formed.

In 1857, the construction of the first adobe church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, became the occasion for a special holiday, usually celebrated around July 16. Cock fights, marriages, duels, bullfights, dancing, feasting and, of course, Sunday mass were crammed into two nights of festivities. By the 1880s, saloons and groceries popped up along Valley Road and Parra Grande. Dance halls, restaurants and boarding houses drew visitors from outside the immediate area. The little village also boasted a jail and a Chinese Laundry run by Sam Lee in 1901.

While Santa Barbara was well on its way to becoming a prim and proper Victorian matron, Spanish Town still resembled the Wild West. The strum of the Spanish guitar and the beat of the fandango brought to life the old legends, like that of Joaquin Murietta’s daring midnight escape from Sheriff Twist after a “baile” under the famous grapevine, la Parra Grande. Visitors to Spanish Town found that the liquor flowed freely and, to paraphrase the rather licentious Vegas slogan, “What went on in Spanish Town, stayed in Spanish Town.”

The Sanchez Compound

The Montecito Fire District’s new compound encompasses three of Spanish Town’s historic buildings: the Alameda Saloon, a grocery store and a building whose original use is unconfirmed. Disputing sources claim it was a barn, a dance hall, a blacksmithery, a boarding house and a bordello. The 1918 Sanborn fire map shows it as a large shed with two small wings attached and designated as rooms. For sometime now, it has been simply a dwelling.

What is known about the early years of the ownership is spotty. A pre-1900 assessor’s map shows Viviana (Bibiana) Sanchez as the owner. In 1897, Vicente A. Juarez ran the grocery and in 1901 he ran the saloon. By 1912, both Viviana Sanchez and Vicente A. Juarez lived on the property and Viviana ran the grocery. After Viviana’s death in 1936, Vicente shared the house with Viviana son, Alfredo Romero. In 1941, Viviana’s son Jose Alfonso Romero was the owner. By 1951, Alfonso shared ownership with his cousin, A. R. Graham. In 1958, Alfonso lived in the old saloon and Victor Leon Lopez, another son of Viviana, lived in the house at the back of the compound. Eventually, the compound passed out of the hands of Viviana’s many descendants.

One feature of the property is now gone: the open-sided stable at the southwest corner. One old timer remembers that his uncle, whose labors took him far from home, used to fall asleep at the reins of his wagon on his return to Spanish Town each evening. But the horse knew the way home and brought the tired “tio” safely into the shelter of the stable each night.

This stable had a noncombustible roof (perhaps the tin sheets of the makeshift fence on the southern boundary of the property) and may have doubled as a blacksmithery. (Relatives of Vicente – Frank and Mateo Juarez – were blacksmiths circa 1910.)

Mystery and Folklore

The great mystery, however, concerns the cobbled grave in the center of the property. The sandstone grave marker reads: “Margarita McGary – Died October 25, 1912 – Age 35 Years.” Local lore says that she was a dance hall girl who met an early demise. Others claim she and her lover were murdered by her jealous husband. The lover’s grave supposedly lies to the right, its white wooden cross long gone.

A few years back, a few myth busters got together and did a little historical research. Turns out Margarita’s maiden name was Romero and that the oft-married Viviana Sanchez was her mother. Vananiea Margarita Romero was born in 1877 to Pedro Loreto de Refugio Romero and Viviana Sanchez Romero. Margarita had been married to a man named Pratt with whom she had two sons, Albert and Tommy. She then married Ed McGary, a policeman in Oxnard.

She died in Oxnard following a stroke of paralysis, which was possibly meningitis. Her remains were brought to Santa Barbara and the funeral was held at Our Lady of Sorrows, from whence, according to the Morning Press, she was supposed to be taken to Calvary Cemetery for burial. Calvary records, however, don’t list her interment until 1925.

So the mystery remains, who is buried in Margarita’s grave? When her four pall-bearing brothers bore her coffin from the church and placed it in the funeral wagon, did they head east toward Spanish Town instead of west toward Calvary? Was she later exhumed and re-interred in 1925? Is there another grave next to hers as some old timers believe, and, if so, who is buried there?

I have a theory, but first, as the Fool said, “I must catechize you for it, my lady.” Viviana Sanchez was 16 years old when she married 25-year-old Pedro Loreto de Refugio Romero in 1869. Pedro Loreto was the son of Pedro de Alcantara Romero. During the Civil War, a man named Pedro Romero, private, joined Company C of the First Battalion of Native Cavalry in Santa Barbara. Pedro Loreto was 21 at the time and his father was 43, so which is most likely the Civil War veteran?

Pedro Loreto and Viviana had nine children between 1870 and 1885. They separated but, being Catholic, could not divorce. Viviana entered into common law marriages with three other men, and bore five more children. At the time of his daughter’s death, Pedro Loreto Romero was in the Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle near Los Angeles. Due to the presence of so many disabled and indigent soldiers, mostly from the Civil War, the area surrounding this veteran’s hospital was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution and other vices. Was it likely that Pedro would be cured in this environment?

Pedro Loreto Romero was back on East Valley Road in 1916. On the night of November 14, in despair over the unrelenting illness he had suffered for the past 25 years, he poured kerosene oil on his bedding and the inside of his dwelling and touched a match to it. His brother, Juan F. Romero, who lived nearby, reached the conflagration too late to save Pedro. Though the genealogy record claims Pedro Romero is buried at Calvary Cemetery, is it likely that a suicide was buried in consecrated ground? Perhaps the missing white cross marked the grave of Pedro Loreto, and the wind soughing through the trees is his specter asking for absolution. (Ah, myth making is so much more fun than myth breaking.)

Buenos sueños, bombaderos.

(Sources: Maria Herold of the Montecito Association History Committee and her incredible and thorough files on the area; David Myrick’s “Montecito and Santa Barbara”; maps, obituaries, city directories and Guillaume Doane’s article “Fire District Buys $2.1 million Montecito parcel.”)