My Santa Barbara Scrapbook: 1886-1910

“I shall begin the tale of my every day life. . . as lived by a young woman who had been brought from the old world and thrown into absolutely new, and in some ways primitive, surroundings which made up the little town of Santa Barbara in the years 1886 and following,” wrote Elizabeth Eaton Burton in the opening to My Santa Barbara Scrapbook.

Elizabeth’s scrapbook is, essentially, an ode to a time when Montecito, Santa Barbara and she were young and full of possibilities. It is also a portrait of the development of an artist who became a bright light in the Arts and Crafts Movement. (See Montecito Journal, Issue # 11/19.)

Born in Paris in 1869, Mary Elizabeth Eaton’s young life was spent in age-old cities whose very names still conjure images of elegant architecture and culture: Paris, Versailles, Dresden, Nice. When her father, Charles Frederick Eaton, moved the family to Santa Barbara in 1886, Elizabeth was 17 years old, and for her, California was the Wild West. Small wonder that she was not initially impressed with Santa Barbara’s attempts at civilization.

Arriving at the “rather rickety old wharf” in Santa Barbara, the Eatons were met by friends from Montecito and whisked away to a hilltop ranch house where they had arranged for room and board. There, her mother insisted that Elizabeth practice her piano. The hot afternoons and the tin-pan sound of the square piano were not the only obstacles to this tedious task, however.

“There were lots of dogs on the place; in fact, besides ourselves, they were the chief boarders,” Elizabeth wrote. “But unfortunately certain parasites had migrated from them to the matting on the floor, and presto, a battalion of invisible insects were climbing up my legs. I defy the best of musicians to play, and at the same time defend himself against such an invasion.” Elizabeth’s “indignant expostulations” caused her parents to remove the family and rent a bungalow on Arrellaga Street in town.

Though the cottage came complete with cracked crockery, torn linen, hideously ugly furnishings, and one spigot for cold water; in the garden “bloomed whole hedges of Duchess roses and the sun shone so brightly that it lured us out of doors, so what matter.”

Taken into the Fold

Elizabeth’s acceptance into Santa Barbara’s social life was aided, in part, by Saturday evening hops at the Arlington. “Although this hotel was an ugly old clap-board building, it had nevertheless a hospitable heart,” wrote Elizabeth. “Our music consisted of a Mexican orchestra of several pieces, and all the square dances were called out by Abraham, the town butcher. ‘Chache-croise,’ he would yell lustily, and we obeyed to a man.”

The nucleus for all social activities for the neighboring girls were a group of young men who lived out at the Ontare Rancho and who, along with several other eligible young men in town, became dubbed the “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” Elizabeth remembers, “What a boon to the girls was this ever ready phalanx of cavaliers – and now one of them was to be my partner.” She had been asked to dance in the Contradanza at the Grand Ball held at the Lobero Theatre for the Mission’s Centennial celebration in December 1886.

Both excited and apprehensive that she had been paired with the Blackbird known as “The Adonis of the Pacific Coast,” Elizabeth took only a brief glimpse when he was presented to her but managed to note “a very handsome tall man dressed in a costume of peacock velvet and silver lace.”

While they danced, she waited for him to speak but “no sound reached me; then looking up I caught such a distressed look on his face that I felt quite alarmed.” He excused himself and joined a friend in one of the box seats before returning to the dance floor to resume the dance. Hurt by his behavior, she resolved to ignore him in the future. Only later did she learn that his breeches had been too tight and were splitting! His friend’s safety pins had remedied the situation long enough for him to continue the dance. Her vow to ignore him in the future, however, proved futile, for he was Billy Burton.

Santa Barbara and Montecito, 1886

Elizabeth remembers a State Street that was often ankle deep in mud, had rickety boardwalks, small shacks and hitching posts. Little open-tram cars were drawn by mules “whose drivers would wait for you while you mailed a letter or went back to put the key under the mat,” and in small shops Mexican artisans created elaborately carved saddles and bridles studded with hand-wrought silver ornaments.

“In spite of its ugliness, State Street remained our Rue de Rivoli if we selected eleven am for the hour to walk its length on our way for a swim,” Elizabeth wrote. “For at this hour, one met the whole world there. Every office was emptied as if by magic, as each joined the procession; for a sea-bath on a beautiful day was a sacred rite to be duly observed.

“There was plenty for me to enjoy,” she continued. “I loved the beach teas by moonlight when we would all meet at a quiet spot on the shore beneath the high cliffs on the night of the full moon; the delicious supper; the large bonfire and the guitars. Here we could sing to our heart’s content all the old songs....I loved, too the rides up wooded canyons and over the wide ranges to gather in some green shady spot for a picnic fit for the gods; or, again, for wild rides along the beaches or for gay hay-rides or visits to the Ranchos on the other side of the first range.”

Another enjoyment was the houses that opened themselves up for Spanish dinners: “Very often we would go repair to an old adobe in Mexican town, picturesque with its covered porch and flower pots. It was always a gay party which sat around the long table in a good sized sala, lit with shaded hanging lamps and smelling strongly of garlic; the whole atmosphere so foreign that you felt far away indeed from our country and its modern ways.

Of Montecito, Elizabeth wrote, “Montecito! Magic name for that sublimely beautiful valley so richly endowed by nature.” She remembers that “the few houses then built were quite lost in the thick foliage of the native live-oaks, and the meandering country roads ran beneath their shade without making any lines of demarcation.”

To this idyllic valley the Eatons soon removed, basically camping out on their land until the house was finished. When Elizabeth returned from a stay with her relatives in Providence, Rhode Island, she found that Riso Rivo was rapidly taking shape. She also found herself to be the object of “serious attentions from the man who had previously seemed so indifferent, my dancing partner, Billy Burton.”

Love and Marriage

“I think the qualities which made Billy popular were his kind heart and his willingness to give his services to any who needed them, whether rich or poor, white or yellow, and thus won for him the name of ‘Nature’s Gentleman,’” explained Elizabeth. Such qualities would serve him well in the real estate business he opened with his friend, Fred Burt.

As their romance grew, Billy and Elizabeth took long horse back rides in the wooded canyons and enjoyed floating in the tea house on Lotus Lake at Riso Rivo. When summer was over, they were engaged.

Elizabeth and Billy married in 1893. There followed two children, Philip and Helen. In December 1896, Elizabeth opened her first art studio on the corner of Arlington Avenue and State Street where Café Buenos Aires stands today. This studio featured her work in shell, metal and leather decorative objects.

Active in many civic events such as the Saint Cecilia Society, of which she was first president, her bright light was missed when she left Santa Barbara in 1910 in search of new artistic horizons.

In leaving us her scrapbook, Elizabeth Eaton Burton has given us more than an intimate look back to a time and place that no longer fully exists; she has revealed the nature of the historical legacy which has shaped so much of Montecito and Santa Barbara today, just as it shaped a young girl from France long ago.

Elizabeth closes by saying, “I want to leave the spot where I enjoyed so much of the fullness of living with its aroma still fresh in your nostrils, a place where life was set at a slower tempo, where the break-neck speed of today was unknown, yet where the days were filled with happy hours.”

(Elizabeth Eaton Burton’s granddaughters have given the Santa Barbara Historical Society permission to publish her memoirs. Once financing is secured through grants and donations, be on the look out for her charming and historically important story.)