San Marcos Pass Motor Road and Cold Spring Tavern

In 1901, the railroad gap between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was bridged, and rail travel could go through to San Francisco. On the day of the opening celebration, Selin Carrillo, a member of the original Carrillo family, drove the last Wells Fargo stage over San Marcos Pass. Stage service over the pass, which had begun in 1869 ended, and Cold Spring Tavern, once a bustling way station along the route, started the slow slide into oblivion.

The Tavern was rescued in 1908 when the Doultons of the Miramar purchased the quarter section of land and buildings of Cold Spring Stage Station for $10. Their private stage took Miramar guests to the Tavern for overnight excursions and fishing trips on the Santa Ynez River. They hired Thomas Scott to run the operation from 1908-1914. He augmented his income by bottling Cold Spring water in five-gallon bottles and delivering the sweet-tasting liquid to Montecito. A bottling plant was in operation until 1953, at which time the equipment was removed by busting out a wall. The wall was replaced with a stone fireplace and the building became a bar.

Not only did the train replace the stage in 1901, but Santa Barbara acquired its first automobile. It was a harbinger of things to come, for as auto mania swept the town, Cold Spring Tavern benefited. In 1905, however, the city council passed an ordinance making it illegal to drive over San Marcos Pass. The law was hugely unpopular and was largely ignored.

By 1910, the city council came on board and was willing to discuss improving the road for auto traffic. After years of meetings and approval processes, during which torrential storms destroyed several bridges and washed out minimal improvements, Montecito residents George Owen Knapp and C.K.G. Billings stepped in. In 1919, they offered to contribute funds to the process. Still, it took seven years before the grades were reduced, the road bed broadened, drainage culverts created, and dangerous curves cut away.

Finally, on June 27, 1926, thousands attended a barbecue in the live oak grove near San Lucas Bridge to celebrate the opening of the reconstructed San Marcos Pass Road for motor vehicles. In 1936, the road again experienced major reconstruction, and in 1956, three years after the completion of Bradbury Dam and Lake Cachuma, discussion began on a total rerouting of the road out of Santa Barbara.

During one of these renovations, the road leading past Cold Spring Tavern was raised 18 feet bringing it directly to the front door. Remnants of the old road bed can still be seen below.

Ovington’s Cold Spring Tavern

The allure of this cozy nook in the mountains, now reachable by auto traffic, was so appealing that in 1929, Mr. and Mrs. W.M. Green spent the night and stayed on as proprietors of the business until 1941 when Adelaide Ovington bought it and 40 acres from the Doultons for $2,000.

After the death of her aviator husband, Earle Ovington, who had established an airfield on the site of today’s Municipal Golf Course, Adelaide Alexander Ovington along with her daughter Audrey set out to support themselves. To that end, they purchased Cold Spring Tavern and set about making improvements.

Audrey purchased three 6’ by 14’ packing crates for $23 each and created Dave’s Den, the Red Shed, and a guest house behind the tavern. She acquired the 1873 Ojai jail and two buildings from the deserted town of Gopherville, so named because its population had been one man and 5,000 gophers. The hamlet once stood between Gaviota Pass and Buellton.

The Ovingtons built Charlie Brown’s house, a small building intended for children who could eat lunch there. The door was only big enough for a child and the doorknocker was a child’s bronzed shoe.

Under the Ovingtons’ care, Cold Spring Tavern became popular with locals and visitors alike. Though the stagecoaches had long stopped running past its door, automobile traffic along San Marcos Road was ever increasing. Here was a bit of the old West preserved and celebrities flocked to its doors. Roy Rogers once tended bar there for a whole day without being recognized. Audrey, who in 1953 produced a hand written, “weakly newsletter” called the Cold Spring Bull-O-Ton, wrote, “Roy Rogers did NOT come up recently when he was in town. (Guess he had such a good time when he was here before that he forgot where he had it!)”

Her bulletin kept readers abreast of Tavern news like “Chet and Dorothy Thom Lease the Lodge Room from the Ovingtons.” She added, “They are going to make their own sandwiches and feature particularly the kind that go with beer.” She also gave the news of mountain people writing that the De Kays were leaving after being mountaineers for ten years and that the Farmers Market at Paradise was wonderful. “We had an August full moon in July – did the cake walk, played Bingo (didn’t get a ham) and danced till 12.”

In 1963, Cold Spring Arch Bridge was completed. San Marcos Pass road now by-passed the Tavern. Still, the Ovingtons hung on to their property and it continued as a viable enterprise. Adelaide died in 1972 and Audrey alternated between leasing out the business and running it herself. Audrey died in 2005 and left Cold Spring Tavern to Ovington relatives.

Managed by John Locke since 2000, Cold Spring Tavern is as popular as ever. Closed off for many years, the Ojai Jail and Chinese Bunkhouse as well as other buildings on the property may now be enjoyed by the public. Cold Spring Chili created by the late Kenny Stockwell in 1950 is still on the menu and John features a special game meat every week ranging from crocodile to boar. On weekends, Big Tom sets up his barbeque next to the bar and makes tri-tip sandwiches: “the kind that go with beer.”

Music has been ringing out in Cold Spring’s mountain hollow for decades. Most Sundays find Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan playing the bluesy folk music they’ve been playing on the steps of the Tavern for the past 25 years. Weekend evenings and afternoons the homespun rhythms of country, folk, blues, and bluegrass, tempered occasionally with a little old-time rock and roll, share the present and past with the old tavern at Cold Spring.