The Dinsmores of Montecito

When the Panic of 1857 destroyed his lumber business in Anson, Maine, Bradbury True Dinsmore was determined to recoup the family fortune. The 50-year-old Dinsmore and several others ventured west to drive a herd of horses and cattle cross-country to Humbolt County. Finding the area conducive to development, he returned to Maine, farmed for a year, and then gathered his extended family and set out via Panama for Hydesville, California in 1861. There he opened two mercantile houses and joined his son, Augustus Irving, and his son-in-law, Orchard Danforth Metcalf in setting up a pork packing business.

In 1863, his daughter Frances married Thomas Hosmer, and in 1867, due to Augustus Irving’s poor health, the entire family moved to Montecito. Bradbury purchased most of the land that would become the San Ysidro Ranch and moved into a one-room adobe. Augustus Irving had a house nearby off San Ysidro Road and the Metcalfs and Hosmers crowded in with them until establishing themselves elsewhere.

Bradbury, now aged 57, enthusiastically returned to farming. After scraping the land of chaparral and rocks, he planted all sorts of grain crops and planted hundreds of citrus trees as well as nut and stone fruit trees and exotics like figs, bananas, and pineapples. Several acres of berry and grape vines were planted between the rocks on the bluff. The newspapers and horticultural societies lauded his results. The Dinsmore family continued to purchase parcels of land and the map of 1883 shows several members as owners.

Augustus Irving died in 1873 leaving his English-born wife, Emily Ester de la Saux Dinsmore, to care for the farm and their six children, all under the age of 7. Luckily, there was plenty of family around to help. Farming was not without its perils, however. When two of Emily’s sons were plowing the front yard, their two-horse team was killed when they fell through an abandoned well that had been covered with boards and dirt.

Bradbury died in 1881 and his lands and orchards were later sold for $10,000 to Goodrich and Johnston who formed the San Ysidro Ranch. One of the earliest American settlers in Montecito, he was eulogized by the press as “a man of great public spirit, noted for his charity and noble works.” Fanny died in 1884, and eventually, almost all of the Dinsmores’ lands were sold. Emily left for San Diego in 1898, but her sons continued farming in Montecito.

Thomas Thorpe Dinsmore

The Dinsmores’ affinity for the land came from generations of Maine farmers. Emily’s oldest son, Irving Winfield, took over the ranch of 103 acres until his death in 1899. Albert William, another son, ran the Miramar Dairy in the 1920s and ‘30s, and Thomas Thorpe worked as a farm laborer on the family property for many years.

In 1890, Tom married Julia Agnes Tubbs of Vermont, and Augustus Chester and Hazel Mae Dinsmore were born in 1891 and 1893 respectively. By 1901, Tom was farming near the end of Romero Road, probably on the Alexander place. Already the allure of the primitive lands beyond the mountain wall had taken hold of him, and together with the Stoddard and Hosmer families, he made many forays into the backcountry to hunt and camp.

In 1905, Tom joined the newly-formed Forest Service as an assistant ranger. Stationed originally at the cedar-shingled cabin at Madulce, Tom brought his entire family to spend May through September in the remote mountain hideaway.

In those days rangers were paid $60 to $75 a month and were required to furnish their own horses, pack animals, and tack, which could take up half a year’s salary. Also required to furnish their own food, the Dinsmores would load up the pack animals with canned goods, rice, beans, flour, coffee and sugar. Hunting and fishing supplemented their diet, and they farmed hay to feed their stock. Equipment like Dutch ovens and cast-iron cook stoves, canvas and axes and shovels all had to be packed in as well.

In 1908, Tom transferred to Mono Station near the junction of the Santa Ynez River and Mono Creek, which was the crossroads of two major trails. A one-room wooden cabin had been erected in late 1906 but was to be dismantled. Tom was in charge of seeing that a three-room adobe was built in its stead. His son, Gus, helped with the building by carrying water up from the creek to make the adobe bricks. The wood from the original cabin was salvaged for the barn and tool shed. The Dinsmores lived here and on El Bosque Road until Tom retired from the Forest Service in 1913.

During his tenure as a ranger, Tom’s main duties involved trail construction and maintenance and fire suppression. In 1912, while he was alone in camp on the Cold Spring Trail, someone phoned him to report a fire on the Frazier place near Eucalyptus Hill. He went immediately and fought the fire alone for hours, the caller not considering it worth his while to help put it out. In 1910, Tom came out of the backcountry to report that a giant timber wolf had commenced his spring wanderings. He had terrorized a number of Chinese workers at the Crocker-Sperry ranch who described him as a monster.

On another occasion, he was working with a surveying party consisting of Dwight Murphy, Henry W. Muzzall, and John Riis when they almost lost their lives fording the Santa Ynez River during a winter flood. The mule-drawn wagon containing their camp outfit and supplies was swept away, and two of the eight mules drowned.

On a lighter note, when he reported that coyotes ate his two pet cats while he was absent from the Mono, his friends and acquaintances began donating substitutes in such quantity that he begged the press to call for a halt. The newspaper said, “The Dinsmore home in Montecito has been the Mecca for cats galore since the sneaking scourges of the range made their dinner.”

After 1913, Tom returned to Montecito to manage several farms in the area and lived, for many years, at Francis Underhill’s Los Alisos Ranch. His wife, Agnes, died in 1917. He eventually returned to the El Bosque house and in 1924, he won the seat of District Supervisor for Montecito, a position he held until his death in 1943.

The Legacy

Tom and Agnes’s children, Gus and Hazel, spent an idyllic childhood in the Santa Barbara backcountry. Gus followed in his father’s footsteps and worked for the forest service for a while, but the horse power he really coveted was mechanical. Hazel later married Richard T. Richter.

Gus married Macie F. Gillian in 1912. After his mother died, they moved in with Tom on the Underhill Ranch where Gus became an auto operator. Later they moved into Santa Barbara and Gus worked with trucks and tractors for Commercial Motor Services and as a grading contractor for many years. Though they returned to Montecito in the mid-1930s to a small cottage built at 50 Stoddard Lane, they spent most of their remaining years at 1834 Laguna Street in Santa Barbara.

The Forest Service abandoned the Mono Adobe in 1933, and it sat exposed to wind and rain and vandalism for 30 years. In 1966, Gus led an effort sponsored by the Native Sons of the Golden West to restore the adobe and designate it as a historic structure. (The Forest Service later refused to allow them to cut the willows in front of the adobe so they became filled with debris. Consequently, debris-loaded flood waters in the 1980s and ‘90s destroyed the historic adobe.)

In 1957, Macie and Gus rented a room to a 17-year-old high-school student named Dennis Cogan. Gus introduced Dennis to the backcountry and a life-long friendship and passion for the wilderness was born in the young man.

In a 1994 interview with Montecito Association History Committee volunteer Maria Herold, Dennis said, “Later, Gus was getting old and he knew that his time was coming pretty soon and he had an envelope full of negatives that he’d saved from his family. He brought them out one day and said, ‘Dennis, would you please take these and do something with them? I know if I die my family will throw them away.’” Dennis took them, and years later donated prints to the Montecito Association History Committee; thereby preserving for posterity, images of backcountry life one hundred years ago.

(Sources: Montecito and Santa Barbara by David Myrick; Obituaries; City Directories; Census data; Phillips, Storke, Thompson and West; news articles. Special thanks to Maria Herold.)