Stewart Edward White

In his day, Stewart Edward White, the prolific author of over 40 books and innumerable magazine articles, was as popular as Jack London, Frank Norris, and Zane Grey. His second book, The Blazed Trail (1902), became a bestseller that sold over 30,000 copies a year for the next 30 years. Eight of his books and one of his series were turned into movies, one of which, Ashes of Three, was filmed at Santa Barbara’s own Flying A Studios in 1913.

Running the gamut from historical fiction of California’s early days, to semi-autobiographical camping and adventure tales, to spiritualist philosophy, White’s writings reveal the eclectic and changing interests of the author, as well as the times in which he lived.

White’s family began wintering in Santa Barbara in 1884 when he was eleven years old, and he became a resident in 1905. Many of his articles and novels are based on his experiences in Santa Barbara and its backcountry. The Rose Dawn (1920), a historical novel, draws its characters and places from Santa Barbara in the 1880s. The Mountains (1904) takes the reader over Cold Spring Trail, through the backcountry, into Cuyama Valley and, eventually, to Yosemite. Two autobiographic tales, Speaking for Myself and Dog Days, describe the Santa Barbara of his time.

Though White traveled widely, he became an integral part of Santa Barbara society, participating in its many events and finding great enjoyment in its recreational opportunities. Despite a privileged upbringing, he was the quintessential outdoor man, spending months at a time sleeping on the ground and eating primitive camp food. Perhaps he was not so far removed from the pioneer spirit of his grandparents.

The Whites of Michigan

Captain Thomas Wait White (1805-1884) was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts. A blacksmith by trade, he married Caroline Norton in 1836, and they traveled west to Detroit that same year. From Detroit they walked along Indian trails to Ionia and then rafted to the mouth of the Grand River where they became early settlers of the town of Grand Haven. Over the years, he took on a series of jobs from captaining a riverboat to building bridges.

In 1865, he bought Steven’s Lumber Mill in Grand Rapids. Operating it with his son, Thomas Stewart White, he finally found the business that would bring the family a fortune. Thomas S. White married Mary E. Daniel, and in 1874, the year after their second son, Stewart Edward, was born, they built a house in Grand Haven, which has been preserved as a Bed and Breakfast called the Boyden House.

In 1884, the year of his father’s death, Thomas S. White brought his wife and five sons to Santa Barbara to winter at the Arlington Hotel for the first time. In Santa Barbara, young Stewart learned to ride horses and began keeping a journal of his experiences. When Stewart Edward White returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan for high school, he became interested in ornithology and spent hours on field trips and stuffing specimens. As a result of his efforts, between 600 and 700 bird skins are preserved in the Kent Scientific Museum in Grand Rapids.

After high school, he studied writing at the University of Michigan from which he graduated in 1895. Taking the edict “Write what you know” to heart, he spent the next year first working at a Chicago meat packing plant, then as an accountant in his father’s office, and then prospecting for gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 1896, he attended Colombia University Law School where he took a writing course that encouraged him to try his luck at publication. He quit school in 1897, sold the serial rights of The Westerners to Munsey’s magazine, and became an author.

Kindred Spirits

In 1903, with his second book, The Blazed Trail, a bestseller, and a third book, The Forest, already on the shelves, Stewart Edward White visited his parents who owned a home on the northeast corner of Santa Barbara and Islay Streets. Theodore Roosevelt visited Santa Barbara during White’s stay, and upon hearing that the noted Western author was in town, requested that White join him on the train journey north. They talked all the way to San Luis Obispo, at which point White debarked.

Roosevelt and White became friends, and when Stewart suggested an investigation into the Mt. Whitney region of the High Sierras to study fish, especially the Golden Trout of Volcano Creek, Roosevelt, who had found a kindred spirit in White, made him a federal Forest Reserve inspector. White held this post from 1905 to 1909. At a memorial gathering for Theodore Roosevelt in 1919, White was on the platform and was introduced as the “author, soldier, and hunter, who was one of the Roosevelt Party on his big game hunt through Africa.”

White had found another kindred spirit in 1903: Elizabeth Calvert Grant of Newport, Rhode Island. Half Spanish and half Scotch, Betty had been born on the Isthmus of Panama and raised in the pampered environment of her wealthy Newport family. She attended exclusive girls’ schools and was dressed by her maid.

In writing of her, White described Betty as one who radiated kindness and grace and that people always felt uplifted after spending time in her company. After their wedding in 1904, White took his petite, delicate flower, on the honeymoon of a lifetime: a camping trip into the Sierras where she spent days on horseback, slept on the ground, ate thin greasy fried steak and soggy biscuits for breakfast and carried her own backpack on hiking excursions. She had to pack a four-month wardrobe into one duffle bag. Betty took to life in the wild, and thereafter joined her husband in all aspects of his unusually adventuresome journeys.

Santa Barbara

In 1905, the Stewart Edward Whites made Santa Barbara their permanent home and built a house on the corner of Santa Barbara and Los Olivos Streets. (It still stands today behind the adobe wall of the Monastery of Poor Clares.) When not on an adventurous excursion, they threw themselves into the life of the community. When the Great White Fleet visited Santa Barbara in April 1908, Stewart was grand marshal and chairman of the floral parade committee. The Whites invited the 36 Thatcher schoolboys, six teachers, three Chinese “houseboys,” and 29 horses to camp on the empty land across from their home. At night, around the campfire, he regaled them with stories of a canoeing trip in Hudson Bay and of Indians. Betty rode in the parade in a pony cart bedecked with pink Duchess roses and Dusty Miller, and performed in the Dance of the Flowers as a White Lily.

On their hunting trip to Equatorial East Africa, Stewart collected exotic pelts, but Betty used her rifle to shoot down seedpods from the African fern pine, which Dr. Doremus later planted in Alameda Plaza. She also gathered bulbs, plants and seeds for Dr. Franceschi; the Whites are credited with introducing Bird of Paradise to Santa Barbara gardens. For White’s mapping of German East Africa, the Royal Geographic Society of London dubbed him a Fellow.

Together with Joel Fithian, the Whites bought property in Sandyland, which White claimed to have named. There they built a beach cottage on one of their lots, and Stewart canoed in the slough and surfed with Joel Fithian.

In 1914, the Whites opened their home for a benefit food drive for Belgian civilians. They raised $1,400 for the fund. Later, White and Fithian recruited Santa Barbarans for a WWI unit called the Grizzlies. White wrote, “In a few weeks, with the enthusiastic aid of many old friends, we had actually signed up a whole battalion, a large proportion of whom were hard-bitten cowboys, rangers, out-of-door old-timers….” White joined, too, and served as a major with the 144th Field Artillery along with the outfit.

In 1916, Betty and Stewart, besieged by friends of friends of friends who thought nothing of staying for months at a time, decided to sell out of Santa Barbara. White wrote, “Since we possess neither a banquet hall nor a sightseeing bus, nor 36 idle hours a day, we moved to Hillsborough.”

In the Bay Area the Whites were quickly accepted into the Blue Book of Society. It was here that Betty discovered her interest in spiritualism, an interest that White came to share and that he wrote about in later books. White also was a member of the Bohemian Club, and both he and Betty continued to travel.

Betty died in 1939 and Stewart followed in 1946 at age 73. Though stylistic tastes have changed over the years, and his popularity has waned, his eclectic body of work preserves the lifestyle and thinking of an earlier time.

(Sources: various articles by Stella Haverland Rouse; internet sources, esp. loutilibrary.org; obituaries, contemporary newspaper articles.)