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Jun 11

Mission San Luis Obispo, adobe with wood walls – The Leonard Collection

Mission San Luis Obispo circa 1915, when it was covered with wood siding. ©The Tribune from the Leonard collection

A misguided attempt to protect the adobe walls of Mission San Luis Obispo almost destroyed the structure.
Building a Mission is a classic 4th grade history project but the story is more complex than most of us learn in 4th grade.
Adobe buildings are built with materials at hand, dirt, sand and straw by the Native American neophytes baptized into the Spanish way of life. The buildings are almost a living organism that need wick enough water from the ground to keep from drying and crumbling but must be protected from rain to avoid eroding away.
Oak beams were hand hewed and tied into place with rawhide. Tules and reeds were woven to make the original roof.
Later the Mission San Luis Obispo would become one of the first to be roofed with tile after Native Americans attacked and set fire to the structure.
Why would natives set fire to the Mission?
Under the direction of the Mission Padres and the swords and guns of the soldiers the native population was seen as a way for Spain to quickly gain control of the new territories.
The worrisome expansion of Russians down the coast gave impetus to expand northward from Mexico.
With the heathens shown the proper path and converted, the thinking went, Spain would have an instant colony of loyal subjects. The Missions would be the first step on the way to bringing spiritual enlightenment. Mission San Luis Obispo was built in 1772, the fifth in the California chain.
The process did not go as planned.
The rigid rules of the Spaniards clashed with the nomadic native cultures. The Spanish, who had endured and inflicted centuries of war, conquest and inquisition saw the lives of the natives as indolent and immoral.
Once an Indian had been baptized the Spanish viewed them as under moral obligation, runaways were dealt with harshly.
The soldiers often were men of limited talents, perhaps good with a horse or pistol but with few good prospects at home. Some were little better than criminals.
It was a recipe for conflict, educated and zealous priests, soldiers of dubious background, a native population with little reason to desire change.
Native cultures used to moving with the seasons were locked up in dark adobe rooms with the fleas and vermin that the Europeans accepted as part of civilization. As the missions were established European diseases, typhus, small pox, cholera and venereal diseases took a toll on the native population. In addition there were beatings and occasional armed skirmishes.
The native population was decimated and many became dependent on the Mission way of life as the villages dwindled below viable levels and the Mission cattle herds expanded into hunting grounds.
Converted Indians provided labor for the missions in exchange for food and shelter. California was built from the earliest days on the sweat of cheap labor.
Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and the Mission San Luis Obispo and lands were secularized or sold to private hands in 1834 disrupting the system of labor and knowledge that had maintained the structure.
In 1846 Anglos wrested California from Mexico and further decimated the native population followed. In addition both Mexican and Indian residents were stripped of most legal protections. In the cultural disruption that followed there were few left who had the skill to repair the adobe.
The earth structures are simple but require specific maintenance and in retrospect selling painted roof tiles as souvenirs was not helpful.
In an effort to save the structure in 1875 Mission San Luis Obispo was covered with Yankee style clapboard and steepled bell tower. The Mission was once again a Catholic Church but New England transplant on Spanish rootstock did not work well.
Poor wiring or spontaneous combustion in the damp walls caused a fire in March 1920 that nearly destroyed the church.
The ancient work of the Indian neophytes saved the structure when the oak beams held the walls from collapse.
Decades of fundraising followed and La Fiesta was established as a way to restore the mission to its former glory.

Douglas Monroy has written an interesting history of California culture in conflict titled “Thrown Among Strangers, The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California.” Historian Dan Krieger has written several detailed columns about the history of Mission San Luis Obispo in his Tribune column Times Past.

The image comes from a collection of large format negatives in the Tribune library. They were enclosed in a 1950s era Telegram-Tribune window envelope, labeled “Mrs. Leonard.” The images however are decades older.
One image is from 1908 and others are from 1914-15.

Related posts:

  1. Panama Pacific International Exposition, July 4, 1915 San Francisco, The Leonard collection
  2. The 1914 flood in Arroyo Grande, the Leonard Collection
  3. Drive through urban planning and Mission Plaza
  4. Santa Manuela School, the Leonard Collection
  5. San Luis Obispo Map, 1941