As longtime curator of the Montecito Association’s Montecito History Committee, Maria Herold knows — literally — where the bodies are buried, and the tales behind some of the most storied families and legendary estates. Here she sits down with Leslie Dinaberg to discuss some of her own history.
LD: How did you get involved with the Montecito History Committee?
MH: When I retired I decided I would like to do something useful and I looked around. I first looked into Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and I wasn’t quite ready for their structure. I had heard that somebody was needed up here, so I dropped in and have been here ever since. (Laughs) I just showed up!
LD: And when was that?
MH: I think about 1991.
LD: What did you retire from before that?
MH: Well, immediately before that I took care of babies … I wasn’t looking for a job, but people asked me to take care of their babies because the hours were perfect, my husband was a teacher and most of the people who asked me to take care of their babies were teachers.
LD: Has history always been an interest of yours?
MH: Absolutely, because of the fact that my family has been involved with the history of California and that has always been in the back of my mind. My grandfather immigrated to America in 1873 and first worked in Sonoma County and then settled in northern Santa Barbara County and worked as a supervisor on an old Spanish land grant.
He went back to Switzerland after he had worked here for 30 years. I was born in Switzerland, and then I came to America when I was 16. He came when he was 15 and I came when I was 16. He came walking over the Isthmus of Panama and I came on a freighter through the Panama Canal — so that’s history.
LD: Did you come with your family?
MH: Yes. The whole family came. … (My father) decided that instead of going to the Santa Maria area, where he was born, he looked for the nearest place that had a college and at that time there was a little college up on the Riviera so we came here because of the college on the Riviera. I was the oldest child and he wanted to be able to send me to college locally.
LD: You have an interesting history so I can see where your enthusiasm comes from. What kinds of things do people come to the Montecito History Committee to research?
MH: Everything from what is the story of my house or who is the architect or how come my house is the way it is, to I heard about the Parra Grande (big grapevine), or I heard about the San Ysidro Ranch. Or I heard about somebody from New York who is following a history of a person who started out in Europe, went to New York and then ended up dying in Santa Barbara and inspiring a story of the ghost of a countess in a local house. It gets that elaborate.
Then, of course, people who want to know the history of a street or of a property that they want to buy. Or there is legislation or development and, if they’re smart, they come here and see what the history is. There are very few people who are smart, but they manage to keep me busy — very, very busy.
I wish more people would come in because it is always ignorance that causes problems, legal and otherwise. And in the community it creates a great deal of problems where people are really not well informed on the history of Montecito. And the same thing in Santa Barbara, the same thing in Goleta. If people knew the histories there would be much less confrontation.
LD: Do you have a favorite project you’ve been involved with?
MH: I love it that the Pearl Chase Society once gave a mandate to a lady that they were giving grants to look into part of the history of Montecito. And they funded this lady, not me because I’m a volunteer, I don’t take money, except for as a gift to the history committee. But they funded this lady to work with me in putting together a history of a particular section. We picked this section of Montecito and looked into it in detail, starting with a map from 1871 and then following the history of that section up to the present time. It was a fascinating project. It took us months and literally months and months but it ended up in two ring books of information with lots of pictures and everything else.
LD: What part of Montecito did you research?
MH: We looked at the area between Jameson Lane (south), San Ysidro Road (west), Hixon Road and Santa Rosa Lane (east) and Santa Rosa Lane (north). That encompassed old farmland that had been well-known farms in the 1870s and 1880s and 1890s, and also included one of the two most historic parts of Montecito, which is Romero Hill. So we got all kinds of background with Romero Hill and with the farming community and now having developments, so we have everything there on how it developed since 1871.
LD: Do the other local libraries know about your resources?
MH: It depends on who they talk to at the library … I do know that UCSB is aware of us, the Santa Barbara Historical Society sends us people all the time, people who come into the library and say what should I do to find out about this and that and something else. The librarians here (at the Montecito Branch Library) send me people all the time. So between the Santa Barbara Historical Society and the local library we have a lot of referrals. Also, people seem to have become aware somewhere on the Internet of our existence because I’ve had calls from all over the continent.
LD: What is the oldest structure in Montecito?
MH: What they call the Monsignor Adobe, which is a misnomer, but everybody calls it the Monsignor Adobe. It’s a two-story Monterey and was built long before the Monterey Adobe was built … The Monsignor Adobe is the most classic building, I adore it. And yet it is the oldest building that’s still excellent.
LD: Where is it?
MH: It’s on the bottom of Sheffield Lane where Sheffield runs into North Jameson Lane, and it’s a landmarked house.
LD: This sounds like fun and very interesting work for you.
MH: Yes, but a lot of work. I would dearly adore having a helper.
LD: It seems like there should be a college student who would be interested.
MH: Well, you know, people keep telling me that I should get involved with Westmont students, etc. but the thing is they leave after a year, so all that is lost. The continuity is shot down. What I need is an apprentice who will take over because I’m not going to last forever.
LD: You’re still going strong, though.
MH: I’m 76 years old. Start counting (laughs).
LD: What else do you like to do when you’re not volunteering at the committee?
MH: For a long while I worked at Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, which I adored, just adored. But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve had several operations for cancer so this is quite a trip. I used to work hours and hours over there and I just loved it, but I can’t do it anymore. Then I’m involved with music all the time, I always have been. I’ve been an accompanist and stuff like that. I’m still a member of a choir; I sing with a group every Sunday but this is strictly amateur music. But I’ve always done music.
LD: Do you sing with your church choir?
MH: No, it’s just a group that gets together. We all can read music, we get together and we sing what is called early music, a capella early music. And we don’t perform; we do it for the fun of exploring early music.
LD: That’s really fun. That’s a great little local activity. If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
MH: Old-fashioned, excitable and enthusiastic.
Vital Stats: Maria Herold
Born: Aug. 14, 1932, in Zurich, Switzerland
Family: Husband George; six grown children, Ann and Matthew Herold, Tina DaRos, Mark Herold, Monica Christensen and Joseph Herold; eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Civic Involvement: Volunteer curator with the Montecito History Committee, very active with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, former volunteer for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Professional Accomplishments: Runs the Montecito History Committee archives; formerly took care of babies in her home.
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