Col. William Wells Hollister was, truly, one of those bigger-than-life characters of the Old West written about so often in Western pulp magazines.
He really did go West in 1854 with a herd of 6,000 Merino sheep, 2,500 miles from Licking County, Ohio, across uncharted plains and was surrounded by Indians as in the Western movies. But his band of 35 drovers fought them off and they made it through to Northern California.
He started a ranch in the Mission San Juan Bautista area, in what became San Benito County, on the 38,000-acre San Justo land grant that he co-owned with Dr. Thomas Flint and Llewellyn Bixby.
For the next 14 years, Hollister worked the ranch, buying more sheep and purchasing more land with his profits. He traveled across the wilderness several times between Ohio and California with herds of sheep. As a result of his influence, he was joined by his four brothers and sisters, who left behind farms and businesses in Ohio and Missouri.
In 1865, Hollister decided to sell off his holdings and form the San Justo Homesteaders Association, a first for California. The result was the founding of a new town, christened Hollister in his honor.
Hollister had an insatiable appetite for buying land. Whenever he had cash, he purchased Mexican land grants as they became available.
In 1863, he bought interests in Santa Barbara County land grants. The Ortega family’s famous Refugio land grant in Santa Barbara County eventually became Hollister property, in addition to almost all of the La Purísima Mission and San Julian properties.
By 1865, Hollister and his partners had acquired almost all of the Point Concepcion area grants, including all of the Lompoc Valley. He moved his headquarters to Canada Honda in 1868, near the site of what is now Space Launch Complex 6 on present-day Vandenberg Air Force Base. The home he left behind in Hollister became the Montgomery House Hotel.
At the age of 45, Hollister was successful but still a bachelor. On June 1, 1862, he decided that he needed heirs to his growing fortune and married Hannah Annie James, who was 21 and the daughter of San Francisco carpenter and Committee of Vigilance member Samuel L. James. They had six children.
In 1854 and again in 1864, during one of his treks across California, Hollister crossed Tecolotito Canyon in present-day Goleta, one of 12 canyons in the Dos Pueblos land grant owned by Nicolas Den. As fate would have it, his mind was set with a lasting impression that he wanted to live there.
Most of the early development in the Goleta Valley started as a result of the hard times that the Den and Hill families went through during the drought of 1862-1864.
Den had died and his widow, Dona Rosa, was almost out of money by 1869. Her lawyer, C.E. Huse, recommended that some of her land be sold to pay her debts. The problem was that her husband’s will had prohibited the sale of the children’s land, inherited from their father, until they were of age.
Hollister, however, wanted a part of the Den land called Tecolotito so badly that he agreed to purchase it even though he did not have the approval of the probate court. In spite of that shadow on the deed, he acquired 5,100 acres by January 1870 for $10 an acre, or 10 times the going price for such land. He changed the name from Tecolotito Canyon to Glen Annie in honor of his wife, Annie.
With the long-coveted parcel finally in hand, Hollister set about to fulfill his dream of a showplace ranch. On a knoll overlooking the Goleta Slough and the Pacific Ocean beyond, he built a Midwestern-style mansion for his wife.
Hollister surrounded the ranch with the first fence in the Goleta Valley, made of wood and “5 boards high.” The entrance was on the county road, soon to be named Hollister Road, where there was a white fence and arched trundle gate that could be easily raised by a coachman.
Auntie Brown, Hollister’s sister, was half-owner in everything he owned, and she wanted this property, so a second mansion was built for Annie two miles farther back in the canyon.
Hollister’s six children were schooled at a small one-room schoolhouse, which still stands near the mansion at the Annie, Upper Ranch. Auntie Brown’s ranch became known as the Lower Ranch.
With this well-established presence as a showpiece estate, Hollister branched out to Santa Barbara, where he was active in every aspect of the city. He promoted the Santa Barbara College that later became the Ellwood Hotel. He financed the building of Stearns Wharf and the development of the Arlington Hotel. He promoted the construction of a railroad to Santa Barbara. He funded the road over San Marcos Pass. His money helped found the Lobero Theatre. He even ran the Santa Barbara Morning Press newspaper.
Hollister was fussy about who stayed at his Arlington Hotel. He used to meet visitors from the wharf and after “inspecting them” decided if they should go there or to the Ellwood Hotel down the street. The Arlington was visited by many of the rich and famous from all over the world, which helped him introduce the Eastern culture to replace Santa Barbara’s California Spanish culture.
Meanwhile, in the Lompoc Valley, Hollister and his partners sold 47,000 acres to the Lompoc Valley Land Co. for $500,000 so a temperance colony could be developed. He and his partners, Albert and Tom Dibblee, built the Gaviota pier as well.
Hollister encouraged his friends to buy and develop ranch properties in the Goleta Valley. Some familiar names are Ellwood Cooper, Dr. Robert F. Winchester, Edgar Stow and Maj. Shelton Sturges. Tom Dibblee went into banking and built the mansion of that name in Castle Point in Santa Barbara.
In 1877, the shadow on the Hollister Glen Annie Ranch deed was called by Kate Den Bell, who sued Hollister for return of her property sold out of probate by Huse. Bell was represented by San Francisco lawyer T.B. Bishop and, after 13 years of hard-fought and expensive litigation, the case was finally settled in her favor in 1890.
Hollister, who had worked so long and hard to develop Glen Annie Ranch, became sick over the prospect of losing it and died in 1886 at age 68. Although the ranch represented only a tenth of his holdings, it was the pivot of his life. He is buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
Bishop acquired the Lower Ranch as payment for his services and renamed it Corona Del Mar. Both original mansions — Brown’s and Annie Hollister’s — burned down. A house built by Bishop’s heirs in the early 1900s occupies the site of the old mansion and is still visible from Highway 101 to the east of Glen Annie Road.
The Hollister legacy can be seen in many place names and locations in California and Santa Barbara County. Among them are the cities of Hollister and Lompoc, Gaviota pier, Rancho Embarcadero, Ellwood, Winchester Canyon and Glen Annie roads, Coromar Drive, Stow House, Hollister and Fairview avenues, the Arlington and Lobero theaters, Union Pacific Railroad, San Marcos Pass, Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara city schools, Hollister Ranch, Cojo-Jalama Ranch, Rancho San Julian and Glen Annie Dam.
— Justin Ruhge is a Lompoc resident and historian. The opinions expressed are his own.