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History of high spirits

June 17, 2007|Ann Brenoff | Times Staff Writer

Blink and you'll miss Summerland as you whiz by on the 101. But this funky little town sitting in Santa Barbara's shadow has a colorful history and homes that are reasonably priced for the region -- if you can find one for sale.

In the beginning

A former Treasury agent, Henry Lafayette Williams, initially intended to raise pigs here when he bought this land in 1885. But when the Southern Pacific Railroad announced it was laying tracks north from Los Angeles that would cross his pig ranch, he decided instead to sell off lots and build a town next to the rails.

What made this act of entrepreneurship notable was that Williams and his wife were Spiritualists -- a popular religion at the time whose practitioners believed that mediums connected the living to the deceased -- and they persuaded fellow Spiritualists to populate their town. Lots of 60 feet by 25 feet sold for $25 each. In 1889, the early settlers named the town Summerland, the name of the Spiritualists' heaven.

Town lore has it that many of the homes that the Spiritualists built had hidden rooms from which the spirit of a dead relative would enter during seances. People from neighboring towns nicknamed Summerland "Spookville" because of all the strange goings-on.

Williams' own home, rumored still to have ghosts, later became the Big Yellow House Restaurant, a Summerland landmark.

The town's fortunes took a new direction around 1890 when a large deposit of natural gas was found, followed in 1894 by the discovery of oil by a man drilling a water well. Oil fever struck: Piers were built into the ocean, derricks erected and Summerland had what is considered the first offshore oil field in the Western Hemisphere.

What it's about

Modern-day Summerland is as eclectic as its past: Old-time townies coexist with those who commute to jobs in Santa Barbara from their tract homes.

Many of the homes are small bungalows that in the 1960s met the needs of surfers and hippies. In recent years, some have been remodeled, expanded and upgraded. Others retain their original flavor.

At the southern end of town is an infill development of newer homes. Fancier, pricier properties have been built on the upper hillsides.

The Big Yellow House Restaurant still stands as a beacon for travelers who drive by on the freeway. It's closed now for renovations by its new owner, and its current state of disrepair -- there are missing letters on the highly visible sign -- has townspeople wincing.

Another sore spot may be the missing Santa Claus. The city's Santa Claus Lane was duly named for the giant Santa figure, that had been visible from the 101. But in 2003, after more than 50 years of enjoying his perch, Santa was removed.

Summerland's handful of antique shops and art galleries provides a draw for tourists, but mostly the drive-by kind who browse after they've stopped for a quick bite.

One of those tourists was President-elect Bill Clinton, who stopped by the popular Nugget bar and restaurant for a cheeseburger; a saxophone is mounted on the wall in his honor. Clinton made a second visit a few years later (he ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and bowl of chili) while stumping in the area for an assemblywoman.

Housing stock

Santa Barbara's high real estate prices appear to have exerted some upward tug here. "You pay for proximity," said Santa Barbara Properties agent Gary Woods.

The estimated median household income in 2005 in Summerland was $64,700 compared with a statewide median of $53,629 -- suggesting that not everyone here is surfing all day.

A three-bedroom, four-bath clapboard house at the end of a cul-de-sac recently was listed for $2.95 million. It sits on a half-acre. In 2006, only four properties changed hands.

Good news, bad news

Residents say that after a while, the din of the traffic on the 101 just becomes white noise and one no longer hears it. They just don't say how long "a while" is. And because noise travels up, it can be heard from even the newer, hillside homes.

Still, this is a place filled with Summerland loyalists. They cite the good public elementary school, proximity to the ocean, the cultural resources of nearby Santa Barbara and the ability to walk or skateboard from one end of town to the other.

Report card

Students attend Summerland Elementary School, which scored 940 of a possible 1,000 on the 2006 Academic Performance Index Base Report. They move on to Carpinteria Middle School and Carpinteria Senior High, which scored 725 and 707, respectively.


Sources: Gary Woods, Santa Barbara Properties,;

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