By Mabel Plaskett
As long ago as 1592 the harbor of San Simeon was called “The Bay of Sardines” by Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo as he made port there on his historic voyage up the west coast.
In 1827 Father Juan Cabot wrote in his mission report to Governor Eceandia as follows: “Land to east of Mission San Antonio is waste because scarcely any cattle occupy it. Some breeding mares and in season some horses roam about there. From Mission to beach the land consists almost entirely of mountain ridges devoid of permanent water.
“For this reason the region is not occupied until one reaches the coast where the Mission has a house of adobe. Here it may cultivate some clear land for planting grain in the summer time, but it is entirely dependent upon rain since there is no irrigated land there.
“In the same district 800 cattle, some tame horses and breeding mares are kept at the said rancho which is called San Simeon.” End of quote.
What would the Padre think of the present picture of San Simeon Rancho which is now part of 70,000 acres of rich rolling hills from the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains to the shore of the Pacific, now called the Piedros Blancos (white rocks) Rancho and still owned by the Hearst family.
THE TOWN of San Simeon is Hearst property with the exception of Sebastian’s Store. This store has been in constant operation for 102 years. First situated on the point about one quarter mile northwest of its present location, it was founded by a Portuguese whaling captain named Joseph Clark who established a whaling station there.
The village of San Simeon is shown on the map of 1844. In 1859 it was an established whaling station and in 1869 it had a population of 200. Previous to 1864 the dockage facilities were limited to little more than make shifts. In that year Captain Clark built a substantial pier and in 1869 produce valued at $62,850 was shipped from the wharf.
At first the store was kept active by the whaling industry, a yearly take of 21 whales was the maximum limit.
The whales which summer in the Bering Sea, migrate in the early winter to the warm waters of lower California where they calve. In the spring they go back to their northern home, traveling so close to shore one may watch them as they come up to blow. It is interesting to see the high spout followed by one (rarely two) small ones as the babies follow the mama whales to their summer home.
GOING BACK to our story of Sebastian’s store, after the whalers left a man named Leopold Frankl bought the store and moved it on horse drawn skids to its present site. He soon sold it to L. V. Thorndyke who sold it to Manuel and Mary Sebastian, parents of the present owner Joseph C. Sebastian, better known as “Pete”.
After the whaling days were over the little store depended on local patronage and profited indeed as it was (as now) the only store between Cambria and Monterey. The trade came from ranchers up and down the coast. The Plaskett and Evans families up the coast traded with Thorndyke as early as 1870 and continued when the Sebastians took over. A colony of Chinese, working the kelp beds at San Carpojo was a source of income as well as the miners. The Oceanic Quicksilver Mines and the tanark and lumber were big industries in the early days and the store supplied the needs of all.
In 1878 the Hearst family built a wharf 1,000 feet long and this sufficed until a few years ago it was condemned and torn down and today a pier half its length, built by the state park association takes its place. The San Simeon Park donated to the state by the Hearst family is just south of the village and across the road.
One may see every day thousands of cars pass through the gateway to the road that leads to the Castle, now a state monument, to take the tour of the famous Casa Grande at the top of La Questa Eencantado (The Enchanted Hill).
After the castle and immediate grounds passed into the hands of the state, and the tourists came by thousands, trade at the little store increased in measure.
PETE IS THE same courteous, soft spoken and helpful storekeeper. He still sells everything from fish hooks to Jade jewelry. In the restaurant adjoining the store Mrs. Dan Lanini puts out the most delectable hamburgers every made – indeed word of the excellency of these and their homemade pastry has travelled far and wide.
Pete’s family history is an interesting one. His father, Manuel Sebastian, came from Portugal at the age of 12, worked on the ranches around San Simeon until a young man when he filed on a homestead on San Carpojo Creek. Later selling out to Hearst he worked on their ranches for 35 years, even while running the store which he acquired in 1908. He married Mary Cayetano and they reared nine children, four boys and five girls. All but one girl still living, Manuel died only last year.
Now the store goes to Joseph or “Pete” and his wife Louise is the best partner and helpmate one could wish for. They have one child, a daughter, Mary Edith now Mrs. Norman Hansen living in San Francisco. Mary Edith was once chosen as a model for the cover of The American Weekly, a copy of which hangs proudly on the wall of The Sebastian’s Store.
To this little store in the course of years have come such celebrities as Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Charles Bernard Shaw and Calvin Coolidge and many others and of course San Simeon has been a favorite haunt of movie actors over the years. The Hearst family traded here while at their summer camp on the hill and in 1917, 1918 and 1919 spent most of their time there while the work on the famous castle started. Mrs. Hearst stopped at the store while John, Bill and George Hearst played with Tony, Mel and Pete Sebastian.
SENATOR GEORGE Hearst acquired the big ranchos Piedros Blancos and San Simeon prior to 1878 buying out the proud early families in the lan years of drought. Later the sons of these families, the Castros, Sotos and Estradas worked for him. Don Pancho Estrado was called the Major Domo, taking guests over the trails he knew so well, taught the Hearst boys the art of horsemanship and a fine relationship developed between the proud “Don Poncho” and the family of the famous newspaperman. In the same year the wharf was built the old wooden warehouse was constructed at San Simeon, but as huge as it was it could not contain all the art treasures brought from the ends of the earth.
Pieces of Spanish castles lay stacked on the ground for years and the castle and grounds and other warehouses on the hill were filled with treasures. Much later William R. Hearst built a new warehouse by the side of the old one of Spanish type architecture with bells and arches and tile roof. One man was kept busy caring for the priceless contents of the warehouses. Nick Yost had this responsibility for over 25 years until his tragic death while running a bulldozer at his summer home near Gorda in 1954.
The little town of San Simeon retains its charm and romantic early day setting. The picturesque Spanish style homes on either side of the one street lined with scarlet flowering eucalyptus seem to blend in with the century old wooden warehouse with the modern warehouse built close beside it. The old Pancho Estrada home with its unique mansard roof, fast failing to decay with Castilian roses still blooming about the door is not far from the palatial mansion Hearst later had built for the old Don who gave so many years of faithful service to his family.
From the Sebastian store one looks out on the blue harbor protected from the north winds by a grove of Cypress on the point and one thinks of the days when the early Spaniards ruled the quiet countryside when Governor Alvardo gave the land grant to Jose Estrada, of all the produce shipped out from the old wooden pier to all parts of the world, of all the changes wrought through the years – the coming of the trucking business – the epic of the Hearst dynasty and through it all San Simeon doesn’t change – nestled in the quiet cove off the main highway life, with its hectic speed, seems to pass it by.
TURNING TO the north we see the spires of the Piedros Blancos light house, built soon after the crash off those rocks of the steamer “Harleck Castle” in 1869 loaded with barley. The first light used was a Fresnel light, very rare in those days. It has been replaced by a modern lens and now stands beside the Veterans Memorial in Cambria.
And lastly we look to the east where on the hill against the Santa Lucias, stands out in all its ivory white grandeur the towers and spires of the fabulous Hearst Castle surrounded by gardens and walks of indescribable beauty. All this built by W. R. Hearst who came from his Missouri home, a young man with nothing, to make a fortune in the mines of California and Nevada, to become a potentate in the newspaper business, to finally acquire San Simeon Rancho which was to become the best loved retreat of young Wm. Randolph, builder of the Castle. What a success story!
So it goes and today San Simeon is the same quiet village at Pete and Louise Sebastian take orders for groceries, wait on customers and take time to talk about the old days and take pleasure in today.
On May 29, 1960, dedication ceremonies will be held and a bronze plaque placed declaring Sebastian’s Store a national monument. This is sponsored by the Historical Society of San Luis Obispo County and the Cambrian Parlor of Native Daughters of the Golden West.
Mabel Sans Plaskett was born in Coralitas near Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountain area of California. Her father Edward Robert Sans ran a saw mill near Pacific Valley, along the Nacimiento – Ferguson road to the coast at Highway One. It was there she met Edward Abbott Plaskett, her husband. Mabel wrote about the coast and the pioneers of the 19th and 20th Centuries.