By the time of his death in 1903, Dixey Wildes Thompson had become one of the best-known and most-beloved figures in Santa Barbara. A man of many talents, he succeeded at whatever task he turned his hand to. With his success came largesse; he was famous for sharing his monetary rewards with those less fortunate.
Born in Maine in 1826, Thompson was related to Francis Thompson, captain of the brig Pilgrim, immortalized in Richard Henry Dana’s best-seller, Two Years Before the Mast; and to Alpheus Thompson, who settled in Santa Barbara in the early 1830s and is credited with building one of the first Monterey-style adobes in California. The family had a rich seafaring tradition and, in 1846, Thompson signed on as a cabin boy on a merchantman captained by an uncle. The ship engaged in the cotton trade between the U.S. and Europe and for the next three years, the young man visited a number of European ports-of-call, as he worked his way up through the ranks on a number of different ships.
In 1849, Thompson was bitten by the gold bug and headed for the California mines. Upon reaching the Pacific Coast after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, he discovered that there was a three-month wait to book ship passage to San Francisco and that a precious ticket could command as much as $800. Fortunately, Thompson found yet another uncle who was a ship captain and Thompson arranged to work for his passage northward.
Arriving in December, Thompson remained in San Francisco until July 1850 when he joined some fellow Mainers and headed for the Mother Lode. Three months later, with not a gold nugget in his pocket and in financial straits, he returned to the sea. After service on a number of vessels, he purchased a schooner and in 1852 became engaged in shuttling livestock between the mainland and the Channel Islands, primarily Santa Rosa Island, co-owned for a time by Alpheus Thompson.
In the early 1860s Thompson purchased part of Rancho San Miguel near Ventura and developed it into one of the largest bean farms in the country. Thompson was one of the first in this region to use power-driven mechanical threshers to harvest his bean crops. His success in Ventura County allowed him to purchase the Ontare Ranch, bounded roughly by modern Foothill Road, Alamar Avenue, State Street, and by San Roque Creek.
In the late 1870s, Thompson turned his attention to yet another enterprise. His friend, W. W. Hollister, owner of the Arlington Hotel, asked him to manage the financially troubled hostelry. Thompson, with absolutely no hotel management experience, agreed and within a few years made the Arlington name synonymous with customer service. Whether it was arranging a buggy trip to the hot springs in the Montecito foothills or over San Marcos Pass, or offering advice on the best hunting spots, or giving tips on which tradesmen offered the best buys, Thompson had the answer. In 1885 he sold the Ontare Ranch in order to better concentrate on the Arlington.
Thompson had a soft spot in his heart for those down on their luck. He often loaned money, knowing he probably would never see it again. He arranged for the delivery of groceries to hungry families and saw to it that the disadvantaged had wood to see them through the winter months. Thompson also became an accomplished horseman and was a familiar sight in parades up and down the state astride a horse surmounted by his superb hand-tooled, silver saddle.
Seaman, rancher, businessman, horseman, community benefactor, Dixey Thompson felt it was the duty of every citizen to give back to his community, a duty that he attempted to live up to on a daily basis.