Q: ‘How did Hope Ranch get its name?’
A: Hope Ranch was named after Thomas Hope, a fiery, illiterate Irishman who became one of the most successful ranchers on the South Coast. This success was reflected in his elegant Victorian home, which still stands at 399 Nogal Drive after a narrow escape from the wrecker’s ball.
Thomas Hope was born in Meath, Ireland, in 1820 and came to the U.S. at the age of 16. He first settled in Texas, but eventually journeyed to San Francisco, passing through Santa Barbara on the way. In San Francisco he married, and he and his wife operated a boarding house for a time. In 1849 the couple moved to Santa Barbara. Hope began to raise sheep; his flocks would eventually number in the thousands. In 1861 he purchased two ranchos, La Calera (The Lime Kiln) and Las Positas (The Little Springs) from the widow of Thomas Robbins; Hope paid $8,000 for more than 4,000 acres. His investment turned out to be an excellent one. The Civil War greatly drove up the demand for wool cloth and, although hurt by the floods and droughts of the 1860s, which virtually destroyed California’s cattle industry, Hope’s operations came through in relatively good condition.
In addition to raising sheep, Hope also grew a variety of crops on his ranch. Near today’s Laguna Blanca he successfully planted barley. Hope also raised racehorses and built a racetrack in a nearby meadow. He also built a steeplechase course.
Hope was a generous man, but his temper could get him in trouble. This dual nature is illustrated by an incident in 1873. Hope gave the county a strip of land upon which to construct a road (today part of Hollister Avenue), but when he felt the county surveyor was encroaching upon private property, he flew into a rage. He and his foreman badly beat the surveyor. Hope turned himself in and was fined $25 for the attack. The surveyor later sued, which cost Hope an additional $1,000 in damages.
The Hopes had been living in an adobe, but as the family grew to six children, Hope commissioned Peter Barber to design a large Victorian home. Barber was the pre-eminent architect in Santa Barbara at the time. His designs included the first Arlington Hotel, the Charles Fernald mansion, the 1872 county courthouse, and what became the Upham Hotel. Barber designed a two-story Italianate structure of nine rooms with a front balcony and a six-columned veranda. A captain’s walk surmounted the building. The house was completed in 1875 at a cost of $10,000.
Hope had precious little time to enjoy his new home, one of the finest in the area. In January 1876, he died of stomach cancer, although rumors persisted that foul play may have been the cause. At the time of his death he was estimated to be worth about a half-million dollars. The family continued to live in the house until the widowed Delia Hope sold it and her portion of the ranch in 1887 for $255,000 and moved to San Francisco. She insisted on payment in gold and a local banker made the delivery to the house under armed guard. She later returned some $20,000 in coins for replacement, saying they were defective. In 1892 Thomas Hope’s body was exhumed and taken to San Francisco for reburial.
The family mansion went through a number of owners’ hands, and by 1963 was vacant and in a sad state of disrepair. In 1967, George and Vie Obern bought the house and, rallying the community, saved it from destruction. Thousands of volunteer hours were spent on the restoration. On December 15, 1968, the Oberns opened the doors of the revitalized Hope House to some 500 celebrants. Hope House is now a designated Santa Barbara County Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.