— Vic Walton
The William Wyles Collection is housed in the Department of Special Collections in the Davidson Library at UCSB. The collection contains materials relating to Abraham Lincoln, and issues surrounding slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and ethnic groups of the American West. It was deeded to UC Santa Barbara College in 1946 upon the death of William Wyles. Wyles was fascinated by Lincoln, considered him one of the country’s greatest heroes, and for decades had been collecting everything he could get his hands on about him.
Wyles was born in New York in 1856. When he was six months old his family pulled up stakes and headed for Michigan. The family home was a log cabin and thus was forged an early link with the 16th president of the United States, who had grown up in similar humble surroundings.
Wyles was always fascinated by the lore and romance of the Old West; he was a great admirer of Buffalo Bill. His interest in the Civil War was sparked by the stories he heard told by four of his uncles who fought in that great conflict. At the age of 14, he struck out on his own, landing a position with the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago. After working at the company for a time, he could no longer resist the call of the West and he took an extended “vacation.”
He became a cowboy, working on a New Mexico cattle ranch. He then returned to his post in Chicago, but after two years wanderlust once again got the better of him. He took the train to North Dakota, then a small steamer up the Missouri River into Montana. There he took a job as a sheep rancher, after convincing a foreman of his vast experience in the field, even though he had never actually herded a sheep in his life. After five years he returned to cattle-ranching before landing a job at a warehouse in Helena.
After a stint in the grocery business and a last fling at cattle-ranching, Wyles returned to Chicago and carved out a successful career in the hotel business. In 1887 his health failed and for the last time he headed west — this time to Santa Barbara, which was gaining a national reputation as a health resort. He stayed at the San Marcos Hotel, site of the San Marcos Building today, and, when the hotel manager absconded with some of the inn’s funds, its owners convinced Wyles to take over the position.
Although successful as a hotel manager, the rural life still beckoned. He purchased a ranch in the Carpinteria Valley, where he grew lima beans and walnuts — staple crops in the valley before the advent of citrus. He also invested in Los Angeles real estate and in 1904 became owner of one of the first true apartment buildings in the city. Wyles later joined the board of directors of Santa Barbara’s First National Bank.
Once he had settled down, Wyles was able to fully indulge his interest in all things Lincoln. By 1928, his library had outgrown his home and he contacted Clarence Phelps, president of Santa Barbara State Teachers College, and made arrangements for the school to house and catalog his collection, and make it available to students while Wyles would continue to add volumes and other materials to it.
By the time Wyles died just short of his 90th birthday, the Lincoln Library (later rechristened the Wyles Collection) had swelled to more than 10,000 volumes. Wyles also left an annual bequest of $2,800 to conserve and make additions to the collection.
Today the Wyles Collection includes some 35,000 monographs, hundreds of serials, more than 80 manuscript collections, and some 700 additional collections of ephemera, photographs, and written materials — a treasure trove lovingly gathered together by a man who had grown up in a log cabin just like his hero.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.