Question:‘Wasn’t pampas grass once an important crop around here?’ —Derek Rosen
For some 20 years at the end of the 19th century, the South Coast was indeed home to a major pampas grass industry. The plumes were used to decorate Victorian-era homes, the hats of Victorian-era ladies, and were put to a variety of public uses such as decoration of vehicles in parades. The South Coast rode the crest of the pampas grass fad until the bottom fell out of the market in the mid 1890s.
South American pampas grass was introduced to the U.S. in 1848; when it made its appearance here remains unclear. One account places the arrival of the plumes in the late 1860s, courtesy of one Mrs. N. W. Winton. Joseph Sexton of Goleta wrote in an 1882 article that pampas was growing at the homes of two Santa Barbara citizens in 1867. Whatever the case, it was not until Sexton began commercially planting large numbers of pampas in 1874 that the industry on the South Coast really took off.
Two years earlier, Sexton laid out his first plantings — a few hundred plants that he sold to be used as landscaping. In 1874, he discovered that by removing immature plumes from their husks and exposing them to the sun, male plumes “would hang heavily like oats, while the female would fluff up and become light and airy.” He sold some of the plumes locally and up in San Francisco, but his first major sale was to a firm in New York, which ordered 300 plumes as Christmas decorations and almost immediately doubled its order due to overwhelming demand.
Within a few years farmers from Goleta to Carpinteria were cashing in on the pampas fad, although the Goleta Valley remained the primary production area. The plumes were harvested in the autumn. Picking the plumes was a tricky matter for timing depended on the age of the plant and the nature of that year’s growing season. Once cut, the stalks were taken to the husking bench where the plumes were removed from their sheaths. They were then laid upon the ground for three days to bleach in the sun. The plumes had to be turned once a day and a member of the Sexton family recalled how the laborers would move down rows 300 yards long, turning the plumes without once standing upright. The plumes were then moved to well-ventilated sheds to finish drying, which took about 10 to 14 days.
The plumes were then packed in bags of canvas or burlap, containing some 2,000 plumes apiece, or packed in wooden boxes that could hold as many as 3,000 plumes each. Then they were shipped off to market, primarily the East Coast, and to Europe, especially England and Germany.
For a few years the demand for the plumes seemed almost insatiable. Sexton alone shipped some 250,000 plumes from 1874 to 1881, and the following year shipped an additional 50,000. In 1883, Joseph Spence of Goleta harvested some 100,000 plumes. The average wholesale price in 1883 was around 4 cents per plume. Another major producer was George Williams who had plots of the grass dotted around Santa Barbara, near Veronica Springs, in the upper Westside and lower Eastside, and near where Five Points Shopping Center is today.
By the mid 1890s, overproduction and decreased demand spelled the end of the pampas boom market. Fields went untended and became homes for rodents and other pests. The fields were difficult to eradicate; pampas roots are thick and the leaves are razor sharp. Pampas is also highly flammable, which presented another danger.
There was a brief attempt to revive the pampas market in the 1940s, without much success. Today pampas is still used on a small scale as an ornamental, but it has been classified as an invasive plant, a possible threat to native plant species. There will be no return to the days of the late 19th century when it seemed that just about everyone was mad for the plumes of the pampas.