Q: ‘What was the first book published in Santa Barbara?’

What was the first book published in Santa Barbara?’ -  George Zelinsky

By Michael Redmon

That distinction belongs to a small (77 pages, plus ads) booklet that appeared toward the end of 1872, Guide to Santa Barbara Town and County by E.N. Wood, printed by E.N. Wood and A.W. Sefton, Job Printers. Not only was it the first book published here, but it was one of the earliest promotional books for any town in Southern California.

The 1870s were an important transitional period in the city’s history. The city’s economy became more diversified and more tied into the national economy with the completion of Stearns Wharf in 1872. The importance of tourism grew; the city’s first luxury hotel, the Arlington, opened in 1875. Wood’s booklet reflected these trends, a book aimed at visitors, both those just passing through and those who may have been considering settling here.

Wood was a transplanted Vermonter who had served for a time as a surgeon in the Navy. He then slowly began working his way west, living in Minnesota and then finally settling in Santa Barbara in 1870. He had come here, as so many did, for his health, just the sort of person for whom he would write his book. Wood dropped the practice of medicine and entered the newspaper trade. The town had a number of competing papers, and Wood went to work as an editor for the Santa Barbara Press. In August 1872, Wood left the Press and, with Sefton, founded the Santa Barbara Index, a partisan journal of the Democratic Party featuring poetry penned by Wood’s wife, Mary. This new venture was short-lived for on October 14, 1874, Wood died of consumption, the many healthful benefits of the Santa Barbara area of no avail.

Wood’s unabashed tone of boosterism reflects the optimism of the 1870s, the decade of not only Stearns Wharf and the Arlington, but also the first development of the hot springs above Montecito into a resort, the construction of the city’s first street railway system, and the appearance of gas lighting.

Wood described the city of 3,500 and the county of 10,000 souls (which included present-day Ventura County) in glowing terms. Presided over by three supervisors, the county had doubled in population in the previous five years. He pointed out that Santa Barbara is one of the most inexpensive places to live in a state that was one of the most inexpensive in the union. Times indeed have changed.

Wood listed the lodging amenities the city had to offer, including the Upham, now the city’s oldest hotel, but then a boarding house. Wood also mentioned the St. Charles, which, as the Alpheus Thompson adobe, had been one of the first Monterey-style adobes built in California. The city’s new public library received prominent mention. He also included a map of the county.

As may be expected, Wood promoted the healthful benefits of the region’s climate. What is most curious to modern-day readers is his touting of the oil slicks floating offshore being of medicinal value as they are “acting as a disinfecting agent with prevailing sea breezes.” Agriculture got much play, as Wood compared the region to Palestine, quoting from Deuteronomy to make his point. He boasted of the richness of the soil that supports everything from walnuts to grains to grapevines to silkworms.

He included a fairly lengthy discussion of earthquakes, pointing out that tremors do occur, but that hardly any damage was ever inflicted. “The destruction of life in the whole state cannot be compared with that caused by eating … that American compound called pie.” He went on to point out to Easterners that dying from sunstroke in New York City was a much greater threat than death due to earthquake. The booklet sold for 50 cents, and today there are only a handful of copies extant. Although hardly objective in tone, this rare item gives a fascinating glimpse into South Coast life as it was lived 125 years ago.

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