‘What is the story behind the old, locally owned business Trenwith’s?’ —Arlene Kupchella
Trenwith’s, in its various guises, was one of the longest running retail establishments in Santa Barbara history. When its doors were shuttered for the final time in 1981, Trenwith’s was three years short of celebrating its 100th anniversary. For generations, locals bought their groceries, dry goods, clothing, home decorating accessories, greeting cards, and a myriad of other items there. Trenwith’s was a Santa Barbara institution.
George F. Trenwith was born in Delaware in 1849, but spent his formative years in Philadelphia. Plagued by ill health as a young man, Trenwith headed west after his father died, for what he hoped would be a healthier climate. He settled in Austin, Minnesota, and met N. P. Austin, after whose family the town was named. Trenwith initially looked to banking as a career, but when his friend Austin moved west, Trenwith also left Minnesota with his wife, whom he had married in 1869, as his health was again in question. Though he originally intended to settle in San Bernardino, Trenwith first stopped in Santa Barbara, where, perhaps convinced by Austin, he decided to stay. Trenwith went to work as a clerk in Austin’s retail establishment and by the end of the 1880s, the two were partners ensconced in a store at 721 State Street.
During the early years, the firm was a general store, typical of the late 19th century, selling groceries, clothing, and a variety of dry goods. The store shifted locations throughout the years; one of their finest stores was at 811-813 State Street, occupied in 1890. The dry goods and grocery department dominated the bottom floor, but also contained a “ladies’ retiring room” with a tile fireplace, easy chairs, and chaise lounges. Over this was the firm’s private office, which also served male patrons who may have wished “to do some writing or transact other business.”
When Austin died in the early 1890s, Trenwith bought his partner’s interest and phased out the grocery, concentrating on dry goods and clothing. In 1904, he moved once again, this time to the new Howard Canfield Building at the southwest corner of State and Canon Perdido streets. This block, which also contained the gourmet grocery Diehl’s, and The Great Wardrobe, a clothier, for a time was the retail center of Santa Barbara. Trenwith’s would occupy this site for the next 57 years.
George Trenwith not only built a successful business, but became a community leader. He sat on the boards of two banks and the Chamber of Commerce, and became an enthusiastic supporter of the construction of Cold Spring and Mission water tunnels. Among Trenwith’s close allies in this cause was E. S. Sheffield, after whom Sheffield Reservoir is named.
Trenwith died in 1913, and management of the business passed into the hands of his two daughters, Blanche and Susan. Susan was active with the local Women’s Exchange, an activist and support group which in the past had been involved in the temperance and suffragette movements and the founding of Cottage Hospital. Blanche would marry E. H. Clinton, one of the proprietors of The Great Wardrobe. The two shared management duties until Susan took exclusive control in 1929. Throughout the years, she became involved in a variety of businesses, often in partnership with her friend, Helen Poole. One of the better known of these was the Children’s Shop in the first block of West Canon Perdido Street.
In 1946, Richard Polsky bought Trenwith’s. He brought in experienced personnel from around the country from such firms as Macy’s and the Emporium. Coy Humphrey, from Chicago’s Marshall Field, bought the store in 1966 and expanded it as part of a general downtown facelift in response to the opening of the new La Cumbre Plaza. The growth of malls and huge franchise chains changed the world of retailing, a world in which, ultimately, there was no place for Trenwith’s.
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 West Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.