Gardiner G. and Esther Fiske Hammond of Boston first began visiting Santa Barbara with their six children about 1908. The family looked at Southern California as a haven from the harsh winters of the Northeast. Health was also a concern; one of the children, George Fiske, had almost succumbed to pneumonia. By 1910, Esther had separated from her husband, and she brought the children out to make Santa Barbara their permanent home. She rented Bonnymede, the beachfront estate of William Davidson, located just east of today’s Biltmore Hotel. Davidson’s pet name for his wife, Helena, was Bonny and he had named their home in honor of her. The couple had decided they wanted a place farther inland, and, in 1912, Esther Hammond bought Bonnymede.
As purchased, the estate was about 7½ acres in size, but during the next 15 years, Hammond bought additional property, until the estate was some 46 acres in extent, stretching from the site of today’s Coral Casino on the west to Eucalyptus Lane to the east, and bordered by the railroad on the north and the Pacific on the south. She left the house, a relatively small, two-story affair, virtually untouched. She developed other parts of the estate, however, which eventually included a formal garden, a beach house, and a bowling alley. Another interesting feature was the enormous rope swings, suspended from telephone poles, there for the delight of children and adults alike.
Although her private fortune was immense, Mrs. Hammond wanted to inculcate in her children the importance of work, and she oversaw a number of family enterprises. Off of Danielson Road, the family opened the Bluebird Garage and Taxi Service to provide work for returning World War I veterans. Son George ran the businesses and often drove a taxi himself. Both he and his brother Gardiner learned the ins and outs of auto mechanics.
On property purchased to the north of the railroad, the Hammonds opened their Bluebird Ranch. Here, they raised vegetables, ran a dairy, and raised 3,000 chickens on the poultry ranch. In a 1979 newspaper interview, George Hammond remembered when the family put in a lemon grove. Dynamite was used to blast some 1,000 holes in the ground, and the holes were then filled with new, rich soil. The estate also boasted magnificent flower fields. Proceeds from the sale of these flowers went to charity. The Hammonds were generous philanthropists in myriad ways.
George Hammond became an avid aviator. He took lessons from the nation’s first airmail pilot, Earle Ovington, who owned an airfield on the present site of the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Course. In the early 1930s, Hammond constructed two airstrips at Bonnymede. They were grass-covered to reduce dust. The strips also served as a nine-hole golf course and as a polo field. Hammond became good friends with the Lester family of San Miguel Island, and he made more than 200 flights to the island to deliver mail and other supplies.
Esther Hammond remained active well into her later years; she still enjoyed ocean swims while in her mid seventies. She died at the age of 87 in 1955. The part of the estate with the family home was sold to a syndicate in 1958. The house was torn down and the western part of the estate became the site of two luxury condominium complexes, Bonnymede and Montecito Shores.
George Hammond continued to live on family property north of the railroad, which he christened Flaps Down, until his death in 1982. Subsequently, the 22 acres just to the east of the old house, known as Hammonds Meadow, became the scene of controversy when it was discovered to have once been the site of a Chumash settlement. Battles were fought by a variety of groups in the press, in court, and other venues until there was a compromise of sorts in 1989; the area was partly developed and the rest left as open space.
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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.