As hundreds flocked to State Street to revel in a time-gone era of Santa Barbara’s rich history, the timing of local author Steven Gilbar’s most recent book could not be more apt. A Los Angeles Times “Book of the Year” recipient and Santa Barbara resident of 30 years, Gilbar has written 20 literary anthologies and short story collections with a singular focus on Californian history.
His latest, Compton, Kern, Truckee & Weed: The Men and Women Who Gave Their Names To Places in California, is a pragmatic, alphabetical compilation of the individuals — both ordinary and beatified — who left their signatures on the Golden State’s map.
Last week I sat down with Gilbar at Café Zoma on State Street, one month after the book’s official release at Chaucer’s.
When did you start writing, and why do you typically work in lists?
In 1981, I moved to Santa Barbara. I was always interested in reading and books, but I didn’t have a good reading list. So I thought it would be good to put together a book of lists that the average, common reader might find useful. What I was doing was hunting and gathering; it was predatory, and that was what I liked about it. As for my writing style, I think it comes from having a lawyer background. I write short pieces versus big, flowing pieces. [My style] isn’t graceful. It’s workman-like. But in so little words you can get the bare facts of [the topic].
Authorship: an occupation or a hobby?
A hobby. I like to research and I enjoy the chase. It’s sort of fun when you finally nail it and put it in a book, and it’s at that point I said, “Hey, I might as well publish it.” People love [the books] for the local history. I’m retired and I wanted to do the book, but I have no illusions that it is going to make me money.
How did you determine which towns and cities to include?
I couldn’t put every place that’s named after somebody because there are creeks, rivers, canyons — I mean, it would have been a vast work. Farms, villages, hamlets wouldn’t usually get in. I wanted to have every incorporated city, every county, and every state park or national park for sure. The book was originally maybe 20 pages shorter than this, but then I would find out something and have to add more.
Could you share a notable example?
There is a pass named after Jim Beckworth, an African American who was a key figure in the exploration west. What was interesting was that he was on a stamp in 1994 called “The Legends of the West.” He wrote an autobiography and lived with the Indians. It was such a great story, I said, “Wow, I have to have that.”
Does the book have a Santa Barbara or Southern California focus?
Well, I think I have every place on the Central Coast. I read something about Figueroa Street, named after General Don Jose Figueroa, who was a governor of Mexico. He actually died here and is buried underneath the floor of the Mission. I thought he should be in there because of the history, but I didn’t want to include streets. It turned out there is the Figueroa Mountains, so that’s one that I added.
How did you go about research, and did any place names leave you stumped?
I would email historical societies, talk to people at state parks, and look in old newspapers. Then there were books — I actually did go to the library. Often it was very vague or there were conflicting stories — genesis stories, origin stories.
Half the places in the book really came out of the gold rush. The cities just emptied out; a lot of people tried gold and didn’t make it so they started in agriculture. So they had farms, and little towns sprung up. Then a railroad would come up.
Some of these places, you don’t even know who it was. Sometimes a prospector would just stumble through an area and name it after himself. Everybody’s been calling it Grover’s Corner. But who Grover was, we have no idea.
Compton, Kern, Truckee & Weed is sold at The Book Den, Tecolote Book Shop, and Chaucer’s Books, and is available online at amazon.com, where a Kindle version is available.