Q: Who is the Wyles Collection out at UCSB named after?
— Vic Walton
The William Wyles Collection is housed in the Department of
Special Collections in the Davidson Library at UCSB. The collection
contains materials relating to Abraham Lincoln, and issues
surrounding slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and ethnic
groups of the American West. It was deeded to UC Santa Barbara
College in 1946 upon the death of William Wyles. Wyles was
fascinated by Lincoln, considered him one of the country’s greatest
heroes, and for decades had been collecting everything he could get
his hands on about him.
Wyles was born in New York in 1856. When he was six months old
his family pulled up stakes and headed for Michigan. The family
home was a log cabin and thus was forged an early link with the
16th president of the United States, who had grown up in similar
Wyles was always fascinated by the lore and romance of the Old
West; he was a great admirer of Buffalo Bill. His interest in the
Civil War was sparked by the stories he heard told by four of his
uncles who fought in that great conflict. At the age of 14, he
struck out on his own, landing a position with the Illinois Central
Railroad in Chicago. After working at the company for a time, he
could no longer resist the call of the West and he took an extended
He became a cowboy, working on a New Mexico cattle ranch. He
then returned to his post in Chicago, but after two years
wanderlust once again got the better of him. He took the train to
North Dakota, then a small steamer up the Missouri River into
Montana. There he took a job as a sheep rancher, after convincing a
foreman of his vast experience in the field, even though he had
never actually herded a sheep in his life. After five years he
returned to cattle-ranching before landing a job at a warehouse in
After a stint in the grocery business and a last fling at
cattle-ranching, Wyles returned to Chicago and carved out a
successful career in the hotel business. In 1887 his health failed
and for the last time he headed west — this time to Santa Barbara,
which was gaining a national reputation as a health resort. He
stayed at the San Marcos Hotel, site of the San Marcos Building
today, and, when the hotel manager absconded with some of the inn’s
funds, its owners convinced Wyles to take over the position.
Although successful as a hotel manager, the rural life still
beckoned. He purchased a ranch in the Carpinteria Valley, where he
grew lima beans and walnuts — staple crops in the valley before the
advent of citrus. He also invested in Los Angeles real estate and
in 1904 became owner of one of the first true apartment buildings
in the city. Wyles later joined the board of directors of Santa
Barbara’s First National Bank.
Once he had settled down, Wyles was able to fully indulge his
interest in all things Lincoln. By 1928, his library had outgrown
his home and he contacted Clarence Phelps, president of Santa
Barbara State Teachers College, and made arrangements for the
school to house and catalog his collection, and make it available
to students while Wyles would continue to add volumes and other
materials to it.
By the time Wyles died just short of his 90th birthday, the
Lincoln Library (later rechristened the Wyles Collection) had
swelled to more than 10,000 volumes. Wyles also left an annual
bequest of $2,800 to conserve and make additions to the
Today the Wyles Collection includes some 35,000 monographs,
hundreds of serials, more than 80 manuscript collections, and some
700 additional collections of ephemera, photographs, and written
materials — a treasure trove lovingly gathered together by a man
who had grown up in a log cabin just like his hero.
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.