Q: ‘What is the story behind the old, locally owned business Trenwith’s?’

‘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.

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