The small city of Guadalupe, located to the west of Santa Maria off Highway 166, takes its name from Rancho Guadalupe, established in 1840. The founding of the town dates to 1873 and, for about 10 years, was the largest settlement in northwestern Santa Barbara County. Guadalupe formally incorporated in 1946 and today has a population of around 6,000 people.
In 1840, the Mexican government granted to Teodoro Arellanes and Diego Olivera more than 32,000 acres of prime ranch land well-watered by the Santa Maria River. The duo immediately set up a large-scale cattle operation and constructed a large adobe, with walls 20 inches thick, as headquarters for their ranch. This adobe was razed by John C. Fremont and his troops as they passed through the ranch in 1846 on their way to Santa Barbara.
Arellanes’s and Olivera’s claim to the ranch was confirmed by a U.S. District Court in 1857, but shortly after that, the ranch passed through the hands of a number of owners and the sale of ranch parcels began. Among these owners was John B. Nugent, a former San Francisco newspaper editor, who was forced to leave that city when he dared oppose one of its Vigilance Committees, a self-appointed law and order group that was attempting to “clean up” San Francisco. Another owner, John Ward, built a large two-story adobe at the ranch in 1868. This adobe became a center of activity for the town of Guadalupe, serving throughout the years as a meeting place for the Odd Fellows and Masons, as a stagecoach stop, a newspaper office, and a justice court. The adobe had one of the oldest shingle roofs in California. It was torn down in the early 1960s.
Severe flooding, followed by extreme drought conditions in the mid 1860s, virtually wiped out the Californio cattle industry in Santa Barbara County and undoubtedly contributed to the turnover in ownership of Rancho Guadalupe. Ward was the first to diversify ranch operations, in the late 1860s, turning away from stock raising to farming. Joel Clayton, as ranch manager, planted 4,000 acres in wheat in 1868. In ensuing decades, wheat became an all-important crop in the area and increasing numbers of farmers began to settle in the area in the early 1870s.
The town of Guadalupe was laid out in 1872, but the official founding of the town dates from March 1873 when local merchant John Dunbar was appointed postmaster. The name of the town went into the records as “Guadaloupe” and the original Spanish spelling was not restored until 1915. An adventurous Scotsman, Dunbar had been a member of the 1850 Arctic expedition that unsuccessfully attempted to rescue Sir John Franklin. Dunbar also served in the Union army during the Civil War. By 1875, the town was thriving with two hotels, four stores, and five saloons. The school boasted an enrollment of 60. A Methodist church opened in 1874 and a Catholic congregation was established the following year. The town became a primary shipping depot, moving the agricultural products of the area to Port Harford and Point Sal on the coast.
Settlers continued to arrive in the early 1880s, primarily Portuguese and Swiss. These groups developed a highly successful dairy industry; during the course of a month in early 1881, more than 19,000 pounds of butter were shipped. In 1882, a blow was dealt Guadalupe from which it never really recovered. Directors of the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway chose to run their line through Central City (now Santa Maria) instead of Guadalupe. A number of Guadalupe’s townspeople pulled up stakes and moved to the new rail hub and Santa Maria was on its way to becoming the largest city in northern Santa Barbara County.
Today, Guadalupe is a small agricultural community, but there was a time when it was one of the county’s true boomtowns.