Owning your own island must be one of the most alluring dreams for ambitious human beings, a symbol of truly mastering one’s destiny and possessing a definitive slice of the planet for your descendants to call home.
Justinian Caire was one of the few men in California’s history who managed to tackle such a lofty goal, as he purchased Santa Cruz Island in the late 19th century and developed the largest of the Channel Islands into a prospering agricultural masterpiece, a rugged but welcoming landscape overflowing with sheep, cattle, and wine. As might be expected from owning a piece of personal paradise, his large family enjoyed their utopian island days during summer visits or on extended working stays. But after a couple decades of success and happiness, Caire’s legacy came crashing down in lawsuits that tore the family apart and eventually left the direct descendants with practically nothing.
For Frederic Caire Chiles, the great-grandson of Justinian Caire, the good old days on Santa Cruz Island were the hot topic of family affairs during his childhood, but there always remained a dark wrinkle to the tale, one that none of the adults would speak of. A UCSB-trained historian who recently retired after a London-based career in marketing, Chiles decided to tackle the story head-on over the past couple years, and finally get to the bottom of both the good and the bad about his family’s Santa Cruz Island legacy. What he found — from his family’s mercantile days in San Francisco to their troubling times on the island — is nothing short of fascinating, making the resulting book, Justinian Caire and Santa Cruz Island: The Rise and Fall of a California Dynasty, a must-read for anyone interested in Golden State history.
In anticipation of the book’s release and an upcoming visit to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum this Wednesday, Chiles spoke with The Independent last Friday about his family and book. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
What made you want to write this book?
We grew up with all these island stories. It was a weird, kind of schizophrenic relationship we had. The way that Joan Didion talks about how families of California pioneers are constantly harking back to the golden days, my mother’s family was exactly like that. These were the golden days where they’d spent their youth, at least their summers. This had been central to their existence and their focus on their grandfather and his wife and all their doings. These were genuinely the good ole days. But the schizophrenic part was that there were elements that you couldn’t talk about. It was somehow intertwined with family disgrace.
When I was at UCSB getting my doctorate, Santa Cruz Island was the most natural story for my dissertation, and my advisor encouraged me. But my mother’s sisters, much to my mother’s annoyance, just said, “No dear. We don’t think we’d like to have all this trotted out.” This is half a century later! They would talk about it behind closed doors, but not in front of the children.
But you weren’t a child at that point.
No, not at all. I was in my mid-20s. What the hell? Let me in!
Despite their spoken desires, did you get the sense that they eventually wanted the truths to come out?
I’m convinced of that. There were diaries we kept by my grand-uncle, one of the sons of Justinian Caire who was the company secretary. He kept these diaries in which he noted meetings with key people havign to do with the litigation in particular, which was of course very bitter. My mother’s oldest sister, who was a lawyer, she actually went through those diaries, transcribed the key entries, typed them up, photocopied them, and left the copies to be found. It was a “no dear, you can’t write this up, parentheses, until we’re dead” thing.
Was it hard writing about a topic so close to your heart?
I certainly struggled with being a professional historian. My point of view in writing this was to be dispassionate. I wanted to relate what the evidence showed. That was my focus. As you can imagine, this topic of conversation has dominated family mealtimes for decades. My brothers and sisters at almost every opportunity, they are the generation that wants to talk about it in some detail.
Having lived abroad for some time, it gave me a perspective about this that this is a big deal in Santa Barbara, but viewed from thousands of miles away, it’s just another story. It’s an interesting story, but it’s another story of possession and loss and all of that. So let’s tell it once and for all for the next generation, our children, and then leave it. Then it’s done. You can give a copy of the book to the kids, and say, “Here it is. I’m not gonna talk about it anymore.”
Although the lawsuit was a tragedy for your family, did it result in a better long-term outcome for the island?
My take is that the outcome that we have today is the best possible one. Those islands are closed ecologies, and they’re fascinating to look at and experience. They should be preserved and, happily, they are, with a modest amount of public access, which is fair enough. I’m very pleased with how things have turned out. The Caires did try and sell the island to the state in the 1930s, and they were willing to take a lower price is the state would buy it as a park, but there was no money. As far as I’m concerned, and I’ve given a lot of thought to this, this is the best possible outcome. They are in the state that they should be. The agricultural times really represent a hiatus in the last 10,000 years of the islands.
Frederic Caire Chiles will discuss Justinian Caire and Santa Cruz Island: The Rise and Fall of a California Dynasty on Monday, September 19, 6 p.m., at the Ventura Museum, 100 E. Main St., and again on Wednesday, September 21, 11 a.m.-1p.m., at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Call 805-966-1601 for info on that event.