n 1902, Homer Snyder laid a homestead claim to an area between Painted Cave and what is now East Camino Cielo. The ranch he and his wife started became known as Laurel Springs from the springs that supplied water to the homestead.
Homer Snyder was born in Ohio in 1865. At the young age of 12, he set out to become a ranch hand on the great cattle spreads of the Southwest. In 1886, he was working as a cook on a ranch in New Mexico when he volunteered as an army scout in the hunt for the Apache chief Geronimo. Severely wounded in an ambush, he would carry the scars of that encounter the rest of his life.
In the late 1890s, he settled in Santa Barbara and later was one of the early rangers in what is now the Los Padres National Forest. He also worked as a chef for a time at the Arlington Hotel. In 1905, the Snyders constructed some guest cottages on their mountain property. A wagon road of sorts hooked up with San Marcos Road to the south. Homer made the bumpy trip to Santa Barbara in his four-horse wagon to pick up visitors. About 10 years later, the wagon road was improved enough so that autos could make the trip to the camp, although drivers often had to back their vehicles up the steepest parts of the route. Despite the difficulties in getting to the ranch, this did not stop the guests from coming; one of these, George Owen Knapp of Montecito, was to later play his own role in the history of the property.
The site of the ranch was spectacular. At 2,800 feet, it commanded magnificent views of the channel. An orchard of some 500 fruit trees added to the charm of the ranch, as well as providing guests with fresh fruit. Homer put his culinary skills to work to create renowned meals with all fresh ingredients. Mrs. Synder’s talent for gardening resulted in the ranch’s beautiful landscaping, the highlight of which was her flourishing rose bushes. Hiking was a favorite pastime among guests — it was only half a mile to the springs. Another popular destination was the Kinevan Ranch, an old stagecoach stop.
Homer died in 1925, and, overlooking the orchard, his wife built a memorial, a portion of which remains today. She sold the ranch to Knapp, who established a retreat for nurses from Cottage Hospital. Knapp, among his other philanthropies, was a prime benefactor of the nursing school, which was incorporated in 1927 as the Knapp College of Nursing. By the time the school closed in 1968, more than 900 nurses had been trained there.
The ranch later went through a number of hands, and for a time it was used as a home for orphaned boys. In 1977, political activist Tom Hayden and his wife, actress Jane Fonda, bought the property and set up a children’s summer camp. The couple’s interest in alternative energy resulted in construction of a large wind generator and solar collector. They also reverted part of the Snyders’ old homestead back to a working ranch. Today, the property is home to the Laurel Springs Retreat.