For almost 60 years, Russel Heath played a prominent role not only on the local scene but on a statewide level, holding a number of public positions. Born in 1826 in New York state, he was drawn to the West Coast by California’s gold fields in the late 1840s and early 1850s. His journey was a difficult one.
First, he became seriously ill while crossing the Texas plains. Upon reaching the Pacific, he joined a group that chartered a ship to take them to San Francisco. Cholera broke out on board, and the ship became lost for weeks because the captain had no navigation charts. With food running out, the passengers forced the captain to land them near Point Conception. Heath and the others then walked to Santa Barbara, where they engaged overland passage to San Francisco, arriving there several weeks before their ill-fated ship.
Heath, after laboring for two years in the Mother Lode, returned to Santa Barbara in the early 1850s. Friends dissuaded him from following through on a plan to seek his fortune in Mexico, and he decided to make Santa Barbara his home. Taking advantage of his time spent working for a law firm back in New York, Heath was admitted to the California State Bar in 1852 and became Santa Barbara district attorney the following year. During the 1850s, Heath would also hold down the position of county sheriff and be elected to the State Legislature. He then filled one more term as district attorney before turning his full attention to farming in 1862.
In 1858, Heath bought 52-plus acres in the Carpinteria Valley for just over $300. He found clearing the land of the many oak trees a daunting task; in some cases, clearing one acre could cost up to $200. Heath persevered, and after a few years his farm boasted lemon and orange groves, thousands of grapevines, and one of the largest walnut orchards in the state. Despite the time and energy devoted to his farm, Heath remained active on the local scene, serving on the first board of the Montecito School District and helping to push through the construction of a wharf at Serena — roughly where the polo fields are today — to serve the Carpinteria Valley.
In 1881, Heath hired Peter Barber, Santa Barbara’s best-known architect, to design an Italianate-style residence to be built around the adobe Heath had built on the property 20 years before. Heath lived in this house the rest of his life, dying in 1911.
Three years later, after a disastrous flood that ravaged the South Coast, Heath’s son, James, sold the family farm. The property passed through the hands of a number of owners until the parcel that included the Heath home was sold for a housing development in 1968. In 1972, with the razing of the house imminent, the Carpinteria Valley Historical Society moved to save what was left of the residence. Today, two walls of the adobe structure, declared both a Santa Barbara County and a City of Carpinteria historical landmark, form the centerpiece of Heath Ranch Park, a memorial to the first American to call the Carpinteria Valley home.