Sentinels of the Past
Santa Barbara’s Hitching Posts
Credit: Betsy J. Green
I was only researching the history of a house on East Haley Street for my Great House Detective column in July 2021. But something unexpected happened, and I ended up wandering all over Santa Barbara. The house on Haley has an old sandstone hitching post on the front parkway. The homeowners are especially proud of their post. I wondered how many hitching posts we still had and where they were.
While writing my Way Back When series of history books, I had noticed that hitching posts were disappearing. “Hitching posts along State Street must go,” announced a local paper in 1914. “This morning, the street department started a crew … digging the posts out of their concrete foundations …. Posts which have been doing duty for numerous years have disappeared.”
By 1916, it seemed that there were hardly any places to hitch a horse downtown. A rancher appeared before the City Council to ask for more parking for horses. “I drove in town yesterday … for half an hour, we looked the place over for a hitching post. We looked up one street and down another … Is that fair for the horse or the farmer? … I believe that at least one street should be named where the horse will be respected.” But by 1920, a local paper proclaimed, “The day of the hitching post has passed.”
The Hitching Post Hunt Begins
My search led me to Mary Louise Days, co-author of Santa Barbara: A Guide to El Pueblo Viejo. She told me about a hitching post survey that she had originated and supervised for the city’s Planning Division in 1975. The surveyor was Gregory Borba, who traveled around our streets and documented all the hitching posts he could find.
“Why hitching posts?” I asked Ms. Days. “I had always admired the sandstone hitching posts as historic features,” she told me. “The posts are very emblematic of Santa Barbara.”
Historian John Woodward gave me the documentation for the 1975 survey. So, I decided to find the hitching posts that remained. I am not the only person interested in hitching posts. When I posted on Facebook about my hitching post hunt, nearly 100 people responded. A big “thank you” to all you folks!
It’s not known how many hitching posts there had been in Santa Barbara when the horse was king. But by the 1940s, people began to feel nostalgic for the good old days. In 1942, someone counted as many as 265 hitching posts here. The next survey — not until 1975 — counted only about 160. I visited all the locations listed on that survey and found about 131 of them. However, I did find 16 that were not listed on the 1975 survey, so we still have about 147 remaining. Why don’t the figures add up exactly? Don’t blame my math skills. Some posts have been moved around, and some may be new.
A Pirate Treasure Map
One of the people who responded to my Facebook plea for help was Noah Gaines, who had surveyed the lichens on our hitching posts. He told me, “I was on paternity leave with my daughter and COVID had just hit. I wanted to get out of the house and go for adventures but couldn’t really go far. So instead, I made a pirate treasure map of all the hitching posts in my neighborhood while I pushed my daughter in her stroller.” You can find his survey at inaturalist.org, under the heading, “Lichen-Covered Hitching Posts of Santa Barbara.” His favorite? Yellow cobblestone lichen. So, keep an eye out for lichens the next time you walk past a hitching post.
I’m not listing the location of the existing posts because of concern about vandalism or theft. I have donated copies of my survey to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and the City of Santa Barbara, where they should be available for public viewing.
Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian, and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is betsyjgreen.com.
HELP WANTED! If you own a home that you would like to see in my Great House Detective column, contact me through my website: betsyjgreen.com. I’m looking for homes built 1920 or earlier, in the central area of Santa Barbara.
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