Goleta Valley’s Historians Focus on Main-Begg Farmhouse

Goleta Valley’s
Historians Focus
on Main-Begg Farmhouse

Nonprofit Forms to Protect and Promote
Hollister Avenue Home as Region’s
Preservation Efforts Enter New Phase

By Matt Kettmann | September 28, 2023

Goleta history experts (from left) Robin Hill Cederlof, Ronald Nye, and Fermina Murray on the porch of the Main-Begg Farmhouse | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Check out the rest of our cover story on Goleta history and the Lemon Festival here.

Goleta history experts (from left) Robin Hill Cederlof, Ronald Nye, and Fermina Murray on the porch of the Main-Begg Farmhouse | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Living in the shadow of the preservation juggernaut that is Santa Barbara, the Goleta Valley’s history scene always felt a bit quaint and quotidian, a tale of forgotten farms, changing crops, and rusty railroads subsumed by subdivisions and strip malls. But beneath that seemingly simple surface are complex chapters of horticultural heroes, hardworking families, and a community that emerged from diverse cultures, leaving legacies that continue to reverberate today.

The Goleta Valley Historical Society (GVHS) became the steward of such lore in the 1960s, when it was formed to save the Stow House and parts of Rancho La Patera from the era’s rampant suburban development. But only last year did the City of Goleta finalize its rules around historic and archaeological preservation, complete an inventory of important structures, and create a historic preservation commission, which met for the first time in February.

“There’s a deep sense of caring for this community,” explained Fermina Murray, a professional historian who sits on that inaugural commission as well as the advisory board of GVHS. Even young children show that sentiment when learning about the indigenous and farming histories of Goleta, she said, explaining, “Your tract home is here, and you can connect your story from there all the way back to Chumash.”

Her colleague Ronald Nye started working as a professional historian almost 50 years ago, now also serving on the GVHS advisory board as well as being vice chair for the county’s historical landmarks commission. “It’s important to appreciate where your community comes from and where it’s been,” said Nye of why this work matters. “Who came here? What did they do? How did they live? Knowing that is essential for a shared sense of community.”

Going Big for Main-Begg

Both Nye and Murray are heavily involved on the latest Goleta Valley preservation push: protecting and promoting the Main-Begg Farmhouse, which sits on the remaining half-acre of what was once a 25-acre walnut orchard. Built in 1911 by Robert Main, a Scottish immigrant who became a prominent ranch foreman at Bishop Ranch and elsewhere, the farmhouse “is a classic example of a working family’s ranch house and immediate yard,” said Robin Hill Cederlof, who is leading the preservation efforts.

Robert & Jane Main, 1921 | Credit: Goleta Valley Historical Society

Located at the corner of Hollister Avenue and San Marcos Road, the house was indeed home to multiple Main-Begg generations all the way until 2019. A few years earlier, Cederlof, a fifth-generation Goletan whose parents helped save the Stow House, was contacted by the family to check out some of their old belongings before they sold the property. But she quickly realized that the entire property was worth saving, in part because it was in pristine condition. “It had been lived in the whole time, and they took really great care of it,” she said. 

In 2019, she created a nonprofit to raise the more than $1 million required to buy and start restoring the property, which was designated as a county landmark the next year. She’s now pursuing three goals: preservation of the structure and surrounding yard, where variegated lemon, kiwi, fig, peach, tangerine, lemon verbena, fragrant flowers, and six different avocado varieties grow; educational outreach, which includes the reservation-only tours and extensive information on the website; and opening the home as a gathering place for community events, such as book clubs, family reunions, or music recitals. That latter goal is moving through the county permit process, as the house sits outside of the City of Goleta’s eastern edge.

Right now, the only way to experience the house is during one of the free tours, which are offered the second Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Private tours are also offered for a small fee, which may expedite a visit, as the monthly walks are currently booked into December. Unlike the Stow or Sexton mansions, which were fancy homes for rather wealthy families, the Main-Begg Farmhouse provides a look at a more typical, middle-class existence of the early 20th century, providing an accurate window into what life was like for so many of our California ancestors.

David and Carrie Begg with their children (left) and a large family gathering of the Begg and Main families | Credit: Goleta Valley Historical Society

Aside from a deck that was expanded, the two-story structure is just as it was built in 1911, and the interiors are near-immaculate, their wooden beams never even painted over. In 1957, when Robert Main’s daughter Carrie Begg — then a widow and mother to eight children — sold the surrounding acreage to developers, the original barn was destroyed and a water tower was taken down, though there may be a chance to resurrect that one day. In the 1970s, Hollister Avenue was widened, which is why the street is so close to the front door today.

“You can imagine what the view was like before all the trees were planted,” said Cederlof, looking from the porch toward the Santa Ynez Mountains. But there’s a bonus to being visible to passing traffic. “It’s important to save these structures and keep them in prominent locations,” she said.

Good Goals

There are a number of buildings on the short list of concern for Goleta history buffs, including the Beck House, which Santa Barbara Humane is seeking to relocate; the Barnsdall-Rio Grande Service Station on Hollister near Ellwood, which is crumbling into disrepair; the main house at Bishop Ranch, whose current state is not well known; and two hangars at the airport.

But Cederlof, Murray, Nye, and their various boards and commissions aren’t just interested in preserving the built history of the Goleta Valley. As evidenced by the City of Goleta’s extensive and engaging Historic Context Statement, which includes an archaeology section with an introduction by the Barbareño Band of Chumash, future history projects will highlight the stories of indigenous, immigrant, and otherwise overlooked populations that are as integral to understanding this place as any others.

“These stories of the people who were actually tilling the soil need to come out,” said Murray, an immigrant from Palau herself who’s particularly interested in educating people about the waves of Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Scottish, Italian, Irish, English, and others who developed Old Town over the generations. “People don’t understand the history of Old Town and why it’s so eclectic,” agreed Cederlof. “There were so many different cultures in that area.”

To Nye, understanding those stories is as critical as preserving old homes. “There are pockets of immigrants and Chumash and others who have lived here and worked here in Goleta that are sometimes invisible to the larger Caucasian, European community,” he said. “But unless their stories are told, they’re not treated as fairly.”

See main-beggfarmhouse.org and cityofgoleta.org and goletahistory.org for more information.


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