Gin Chow has to be numbered among the most colorful figures in the history of the South Coast. This native of China developed a reputation as a soothsayer, predicting everything from the local weather to the timing of earthquakes to international conflicts. Such was the accuracy of many of his predictions locals came to call him the “Wizard of Lompoc.”
Gin Chow was born near Canton in 1857. The gift of prophecy apparently ran in the family, and when Gin Chow’s grandfather made some predictions that displeased the imperial government, he was imprisoned for the rest of his life. This tragedy no doubt helped Gin Chow in his decision to come to the U.S.
In 1873, Gin Chow journeyed to Santa Barbara to join family members already here. He engaged in various odd jobs then went to work as a servant on W. W. Hollister’s Glen Annie ranch in Goleta. Hollister was a vigorous champion of Chinese immigration to California, and the family and Gin Chow developed a warm relationship.
Gin Chow carefully husbanded his money, and in 1897 he bought 22 acres in the Goleta Valley, where he raised vegetables. He proved to be a shrewd businessman. When Southern Pacific wanted to buy a right-of-way over his land to re-align its tracks, he held out for double the asking price and won a court battle against the railroad giant.
He eventually sold his Goleta property and bought 32 acres east of Lompoc in 1913. A year later, when it appeared he might lose his farm due to mortgage default, Mrs. W. W. Hollister came through with an interest-free loan, which Gin Chow never forgot. In 1916, Gin Chow picked up on his family’s tradition and began to prophesy the weather. The accuracy of his predictions became the talk of the county.
The story most bandied about regarding his soothsaying was his posting at the post office in 1920 that an earthquake would strike Santa Barbara on June 29, 1925, which of course took place. Although often retold, there is no evidence this prophecy actually occurred, even though Gin Chow himself relates the incident in his 1932 First Almanac.
In California history, Gin Chow will be best remembered for the role he played as the leading plaintiff in an all-important water rights case. In August 1928, Gin S. Chow, et al. vs. the City of Santa Barbara and the Montecito County Water District began. Forty plaintiffs, owners of land watered by the Santa Ynez River, claimed that Santa Barbara and Montecito did not have the right to siphon off the river’s flood waters to supplement their water supplies. The suit dragged on for over a year, and the final decision was overwhelmingly in favor of the defendants. The court decided that Santa Barbara and Montecito had the right to use almost four times the water they were presently diverting. An important precedent was set in the question of municipal water rights.
In 1932, it appeared that Gin Chow would die from injuries sustained when a neighbor’s bull gored him. He insisted his time had not yet come, that he still had a year to live. One year later, a truck struck him as he crossed State Street. He did not survive the accident. His final prophecy had come true.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 122 West Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.