The San Ysidro Ranch, located high in the Montecito hills, is today one of the area’s most exclusive resorts. It boasts a history that may be traced back to the earliest days of Santa Barbara.
The ranch was named after Saint Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. He was born into a poor family in 1070, and he and his wife became devout Christians after losing a child at birth. Isidore attended church daily, which often delayed his arrival in the fields. The story goes that he was never punished for his tardiness, for angels were often seen helping him with his chores. Isidore was also credited with a number of miracles and was canonized in 1622. The Plow & Angel pub on today’s ranch commemorates Saint Isidore.
The ranch was originally part of Mission Santa Barbara lands, but after Mexico took over California in the early 1820s, the ranch passed into the hands of Tomas Olivera, whose father had served as a sergeant at Santa Barbara’s Royal Presidio. In 1825, he built an adobe home for himself and his new bride. The adobe still stands, is a state and a county landmark, and is one of the oldest buildings in Montecito.
San Ysidro remained a working ranch throughout the 1800s. In the 1880s, it especially became known for its oranges and lemons. More than 1,000 orange trees graced the property, while the lemon groves produced more than 100,000 pieces of fruit annually. In late 1889, the two-story stone citrus packing house was built, which today houses the pub and The Stonehouse restaurant. In 1893, owners Taylor Goodrich and Harleigh Johnston welcomed the first paying guests (all eight of them) with a tea under the moonlight. When the partnership dissolved in 1895, Johnston and his wife continued running the guest ranch, slowly adding cottages to the property as the years passed.
The Johnston family sold the ranch to Ronald Colman and Alvin Weingand for $50,000 in 1935. Colman was a film star and Weingand was an experienced hotelier. Colman’s connections and Weingand’s managerial skills combined to produce the ranch’s most famous and elegant period. San Ysidro soon became a favorite hideaway for the members of California’s film colony. William Powell, Jean Harlow, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby were just a few of the guests. John Huston sought out the tranquil peace of the ranch to finish the script for The African Queen. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh married here in 1940; John and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned here in 1953. Discretion was an iron rule at San Ysidro.
Colman died in 1958, and Weingand carried on alone. A lifelong Democrat, he became deeply involved in California state politics and was a member of the state legislature for six years. He found juggling the demands of a political career and managing the ranch too difficult, and he sold the ranch in 1965. Financial troubles and litigation followed until the ranch was sold to James Lavenson in 1976, who restored it to its former glory.
Ty Warner, developer of Beanie Babies, bought the ranch in 2000. It continues to enjoy a glittering reputation for its natural beauty, its impeccable accommodations, and its wonderful cuisine. It is still a destination for many Hollywood movers and shakers who need to get away from it all.
Michael Redmon is the director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.