Posted inLocal History

Cambria’s Chinese Temple: Understanding the Historical Perspective

Newly installed signs in town reflect a many-year project to acknowledge and honor the historical Chinese community in Cambria.  The Chinese Temple in the East Village was designated a California Point of Historical Interest in November of 2020.  Its unusual history likely explains why it still exists, one of only five remaining Chinese temples in California from the 19th Century.

     Its exact date of construction is still a mystery, but it might be one of three Chinese structures shown on the 1886 Sanford Insurance Company map for Cambria.  Such maps detailed key insurance-related features of buildings in far-flung communities, making it possible for agents to sell insurance without repeated on-site visits to the town.

     It is known that after most of the Chinese moved elsewhere and the property was sold, the building – no longer a temple – was moved closer to Center Street and attached to an existing house (built 1873) and used as its living room.  At that time, two windows and an exterior door were added.  The former temple was a humble structure with little if anything to suggest a Chinese cultural connection.  In effect, it was hidden in plain sight for decades and effectively saved from tear-down, often the fate of similarly simple buildings.

     When Greenspace–The Cambria Land Trust purchased the 1.67-acre property in 1999, its purpose was to conserve the natural setting along the creek that Cambrians and visitors now enjoy.  But the multi-part was part of the sale, as well.  When Greenspace directors learned of the former temple’s significance in California history and confirmed that it was structurally sound, they committed to restoring it.  Doing so took 12 years and the financial support of countless residents, former residents, and appreciative visitors as well as local and regional foundations.

     Preparing the application for recognition by the State Office of Historic Preservation was itself a challenge.  Greenspace had hoped it would qualify as a California Historical Landmark but found the California Point of Historical Interest designation was a more achievable honor.  The quest for designation was aided ably by Rincon Consultants and a grant from the Hind Foundation of San Luis Obispo.

     As a reward for seeking out the newly designated Point of Historical Interest and following the new California Department of Transportation road signs, visitors will find interpretive signage at the site.

Posted inLocal History

From Yesterday Until Today: Friends of the Elephant Seal

In 1990, elephant seals were first recorded hauling out onto the beaches south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.  The first elephant seal pup was born at the rookery in February of 1992.  By 1996, the number of pups had soared to nearly 1,000 and the colony of seals stretched both southward and northward to beaches adjacent to Highway 1.

     People were drawn to the beaches by the unique sight of hundreds of elephant seals.  Thousands of traveling visitors stopped, parked illegally, then breached fencing and made their way over private property to view the seals.

     Visitors approached the elephant seals for viewing and photo opportunities.  Despite signage clearly prohibiting disturbing the seals, people of all ages ventured dangerously close.  Some visitors were bitten and required medical care for injuries.  Wildlife management agencies were overwhelmed by the number of seal-human interactions and had no clear solutions. 

     That changed in 1997.  Following an exchange of property between the State and the Hearst Corporation, Highway 1 was rerouted to permit construction of a parking area for visitors to safely park.  Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES) was formed that year as a non-profit organization with the goal of providing education about the elephant seals and other marine life on California’s Central Coast.

     FES scheduled its first orientation meeting for training volunteer guides (docents) on September 10, 1997.  Nearly 100 people attended with 90 indicating interest in the training program.  Local residents were offended by the harassment of the seals and those attending that first orientation saw an opportunity to improve the situation by becoming FES guides.  Because it was not feasible to train that many volunteers at one time, the first training program was limited to a smaller group.  On November 2, 1997, the first class of 30 new FES guides graduated.  That Thanksgiving weekend, the newly trained guides put on their blue jackets and spoke to over 1,200 visitors. 

     FES guides had a difficult job in the early years.  Designated boardwalks and railings to prevent visitors from going down onto the beach did not exist.  Many visitors still wanted to get onto the beach and walk among the seals. 

     The dedication of the FES guides was inspiring.  In 2000, Friends of the Elephant Seal guides received the distinguished National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Hero Award.  Roy Torres, who nominated FES, said: “I can’t say enough about what these people do. They are out there every day in the wind and cold, looking out for the animals and sharing information with the public. They are terrific.”  

     A major improvement to the viewing site occurred in 2003 with the completion of the first accessible boardwalk with a railing to prevent visitors from going down onto the beach.  Before the boardwalks were in place, visitors were causing significant land erosion and destruction of native plants as they walked over the area to find their own viewing location.  Today, with the help of volunteers, plants native to the area are recovering.

     Since the first days to the present time, volunteer guides answer questions and help visitors get the most from their viewing experience.  During its first 20 years of service, FES guides documented having over two million personal visitor contacts at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Viewing Site where public safety and respect for the seals are prime considerations.  In November of this year, FES will celebrate 25 years of service.

Posted inLocal History

Lions Club of Cambria: Looking Back (Part IV)

This final article in the four-part series presents the story of the lighthouse lens that proudly stands guard at the entrance to the Pinedorado Grounds at 940 Main Street.  In early 1949, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse beacon was lowered from the lighthouse building because a crack had developed in the supporting masonry. As the owners of the Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard sought a local partner to maintain and display the old lighthouse beacon (also referred to as a lens).

     Since the Lions Club of Cambria was eager to promote its newly inaugurated community venue (Veterans’ Memorial Hall and surrounding grounds), the two parties met and reached an agreement, giving custodial responsibility to the Lions Club and maintaining ownership with the Coast Guard.  On September 8, 1949, the beacon was moved to its present location and placed on a concrete pedestal, where it remains to this day. The metal enclosure for the lens was designed by retired architect and Lions Club member Bob Lane in the 1980s.

     The history of the beacon is an interesting international story.  It was placed on top of the 100-foot tower at Piedras Blanca in 1874 by the now defunct United States Lighthouse Service.  Originally, the emitted light was given by burning kerosene vapor, magnified by the glass prisms that enclose the beacon.  Heavy weights hanging in the tower operated the clock mechanism, as well as rotation of the light. The beacon is a French Fresnel lens and dates to the 1850s.  The clock mechanism, also French, was crafted in 1872. The beacon is truly an installation of historic significance.

     The Lions Club established a nonprofit foundation responsible for the maintenance of the beacon, but after many years of exposure and use (the light is in operation on some nights), the Lions Club sought to transfer responsibility to another entity. Today, while the Coast Guard maintains ownership of the beacon, the United States Bureau of Land Management—which manages the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse property—is responsible for maintaining the beacon.

     The Lions Club has a long and proud history serving the community through scholarships, programs for children, the weekly farmers’ market, community eyeglass and vision support, and Pinedorado Days.  To learn more about the Club, visit

Posted inLocal History

Lions Club of Cambria: Looking Back (Part III)

The annual Pinedorado Days celebration began in 1949, when the Lion’s Club initiated a project to establish a community recreation center for the local youth.  The project culminated in the purchase and reconditioning of a surplus building from Camp San Luis Obispo which had been owned by the Army.  Borrowing funds from a community member, the Club created a community celebration to raise funds to pay off the loan and to engage other organizations in raising funds to support youth activities in Cambria.

     Although intended from the start as a celebration over Labor Day weekend, the first Pinedorado Days celebration took place in November of 1949 because the roof on the acquired building was not ready.  However, that first Pinedorado Days celebration did raise $1,000 – a good start for paying-off the loan.  By 1953, the original loan was retired, and in 1954 the Lions Club donated the building to the County.

     The name Pinedorado was coined through a contest conducted during the first celebration.  The judges he the Central California coastline.  For the second Pinedorado Days celebration in 1950, the Lions Club added a calliope and began the tradition of a parade down Main Street that continues today.

     From its earliest years, Pinedorado Days has engaged and benefitted many local groups and organizations that share in the proceeds raised through the celebration to support their community service projects.  The largest share of proceeds, however, goes to the Pinedorado Fund (now the Pinedorado Foundation, administered by the Lions Club) for youth recreation and education.

     The Lions Club is committed to continuing the tradition of Pinedorado Days and, although the pandemic has resulted in cancellation for the past two years, planning will begin soon for the 2022 celebration, bringing back the parade, follies, food, and fun.

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Lions Club of Cambria: Looking Back (Part II)

The first installment in this series on the history and community contributions of the Cambria Lions Club presented the story of the Veterans’ Memorial Hall, but that contribution to the community was not the first for the new Club, which was chartered in December of 1945.  The first project initiated by the Club concerned healthcare in Cambria or, more specifically, the lack of available health services.  In the late 1940s, Cambria had no resident physician and no ambulance service, so the Club took up that challenge and developed a project to bring ambulance service to Cambria.

     In creating a special subscription program for ambulance service, the Club raised over $600 and purchased a used ambulance from an ambulance company in San Luis Obispo.  Initially, the project was controversial in the community with some voices arguing that Cambria did not need such a service and, therefore, should not subscribe (pay a fee for service).  The objectors lost the argument and, ironically, one of the loudest voices to object was one of the first to need an ambulance ride – a life-saving experience that silenced his objections.

     The Lions Club assigned operation of that first ambulance to the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, because the Club was not then incorporated and not legally authorized to provide ambulance service.  However, as enthusiasm grew for the service, the Lions Club also was instrumental in forming a “hospital district” (now the Cambria Community Healthcare District), and the Club then donated the first ambulance to the newly formed District.  Subsequently, the Club, collaborating with the “hospital district,” purchased and moved a building to house the ambulance.

     The Lions Club of Cambria has deep and supporting roots in the community, and future articles will tell the stories of the Pinedorado Days celebration and of the lighthouse lens.

Posted inLocal History

Lions Club of Cambria: Looking Back (Part 1)

The year is 1955, and a “Special Souvenir Issue” of The Cambrian carries the headline “Veterans’ Memorial Bldg. Is Dedicated in Cambria.”  Today, residents know the “Vets Hall” as the primary public meeting place and events venue in Cambria, but how many know the history of the building?  That story begins in 1948 with the Lions Club of Cambria.  Serving the needs of youth is a primary mission of Lions International, and in 1948 the newly formed Cambria chapter of Lions International recognized that the community lacked a center focused on the interests of youth.  The Club decided that year to develop a permanent facility in Cambria dedicated to youth activities and organizations.

     The first task for development of a center was to locate and obtain a site for a building.  When the community learned about the Club’s project, support was immediate.  The Fiscalini family donated the land to the Lions Club where the Vets Hall now sits (as well as the land extending west to what is now PolyPro Windows).  The Club planned for a total cost of $15,000 for the project and planned to raise the funds by sponsoring a yearly community celebration.  (Yes, Pinedorado Days, which will be another story in this series.) Before planning had begun for construction of a new building, the Club learned of a war surplus sale of buildings at the Army’s Camp San Luis Obispo, and, borrowing $1,500 from a Cambria resident, the Club purchased the first structure, a 37×100-foot Hall, which included the stage facilities we know today.  Moving the building from Camp San Luis Obispo to Cambria was no mean feat.  The building was cut into eight pieces, hauled to Cambria and reassembled.  That initial project also included a new foundation and roof. The “Cambria Youth and Recreation Center” was dedicated on November 17, 1949.

     The Lions Club borrowed additional funds for improvements to the building, and from 1949 to 1954 the Club raised funds to repay the loan by renting use of the building to individuals and community organizations. With the “Youth and Recreation Center” well established by 1954, the Club decided to deed the property to the County, which rededicated the facility on May 1, 1955, as the “Veterans Memorial Building and Community Recreation Center.”  The County immediately began a $50,000 improvement program that included the addition of a new kitchen, dining hall, and lounge, creating the facility we know today.  Years later, the County deeded the facility to the Cambria Community Services District – the current owner.

     The Lions Club of Cambria has a long and proud history serving the community, and future articles will tell the stories of the Pinedorado Days Celebration, the lighthouse lens, and the first ambulance serving Cambria.

Posted inLocal History

History of the Cambria Harvest Festival

With creativity and determination, little ideas can grow into great results.  The Cambrian‘s late columnistJohn Brannon teamed up with Susan McDonald “over a cup of coffee” with his idea to “Save the Bianchini,” an 1870 house at the corner of Burton Drive and Center Street. The dilapidated structure had been languishing there for 30 years since the last of the three Bianchini bachelors had died, with the property entangled in the County Probate Court.  There already had been previous unresolved legal battles for many years before that.

     Interested neighbors, many still currently involved in the Cambria community, had saved the property onto the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s because of its significance typifying architectural changes over the years. Despite that, some local residents were doubtful that the efforts would succeed.  The little Cambria Historical Society (CHS)—which had been established in 1990 by such people of influence as Ken Cooper, Wilfred Lyons, Bruce Black, Sharon Lovejoy, and Kathe Tanner—tackled the project which was spearheaded by McDonald and Brannon.  

     When the house and the three lots on which it stands was placed on the market by the Probate Court around 2000, CHS was ready to commit to a half-million dollar mortgage.  CHS began fundraising efforts, even though other major nonprofits also were saving properties such as the Fiscalini Ranch and Greenspace at the same time. The Cambria community responded with open hearts and open pocketbooks, and all ultimately succeeded.

     Beginning in the early 2000s, a garden party at Robin’s expanded each year to include Heart’s Ease  and then The Squibb House and Bucket of Blood. The events were known as Heritage Day and further expanded to a two-day event. When reconstruction was ongoing, the event was held up Bridge Street on the original Phelan Ranch near the community cemetery, with everything including participants hauled up on wagons as had been done in the early days of Cambria’s celebrations.  Once the Museum was opened in 2008, Bev and Jerry Praver set up a table for pumpkin carving to attract visitors during the quiet fall season.

     Thus was born the Cambria Harvest Festival, whose popularity grew to being the major fundraiser to support the museum operations and scholarships. Over time, the event expanded to a four-day event, complete with a pie tasting contest and display for 30 scarecrows.  Heritage Day became an opportunity to display and demonstrate all things old fashioned. Sponsorship for the Scarecrow Festival passed on to its own nonprofit organization as popularity increased participation to 100, then 300,  and spread beyond historic village to the rest of town and other communities.  “The little organization with the big dreams” continues to serve its communities.