San Luis Obispo's Historic Octagon Barn
San Luis Obispo’s Octagon Barn is an important historical, cultural, and architectural landmark. The Land Conservancy stepped in at the 11th hour in 1997 to assume the risks associated with a collapsing historic structure. Today, the restored Barn, centerpiece of a proposed 6-acre Octagon Barn Center, is poised to become a community gathering place to promote local agriculture, history, and recreation.
What is the Octagon Barn?
The Octagon Barn is a historically and culturally important structure (built around 1900) on Higuera Street, just south of the Higuera-Los Osos Valley Road intersection. It is visible from U.S. 101 to the right as one travels into the City of San Luis Obispo from the south. The Octagon Barn is accompanied by a smaller building, called "The Milking Parlor", is located on a two acre parcel with a long term lease held by the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County ("The Land Conservancy"). This complex was operated between about 1903 and 1914 by Antonio Stornetta as the Santa Fe Dairy, and later byJoaquin Pereira and his partners as the Home Dairy through the first half of the Twentieth Century.
The Octagon Barn is made with redwood timbers, has a compacted fill floor (77 feet across) and is supported by a concrete foundation. Originally feeding troughs were arranged inside, side by side, around the outer wall (with an apparent capacity of about 60 cows). Hay and supplies were kept inside this ring. The walls are constructed with random width boards which have now been painted white. There is a cupola on top; it serves to add light and improve ventilation.
Figure 1. The Octagon Barn in 1929, from a Caltrans photograph.
Why is our Octagon Barn important?
The Barn is important for five synergistic reasons:
History. The Barn represents an important "post-mission" era in the County of San Luis Obispo. The land at the turn of the last century was thinly populated, with small farms. Also, agriculture is central to the San Luis Obispo County economy today. 100 years ago, dairy farming was an important element in that economy, particularly in the Edna, Chorro Creek, and Los Osos Valley areas. The Barn was optimized to support that aspect of agriculture and visitors will be reminded of this history.
Architecture. The octagon shape of the barn enhanced its function in dairy agriculture. The polygonal shape approached that of a circle, which reduced the amount of material to build, but added to the complexity of the building project. Also, the Barn is recognized as part of the "gateway" into San Luis Obispo. In an era when cities announce themselves with car lots and shopping malls, San Luis Obispo can be proud to announce itself to new (and returning) visitors with a major symbol of our community.
Recreation. The area near the Barn has been selected at the trailhead of the Bob Jones City to the Sea Pathway, a class 1 bicycle trail.
Education. The Milking Parlor will become an education center and community room. It will provide space for children to learn lessons in agriculture, history, conservation, and sustainability.
In the days not so long ago when all farmers milked, and the white glazed-brick creameries in small towns had not closed, and milk tank trucks still toured the rural routes, there were, as nearly everyone knows, two lively times in the day of a barn – morning and evening, when cows wandered up from pasture for some artificial nursing, swishing of milkers, slap of hooves, flopping of manure, clank of head-gages, the rasping of an old bakelite radio (that goes on with the lights) set high on the wall between the joists.
Endersby, et al, The Barn, Houghtton Mifflin, 1992, page 110
(attributed to Verlyn Klinkenborg, 1986)
What’s the history of the area near the Octagon Barn?
George Steele, a descendent of a New York State politician, arrived in California and established daires at Point Reyes, and Annuo Nuevo, before coming to San Luis Obispo County in 1869. He purchased land from Francisco Branch in Arroyo Grande and eventually owned much of the Edna Valley. He brought cows that were adapted to the Mediterranean climate and introduced wheat farming. Around the same time, Portuguese settlers arrived from the Azores Islands to work in the whaling industry (in the late 1800s about 12 whales per year were harvested from boats coming out of San Simeon).
With the booms and busts in agriculture, George Steele's holdings were broken up and Portuguese and Swiss-Italians bought pieces of land for dairy operations. The Octagon Barn parcel was not part of the Steele holdings and was owned initially by Stornetta … and then sold to the Joaquin Pereira, a Portuguese immigrant. The Octagon Barn appears to have been built by Stornetta.
In the late 1800s, San Luis Obispo County was known for its dairy products, exporting products primarily to San Francisco via boat from Port San Luis. The Pacific Coast Railroad, which had branches to the port and down through the County to Los Olivos, helped feed dairy and oil products to the port [during this period, Port San Luis was the largest oil exporting facility in the world].
The San Luis Obispo Octagon Barn was built just before 1900 It was a satellite facility for a large dairy on Los Osos Valley Road. Milk was supplied to a store, the Home Dairy, in downtown San Luis Obispo (on Higuera Street in the building now occupied by Michael's Optical). At the time the Barn was built there were 10,510 dairy cows over 2 years old in the County (and 7,840 beef cattle over two years old), reinforcing the point that dairy was the big business at the time. There were two creameries in San Luis Obispo at the time, one was owned by the Harmony Company as a branch to its facility in Harmony. It is at the site of the current Reiss Mortuary on Nipomo Street. The other creamery is what is still called "The Creamery" on Higuera Street, just south of Nipomo Street.
What’s special about "round barns"?
Octagon barns (also called round barns) got their start with George Washington at Mt. Vernon. He built the first round (16 sided in his case) barn in the 1794. George Washington built his barn as a thrashing machine. The barn had a runway around the inside edge and the floor had slots through which the grain would fall.
Round barns gained in popularity after the Shakers built an octagon barn in western Massachusetts in early 1825. The reason they became popular was that an octagon barn created the most usable indoor space with the least amount of building material. Also, a phrenologist named Orson S. Flowler claimed that polygonal structures had healthful powers. He claimed, "In [barns] especially, we need some common center in and around which to work. This form will turn heads of all of the horses and cattle, and openings to all the bays and bins toward the center, so that one can pass from bay to stall … with half of the steps required in a square [barn]."
By 1900 there were several hundred round barns throughout the United States. Then in the 1920’s the construction of round barns came to an abrupt halt. There is one unfortunate fact about round barns, "you can’t make it bigger." Dairy operations required herds of 1000s of cattle to be competitive.
Our Octagon Barn is believed to be only one of three 100-year-old octagon barns remaining in California. The State Office for Historic Preservation believes that only 22 round or similar barns were built in the state.