Every Day Was An Adventure, Every Night Was Halloween

Kathryn Holcomb Dole (1920-2011)  lived in the Hollister House for more than ten years, beginning in the late 1950’s. Clint and Becky Hollister had initially offered her the house for the summer in exchange for cleaning it up, but summer somehow turned into a decade in which “every day was an adventure and every night was Halloween”. Years later, in 1999, I had the pleasure of walking through the old house with Kate with her daughter Katie and some mutual friends, recording her impressions as she revisited the familiar rooms and recalled what life had been like there with her husband Bill, seven children, and a delightfully madcap assortment of visitors. A bit of background about the house is presented below, followed by a few excerpts of the conversation we had that day. Kate was a wonderful storyteller, and as you will see, it was a very special experience for her to come back to this place where she had spent some of the happiest years of her life.

The house was designed for Jim and Lottie Hollister by Bliss and Faville, which was the top San Francisco architectural firm in its day, and constructed in 1910. The Hollisters were both highly educated city folks who wanted a very comfortable, civilized house as a buffer against the rural isolation of this Gaviota land. It was built of redwood that was brought in by train and unloaded at the San Augustine siding. There were hardwood floors and French doors, redwood paneling and gold curtains, and an elegant stairway that led down from the upstairs hallway into the living room. It was a classy town house that stood a bit incongruously in the middle of this wild and often windy country.

J. Smeaton Chase, who traveled alone by horse along the California coast in 1911, was surprised by the sight of it. He wrote: At El Bulito Cañon, I caught a glimpse of the handsome large house of a local cattle baron. Gleaming white among noble oaks, it had the air of a French chateau.

Lottie cultivated luxurious gardens filled with exotic flowering plants that she ordered by mail from all over the world. There was a sun dial, a lily pond, and a lawn. A swimming pool was built in the 1930s, the first in Santa Barbara County. (It was filled with earth in 1970.) Thick wisteria vines, spectacular when in bloom, still cling to the porch and the eaves.  

Early on, rats chewed up Lottie’s sheepskin Ph.D. diploma, which seemed rather symbolic, and she never quite adjusted to the harsh and isolated life she found here. Weekly trips to Santa Barbara helped. Family members waved a red handkerchief to flag down the local commuter train at Drake Station near Santa Anita Canyon, a privilege granted them by the railroad in exchange for the right of way.

The house became known as the “Big House” and is referred to as the Hollister House today. We remember Christmas parties in this house, with kids running around, and a jolly local Santa Claus hamming it up with his ho-ho-hos. We remember the year of El Niño, when it really did rain, stranding us all on this side of the creek and we held school for the children in here. There have been poetry readings in this house, and potlucks and lectures, and meetings both constructive and contentious. It’s our community center, in a way, but a place where the past lingers too.

 Coming back to visit in 1998, Kate was flooded with memories. 

"It was a very wet spring when I arrived, and this front yard was grass to my waist. The wisteria completely covered the front of the house. You couldn’t go in two doors because you couldn’t get through the wisteria. But it was so beautiful — so beautiful! I fell in love.”

“We didn’t stay here full-time at first. For the first two or three years we drove back and forth on weekends. Then we discovered that my weekends were starting on Thursday night and ending on Tuesday morning. When I first came up, I had a little wrench and a little pair of pliers. I was in sandals and shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt. After I’d been up here a few years, when I got up in the morning I’d put on the sturdiest blue jeans I could find, wool socks, boots, a long-sleeved shirt, and heavy-duty gloves. My pruning shears went from miniature to grand. The first chain saw I bought was so big I couldn’t pick it up!”

“I love the way it’s painted now; they brought out the architectural details. It was so messy when we arrived. For instance, you couldn’t see this path here at all– it was all overgrown.”

Johnnie Dole by the Hollister House swimming pool, sometime in the 1960s

Johnnie Dole by the Hollister House swimming pool, sometime in the 1960s

“The swimming pool was there, and it was totally black...it all looks smaller now...and there’s a tea room out there that had a shale bedstone wall around it, sort of sunken down a little bit...with a little stone table. It was completely hidden — we often had tea there. There’s also a lily pond that we discovered was eight feet deep when Bill’s mother stepped backward and fell into it.”

“The pool water was pitch black because the lithium in the water up here, combined with the oak leaves — or bourbon — turns black. We used to fix somebody bourbon and water, and it doesn’t happen instantly — they’d have a few sips and set it down on their arm chair, and all of a sudden, they’d look at their drink and it’d be just black.”

“Water was always our major problem. And it wasn’t the color, it was the lack of it. We were without water for at least one month out of every year. Thank God for the swimming pool, or we couldn’t have done it! We kept buckets in the bathroom to flush the toilets with, and the rule was, when you used that bucket, you filled that bucket up. So we filled up the buckets from the swimming pool, and there would be occasional screams of ‘Argh! Frogs!’ There were snakes, too. We tried not to think about it. It was always wise to tap the water before you jumped in the pool, so everything could go to the bottom — you hoped.”

Working on the beach house

Working on the beach house

“Oh, those were wonderful years! Every day I would wake up and wonder what adventures awaited.”