Whitley Gardens and the James Dean Memorial

by Robert Pavlik

New construction designed to increase the safety of travel along a 24-mile stretch of Highway 46 in San Luis Obispo County prompted Caltrans Historian Robert Pavlik to focus on the small community of Whitley Gardens and the monument to the iconic rebel James Dean.

Whitley Gardens

In November of 2000 Caltrans completed studies for converting a 24-mile segment of Highway 46 from a two-lane conventional highway to a four-lane expressway between the City of Paso Robles and the junctions of Routes 46 and 41, in northeastern San Luis Obispo County. This highway currently runs through a small, unincorporated community known as Whitley Gardens, an area previously known as River Grove. Traditionally it was the only overnight stopping place for the large grain teams traveling between Cholame and Paso Robles along the cast terrace above the Estrella River. In the late 1890s it was the home of Chris Iversen, who kept a feed yard for the teams, while his wife maintained a boarding house for the drivers. It is said that one evening there were 130 horses and mules fed and quartered there.

In the early 1920s Canadian-born Hobart Johnstone Whitley purchased the 30,000 acre Sacramento ranch and the 18,000 acre Estrella Ranch (which included River Grove) for the purposes of subdivision. Whitley promoted his parcels in brochures that read, “Last Opportunity to Buy Cheap California Farms.” No doubt these flyers were distributed to city dwellers and country folk alike across the United States in the hopes of promoting emigration to this wide open and sparsely populated land. Whitley’s brochure, advertising “Real California Farms $38 to $83 per Acre,” reads, in part,

This district is the only remaining portion of California which has not been exploited. For decades this section has been a paradise for large wheat and stock raisers, its exceptionally favorable advantages offertile soil and healthful climate being widely known but not generally available to settlers of medium or small means for the reason that the majority of the District was held in large bodies, many in excess of 50, 000 acres each and some up to 200, 000 acres. The fact that the District was, up to a few years ago, practically shut off from the balance of the State by lack of good highway connections retarded the breaking up of large holdings. The construction a few years ago [1915­17] of the cement State Highway fi^om Los Angeles to San Francisco through Paso Robles inaugurated a new era. Settlement since then has been rapid and substantial wherever smaller acreage has been available and orchards, vineyards, dairy and poultry farms have rapidly supplanted the old time great wheat fields and stock ranges…. In the fall of 1922 Mr. Hi Whitley purchased [the Sacramento and Estrella ranches], selecting only those portions adjoining or lying closest to the State Highway and the Estrella River. Mr. Whitley is nationally known as a successful and skillful banker, financier and developer of large bodies of land. He is particularly well known as the founder and original developer of Hollywood, California. He likewise planned, managed and largely financed the original development of 47,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley, including the unique and thriving towns of Van Nuys, Owensmouth [Canoga Park] and Reseda,… he personally owned and developed Whitley Heights which is the best improved and most distinctive residential portion of Hollywood.

Whitley’s promotional claims might have seemed excessive, but they were all true. Whitley was a part of the Los Angeles elite that successfully brought Owens Valley water to the City of Los Angeles, thereby greatly increasing the value of their land. His development of Whitley Heights earned him the title, “Father of Hollywood.” He also developed the Central Valley town of Corcoran.
Did Whitley have similar plans for rural San Luis Obispo County? We do know that a small community still thrives along the Estrella River between Paso Robles and Shandon, but its population and its promise has never equaled Whitley’s earlier successes. Whitley died in Los Angeles in 1931, and with him went his dream of yet another town.

Today, Whitley Gardens is a collection of modest houses, some with enough acreage for a few horses, chickens, or goats. None of the properties meet the National Register eligibility criteria for historic structures. There is a nice truss bridge that crosses the Estrella River, one of only four steel truss bridges in the county. What I found most interesting was the story of Whitley himself, his efforts to create a community where none existed, and how quickly his presence faded from San Luis Obispo County history after his passing.

The James Dean Memorial

Fourteen miles northeast of Whitley Gardens on SLO-46, lies the tiny hamlet of Cholame and the Jack Ranch Cafe. In its parking lot stands a starkly modem memorial to the actor James Dean.

On September 30, 1955, 24 year-old movie actor James Dean left Los Angeles in his new silver-gray Porsche 550 Spyder, enroute to Laguna Seca raceway near Monterey. At the intersection of highways 46 and 41, just east of Cholame, Dean’s car was broadsided, resulting in the young actor’s death. He has since become a popular culture icon, the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, several books, and most recently, web pages. For legions of fans Dean represents youthful rebellion, freedom from conformity and a brooding iconoclasm that many still seek to emulate.

Japanese businessman Seita Onishi funded the design and fabrication of the memorial. It was constructed in Tokyo, Japan, shipped to the United States, and erected adjacent to the Jack Ranch Cafe in 1977, the closest place for visitors to congregate near the actual crash site. It is made of stainless steel and cast aluminum, formed into two pillars five feet high that are connected like an inverted “L.” There is a quote from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” There are two large bronze plaques and a concrete bench. The memorial encloses a Chinese tree of heaven.

Although this monument is of recent vintage and largely commemorative in nature, it has importance as an artistic expression that evokes the free spirit of a generation of post WWII men and women finding a means of casting aside the strictures of a war time society. Dean embodied their energy, restlessness, and dissatisfaction with the status quo that resulted in a period of tumult and change. The Beat Generation, the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech, Free Love, and Anti-War Movements all came about in short order. The next time you are traveling between Paso Robles and the Central Valley, stop at Cholame and check out the James Dean Memorial.

Robert Pavlik is an environmental planner and historian with the California Department of Transportation. He received his MA. in History from the Public Historical Studies program at UC Santa Barbara.