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GHOST TOWN USA

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Ghost Town of the Month

June/July 2017

 

REBIRTH in harmony

San Luis Obispo Co., California

 

by

Gary B. Speck

 

 

tiME TO GET BACK IN HARMONY!

 

This month, GHOST TOWN USA is escaping to California’s magnificent and ethereal Central Coast and the former dairy town of HARMONY.  This quirky, pint-sized townlet looks nothing like what most folks consider a standard ghost town, even though its aged Main Street was once the state highway, and looks as old as it is.  But there’s something else at work here that makes this laid-back minitown wear larger than it really is.  Its draw is tourists, but not the normal ghost towning type.  I can’t really put my finger on it, but there is just an aura here that reaches out and pulls art collecting, tea & wine epicurean, former hippie types into its heart and soul.  A visit here is not just a quick stop at some funky, artsy-fartsy coastal town, but a meeting of kindred spirits.

 

Located just north of State Highway (SH) 1, 5.5 miles south of the beach resort town of Cambria in the heart of California’s Central Coast west of San Luis Obispo HARMONY is, in fact, true to its name.  The three largest buildings are still active, two as art galleries, and the third as a community center.  The two former cater to those seeking unique and locally-produced artworks ranging from pottery to paintings to custom glass creations to other whatzits.  For those like me that come for the history, that subject exudes from the very soil, the peeling paint on the buildings, and the trees around the townsite.

 

Yet, the harmonious name and bucolic landscape don’t properly reflect the bickering, fighting and general discord amongst the settlers for the first 38 years of “civilization” here.  It was originally founded in 1869 by a group of Swiss dairy farmers from the southern end of that country.  In 1901, a creamery owned by the Harmony Valley Dairy Association (a co-op) was established in the tiny settlement tucked in among the dairy ranches scattered about the area and in 1901.  Even so, there continued to be a lot of bickering and fighting amongst the settlers.  Problems that eventually lead to a killing.

 

FINALLY, in 1907, the various rivalries ended and truce was made.  The town officially named itself HARMONY to show that peace had arrived.  Over the decade or so, HARMONY slowly grew into a busy little town with a blacksmith, the creamery, a “dairy management office”, employee bunkhouse, feed store, livery stable and a school.  Some 400 dairy farmers were members of the co-op and the creamery produced as much as 1200 pounds of cheese and butter a day, and kept 10 folks bustling, producing high-quality butter, cheese, buttermilk and other dairy products that put the Harmony brand out there..

 

In 1915 a Post Office opened and once automobile traffic increased and the highway connecting San Luis Obispo to Cambria was put through in 1931 a gas station opened.  In 1934, that section of highway became an official part of SH 1.  The creamery became a popular stopping point for tourists traveling the coastal highway, which cut through the heart of town (being rerouted south of town at a later date.)  Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was a frequent visitor on his forays to his mansion (Hearst Castle) further up the coast.  It is said that Hollywood figures going to visit Hearst also made frequent stops here.

 

By the mid 1950s, dairy farming grew more consolidated, and may small operations like those at harmony declined.  In 1955, the Harmony Valley Creamery Association creamery shipped its last chunk of cheese, and closed its doors.  HARMONY sputtered, but didn’t quite die.  By 1970, the official population had dropped to 8, and was nearly abandoned.  A few years later, throughout California (and the country) hippies and many other artistic counter-culture types escaped the city to seek rural settings and tiny forgotten towns where they could be themselves and practice their new-found lifestyles.  HARMONY was one of those places rediscovered.  The mostly abandoned buildings were renovated and turned into shops and restaurants and HARMONY was reborn.   

 

As the 70s moved into the 80s, then into the 90s, HARMONY sputtered again.  In 1997, the restaurant closed after multiple ownerships and in that same year the town was put up for sale, and sold.  The new owner didn’t put a lot of work into the community, and it continued to just hang in there.  Finally in April 2008 the Post Office closed.  A few years later, he put the town back on the market, and in 2014, new owners purchased the one-block, 2.5 acre town.  They want to “honor and preserve” the history here by restoring the buildings.  The family that purchased the town is a three-generation dairying family and knows the business and the history represented here.  Right now (May 2017) HARMONY is dreaming big, along with its new owners.  A lot is in store, and I personally wish them well and look forward to a future visit with these projected businesses!.

 

At the time of our visit in April 2017, businesses I saw included the Harmony Cellars (a nearby winery), Harmony Chapel (wedding chapel), Harmony Glassworks (est 2007) and Harmony Pottery Shop.

 

Despite cyclical economic booms and busts, ownership changes - some of which made national news – the “bite-sized, wacky, one-block wonder” called HARMONY persisted.  The stubbornness of the original Swiss settlers must have worn off on the community, because even though Tombstone, AZ calls itself the “Town Too Tough to Die,  HARMONY could easily make that same claim, AND it’s still here 148 years later!  Maybe in two years as they celebrate their sesquicentennial (150 years), we can all visit and join them celebrating in HARMONY! 

 

 

As always, when you visit, please abide by any posted signage, respect the rights of the property owners and always abide by the Ghost Towner's Code of Ethics.

 

For more interactive ghost town fun, go to my Ghost Towns Yesterday & Today Facebook group or the Ghost Town USA page.

 

 

 

Population figures:

1970 - 5, 1980 - 20, 1990 - 50, 2000 – 50, 2010 – 18 (from sign)

            Location:

Former Spanish Land Grant in T27S, R8E, Mount Diablo Baseline & Meridian (NO “Sections” noted)

Latitude:  35.5085836 / 35° 30' 31" N

Longitude: -121.0226879 / 121° 01' 22" W

Sources:

                        GNIS (Geographic names Information System)

                        Personal visits (2012, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FIRST POSTED:  September 01, 1998

LAST UPDATED: May 29, 2017

 

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