Tony Ochoa: My Past Is Like A Treasure

Tony Ochoa was born on October 24, 1925 in Santa Barbara on a little street called Transfer Avenue, not far from Mission Creek. His father had come from Mexico in 1914 and started working at the Hollister Ranch. Tony had brothers and sisters, but his parents divorced, and he was raised by his father at the ranch. “It was just Dad and me,” he says.

For awhile, Tony lived in a residence at the main Hollister Ranch headquarters, at the south end of the orchard. When Tony reached school age, his dad considered leaving the ranch so that Tony could attend school in Santa Barbara. Instead, a house was built for them at Gaviota, right by the beach. “It was a nice big house,” said Tony, “and that’s why Dad remained on the ranch, and I ended up going to Vista del Mar.”

As you are driving from the beach back onto the highway, you can still see a palm tree that Tony Ochoa planted near his house many years ago. “I brought that palm tree up from the main ranch when it was just a little seedling,” he told us. It still stands, tall and strong.

We asked Tony what changes he has seen in this area, and whether there are things that still seem the same. “How has it remained the same? Hardly at all. The store is gone, the railroad station is gone. The park area has changed. Of course the freeway is one big change. And there was no tunnel. There used to be an iron bridge before the tunnel was built. It was a landmark, but it was torn down. Even the course of the creek was diverted to make way for the freeway. They straightened it out so it kind of parallels the road now.”

“This is the first time I’ve been to your school, and it’s nice. I’m afraid the other changes do nothing for me.”

The kids wanted to know what school was like when Tony was a boy. “It didn’t look like this,” he replied, gesturing toward our lovely Vista de Las Cruces campus. “It was small, but it was a good, sound, well-built school. The upper and lower classes were all together in one room. Sometimes, when the crops came in, the children of the migrant laborers would join us, and the school got really crowded.”

One of Tony’s teachers was a lady named Irene Sawyer, who was, as he put it, “a beautiful person”.  Another memorable teacher was Mrs. Gann. He also mentioned a man named Newt Moffit, who ran the Gaviota store for awhile and was the school bus driver and custodian. His wife was, in Tony’s words, a “learned woman” who used to sub if one of the regular teachers was out.

He showed us a photo of a group of children taken in front of the school in the early 1930’s. He is the small boy in Huck Finn overalls with a very somber expression on his face. In the background, we recognized the old wooden door which we could still glimpse when driving past the now-vacant school on Highway 101.

“My childhood nickname was Chico,” he told us. “All my friends called me that, and that’s how I was known all through the service. To this day, I still have two people who call me Chico.”

We asked Tony about his childhood at the Hollister Ranch. Where would he walk? Did he have a special place he enjoyed visiting? Did he have a best friend? “My best friend was a boy named Isquil Valdez — I called him Essy. His father worked on the railroad near Gaviota, and he was my nearest neighbor, a mile away. I’d walk over to his house and say ‘you wanna play?’, and we’d go down to the beach or someplace. Maybe we’d throw rocks at birds or go fishing off the pier. Maybe we’d walk along the railroad for a ways, or climb up to the chicken caves.”

“No one ever said, ‘Don’t go here. Don’t do that’. I would do anything I wanted. By the time I got to the creek, that’s when I’d decide — east or west, beach or railroad.”

“I loved to go fishing at the pier, which wasn’t in the same spot then — it was about a mile down towards Santa Barbara. I’d fish until I was tired. Then I’d stop and pluck some big mussels off the rocks, take ’em home, and boil ’em.”

“Oh, the fishing was the best. You didn’t even have to know how to fish! You could catch fish from a clothespin with nuts from the railroad as sinkers. There were what we called Spanish mackeral, and there were perch as big as halibut, and there were halibut beyond the waves.”

“The creek used to get so big when it rained that it would fan out, fed from tributaries, and when it flared around, the water would jump its bank. Most exciting, after it rained and flooded, the water would recede and deposit bodies of water filled with fish — huge fish!”

“There were salmon and steelhead under the trestle. You could look down and it looked like a hatchery. The waves would come in after a storm, and the fish would be locked in.”

“Of course, we played in the water, too. There were no surfboards. Body surfing was all we did. The bigger the waves, the better. But we knew to avoid the breakers that crash. We rode only the ones that crumble. Those were the beauties.”

“One winter — it must have been in the thirties — it rained so hard, if you looked down toward where the Gaviota rest area now is, it looked like an ocean. Dad was across the creek on the other side and had to get back home. His horse brought him across! He grabbed his horse’s tail and told him to go. You could just see that horses’s head lunging through the water. Finally they came out safely on the other side.”

“There were very few people living on the ranch in those days,” said Tony, “and the road was just dirt. There was no paving whatsoever. When it rained, tires would spin, sink, or skid. It was foolish even to get on the road. The way we went from the ranch to school at Vista del Mar was usually by horseback or walking. Sometimes I’d go in a two-wheel cart pulled by a pony!”

Tony’s favorite childhood toy was a bicycle given to him by one of the Hollisters. Other than that, he had no toys, or made his own. He enjoyed games such as soccer and football, “but we got knocked down a lot, and there were no soft lawns to fall on. It hurt. There was always gravel and rocks imbedded in our knees.”

One of the students asked Tony what kind of music he used to listen to. “Music?” he replied, “I loved everything that had a rhythm. I didn’t even have a radio — only what we used to call a crystal set, and I’d listen to whatever I could pick up on that thing. Mexican music, whatever I could get. I always loved music. As a little fellow, I’d go down to the beach and ask people, ‘You wanna hear me sing?’ I’d sing ’em a Mexican song, and they’d pay me! I’d pass a hat and come home with my pockets heavy with coins. Then I’d go to town and buy candy for my friends. When you buy candy, you have a lot of friends.”

“Christmas was the very best time of year, when we got all the good things we didn’t usually have. There was lots of good hard candy, and a big red apple, and a Christmas tree at school.”

“Most of the time, the natural things were treats for us. Over by the adobe right across the road from your school, somebody planted some cactus, which grew to enormous size. Well, we’d pick the prickly pears from the cactus and scrub off the thorns. We didn’t have refrigerators in those days, so we’d put them into gunny sacks and leave ’em in the cool stream for awhile to chill. Then we’d take out that bag of prickly pears, take the skin off, and eat them like candy. They were so sweet and delicious! To get the really red ones, we’d go to the Hot Springs, but the sweetest ones were at the adobe. Sometimes we fried cactus succulents to make a nice dish, too.”

“There used to be an orchard nearby, too. It was owned by Helen and Charlie Nichols. We’d get peaches, apples, pears. Vicente Guevara had an orchard also. We’d just rove around looking for good fruit.”

“The Depression was hard times for people in town, but for us, it wasn’t so different. We didn’t have money, but we grew our own food, so we had what we needed. There were two cows just for Dad and me. We would barter and trade for what we didn’t have. We’d take eggs, chickens, ducks, and cheese to friends in town, and to reciprocate, they’d give us Argentine beef in cans. We never had canned food — everything we ate was fresh — so to us, the beef in tins was a treat. Sometimes, I’d go down to the beach and sell fresh eggs to people. I’d sell ’em eggs and sing to them!”

“During the 1930’s, fishing camps sprang up by the old pier. There was one at a part of the coast called Alcatraz, where the oil storage tanks are. There were Italian and Portuguese fishermen there, living as squatters. The Castagnolas would buy fish from them to sell in town.”

“I don’t know if you can ever get in there now,” he continued, “but there must have been an Indian village there at one time. I’d find arrowheads there a lot. I’d bring ’em to school to put on display. I think there was a camp or a burial ground just before the turn-off to Gaviota Beach, too. And at one time, there were the remnants of an old adobe at Gaviota. The freeway covered everything.”

“Once I even found a gun. I wish I had kept it. It was a lovely little gun with a pearl handle, just like you see in the movies. Some fellow said, ‘Let me take it into town and see if I can find out how old it is.’ He never came back.”

The kids want to know if Tony had any special pets. He tells us about his horse, Sam, whom he dearly loved. Sam was a gentle bay with a white line on his forehead, and one white leg. Tony still remembers how terrible he felt when Sam died:

“If you could imagine what it would feel like to lose a buddy, well, that’s how it was. There was nothing Sam wouldn’t do for me. He would ride through anything. He was always there for me. I grew very close to him.”

Tony also had four or five faithful dogs. “They always waited for me, wagging their tails, fighting to see who’d get to greet me first. They somehow knew when I would be coming home, and they watched for me.”

One dog in particular was extremely loyal and intelligent. His name was Shep, and he was a “police dog”. “I’d tell Shep to go get the cows or the horses and he’d round them up. I didn’t have to do anything else.”

People along the coast had the newspaper delivered by train in those days. The train would pass through the ranch, and a man would toss a newspaper out at the canyon of its recipient. One of Shep’s regular duties was to pick up the paper and bring it home.

“One day the fellow on the train decided to tease Shep. Instead of throwing the paper, he held it back, and Shep kept running to get it. It was a sad day. Shep was killed by the train. I’ll never forget it.”

For a moment, we all felt a sense of sorrow (and a little outrage) about Shep’s fate. But Tony Ochoa is not a man who dwells on sad memories.

“My past is like a treasure to me today,” he said, “I draw upon it still. There was so much to do! I never became bored. My life has been filled with adventures.”

“When I left the ranch,” he continued, “the whole world was an experience. I have been to Europe, Mexico, England, Canada… I flew with the 8th Air Force during World War II and got shot down over Europe. I landed in Belgium, in Brussels.”

Tony has carried this sense of wonder with him to the present. He is highly regarded today for his work restoring antique furniture. (Author’s note: he has since retired.) He spoke with deep appreciation of the beauty and workmanship of the fine pieces he works on, some of which are over two hundred years old.

“These were put together by artisans,” he said. “Their tools were patience and determination.”

Tony’s shop is in Santa Barbara, and on his walls are framed photos from his ranch days. Those pictures mean a lot to him. “I left the ranch,” he said, “but after all these years, the ranch has never left me.”

“These kids will one day leave, too,” he went on, “but the ranch will be there. It’s engraved in your heart, somehow. They don’t know it now, but it will be there.”

We asked Tony if he has any advice for the kids. “Don’t play hooky. Listen to your teachers. Do the work even if it’s hard.”

Tony Ochoa has a dignified bearing but a twinkle in his eye. Not playing hooky must have been tough.

1 Response to Tony Ochoa: My Past Is Like A Treasure

  1. I am a writer (former baltimore sun reporter) traveling around the U.S. collecting stories and yesterday I had the great fortune to meet Tony Ochoa in downtown santa barbara near the pier. we spoke for a half hour (it was his el camino that caught my eye) and I took his photo. do you have a mailing address for tony so I can send him the pix when they come back. Meeting him turned my whole day around.



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