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History of Santa Margarita Ranch


Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia

Santa Margarita's fertile valley and year-round flowing creeks led the Spanish padres to establish a farm with assistance from the Chumash Indian population, and in 1787 it was formally recognized as an outpost of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Just one day's journey from San Luis Obispo and the San Miguel Mission, it was a convenient layover for travelers on El Camino Real. The Asistencia was built c. 1817, and is one of the first recorded uses of mortar in California. Animal hides-often used in place of money-were tanned with tallow rendered at the rock tallow vats, which are still in place at the creek's edge. Other remnants of the Asistencia's heyday are the adobes' red tile roofs and a kiln. With Mexico's independence from Spain in 1822 came the privatization of all mission properties, including the Asistencia.

Joaquin Estrada

In 1841, twenty-six year old Joaquin Estrada received a Mexican land grant of 17,735 acres including Rancho Santa Margarita. Estrada became one of early California's most prominent citizens, elected to San Luis Obispo County's first Board of Supervisors and the County's first treasurer. Known for his hospitality, Estrada was famous for holding grand fiestas that lasted weeks on end. When the American flag was raised over California in 1846, suspicions were raised that Estrada's loyalty remained with Mexico, though he was eventually acquitted. Between severe droughts and debts incurred from extravagance, Estrada was forced to sell the rancho to the Murphy family in 1861.

Patrick Murphy

Under Patrick Murphy, the ranch prospered again with large herds of Mexican cattle. Known for his generosity, Murphy continued in his predecessor's footsteps, presenting large fiestas and rodeos. He was instrumental as a founder of San Luis Obispo County, serving in the California Assembly, as State Senator for four terms, and establishing the Southern Pacific Railroad's route through town and along the Central Coast. Murphy never recovered from the death of his wife and child in 1875, and again, a lavish lifestyle and drought forced the sale of the ranch.

1900 to 2000

In 1901, Murphy sold the ranch to the Reis family from San Francisco, who established the Santa Margarita Land and Cattle Co. When Bill Reis died in 1969, the ranch was willed to Stanford University, who held it for a brief time before selling to the Robertson family from Texas. The Robertsons owned the ranch from 1975 until 2000, when they sold it to Central Coast developer, Rob Rossi.


Today the 13,900 acre ranch is owned by the Rossi, Filipponi and Wittstrom families, whose management practices have been recognized with several stewardship awards. Using a rotational cattle grazing program has allowed perennial grasses to return, a lush riparian habitat to thrive and the regeneration of many oak trees. Moreover, a 975-acre vineyard was one of the Central Coast's first to employ resource conservation practices. The ranch has once again become the site of grand fiestas, hosting non-profit fundraisers, tours and private events throughout the year.

The Ranch House

The back section of the house dates back to Mission times when priests would stay at the Asistencia to oversee the ranch's farming and cattle operations. The two adobe rooms of the main house are often called the Estrada Adobe, as it is believed this was where Joaquin Estrada lived.
There is an interesting story about "the Morgue Room" in the Priest Quarters. Joaquin Estrada's ranch manager feared the Church would someday take control of the ranch due to the presence of a sacred building on the property. He decided to burn the Asistencia, but the rock walls wouldn't take the flame. After this attempt, he decided to repent of his actions by building and sleeping in a coffin in one of the Priest Quarters. To this day this room had always been called the Morgue Room.
When Patrick Murphy took over the ranch, he covered the Estrada adobe and the Priest Quarters with wood siding and expanded it to form one large L-shaped quarters. Murphy added a porch connecting it to the grape arbor dating back to Estrada. This porch and grape arbor look today just as they did during Murphy's ownership.
The ranch house sits atop the knoll where the Asistencia is also located. It and the Asistencia have windows facing the Cuesta Pass, whose cool afternoon breezes preclude the need for air conditioning. In the summer months this knoll can be 10 degrees cooler than the town of Santa Margarita due to its positioning over 200 years ago.