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 Santa Barbara > Events & Festivals > Fiesta > History of Old Spanish Days


Santa Barbarans have long been proud of their city's heritage from Spanish founders and from the Spanish, Mexican and North American pioneers who first settled here and built the city. The tradition of colorful music, dance and song, together with a spirit of friendliness, hospitality and tolerance are part of this heritage which the Fiesta "Old Spanish Days In Santa Barbara" seeks to preserve and perpetuate.

Old Spanish Days In Santa Barbara

In the year 1924, two circumstances motivated the first Fiesta. In the first place, there had for some time been a feeling among the business people of the city that Santa Barbara should have an annual summer event to entertain and attract visitors. The city had come to be a favorite place for winter tourists, but these visitors had not been drawn here in any considerable number during the summer months.

Secondly, in August of 1924, the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara planned the opening of the new Lobero Theatre, which had been erected on the site of the old historic theatre founded by JosŽ (Giuseppe) Lobero and built by the assistance of Col. Wm. Hollister. A member of the Community Arts Association, J. Wm. McLennen, conceived the idea of having a celebration to mark the opening of the new theatre. He approached a merchants' association and a committee was formed of which Charles E. Pressley was elected chairman. The interest of Herbert Nunn, who was then the city manager, was enlisted. The group began to formulate plans for the celebration, to be comprised of a number of activities to include a parade, aquatic and sports events and, of course, a gala celebration at the theatre on its opening night.

As news of the plans became noised abroad, some members of the community, more particularly T. Wilson Dibblee, a descendant of the prominent De La Guerra family, and James B. Rickard, became apprehensive lest the celebration should not fully represent Santa Barbara's standards. A number of like-minded persons became interested, and it was their opinion that the large amount of material originally gathered at the time of the presentation of La Primavera should form the background for the proposed celebration, which has become known today as Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

1924—The First Historical Parade

As mentioned previously, the original celebration was planned to include a parade. The parade committee was headed by Dwight Murphy, who had come to Santa Barbara County and purchased large ranch holdings in the area of San Marcos Pass. He was by avocation a fancier and breeder of Palomino horses and possessed many of the finest of those animals.

Approximately two months prior to the parade, Murphy was invited to attend a meeting by Herbert Nunn, the city manager. At that time he was asked to arrange the details of the parade, which he accepted. The type of parade was left to Murphy's discretion, and he was allocated a budget of $200.00. Calling together a group of community members including Francis Price, Sam Stanwood, Ed Borein, Harry Sweetser, James Rickard and Wilson Dibblee, he met with them several times before deciding that they have a historical parade.

Price, Sweetser, Dibblee and Murphy met with members of the De la Guerra and Ortega families to obtain information regarding the early Spanish customs. After these meetings various committees were appointed to arrange for costumes, floats, carriages and horsemen. Service clubs, such as the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, were invited to participate to wear the costumes depicting the various historical periods. All of the floats were horse-drawn and built by representatives of the organizations riding on the float bed. Marching groups were secured to represent the Chumash Indians and the soldiers of Spain and Mexico.

Over the years, the character of the parade changed somewhat. The floats came to be drawn by motorized vehicles. More individuals and riding groups, wearing their own or their organization's distinctive attire have participated. Also, a greater number of entries were marching bands. Due to these changes, some feared that the historical character of the parade was in jeopardy of completely disappearing.

In recent years an effort has been made to deal with these concerns. The parade is now divided into two sections. The historical section, which has been carefully revised and is mainly presented on the floats, depicts most of the highlights of local heritage and history. The section of "Santa Barbara of Today" includes the many other types of participation based in accord with the spirit and purpose of Fiesta.

La Fiesta Pequeña

Being that most important Fiestas in the Spanish and Mexican tradition have always been closely connected with church celebrations, it is only fitting that Santa Barbara's annual Fiesta has included traditions with the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara. With the gracious involvement of the Franciscan Fathers, those traditions continue today.

The 1926 Fiesta held its sunset service at the Mission. A year later, restoration of the Mission from the damage it received in the massive earthquake of 1925 was complete. This completion was celebrated on Wednesday evening as a prelude to the opening of Fiesta. There was an Ecclesiastical Procession along the Mission corridor which continued to the steps of the Mission. This was followed by a program which included addresses by dignitaries, music and dancing, and was followed by a reception.

From 1927 to the present the tradition has not changed. Fiesta continues to open with this program at the Mission that has come to be called Fiesta Peque–a, "Little Fiesta."

La Misa Del Presidente

In 1936, which marked the sesquicentennial of the founding of the Mission, a Solemn High Mass was sung on the first day of Fiesta at the Mission. The public, of all faiths, was invited to attend in historic costume. Today, La Misa Del Presidente is held on the second day of Fiesta in the morning and continues to be open to people of all faiths. In recent years, the Franciscan Fathers have held a reception in the Mission Garden following the mass.

El Mercado

El Mercado as its known in Spain and Mexico, or "the marketplace" in cities throughout the world, has been the center of village and city life. The focus of gathering for the people in Santa Barbara, however, had been the Presidio, as the town had no mercado.

During the many fiestas prior to the first Old Spanish Days Fiesta in 1924, booths were set up in various locations in the city. Merchandise was sold and food and entertainment provided. These centers came to serve as the marketplace for the fiesta.

This custom has continued and become an established part of Old Spanish Days. Until 1949, the mercados took on a variety of personalities; in 1949 however, the foundation for the present mercado was laid. Rosario Andrea Curletti was in charge of the mercados that year and insisted all things having to do the mercado be authentic. Robert Hoyt, a well-known architect designed and constructed the booths reflective of true mercado puestos and helped determine the rental to be charged in order that the mercado be self-supporting. For the first time each booth was sponsored by a non-profit or religious organization of the City of Santa Barbara and the revenue earned was to be used for their organization. The food, beverage, candy and merchandise sold was limited to the items that would be found in a mercado of the Spanish and Mexican California period.

This tradition has continued over the years. The booths at Mercado Del Norte and Mercado De La Guerra are still sponsored by local charitable organizations and the proceeds still support their programs. The form of the booths has been standardized and updated over the years, not only for convenience but also to meet city health and safety ordinances. Entertainment is offered throughout the day and evening to provide an even more festive and enjoyable atmosphere.

Noches De Ronda

Noches De Ronda "Nights of Gaity" was first organized in 1922 at the home of Leontine and Arthur Verhelle with the assistance of William and Rosa Poole. Members of the community were invited to the Verhelle home for an evening of music and dance performances by the Poole-Verhelle Dance Group. This group had previously been formed to preserve and perform the traditional music and dance of California with many of the members having performed in the dancing groups of La Primavera.

Over the years, the size of the party grew until the Verhelle yard could no longer accomodate the crowd. Due to the popularity of the event, Mayor Sam Stanwod invited the Verhelles and Pooles to move the event to the lawn of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse when it opened in 1930. It was then, with a crowd of of 250-300 that Noches De Ronda gained a new and permanent home. Originally Noches De Ronda was staged for the sheer joy of those participated, but in 1934, the format of the evening changed to accommodate the increased number of spectators; it became less an audience participation activity and more a staged show or performance. Also, while the event now includes many and varied numbers of songs, instrumental music and dance, it has constantly included in its programs as featured numbers, the traditional California songs and dances, never losing focus on the original purpose of the gathering back in 1922.

Old Spanish Days Fiesta

In 1926 the group of merchants who had formed the first official "Old Spanish Days" committee and members of the parade committee met under the leadership of Dwight Murphy and established the present non-profit corporation of "Old Spanish Days Fiesta, Inc." Murphy was elected president and thus became the first "Presidente." After the creation of a board of directors and an executive board, the group undertook plans for Fiesta 1926, with the consensus of all the members that the celebration should continue the plan of presenting California traditions as exemplified in Santa Barbara's own history.

Many Fiestas later, not only does the Old Santa Barbara remain the focus, but the gentle manners, the love of music and the dance, the Fiesta, the architecture and the art of the Mission period still live on as well.
 

Compiled and Edited by Paul G. Sweetser