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
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
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 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
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
Compiled and Edited by Paul G. Sweetser