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August 2010

The Beauty of the Morning

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

~ Wordsworth

Santa Barbara's Historic Grapevines - Two of the World's Largest Vines


Now, toward the end of August, our days are dry and warm.   Afternoon shadows slip, long and thin, over the hillsides at the end of a day.   

Crows are congregating, loud and raucous,  around the California Black Walnut trees in my neighbor's yard.  The birds drop the walnuts from the highest branches to the street below, waiting for passing cars  to crack the shells with their tires.  The slate-black birds flock to the asphalt, eager to claim the walnuts.

Local  growers bring late-season  flowers and flavorful autumn produce to weekly farmers' markets. 


They showcase apple varieties:  Gala, Jonagold, Lady, Delicious, Braeburns, Romes, and more.  Pumpkins, gourds, corn, tomatoes, and  plump, airy yellow squash blossoms are found alongside the apples during this full harvest season.

Even here, in the semi-tropical far west, autumn is in the air.  It is in this season that our rich agricultural heritage is, to me, most beautiful.

And the history of Santa Barbara County's agricultural heritage could not be told without including our love of wine and grapes.

Old Coast Highway Near Solvang

It was centuries ago that the Spanish padres planted the first tender grapevines in our area.   Although far from their beloved European vintages, the Spanish never lost their taste for the fruit of the vine.  

Presidio 3

When the Spanish missionaries and the King's soldiers first arrived here, they planted  only the most essential vegitation near their homes and adobe walls:  fig and olive trees, small kitchen gardens, and the Spanish grapevine cuttings that were brought from Europe.  Once the vines had rooted and began to produce fruit, small batches of wine were distilled and bottled every year.

The fruit of this vine became known as the "Mission Grape" variety.  Mission Grapes defined viniculture in California for more than 150 years.  

Local history includes two very special stories about local grapevines that grew to mythical proportions:  First, there was La Parra Grande, planted at the end of the 19th century.  Years later came La Vina Grande, another horticultural wonder.

La Parra Grande became famous when planted as a slender stem, it grew into a towering giant that lived and produced for most of a century.   So great was its beauty, size, and strength, that it became famous around the globe, and was known as the Largest Grapevine in the World.

La Parra Grande was located in a small settlement that has become modern-day  Montecito.   (Today, Parra Grande Lane - marks the original neighborhood of the legendary vine.) 

Its roots were buried deep in the soft earth and its fruit and leaves grew large in the warmth of the  Pacific sun.  The vine was irrigated by a natural mineral hot spring.   Many attributed its supernatural  vigor to the magical powers and potent vitality of the spring waters.

The little town was just a settlement, really.  It was a small gathering of families who lived in simple adobe homes that were topped with red roof tiles.  Rustic walls with wooden gates surrounded little garden enclosures.


The newest residents of  lower California lived simple lives, but they  retained the strict codes of behavior and courtly customs that they brought from their original homelands of Spain and Mexico.  

An article printed in 1874 in The Rural Carolinian, An Illustrated Magazine of Agriculture, Horticulture, and The Arts,  presents the story in colorful detail.

First, we meet our heroine, a Spanish girl from the small pueblo of Los Angeles, a young lady who was possessed of a great, enchanting beauty.   Senorita Marcellina Feliz, was the

acknowledged queen among the maidens of her navite place. Her complexion,  tinged with the warm brunette hue of her race, was clear and bright with the rich tint of health. Her wealth of black hair fell in rippling waves far beneath her waist,  and her large, dark eyes were fringed with silken lashes that matched the exquisite penciling of the arched brows above them.

Brown-Haired Beauty

As with most lovely young maidens, Marcellina had her share of admirers who wished to claim her for their own.   She  felt affection for only one - 

Senor Carlos de Domingues was the favorite and the accepted suitor. He was handsome,  tall,  and manly - but alas,  without fortune,  and socially not the equal of Marcellina.

Senor y Senora Feliz, parents of  young Marcellina, were not pleased that she cared for a man who was not, in their eyes, a worthy contender.   When Carlos approached the parents and asked for Marcellina's hand, her parents stoutly rejected his offer - he had no position, no money, no prospects for success.

But Marcellina and Carlos were deeply in love, and would not be dissuaded. 

One night, Carlos met Marcellina in an orchard, under the moonlight and far from the eyes of her parents....

...he spoke long,  low,  and rapidly in the beautiful Spanish language so exquisitely fitted for expressions of tenderness and endearment, telling her that as her parents objected to their union on the ground of his poverty, he had determined to win wealth -  that an old Indian,  bound to him by ties of gratitude,  possessed knowledge of a rich mine far away among the mountains....

 To seal his promise, he asked that she wait for him for two years.  He handed her a small cutting,  a grapevine from his own humble vineyard, and  asked her to plant and tend it with thoughts of him during his absence. 

It was the next day that the young lovers left their homes in Los Angeles - Carlos with his Indian guide, in search of gold - Marcellina, with her parents who were moving to the Santa Barbara area.

She carried the little grapevine on the journey, and used it as a switch to urge her mustang pony along the trail.   Marcellina's family settled in a home located about four miles from the Santa Barbara Mission.

  It was here that young Marcellina planted the vine, and nurtured it - her own tears were mixed with the waters of the hot spring.  It is said that Marcellina petitioned La Virgen many times with prayers for the safe and quick return of the dashing and determined Carlos.

virgin mary

The vine grew and flourished with wonderful luxuriance,  and gladdened the heart of the waiting maiden who could hardly have borne the burden of anxiety and suspense without its silent encouragement....

 In Carlos' absence, Don y Dona Feliz had found a suitor they favored for Marcellina.  He was  a rotund, old, "grizzled" Spaniard -  but, he was a  rich man.   A wedding was planned, despite Marcellina's vehement protests.

When it had been nearly two years  since young Carlos left to seek his fortune, the wedding preparations  for Marcellina and the old Spaniard reached a crescendo.   It seemed that the beautiful young maiden might be united in matrimony to the rich old Spaniard for all eternity....

Until, only a few nights  before the wedding was to take place, she heard a deep voice that softly called to her, "Lina, Lina...."  It was Carlos.

...she dropped into his arms,  her beautiful head pressed close to his throbbing heart.   It was,  indeed,  Carlos returned at last,  faithful to his promise,  bringing with him a fortune....

Soon, it was Marcellina and her Carlos who were wed.  Their love and contentment continued to grow through the decades, along with the size of their family.

Unfortunately,  as the years passed, they found that their  fortune had begun to dwindle.


Lady Grapes White

But, like their romance, the  grapevine, too, had grown large and strong in the gentle sombra of their love.  It was then that the vine,

once a token of fidelity between the lovers,  now became their means of support - for so prolific had it become,  that its fruits brought them an income sufficient for their maintenance....

A large dancing floor was erected beneath the shadow of the vine,  and here the Spanish youths and maidens united in the merry dance on Sabbath evenings, according to their national custom. Carlos and Marcellina died at a good old age,  leaving behind them three hundred lineal descendants, and the big grape vine which will keep green their memory and the story of their love and faithfulness,  long after children and grandchildren cease to tell the story. 

Yet to me,  the heart-history of which it is a living memento,  is its greatest charm,  and I love to dream,  while standing beneath its spreading branches and gazing far out on the broad,  blue Pacific, of the true-hearted Spanish maiden who planted it in faith which springs from an immortal love, and who watered it with her tears....

~The Rural Carolinian , An Illustrated Magazine of Agriculture, Horticulture, and the Arts, Vol 5, DH Jacques, Editor, 1874

Now that is a  historic, romantic tale,  mingled with verifiable truth - it is so Southern California. 

The vine was nearing 100 years of age, and it began to reach the limits of its lifespan.  In 1876, The Centennial Exposition was to be held in Philadelphia, and communities throughout America were asked to submit exhibits for the event.  Santa Barbara's Dr. James Ord thought the enormous vine would be the perfect contribution, showcasing the extraordinary agricultural potential of Santa Barbara County.   The grapevine was sawed into large pieces, boxed and shipped to the site of the Exposition, where it was re-assembled.

Grapevine Centennial Exhibition Philadelphia

The world had never seen anything like it.  The vine was displayed in the California building, surrounded by vases of pampas grass (another Santa Barbara export, pampas plumes had become all the rage in home decor at the time).

Literature distributed at the Exposition stated that the circumference of the vine was 9' 7" at is base, and that in life, it had spread in all directions, covering 10,000 square feet of land.  During its lifetime, dozens of strong posts were situated beneath the long branches of the grapevine to provide support in anticipation of the annual harvest of at least 10 tons of  fruit. 

The vine had provided  shade for up to 700 - 800 people, and was used for dances, as mentioned, in addition to town meetings, elections, weddings, funerals and fiestas. It had truly become the heart of the nascent little community of Montecito.

The world was in awe of the mammoth grapevine that began as a slender pony switch - and a token of faith between two young lovers.

When La Parra Grande had reached nearly a half-century in age, nearby, in the small town of Carpinteria, grew another grapevine of mythical proportions.  It continued to thrive after the demise of La Parra Grande.

This vine, La Vina Grande,  had been planted in about 1840, before California became a state.    The vine was planted by a woman named Joaquina Lugodi Ayala.   Ms. Ayala, too, loved and tended her vine, which grew like the proverbial magic beanstalk under her watchful care.

Miss Rasor and Master Bailard 1906 Carpinteria

As the vine grew, so did its fame.  In the picture above, you will see a young Mr Jack Bailard, and Miss Flossie Rasor, residents of a little seaside community located just south of Santa Barbara -  Carpinteria.  In 1906, Jack and Flossie  wrote to a popular magazine of the time,  St Nicholas , extolling the wonders of  the enormous  grapevine that grew in their hometown.  Jack advised readers that it took 15 St Nicholas magazines, laid edge to edge around the trunk, to match the circumference of the giant vine.   (Jack Bailard's family continues to live in Carpinteria to this day.)  

As for the old grapevine, it remained  in the Ayala family for many years.  In about 1900, the land and the vine were sold to Mr. Jacob Wilson.  He maintained ownership until about 1907, when he decided to sell the land, and all its amenities - including the grapevine - for a sum of $20,000.  The grapevine had flourished for about 70 years at the time.

  The offering was listed in the Fruit and Nut Journal of that year:

Grapevine for Sale 1907 Fruit and Nut Journal


According to the listing above, a profit could be made from tourists from all over the world who visited the legendary grapevine, and would purchase photos of it for 25c each.  The arbor, vine, foliage and grapes covered an area of 250' x 200', and each bunch of grapes weighed between 6 -10 pounds.   The grapevine and the attendant 14 acres were going for a price of $20,000.

I found this account, written by one of the tourists who made a special trip to see the grapevine in 1913.  Although it had become slightly diminished from its peak of health, it was still a wondrous vine - and people continued to flock to it:  

I had heard of a celebrated grapevine hereabouts which proclaims itself the Goliath of its kind.   I turned aside to see it,  and found the monster in an enclosure behind a little house which stands on the site of a vanished adobe.


From St Nicolas Magazine

When I viewed the enormous trunk,  nearly ten feet in girth,  I could easily credit its claim as to size and the statement of its owner that it bore from six to twelve tons of fruit yearly.



The limbs,  one of which I measured and found it three and a half feet around,  cover a space a hundred feet square,  and are supported on a framework of massive timbers.

Grapevine shows no sign of decay and should be good for many a decade.  In proof of one tall California story at least,  I bought a bottle of juice made from its grapes...

and ate my lunch under the ample shade,  looking,  I was aware,  like a sort of modern and commonplace Silenus.... 

- California Coast Trails, Joseph Chase, 1913

 So, whether you partake of the harvest locally, or just enjoy a glass of Santa Barbara County pinot or chardonnay at home, take a moment to savor the taste of our sunshine,  our warm days and foggy nights - and the romance and legend of two of the world's largest grapevines.   

And remember, too, the story of two young lovers whose fate was intertwined with a tender green grapevine that grew, like their love, into myth. 


The great horticultural wonder, the Grape Tree of Ten Thousand Clusters,  better known as the Mammoth Grape Vine of Montecito in Santa Barbara,  California,  is said to be the most celebrated natural curiosity in the world.   It has beon described as the largest and most prolific Vine the world ever produced in ancient or modern times,  though it must be remembered that history furnishes instances of very large vines.

For instance,  the doors of the Cathedral of Ravonna were made out of Vine planks said to have been 12 ft long and 15 in wide.  The columns of Juno's Temple,  Meta-pont,  and the statue of Jupiter for the city of Apollonium,  were made of the wood of the vine - and yet, from what we can learn,  none of these vines were equal in gigantic proportions to this great tree.

In the Old World,  there is the noted Vine of Hampton Court, about 200 years old and grown under glass,  yet the diameter of tho body or trunk of this celebrated Euglish vine is only the same as the diameter of one of the main branches of the Montecito monster.    The annual yield of the English vine is only from 1,400 lb to 2,0001b of grapes,  while this California tree, according to the best authorities, produced yearly from 7,000 to 10,000 clusters  - equal to over 6 tons,  or 10,0001b of excellent Mission Grapes.

At a public meeting held on September 1,  1875,  by the citizens of Santa Barbara,  a statement of the history of the vine and resolutions expressive of deep regret at its death were adopted.   It was from 60 to 100 years old and covered over 12,000 square feet of ground.   The branches spread around the trunk in all directions,  forming a most beautiful tree.

A largo dancing floor was erected by the Spanish under one side of it, and it is said that 3,000 people could be seated under its wide spreading branches.   Its trunk is immense,  the largest circumference,  8 ft from the ground being 5 1/2 ft,  so that it well merits the title of The Grope Tree of Ten Thousand Clusters.

~ Thomas Moore,  Florist and Pomologist, London, 1874

Santa Barbara To-Day

Santa Barbara to-day may well be designated a "city of homes".   The majority of the citizens of this town and vicinity are those who originally came here for health,  and so well-pleased were they with the climate and location,  that they can now be found in their cozy little homes,  not only in town but in all the little valleys and fertile nooks along the foot hills,  basking,  as it were,  under their own vine and fig tree, without much care for business or the affairs of state,  and after reading the telegraph reports of blizzards in New York and Boston -  reaching the outside world only by Atlantic cable via London,  England - they reach up from their hammocks,  pick an orange from their overburdened trees,  and thank God for their quiet home in Santa Barbara....

Crofutt's Overland Tours:  Consisting of nearly five thousand miles of main tours,

and three thousand miles by stage and water....1888