Thursday’s Storyweek story — Old Man Bobo’s Mandy — written by Englishman Horace Annesley Vachell, sent us scurrying down an internet rabbit hole after an idyll. Where in California, exactly, did Vachell find the inspiration for the fictional town of “San Lorenzo,” the setting for his collection of stories Bunch Grass: A Chronicle of Life on a Cattle Ranch?
Vachell’s Wikipedia entry shed little light on the writer’s life on the land, noting only that Vachell “went to California where he became partner in a land company and married Lydie Phillips, his partner’s daughter. His wife died in 1895 after the birth of their second child. He is said to have introduced the game of polo to Southern California.”
Could Vachell have ranched and been a land speculator in Southern California? A prominent Phillips — Louis Phillips — was a rancher and land speculator in Los Angeles county, although he seemed to have made his fortune a few years prior to Vachell’s landing in the Golden state — and he didn’t have a daughter named Lydie.
We tried another tack — who was Lydie Phillips? She turns up in the pages of a history of San Luis Obispo County published in 1917. What’s more, that history’s introduction features a letter from Vachell himself recounting his years in SLO! Here it is, transcribed from the Google books scan:
I remember vividly—as if it were yesterday—those delightful days in the early “eighties” when my brothers and I lived at Tally Ho! ranch. Some colossal vegetables, exhibited in San Francisco, lured me to San Luis Obispo County. That was in ‘82, and I came alone, not knowing a single soul in the ancient Mission town, but carrying a letter to my future father in law C.H. Phillips, which I presented forthwith. He entertained me handsomely, and then passed me on to a compatriot, Major Moreton, who had bought land near Arroyo Grande. The Major was the most genial and hospitable of men, honorably known afterwards in Santa Cruz as “The Picnic King.” I became his partner. At that time the vast Spanish ranchos were still in existence, and one could ride league after league without seeing that crude symbol of civilization—a barbed wire fence.
The Arroyo Grande valley was already settled up with bean-raisers and fruit-growers, all of them prosperous. The foothills were swarming with quail; the marshes held duck and snipe innumerable; the creeks were full of trout; and clams were to be had for the digging. What a paradise for the sportsman! And a good pony cost forty dollars! Add to this a superb climate and pleasant people. Throw into this delectable melting pot, youth, an inordinate appetite for enjoyment, and the probability of making a fortune easily. What more could be asked of the gods? Briefly, I had the time of my life and rushed back to England to persuade others to join me. Many came. We started polo and talked of a pack of hounds. We bought more land and planted out vineyards and orchards in blissful ignorance of horticulture and viticulture. I confess that we were reactionaries.
We liked best the old timers, the patriarchs, the men of flocks and herds. We knew that the old order was passing, that the courteous Don had his back to the wall; but this knowledge lent a curious piquancy to our lives. We were witnesses of a great change. The “bad men,” I remember, interested us enormously. A lynching of two neighbors thrilled us to the core. This was still the land of Bret Harte. I exchanged greetings with Frank James, and beheld Black Bart, who robbed stage coaches and pinned a copy of verse embalming his adventure to the nearest live-oak. The foothills harboured cattle and horse thieves, and half a dozen train-robbing desperadoes. We attended barbecues and rodeos, and practiced throwing the lariat. We fished and hunted all the time.
Our impressions of the people are not so easily recalled. Certainly, with rare exceptions, we remained very English. We wore breeches and boots, and rode in English saddles upon hogged-maned, bob-tailed ponies. We cherished the conviction that we should make fortunes and return to spend them in England. The old-timers hinted at dry years, but we paid no attention to them. Land bought at five dollars an acre was sold at sixty! We came to the conclusion that our rich friends did not know how to spend their money. I caught one millionaire digging post-holes with the thermometer above eighty in the shade. I asked him point-blank why he did it. “Young man,” he replied, “why do you drive tandem?” I told him that I liked driving tandem. He replied drily: “And I like digging post-holes.”
There were many amazing characters—what we call in England “cards.” I remember so well Uncle Johnny Price of Pismo, Billy Ryan, Captain Harloe of the Huasna, J.P. Andrews, the banker, the brothers Warden, Uncle Dave Norcross, and a host of others. Of the men I knew who had much to do with the building of the state, such as Colonel Hollister, Frank McCoppin, Elwood Cooper, Charles Crocker and Senator Stanford, it is a keen regret that I did not profit by many opportunities of asking questions. In those days I considered interrogation to be “bad form.” My father-in-law, C.H. Phillips, became my intimate friend and companion. He was a man of great parts and energy. Had Fortune dealt with him more generously, he would have risen to the heights. I owe much happiness to him and his. He had, essentially, the broad outlook and a delightful vein of humour. In bad times his pluck courage and optimism shone out supreme. No man had a deeper faith in California nor a livelier interest in men and affairs.
To Benjamin Brooks, the editor of the Tribune, I owe much kindly criticism and advice on literary matters. He encouraged me to write at a time when I needed badly such encouragement. He taught me the art to blot. He counselled me, most sagely, to deal faithfully and sincerely with life as it is rather than life as a budding novelist would like it to be. Oddly enough, he urged me again and again to write plays, affirming that I had a sense of the theatre which he regarded as a disability in a novelist.
I hope to revisit California in the near future. I want to smell the tarweed again and to see the brown hills scintillate into opalescent colours as the sun sinks into the Pacific. It is a dear, sweet land, different from any other I have known, a land of immeasurable spaces. It is at once intimate and panoramic, a curious combination that baffles description. It allures irresistibly. During the horrors of this war. I have thought of it again and again as a sanctuary of peace and plenty. Long may it flourish! H.A.V.
You might have noticed that Wikipedia is wrong in a couple of details of Vachell’s life: his partner in ranching and land speculation was not Lydie’s father C.H. Phillips, but another Englishman, Major Moreton; and, the Englishmen in Vachell’s posse did not introduce polo to “Southern California.”
Finally, in the comments accompanying Vachell’s sketch, the historian notes that the letter arrived on paper bounded with a black border, “for in June 1916 his son, a member of the aviation corps of the British army, was killed–a sacrifice to the horrible war now raging in Europe.” That death was noted in a California newspaper, the Mariposa Gazette, dated August 14, 1915.