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The Dallidet Adobe in downtown San Luis Obispo was built in the 1850s by French immigrant Pierre Dallidet, a successful businessman and founder of the area’s first commercial winery. Despite having seven surviving children, historians believe there are no Dallidet heirs. The property also has a beautiful garden that propagates heirloom fruit trees, vegetables and flowers. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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Hit the Road: History is ever present in the heart of San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo isn’t exactly a chaotic metropolis, but still, step inside the cool, verdant grounds of the Dallidet Adobe & Gardens in the heart of the city and find an oasis that transports visitors to 1850s Central Coast California.

Under the watchful conservatorship of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, the historic adobe and heritage gardens offer a look at life 170 years ago.

The home was built by French immigrant Pierre Dallidet who, on his way from San Francisco to Mexico, fell in love with San Luis Obispo and decided to stay. In 1855, he married 15-year-old Ascension Concepcion Salazar, whose family had come from New Mexico. She gave birth to nine children before her death at age 32. 

Thomas Kessler, the museum’s executive director, guides us through the adobe (California Historical Landmark #270), owned for more than a century only by the Dallidet family.

“All of the furniture is original to the adobe,” he tells us, including the “Horn Piano,” so-named because it was transported by ship from the East Coast, around Cape Horn (southern tip of South America), and north to the Central Coast.

A former Carnegie Library, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, serves as headquarters for the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. The varied exhibits appeal to both children and adults. The current rotating exhibit tells of the contributions of Jewish immigrants to the area. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

And an intricately carved wall cabinet is thought to be the artwork of Ascension.

Kessler tells us stories of the Dallidet family, including one about the shooting of one brother by another, prompted by a bad investment that caused a large financial loss.

In 1953, the youngest child, Paul, “who was in debt, gave the property to the then-newly formed San Luis Obispo Historical Society in exchange for living there until he died,” Kessler says.

The adobe seems lavish for a time when many California settlers were living much more primitively. Credit for the elegant home goes to Pierre, successful in several business endeavors, including establishing the first commercial winery in the area.

Kessler takes us outside again to a feature that is rare in California: a cellar. He pulls up the door so we can descend into the cool, dark hole under the house.

This iconic Depression-era photo was taken in 1936 by government photographer Dorothea Lange, who found this migrant mother in a pea field in Nipomo, a city along Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo County. Courtesy photo

“The cellar was used as a cooperage,” Kessler says. “Pierre and the boys built their (wine) barrels down here. They had a separate structure to ferment and store the wine and spirits.”

Back in the sun, we follow Kessler through the maze of garden walkways and heirloom fruit trees, vegetables and flowers-gone-wild. The colors, smells and busy hummingbirds are abundant. The pandemic closed the garden for months, but it reopens in spring 2022. 

Another historic building — a former Carnegie Library — is home to the history center. Kessler guides us through the Richardsonian Romanesque-style edifice, built in 1905, and the numerous permanent and rotating exhibits.

A recent exhibit tells the history of the county’s Jews and their contributions. Included is a stunning satin-and-lace wedding dress worn by Florence Rosenthal in 1912 and now displayed under a ceremonial Chuppah.

In the center’s small theater, furnished with vintage seats from a Santa Barbara theater, a 15-minute film takes us through the county’s history.

The iconic, 1936 Depression-era photo titled “Migrant Mother,” taken by Dorothea Lange, flashes across the screen. I’ve long assumed that this world-famous, haunting image of Florence Owens Thompson and three of her seven children had been taken somewhere in the Midwest.

“It was actually taken in Nipomo (in a pea field) south of here (on Highway 101),” explains Kessler.

The Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast in San Luis Obispo was moved to make way for a parking lot. Here the 3,000-square-foot, nine-bedroom house is carried through town at 2 a.m. on a day in 1980. Courtesy photo

Lodging: For further immersion into the history of San Luis Obispo, stay at the Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, where each room has a different theme. 

Known as Resource #159 in the city’s catalog of historic homes, the bed and breakfast’s exact date of construction is a bit fuzzy. Best guess: circa 1905. Its American Foursquare style was popular from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Owner Georgia Adrian can tell guests in the 3,000-square-foot, nine-bedroom home how, in 1980, it was moved from its original location near the intersection of Highways 1 and 101.

She’s got the photos and newspaper clippings to prove it, as well as additional photos that reflect the town’s early history. Innkeeper, cook and longtime resident Timothy McMiller can spin stories of recent history.