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Elmer Awl

Birth place or City of origin: Pittsburg
State of origin: PA
Last known City: Santa Barbara
Last known State: CA
Start/Birth date: 12/11/1889
Death/End date: 4/11/1983

Elmer Maclay Awl was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1889. His father was John Mattern Awl, son of John Longhenry Awl and Mary Rogers. His mother was Elizabeth House (Sarah Lizzie House). She and John were married June 23, 1887 and gave birth to Elmer on December 11, 1889. Lizzie passed away due to complications from childbirth on December 22, 1889. She was buried in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

John Mattern Awl never married again. He moved to Milwaukee with Elmer about 1892. He and Albert House, son of Mrs. Emma House, lived with Mrs. Emma House (his mother-in-law) in Milwaukee at 19th and Prairie Streets until 1902 when Mrs. Emma House married Mr. Wellington Bushnell.

The Bushnells and Elmer’s Aunt moved to Pasadena, CA in August of 1902 taking Elmer and Dorothy and Elizabeth House with them. Elmer, Dorothy, and Elizabeth were cousins and attended Washington school in North Pasadena. Elmer’s father went to Alaska in search of gold and sadly never returned.

In 1906, Elmer packed the materials up on burros and mules to build the Mt. Wilson Observatory. He worked for Mr. Snyder of the half way house. From that job Elmer moved on to Heneger’s Flat Government nursery and helped plant the pine trees now there.

In 1907, Elmer worked for the Lytle Creek Government nursery. During the summer of 1908, at the age of 18, he was also a Fire Warden in San Bernardino County for the State of California Board of Forestry. In the fall of 1908 he started college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Elmer played left end on the Cal Poly football team and majored in horticulture.
During the summer of 1909, Elmer worked on the flume for Hune-Bennett Lumber Company down Kings River with Mr. Coleman, a professor from Cal Poly.

Elmer married Ina Penwarden in 1910 and built a home at 1450 North Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena. They had one daughter Betty Awl Geisel, who was born on November 2, 1911. She married Herbert Geisel and they had one son, Ronald Geisel in 1937.

After and during college Elmer worked for the U. S. Forest Service at Heneger’s Flat, Pasadena, Lytle Creek, San Bernardino (at Eucalyptus Nursery - Lone Pine Canyon), Skyland, and Del Rosa.

Elmer worked as a gardener for Reverend Hayden in Altadena in 1912. Then in 1913, he worked for New West India Gardens and then New House Nursery on East Villa Street. In 1914 he went to work for the W. K. Juett estate, a 10 acre estate on Arden Road. He was also associated with Hertrick of the Huntington Estate for two years.

In 1917 he moved to Santa Barbara to work for J. Ogden Armour of Chicago, taking charge of developing El Mirador, the 70 acre estate in Montecito that Armour purchased for his daughter Lolita Armour. Mr. George E Mascy, President of Armour Grain Co. got him the job. Until 1941 Elmer worked for Lolita Armour and then her husband, John J. Mitchell who she married in 1920. Elmer, “Uncle Emo” as he became known, developed and managed the El Mirador estate in Montecito, a beach property in Santa Barbara and the 9000 acre Juan Y Lolita Rancho in the Santa Ynez Valley. It was the Mitchell children who gave him the nickname of Uncle Emo – a name that stayed with him throughout his life.
Elmer became very involved in the Community of Santa Barbara and his influence stretched throughout the County of Santa Barbara during the rest of his life. He served as a member of the Santa Barbara Constabulary during the war with Germany and received a testimonial certificate from Sheriff Jim Ross in 1919.

Elmer loved the Santa Barbara Community. In 1918, he participated in the first Flower Show in Santa Barbara at the Recreation Building. Over the next 60 years he continued to participate in putting on the Flower Shows, managing the shows from 1961-1964. He also managed the Annual Orchid Shows from 1958-1967. He was a devote horseman and in 1947 he acted as Ringmaster for the Santa Barbara National Horse Show.

Elmer enjoyed sailing for many years. He purchased The Active, a 40 foot sloop, and sailed it down from San Francisco and also sailed the Wymitch belonging to the Mitchells and Wymans. In 1925 he served as Commodore of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. That year, he became a member of the Santa Barbara Elks Club Lodge #613 for 38 years. In addition he served as President of the Santa Barbara Shrine Club.

In 1930, Uncle Emo was a co-founder of Los Rancheros Visitadores along with Jack Mitchell. Ed Borein, Harvey McDonald – foreman of Juan Y Lolita – and Dwight Murphy were also part of planning that first RV ride. Elmer managed Rancheros until 1947. He was made an honorary member in 1955 and continued to participate in his beloved Rancheros until his death. He loved Rancheros and the fun, camaraderie, and lifelong friendships shared by that unique group of men. His exuberant personality gained him friendships from well known figures such as Ed Borein, Will James, Joe De Yong, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Will Rogers, Leo Carrillo, Charles Lindberg, Earl Ovington, and Lee J. Cobb to name a few. Elmer’s love of life and his inner cowboy was revealed when Ranchero Commander Awl appeared in his Navy dress uniform wearing his white beaver “Tom Mix” Stetson hat and his boots. He is also remembered for attending the opening night of the San Francisco Opera resplendent in his tails and the same white Stetson hat.

Elmer served on the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Board from the first Fiesta celebration in 1924 which he helped to organize, until 1968. He was a familiar horseman in the Fiesta parades. He loved the festivities so much that during a parade, he rode his horse right into the bar at the Barbara Hotel. He was El Presidente in 1961 and, in honor of his many years of service, was named honorary El Presidente for the 1975 Fiesta celebration. When he was no longer able to ride in the parades, he stood to greet the participants as they passed the governor’s box.

Elmer was divorced from Ina in 1936 and married Alma Spreckles in 1939. His time was spent in San Francisco at the Spreckle’s mansion at 2080 Washington Street and also in Santa Barbara where he handled the affairs of the Samarkand Hotel from February 19, 1939 until 1941 when Alma traded it for a Ranch at Bolinas Bay, ten miles north of San Francisco. Until he went to active duty with the Navy on November 26, 1941, Elmer ran Alma’s Bolinas Bay Ranch as well as the Sobre Vista Ranch at Sonoma.

During World War II, Elmer was intent on serving his country and after convincing a friend in the Pentagon to allow him to join the Navy at the age of 52, Elmer served at the Naval base in Coco Solo, Panama for three years and then went to Honolulu in January of 1945 where he served as Ships Service Commander at Sub base Pearl Harbor until December of 1946. He was commended for uncovering a black market ring in the Pacific. After leaving active duty, he remained in the Naval Reserves from which he retired as full Commander. While he was serving in Panama, Elmer and Alma divorced.

Elmer married Ulla deBretteville in Hawaii on October 1, 1946. She was Alma’s niece and had come to the United States about 1934 from Denmark to live with Alma. She moved to Oahu to work for the navy at Pearl Harbor. They moved back to Santa Barbara and lived at El Mirador several months until they purchased a home from Ralph Runkle at 2104 State Street in 1947 They had one daughter, Lolita Awl who married the son of another Ranchero, Johnny Boyle. Ulla and Elmer had three grandchildren before his death, and eventually six great-grandchildren that he would have loved to know.

When they returned to Santa Barbara from Hawaii, Uncle Emo continued to manage the Rancheros and also went to work for Santa Barbara County as Grounds Superintendent. He beautified the County serving as Santa Barbara County Grounds Superintendent and then had the distinction of becoming the County’s first Parks Superintendent in 1952. He later served as Chairman of the Park Commission.

Among his other appointments was to serve on the Santa Barbara Fish and Game Commission and be appointed a deputy sheriff.

Always civic minded, his love of sailing led Elmer to become Commodore of the early Santa Barbara Yacht club in 1925 and a member until his death. He also started the Cachuma Yacht Club. He belonged to the Elks Lodge and Shrine Club where he served as President in 1925.

Beloved by his family and many friends, Uncle Emo lived a long, full and happy life. He was a man for all people and had innumerable friends from all walks of life. He left as his legacy his part in developing and nurturing the Santa Barbara community traditions, as well as innumerable memories of good times and good friends. Vaya con Dios, Ranchero.

Written by Lita Boyle


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