History of Montecito

Once rejected as a possible site for Santa Barbara’s Mission because it was too far from the protection of the presidio, early Montecito was known as a dangerous place, where outlaws and grizzly bears hid in the wooded canyons.  Yet during its history, this unique and beautiful area has been home to Indians, Spanish and Yankee settlers, agricultural pioneers and eastern millionaires in search of the perfect climate.

During Santa Barbara’s Hispanic era, roughly from 1782 to 1846, soldiers of the presidio who reached retirement age were given parcels of land in lieu of long overdue pay.  These Spanish and Mexican land grant properties extended for many miles, from the mountains to the beach.  A number of soldiers and their families chose to settle in an area just west of what is now the intersection of East Valley Road and Hot Springs Road.  Between that corner and the banks of Montecito Creek, Montecito’s first residential settlement – now known as Old Spanish Town – was established.

Montecito’s early landmarks were the Big Grapevine (“La Parra Grande”) and the Hot Springs, where a hotel and spa once welcomed people hoping to find relief for their ailments in the curative waters.  Both the grapevine and the health resort are long gone, but three original adobes from Spanish days – the San Ysidro Ranch adobe, Masini adobe and Juarez-Hosmer adobe – remain important links to Montecito’s past.

The first wave of Yankee settlers were enthusiastic horticulturists who found Montecito’s soil, air and climate perfect for growing experimental crops and developing citrus and other exotic fruits along with the usual varieties.  Some of the new farms also had large areas devoted to the serious cultivation of decorative trees, plants and flowers.

Santa Barbara’s early tourists soon discovered the nearby rustic “Eden” with its flourishing farms and gardens, and from the late 1800’s on, many affluent eastern visitors built impressive estates in the Montecito Valley.  Through the years they were followed by others: the “Hill Barons” whose mansions commanded the finest views from foothills and ridgetops, and wealthy industrialists who established magnificent estates in the valley to use primarily during the winter months.

By the giddy 1920’s, Montecito had become known as an enclave of millionaire socialites whose lives revolved around polo, parties, tennis and country clubs.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is an image that persists, even today.

But there was always another side of Montecito: merchants, craftsmen and those who provided services.  They set up the shops, tailored clothes, took care of the horses and autos, taught school, tilled the soil and produced crops, built stone walls and fashioned wrought iron gates.  Around the corner of East Valley and San Ysidro, a business area gradually developed – a general store, blacksmith, butcher shop – followed in time by a post office, library and community hall.  This once-rural intersection is now the home of busy shopping centers Montecito Village North and South, along with professional and financial offices.

Montecito’s earliest recognition as a citrus-producing valley came largely from the success of Crocker-Sperry Ranch – now site of Birnam Wood Golf Club – and San Ysidro Ranch, which later replaced citrus operations with paying guests to become the famous celebrity hideaway that it is today.

The 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the Depression which followed, forced even the wealthiest estate owners to reconsider their expenses here.  Some simply closed places, while others sold off property for subdivision.Today, Montecito is an interesting mixture of large estates, slightly smaller homes on subdivided property, and modest houses of varying styles and sizes.  On the remaining available land, new construction is now spreading to the southeast and up into the mountains – another wave of settlers coming to Montecito, determined to make it their own! For more information about Montecito History please visit the Montecito Association's History Office page.