As agriculture in California developed, the California Legislature and the University of California worked to determine which dry-farmed crops would thrive in various regions throughout the state. Paso Robles became an important area of study in 1889 thanks to the passage of the Hatch Act of 1887 to provide funding for agricultural experiment stations.
The California Station was established in Berkeley at the University of California. There were four sub-stations created where land was donated and prepared for planting orchards and vineyards of table and wine grapes. The Paso Robles Experiment Station, located in the South Coast Range, was one of the first three created in California along with one in the Sierra Foothills and another in the San Joaquin Valley.
In the 1880s, promoters were dividing up large ranchos east of the town of Paso Robles and selling small parcels to farmers who were emigrating to the area from the Midwest and from Southern California where the Anaheim Blight had destroyed large numbers of vineyards in what is now Orange County. The area was promoted as a fruit-growing district. Several German Lutherans families purchased land in the area which soon was known as the Geneseo District when the first school was built. This area was located about five miles north of Creston. The descendants of the Klintworths, Ernsts, and Steinbecks, still live in Paso Robles in this area.
The Experiment Station east of Paso Robles generated a lot of excitement among farmers. A house, a wind-powered well pump, and other buildings were constructed, financed by the local community on twenty acres of land donated by a local farmer. We are not certain exactly where the Experiment Station was located as there are no remnants of the buildings or vineyards. Mark Battany of the University of California suggests that the station was located east of the Salinas River, and north of its namesake road, Experimental Station. This is a short distance west of Buena Vista Drive, in an area where many homes are located. The elevation was 80 feet above the river.
Orchards of peaches, plums, apples, apricots, almonds, figs, nectarines, and cherries were planted as well as two vineyards and a large area of field cultures. There were over 100 varieties of grapes planted. The purpose was to determine what crops would grow best in various soil types and to determine whether dry-farming or irrigation would be the method. Commercial crops versus small crops grown for family were to be determined by the research at the Experiment Station. During the first few years, deciduous fruits of every kind grew well. In 1890, four dollars was made on every early bearing peach tree in some of the orchards. Prizes were awarded at County Fairs to peaches, Japanese plums, pears and grapes grown in the Geneseo District. These fruits were competing against those grown in the Arroyo Grande Valley, one of the most famous valleys in San Luis Obispo County.
Between 1886 and 1890, farmers planted a number of small orchards and vineyards. William Ernst arrived from Geneseo, Illinois, on Christmas Eve in 1884 and planted five acres of orchards and seven acres of grapes. The orchards did not thrive and he removed three acres. His brother John planted ten acres of orchards and nine acres of grapes, but soon removed four acres of orchards. Gerd Klintworth planted two acres of orchards and six acres of vines; he added four more acres.
The soil, hardpan, variable rainfall, frosts, and droughts all contributed to the lackluster fruit crops as time went on. However, the grapes thrived and forecasts of the area becoming the place to plant large vineyards abounded. However, that did not happen until the early 1970s, almost a century later.
The three farmers had cattle, planted grains, and grew between 15 and 25 varieties of wine grapes successfully. The quality of their wines was high and as the neighbors stated, “the wines were not cheap.” The Ernst Brothers went on to win medals for their wines. Gerd Klintworth was the first to be licensed to sell his wines. He was praised for his Zinfandel in jugs and for his white wines. Bottles with his early labels and the wine press he used are currently on display at the Pioneer Museum in Paso Robles.
The Experiment Station was closed and dismantled by 1902 due to a lack of enthusiasm and funding. The farmers were disappointed in the results of the studies on why the crops failed. The research can be found published by the University of California – College of Agriculture in Bulletin 141 published by UC Berkeley in 1902 titled, “Experiments with Deciduous Fruits At and Near The Southern Coast Sub-Station, Paso Robles, 1889 to 1902.”
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