Parkfield Then and Now

by Jack Varian

Congratulations El Paso De Robles on turning 125 years old.  Parkfield’s first Caucasian settlers who came to start new lives arrived in the Cholame Valley in 1854 which makes our town of 18 inhabitants 160 years old and counting.  Actually the town proper was established as a post office location in 1884.

Parkfield aerialFor most folks living today probably in their wildest dreams could but wonder why 3 young brothers – William, Charles, and Edwin Imus – would want to leave their town of Santa Cruz, CA with its cool weather, the Pacific Ocean, beach in their backyard and lots of Redwood trees. Why would they want to saddle up their horses, put all their belongings on a pack horse and say goodbye to dear old Santa Cruz? I think, possibly, they had a premonition that Camelot lay just down the road a piece.

So off they went. Heading east they climbed over the Pacheco Pass into the San Joaquin Valley and then headed south along the west side of the Diablo mountain range for about 100 miles to Jacalitos Canyon. They then turned west over Mustang Peak and there it was laid out before them, a most stunning valley. It truly was Camelot, though its real name Cholame is a Yokut Indian word and when translated means the “Beautiful One.”

But the “Beautiful One” like many old west towns has had a rocky history of boom and bust.

The Imus brothers being first, chose to settle on the headwaters of the Big Cholame Creek. It wouldn’t have been my choice; my pick was homesteaded by the Taylor family on the Little Cholame Creek where me and my family live today. It wasn’t long before others discovered this beautiful valley and put down roots. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act that allowed anybody who wanted to lay claim to a vacant piece of land 160 acres in size. If they worked the land for 5 years our government would give them legal title to the ground beneath their feet. The Cholame Valley was fast filling up with homesteaders who came to farm and raise barley and wheat.


The next industry to get started was Oil. Because of the oil that seeped from the ground in different parts of the valley, it quickly brought the oil prospectors with their roughneck  drilling crews all with get rich quick on their mind. By 1899 Parkfield’s zenith years there were 900 souls living in the Cholame Valley. Why they even had a newspaper by the name of the Parkfield Sand Storm published bi-monthly for 10 cents a month. In the April 22, 1899 edition of the paper appeared the editor’s description of Parkfield: “It is at least a model town in respect to business houses. It has 2 stores, 2 saloons, 2 livery stables, 2 blacksmith shops, and 2 hotels, and it probably has 2 good citizens in it.” A front page article talks of what a blessing if Parkfield had a telephone connection with San Miguel. Besides having the advantage of being in touch with the outside world, a call for a doctor could be made almost instantaneously. In spite of the plea for a telephone in 1899, nothing happened until after the turn of the century when then a crude telephone line was strung over Hog Canyon to San Miguel which now made it possible for gossip to travel at light speed.

         Parkfield didn’t know at the time but with the coming of the 20th Century our fair town was going to see an exodus
of the town’s economy and population that lasted for 90 years.

What happened that a valley as beautiful as ours could sink into such a state of disarray? First, the homesteaders no matter how hard they worked could not feed their families with the bounty from a 160 acre farm. So cattle ranchers that needed larger tracts of land left but only a few cowboys came to replace them. The anticipated oil boom with its pot of gold at the end of the rainbow turned out to be a pot full of broken dreams and so the town waved goodbye to the oil folks.

parkfield signThe Patriquin’s were miners and had discovered a quicksilver mine in 1914 that was very productive and for the World War 1 years the mine contributed much to the well being of Parkfield. Then one day the news reached town that the war was over and the vein of mercury that had helped feed Parkfield had played out. So it was again time to wave good bye to all the miners that had contributed mightily to the saloons on 1st street.

West of Parkfield over in Indian Valley there was a coal mine that showed a lot of promise but before hardly a load of coal was mined the mine flooded with more water than could be pumped out and another industry bit the dust. Well by now the only economic engine left running that had legs was cattle ranching and some dry farming where wheat and barley were raised.

The next drain on our town of consequence was the Great Depression of the 1930’s and a few more citizens took a hike. December 7, 1941 World War 2 started when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and in no time most of the men of fighting age soon found themselves in the armed service and Parkfield’s population took another hit. With the war ending in 1945 several million young men were mustered out of our armed service. You would have thought that Parkfield would have attracted a cowboy or two but Parkfield didn’t have jobs to offer so its journey to backwater obscurity continued unabated.

Parkfield CafeIn the spring of 1962 my wife Zera and I moved to the land of our dreams and now 52 years later our love affair with this little corner of the world still burns bright. The population sign as you entered our town in 1962 reads 37. I believe that Parkfield’s fortunes really started to turn around in 1989 when my son John and I decided that Parkfield needed a cafe. So in the autumn of that year we opened the Parkfield Cafe and we followed that with the Parkfield Inn in 1991.

It’s been quite a journey for this town that has always been long on charisma but short on ways to make a living, so the population sign now has 18 imprinted on it. I believe Parkfield’s future lies with a sustainable agriculture base that desires to share its life style with a public that I believe not only wants but needs to reconnect with a simpler way to spend  a day of living.

Parkfield certainly qualifies as a real life cow town. It has all the trappings necessary, 1 Cafe, 1 lodge, 1 town hall, 1 rodeo grounds, 1 one room grammar school, 1 fire station and 1 big dose of Parkfield Magic. You say what is Parkfield Magic?  Well it is a state of mind that leaves you quietly relaxed and with a feeling that everything is going to be okay. So what’s on the calendar for 2014 in Parkfield?

March 14-16
Piper Mackay Spirit and Light 2014
Photo Tour

March 20-23
Dude Ranch Getaway

March 27-30
Dude Ranch Getaway

April 3-6
Sisters on the Fly

April 9-13
AHA Spring Cowboy Academy

April 17-20
Cattle Drive

April 30- May 4
V6 Wrangler Ride
(formerly Grass Valley Ride)

May 8-11
Cattle Drive

May 8-11
Parkfield Bluegrass

May 19-23

Piper Mackay 2014 Photo Tour

May 24-25
Parkfield Rodeo

May 29-June 1
Cattle Drive

June 5-8
Dude Ranch Getaway

July 4-7

Richard Winters
All Women’s Horsemanship Retreat

July 10-13
Dude Ranch Getaway

July 14-20

Richard Winters
Ultimate Horse Course

August 6-10
Family Style Cowboy Academy

 September 12-14

Cowboy Dressage at the V6 Ranch

September 26-28
AHASFV V6 Ranch Experience

October 9-12
Cattle Drive

October 15-19
Fall Cowboy Academy

October 18-19
Artisan Roundup

October 23-26
Dude Ranch Getaway

October 30 – November 2
Dude Ranch Weekend

November 3-7
Muench Workshops California
Ranch Experience

November 13-16
Horsewoman by Grace


For More information on Parkfield & the V6 Ranch visit

Email: Call: (805)463-2421


Old Paso: Vineyards, Charcoal, Dusi’s, Busi’s and Pesenti’s

This is part of a continuing series of stories of Paso’s past from local storytellers.  The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

by Don Campbell

Sylvester Dusi and the vineyard at Highway 46 intersection.

All the land in this area was once covered with a thick stand of blue oak and small scrub oak trees with some white oak trees, too thick to farm the soil. In 1919, Bob and Joe
Busi, with hired help, began clearing the white and blue oak trees off this field opposite where OSH and Target now sit where one sees the grape vines now owned and tended
by Benito Dusi.

Janell Dusi farming the vineyard that Sylvester planted

Janell Dusi farming the vineyard  in 2013 that Sylvester Dusi planted

Brothers Bob, Joe, Jim Busi where charcoal makers in northern Italy that came to Shadow Canyon in the York Mountain area in 1913. They immediately began clearing land and making charcoal in the Italian method of covering a dome of wood with dirt and cooking the wood. Brothers-in-law Peter and Frank Pesenti, stonemasons in northern Italy, with their wives came to the Oakdale area in 1914 where they also began making charcoal to clear the land of the oak trees.

All the landowners had land to be cleared for farming; very few asking and getting stumpage fees of$1 to $2 a chord. Four foot long wood delivered at the Templeton railroad depot for shipment to wood yards and charcoal makers in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas paid $6-8 a cord. Charcoal was worth $18 -$22 a ton. A cord of wood weighs 3 to 5 tons, usually
about 4 tons. Two cords of wood makes about 1 ton of charcoal. Three men working together with a hand saw, ax and black powder, could cut, split and haul 3 cords of wood a day.

Up through 1935, a man was paid $1.50 to $2.50 a cord. Only the straight wood that was easy to split, if too heavy, was kept; anything hard to split or with crotches, was burned up with the brush piled on the stump.

Bob and Joe Busi began clearing this field in 1919 and finished in 1920.

The 40 acre field was planted to zinfandel grapes in 1923 and Sylvester Dusi, recently from Italy, bought the vineyard in 1924. The zinfandel grape vines seen today in this vineyard are owned and tended by his son Benito Dusi. Behind his house on the slope of land to the railroad tracks is a charcoal oven that holds 30 cords of wood that Benito used in the 1950’s to make charcoal from wood he cut on Albert Anderson’s farm on Live Oak Road. The 30 foot long by 30 foot wide by 8 feet high oven was the largest Japanese style pit in the area when Paso Robles was producing 80% of the charcoal in California, 1948-1964.

Dusi Vineyard old vine Zinfandel today

Dusi Vineyard old vine Zinfandel today

Sylvester Dusi also bought the land a mile south that is beside the Templeton Cemetery. As it was cleared of its oak trees, that land was planted in grape vines. The last land cleared was beside the present freeway and Templeton Cemetery. Sylvester’s son Dante owns and operates this vineyard with his children. (Janell Dusi opened the first tasting room in the family’s long grape history in 2013, the winery is called J Dusi Wines.)

Son Guido, who for many years owned Paso Robles Electric, had just returned from fighting on the battlefronts of WW II. Sylvester hired Joe Busi to help him and his sons, including Dante and Benito, to make a pit of charcoal under one of the big oak trees beside the cemetery. One could only burn wood in the summer when it did not rain, so they did the pit under an oak tree for shade.  The normal-sized dome of dirt -covered wood about 15 feet high and 25 to 30 feet in diameter would contain 30-40 cords of wood, yielding 15-22 tons charcoal.

Frank Pesenti, another famous name in Paso Robles viticulture, in 1918 near Oak Dale School was renowned for a pit 6 tires (25 feet) high that contained about 120 cords of wood yielding about 60 tons of charcoal.

Editor’s Note: If you want to taste some current Paso Robles Zinfandels, join us March 14-16, 2014  for Vintage Paso: Zinfandels and Other Wild Wines (formerly known as the Zinfandel Festival). For more information, go to  


About the Author:

Don Campbell  has been Vice Chairman and Founding Director of Heritage Oaks Bank, a Pioneer Day Committee member since 1964, a Paso Robles Rotary Club member since 1979 and Past President, Director of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association, is a Charter Member in the California Mid-State Fair Heritage Foundation, a SLO County Farm Bureau member, a Paso Robles Trail Ride member for 30 years, and a California Mid-State Fair Junior Livestock Auction volunteer for 47 years. In 2012 he and his wife Gail were named Roblans of the Year.