Lompoc: Fifty Shades of Green on California's Central Coast

Lompoc (pronounced "Lompoak," an old Chumash Indian name) lies about 150 miles above Los Angeles and almost 300 miles from San Francisco but it is off Highway 101. You don't pass it on your way to either of those two cities. To get to Lompoc you have to make a conscious effort.

Lompoc (pronounced “Lompoak,” an old Chumash Indian name) lies about 150 miles above Los Angeles and almost 300 miles from San Francisco but it is off Highway 101. You don’t pass it on your way to either of those two cities. To get to Lompoc you have to make a conscious effort. “Do it!” says Ken Ostini, the president of the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau, “Make the effort. We are worth a trial.”

Indeed, the drive around California’s Central Coast can be delightful especially if it follows a rare, rainy Southern Californian day: Fifty shades of green compete with farmlands and wineries—and the occasional oil well vies with the intermittent bicyclist. A lethargy seems to lie on the land as if it remembers it had 13,000 years of Chumash history before the padres and their conquistadors came and destroyed the tranquility.

Lompoc is a modest little place of less than 40,000 souls today. The Chumash population before the Spanish came was 22,000. The timeline for the arrival of the Conquistadores and the missionaries is something like this:

  • 1769: Arrival of the Spanish land expedition into Chumash territory and establishment of 5 Californian missions.
  • 1812: Original mission ruined by earthquake and relocated to safer location in 1813.
  • 1824: Chumash Revolt. Spanish priests misunderstood the significance of a Chumash ritual and resented it. Soldiers flogged a Chumash native: Violence got worse. 109 soldiers arrived from the presidio at Monterey.
  • 1831: The Chumash revolted in a battle that killed one soldier and 16 Chumash. Sixteen more Chumash were executed and a dozen sent into hard labor (although a reading of how the church worked the natives would suggest they were already in hard labor before the revolt). Like the development of the Spanish Inquisition this time was not the finest hour of the Catholic Church. The Chumash population now reduced to 2,788.
  • 1834: Mexican officials secularize California’ missions.
  • 1845: La Purisima Mission sold for $1,000.
  • 1933 Its subsequent owner, the Union Oil Company, donates the mission to the State of California.

Now a California State Park, the Mission was restored for the National Park Service by the Civilian Conservation Corps and remains the best preserved of all the Missions in the state and one with the most detailed history. The town has its foot in 2 centuries: the Mission was “one of the largest historical restoration and reconstruction in the United States”—and the Vandenberg base in town is the third-largest Air Force base in America. Says a young person at our next table in a restaurant here, “Our first day in Lompoc, Vandenberg sent up a NASA rocket and we thought it was an earthquake!”

The Lompoc museum established in 1969 now occupies the former Carnegie Library. The Carnegie was built in 1910 in the Greek Temple style with a grant of $10,000 from the Scottish industrialist himself. Diane Zemanovic, a docent, tells us about the Chumash Indians who had such an idyllic life here for thousands of years surrounded as they were by the bounty of the seas. The Chumash were able to make baskets that could hold water. On exhibit are native clothing that was donated by Juanita Centeno, a onetime prominent member of the Chumash community. Eons ago a sea covered the lands now inland. The museum even has a seven-million-year-old dolphin fossil!

The broad streets would let teams of mules or horses swing their wagons easily around in U-turns. The basement has artifacts from earlier colonial days. The Chamber of Commerce is just across the street.

An interesting museum with information about the mission’s history stands on an eminence above the La Purisima Mission itself. Dioramas show the Chumash laboring with bent backs even while the Mission’s animals serenely graze their fill in the fields.

We read about the Chumash legacy in the museum. An elderly Caucasian docent sits behind his desk. He explains what happened to this nation which once had such a contented life, “Will the Chumash ever forgive us for what the Spanish missionaries did?” we ask. He shakes his head vehemently, “Never!” he answers.

The Chumash hunted small game and fished the ocean. “A whale stranded on the beach was an occasion for feasting.” The natives were well-nourished but succumbed to the diseases the settlers brought with them.

The Chumash had music, dance and games in their life. They were taught in the mission how to spin wool and weave cloth, how to work with leather—and pray.

La Purisima Mission is beautifully restored. It was number 11 of the 21 built in California and no mission in the state is better documented. You should allow yourselves 2 or 3 hours just to explore its rooms. Even then you may have to hurry to complete your visit in one day.

Photography by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.