William Hickman Rice was 17 years old when his family arrived in the Santa Maria Valley in September 1873 and settled on leased land west of town. A short time later, after purchasing a portion of the old Rancho Punta de la Laguna near Guadalupe, he began working with his father, John H. Rice, in farming the land.
In 1938, after looking back on the 65 years that he had spent in the valley, the 82-year-old William H. Rice reminisced about the early days.
Although Rice was a boy at the time of the family’s arrival in town, the memories remained engraved in his mind.
During the early months of 1873, when John H. Rice had grown disenchanted with the over-populated Salinas area, he came to the valley to see what it had to offer.
“My father was a pioneer, one of the ‘forty-niners’ who had come over the Plains in a covered wagon from the East in 1840, when the California gold rush was beginning,” Rice said.
Seeing the natural beauty here and the fertile lands that held such promise, Rice’s visit made such a good impression on him that he and a number of other families from Salinas decided to make the move.
In late summer of the same year, 12 wagons and about 50 people, including women and children headed south.
“The night before we entered the valley we camped at the mouth of the Nipomo creek and the next day we pushed on across the river toward what is now the site of the city of Santa Maria," Rice said. "There weren’t any roads here then so we turned to the west before reaching the spot where the city is now located. We finally came to a halt on the Laguna ranch at the point that today is located about halfway between Santa Maria and Guadalupe."
He added: “There weren’t any houses there then but we pitched our tents and set about making homes for ourselves. It was some time before we managed to get frame houses built, for all of the lumber and materials had to be shipped in by boat and hauled from the coast.”
In those days, lumber was landed at Port Harford, which was located on San Luis Obispo Bay. Since there wasn’t any wharf, the lumber was tied together in rafts and "surfed" ashore. The rafts were cut loose from the schooner and were carried in to shore by the surf.
“When we took the lumber out of the water it was pretty well soaked," Rice said. "We loaded it up on wagons and began the arduous trip back to the valley. With no roads, the wagon trail was rough and had many steep grades.”
Noting that the land was good for farming, the new settlers planted large grain crops. Grain was the big item, and since all the work was done with horses and by hand labor, the task of planting a crop and bringing it through to harvest time was a big one, and a job that kept everyone busy. They had to get up early in the morning and by the time that night fell, the exhausted men were tired and glad to go to bed early.
Since harvesttime was the busiest time of the year, the pioneer residents often formed a threshing ring and swapped work. The entire gang would proceed to harvest and thresh one man’s crop and then go on to the next place until the exchange of work had extended to every place represented in the ring.
Once the grain was harvested and threshed, it was sacked and hauled to the coast, where it was loaded on boats for shipment to San Francisco. At that time, San Francisco was the largest shipping center. Los Angeles became a large port a number of years later.
The haul from Santa Maria to Point Sal was long and tedious. The road, if you could call it that, was lined with teams from morning to night. It was narrow and rough, with the grade over the mountain to Point Sal being the toughest part of the drive. Four-, six- and even eight-horse teams, hitched to wagons loaded down with sacks of grain, always had a hard pull getting up the grade. They’d have to climb the hill with a series of short stops, resting the horses every 50 or 100 feet.
The first year, with no wharf, the job of getting the grain to the boats posed a major problem. Since deepwater boats couldn’t get into Point Sal, the grain was carried in small schooners. The schooners, standing offshore and waiting for a load of grain, would put out small boats which came in close to the boats as they came in close to the beach.
The sacks of grain were taken from the wagons and placed in carts that were drawn by mules. The mules would be driven into the water as far as they could go and retain their footing, without tipping the cart over or getting the grain wet. A man would wade out into the surf up to his chest and would lift the sacks of grain from the cart into the small boat sent out by the schooner. Since the work was difficult and troublesome, by the end of the first year arrangements were been made to build a wharf out to the deep water.
Rice continued to reminisce.
“The residents of the valley gathered together and volunteered to work on the road and, with everyone joining in, we widened the road somewhat and provided places to turn off, where the horses could be rested without stopping in the middle of the trail," he said.
“The principal crops here were wheat, oats and barley, and the land produced well. Hauling the grain to the shipping point remained one of the hardest parts of getting the crops to market. It took us a whole day to make the trip to Point Sal and back."
He added: “About the first of August we’d begin to haul grain. The road was narrow and there was room for only one wagon at a time so a rule was put in effect by the general consent of all, that the road should be reserved for teams going to Point Sal from one o’clock in the morning to one o’clock in the afternoon. From 1 in the afternoon until 1 the next morning, teams returning had the right of way.
“Those people farming farther back toward the hills would take two days to make the trip. They would come as far as the foot of the Point Sal grade the first day, and then would get an early start the next day on the long pull over the mountain trail. The road was lined with teams, day and night.
“I recall one man who reached Point Sal and unloaded his grain early one day and was ready to go back before 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Although the one-way train was supposed to be limited to teams coming during those hours, he decided that he was going to start back before the deadline.”
Although the other men tried to persuade him to wait until the designated time, the man refused to consider it. Despite the warnings of the possible difficulties he’d have, he refused to listen and started out on the trail.
“Well, he didn’t get very far back along the trail before he met a procession of several loaded teams on a particularly narrow and steep part of the track," Rice said. "He had to stop, of course, because there wasn’t’ room for passing, and the others had to stop too. The angry men unhitched his wagon from his horses and led them back along the trail to his point of beginning, but not before they took his wagon apart and left it there before moving on.
“I was born in Sonoma County on Oct. 11, 1856,” Rice continued. “My father moved from there to Monterey County in 1867 and then to Santa Barbara County in 1873, and that, I guess, makes me a pioneer of three counties.”
William H. Rice married Florence Lee Coiner, one of Daniel Coiner's identical twin daughters.
According to the book, "This Is Our Valley," published by the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society in 1959, although William H. Rice was a farmer by specialty, he also had a sound sense of values that soon made him a financial figure in the growing town of Santa Maria. He was one of the organizers of the Valley Savings Bank and the Bank of Santa Maria, which became the Security First National Bank. He was a director and appraiser for this bank until he retired in 1935.
As his children grew, Rice turned his attention to schools. He organized the Rice School, southwest of town, and later helped organize the Santa Maria Union High School. He was president of the board for several years.
Florence Lee Coiner Rice died in December 1945 and William H. Rice died in January 1951. Both are buried in the Santa Maria Cemetery.